San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bush Urges Arias to Expedite Trade Agreement

_ U.S. President George W. Bush wasted no time in telling Presidentelect Oscar Arias to waste no time in getting the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) ratified. The President called Arias March 10 – three days after his victory became official – to congratulate him and remind him that Costa Rica will suffer losses if the Legislative Assembly doesn’t soon ratify CAFTA, the daily La Nación reported. The agreement is being discussed in commission, where it must be approved before moving on to the Assembly floor. In their five-minute conversation, Bush also asked for Arias’ help in creating stability in Latin America, to which Arias gave a positive response. After the conversation, Arias said he is confident that his relationship with the United States will be better than it was during his first presidency 20 years ago, during which he did not support the Reagan administration’s backing of Central American wars.

_ Arias told religious leaders Tuesday it would be easier to change the Ten Commandments than to change CAFTA. Arias made the statement to four bishops from the Episcopal Conference who were visiting him to offer their congratulations, but who oppose the agreement and advocate its renegotiation. While the President-elect said he is open to dialogue, he told the bishops that CAFTA would generate investment and 65,000 jobs annually, La Nación reported. Archbishop Hugo Barrantes said the Catholic Church would be respectful of the vote in the Legislative Assembly, where it appears CAFTA will meet success after May 1 when the new legislators take office.

_ On Wednesday, the Supreme Elections Tribunal finished its manual recount of legislative ballots, and the results show that Arias will govern without a congressional majority. The National Liberation Party (PLN) will have 25 seats in the 57-member Legislative Assembly; the Citizen Action Party (PAC) will have 17 seats; the Libertarian Movement Party will have six seats; the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) will have five seats; and the National Union Party,Accessibility Without Exclusion Party (PASE), National Restoration Party, and the Broad Front will each have one seat.

_ Arias last week met with Francisco de Paula Gutiérrez, president of the Central Bank, and announced the economist would continue heading the financial institution. While Gutiérrez didn’t comment on the announcement, Arias said the bank chief would provide stability to the country’s economy. One of Gutiérrez’s most important battles is to reduce inflation, which reached 14% last year – the second highest in Latin America. Gutiérrez and Arias agree that $2.6 billion in Central Bank losses – a series of debts it incurred following the debt crisis of the 1980s that are financed by printing currency – should be transferred to the Finance Ministry. The debt would become part of the national debt and be paid off through debt bonds, rather than printing currency, which pushes inflation upward.

_While the President-elect has been meeting all week long with leaders of various institutions, his brother and future Minister of the Presidency, Rodrigo Arias, met Monday with President Abel Pacheco’s Presidency Minister and Vice-President Lineth Saborío. The two discussed the forthcoming transfer of power and Rodrigo encouraged the current administration to move forward with CAFTA, its complementary agenda and a new concessions law. Pacheco and Arias are expected to meet in the coming weeks.

_ Former President José Maria Figueres (1994-1998) made a return to Latin America last week from his new home in Switzerland, according to La Nación. Figueres, who hasn’t been in Costa Rica since being loosely connected to the Alcatel corruption scandal that forced ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez to resign from his post as Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2004, was in Santiago, Chile last week at the invitation of now-former President Ricardo Lagos. Figueres didn’t attend the swearing-in ceremony of Michelle Bachelet, however, before he returned to Europe, the daily reported.

_ President Pacheco did attend the ceremony in the coastal city of Valparaiso, Chile, held last Saturday. Bachelet became the country’s first woman President as 17 Presidents and heads of state looked on. Pacheco and his wife Leila Rodríguez sat next to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who reportedly asked the First Lady how to help his cold, to which she suggested Aspirin and Coke, La Nación reported.

_ The guest list for Arias’May 8 swearing-in ceremony could include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat, and Arias’ fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, such as Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the daily Al Día reported. While Arias’ brother Rodrigo didn’t  get specific, he told the daily the event would include Nobel Prize winners and foreign Presidents. Former U.S. presidential candidate and Arias friend John Kerry is also expected to attend the event, which will likely be held in the National Stadium in west San José. The celebration, which has a budget of ¢100 million ($199,000) could also feature a gala dinner, dances in the park and fireworks, Al Día reported.


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