San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Trade Pact: Approve, Change or Bury?

As a legislative commission this week grilled Foreign Trade Minister Manuel González about the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), protesters outside the Legislative Assembly building held a dramatic mock funeral for the pact and said they hope lawmakers will bury the agreement.

Such an end seems increasingly unlikely, with pro-CAFTA President-elect Oscar Arias and many like-minded legislators set to take office in May.With the apparent intention of settling once and for all the question of whether the pact can be renegotiated, Arias sent a letter March 17 to the leading advocate of such a strategy, presidential runner-up Ottón Solís, asking him to put his money where his mouth is by visiting Washington, D.C. and finding out first-hand whether the agreement can be revised before Costa Rica votes on it.

In the letter – to which Solís himself has not yet responded, but which Solís supporters describe as insincere – Arias offers to have his two vice-presidents, Laura Chinchilla and Kevin Casas, accompany Solís on the trip “as soon as possible,” according to the daily La Nación.

However, Arias seems fairly certain what response Solís would receive. Last week, he told Catholic bishops from the Episcopal Conference, which also advocates renegotiation, that it would be easier to change the Ten Commandments than the U.S. trade agreement (TT, March 17). These words echoed those of U.S. leaders such as Mark Langdale, ambassador to Costa Rica, who told The Tico Times last month that the idea of renegotiating CAFTA is “just not realistic” and that Costa Ricans should “not think they can go get a different deal from us anytime soon” (TT, Feb. 17).

Such attitudes prompted Solís’ fellow Citizen Action Party (PAC) leaders, including legislator-elect Elizabeth Fonseca, to speak out against Arias’ strategy. Fonseca, who told the daily Al Día Solís has not yet read Arias’ letter but authorized her to read his mail until he returns to San José, said the invitation to visit Washington is “unfortunate.”

“He said it’s easier to change the Ten Commandments than CAFTA, so is he sending (Solís) there for vacation?” she told the daily, adding that Solís “won’t even have left the airport when (Arias) will be calling his friends (in the United States) so they’ll tell him (Solís) it can’t be done.”

According to Rolando Laclé, head of the Legislative Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Commission, the issue of renegotiation was not a major element of commission members’ discussions with Minister González this week and last. The commission meets Wednesdays from 9 a.m.-noon to discuss the agreement; González made his second visit this week and is expected to return next Wednesday to answer more questions.

Laclé said his understanding is that U.S. leaders might agree to renegotiate elements of CAFTA, but only after Costa Rica approves the document.

The text of the agreement states that amendments can be made if all parties agree – “parties” are defined as countries where the agreement has been ratified and has taken effect (TT, Feb. 24). Though all signatories except Costa Rica have ratified CAFTA, it has taken effect only in the United States and El Salvador.

CAFTA ‘Funeral’ Celebrated

Meanwhile, creative CAFTA opponents are making their feelings known using humor and drama – and say bigger protests are in store should Arias push ahead with the agreement once he takes office.

In the varied history of anti-CAFTA protests, this was by no means the largest, but it arguably drew the most attention from onlookers. Approximately 300 university students, artists and other participants blocked three lanes of traffic on downtown San José’s Ave. 2 for approximately three hours Monday morning. A horse-drawn carriage bore a wooden coffin labeled “TLC” (Tratado de Libre Comercio) down the busy thorough fare followed by “mourners,” wearing black and, in some cases, openly weeping.

Some protesters wore black head coverings featuring photos of President-elect Oscar Arias and U.S. President George W. Bush – the two protesters wearing these photographs made a show of holding hands and embracing. Others wore photos of Anabel González and Alberto Trejos, who led Costa Rica’s CAFTA negotiations.

March organizer César López said before the event that one objection of his group, the Cultural Movement Against CAFTA, is that the agreement was “negotiated by a few… who weren’t elected by the people.”

Asked whether the relatively small turnout represents a setback for the opposition movement – many past anti-CAFTA marches have drawn thousands – López told The Tico Times people are informing themselves.

“People are going to go out to the street, as they always have – against filibusters, against the ICE Combo (controversial legislation to reform the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, defeated after widespread protests in 2001), against war, against corruption,” he said.

The spectacle – followed by a sacred dance of rebirth performed by a group of Bribrí, members of one of Costa Rica’s indigenous groups – drew plenty of attention from bystanders, whose reactions ranged from confused laughter to support.

“I’m against CAFTA, so I think this is excellent,” said Lil Gabriela San Silvestre, who watched the protest near Central Park.

“Nothing worse can happen to a country than to lose its identity.”

Another onlooker, leaning against a lamppost in front of the National Theater, said he thought the protest was “very nice,” even though he supports the trade pact.

Throughout it all, Omar Herrera, 71, a carpenter from Granadilla de Turrialba, who’d rented out his horse and cart to the protesters, sat high above the throng in a black top-hat, guiding his steed through the capital – and, at one point, smiling shyly when a weeping collegiate CAFTA “widow” threw her arms around his shoulders.

“Really, I’m in the clouds,” he told The Tico Times when asked to describe his own thoughts about CAFTA, adding that he thinks the anti-CAFTA movement should try to reach the public through advertising.

“I believe what they (the protesters) say, that there are interests behind CAFTA,” he said. “What’s needed is more information so that we understand.”

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