Now that February’s presidential election has finally reached a conclusive end and the Legislative Assembly has resumed discussion of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), controversy over the pact appears to be making its way back in to the spotlight – this time with a newly dramatic flair.
With a pro-CAFTA legislative majority and President-elect set to take office in May (TT,March 10), most eyes have now turned to how the new leaders will deal with the agreement following the electoral nail-biter that revealed a divided nation and made runnerup Ottón Solís, who opposes the pact, the clear, if unofficial, opposition leader. Activists against CAFTA maintain that Solís’ strong showing illustrates Costa Ricans’ continuing doubts about the agreement, and that popular resistance can defeat the pact.
“The next administration has to understand that this society is polarized,” said Jesús Vásquez of the Fight Against CAFTA organization – which, since its founding late last year, has become the umbrella organization for the workers’ unions, student groups and other anti-CAFTA organizations.
“Accelerating (toward the agreement’s approval) right now or after May 8… will
simply provoke a greater confrontation.” He spoke March 7 at a press conference where, two days after the Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, his fellow activists made a solid argument for a new Oscars category: Most Dramatic Press Conference.
Members of the Cultural Movement against CAFTA turned off all the lights in the Salón de Beneméritos at the Legislative Assembly building in downtown San José, lit candles, and placed wreaths around a coffin containing all five volumes of the hefty trade pact, with a photograph of a mournful U.S. President George W. Bush looking on. Black-garbed attendants with sunglasses spoke in hushed tones as they ushered bemused legislators and journalists into the improvised “Funeraria Esperanza” (Hope Funeral Home).
In addition to announcing the launch of a series of artistic performances to express opposition to the agreement, the Cultural Movement has supported a documentary entitled “Costa Rica, S.A.” The film, which criticizes CAFTA, has aired five times on the public University of Costa Rica (UCR)-sponsored TV Channel 15, drawing vehement rebuttals from CAFTA’s negotiators and others who support the pact.
Meanwhile, pro-CAFTA group Por Costa Rica has continued its campaign of print, radio, television and billboard ads that say CAFTA means jobs for Costa Ricans.
For their part, the current legislators renewed their CAFTA discussionWednesday after a break of approximately three months, comprising their 45-day vacation and the period of uncertainty following the election.
Foreign Trade Minister Manuel González appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee, charged with reviewing the pact, and will return to the assembly next week.
“Costa Rica, S.A.,” directed by filmmaker Pablo Ortega, raises a variety of objections to CAFTA – from the alleged secrecy in which the agreement was negotiated in 2003-4 to its potential effects on education, labor laws and other areas (see box) – and sparked a barrage of correspondence between outraged CAFTA supporters and sponsors of the film, including the Cultural Movement and various UCR groups.
Lead CAFTA negotiator Anabel González and former Foreign Trade Minister Alberto Trejos were among those who wrote a letter Feb. 8 to Carlos Freer, director of Channel 15. The brief but pointed note said the documentary “contains false and tendentious claims… that in no way contribute to a serious discussion of this important agreement,” and stated that the writers reserve “the right to launch the corresponding legal actions.”
Freer went on the air last week to make a brief statement, saying the channel maintains its freedom of expression and would air the film again, which it did March 8 at 5 p.m. Legislator Martha Zamora, of ex-candidate Solís’ Citizen Action Party (PAC), got into the action as well, criticizing Por Costa Rica’s publicity spending.
“It’s not enough (for Trejos and the other ex-negotiators) to have campaigns of millions of colones… supporting CAFTA without arguments,”Zamora said in a statement.“Now they want to squash liberty of expression, university autonomy and the Constitution in general, threatening to take legal action if the documentary is broadcast again.”
However, Trejos told The Tico Times the mention of legal action in the letter refers only to the personal attacks the film makes against him and the other CAFTA negotiators.
“In no way did we ask the channel to not broadcast (participants’) opinions, stupid as we might think they are,” he said. “We would never pursue legal action against somebody because he’s wrong… but freedom of expression ends when you attack a person.”
Trejos said the group of negotiators has not yet decided whether to pursue legal action regarding the film, which implies their support of CAFTA is motivated by personal interests.
Artists against CAFTA
In addition to the controversial film, music, theater and visual arts will be used to draw attention to the anti-CAFTA cause in weeks to come, according to the Cultural Movement. Coordinator César López, flanked by the trade pact’s coffin and sputtering candles at the recent “funeral,” said the Feb. 5 elections “did not result for the neoliberals… as they thought they would,” and that collective opposition to the pact is “more important now than ever.”
He announced the launch of a campaign entitled “CAFTA: Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (in reference to the novella by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez), which will involve a series of “wakes” over the next few weeks, leading up to the “National Burial of CAFTA” March 20 in the Central Park in downtown San José – immediately followed by the “rebirth,” an artistic festival in the National Park, near the Legislative Assembly.
This isn’t the first time artists have joined forces against the agreement. In addition to the theatrical elements of many anti-CAFTA marches, a festival was held Jan. 29 at UCR in opposition to CAFTA and Arias’ candidacy (TT, Feb. 3). The Cultural Movement has also taken its ideals on the road to approximately 10 destinations in all seven Costa Rican provinces in its ongoing campaign entitled La Casadora – a traditional Costa Rican slang word for “bus,” Culture Movement member Marialina Villegas, a 23-year-old UCR anthropology student, told The Tico Times at the January event.
Villegas said when the group, which works off donations and personal contributions, receives an invitation from a community, it rents a school bus for its travels and decorates it with anti-CAFTA art. Once in the community, the culture movement puts on musical or theater performances and provides information about CAFTA to area residents.
Vásquez of the Fight against CAFTA said that despite the gains for the pact in February’s elections, he has not lost hope that it can be defeated through grassroots organization.
“We have to rescue the memory of the people,” he said, comparing the current situation to a popular victory in 2000 when demonstrations put an end to legislation to reform the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) (TT, March 24, 2000). “There’s the answer.”
Tico Times reporter María Gabriela Díaz contributed to this report.