As Oscar Arias was inaugurated inside the National Stadium in western San José shortly after noon Monday, a swarm of old and young faces, some painted or concealed behind ski masks, gathered on the streets nearby to protest the new President and some of his plans.
Protestors railed against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which Arias hopes Costa Rica will ratify in the next six months (TT, April 28), and protested the Arias-proposed transfer of the presidential offices, now located in Zapote east of town, downtown to the National Culture Center (CENAC).
Though organizers claimed the number of participants in what was the second anti-CAFTA protest in as many weeks reached 10,000, police Commissioner Randall Picado estimated that approximately 1,000 participated in the demonstration, held outside the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) headquarters near La Sabana Park.
For the first time in Costa Rican history, people protested while a President was being inaugurated, said Rosario Incer, an ICE employee and member of the National Anti-CAFTA Coordination, a group of approximately 75 organizations, including labor unions, university students and the agricultural sector, created to organize anti-CAFTA activities such as the large protest held last November in San José (TT, Nov. 18, 2005).
The crowd of university students, labor union representatives, anarchists and feminists, among other groups, gathered in the morning outside La Merced Church in downtown San José, the same departure point as May 1 – the date of the last CAFTA protest (TT, May 5) – but this time, headed west instead of east.
After crossing Paseo Colón, protestors settled in front of ICE, where they waved banners displaying anti-CAFTA and anti-Arias slogans, delivered speeches and recited chants that included “We don’t want to be a North American colony” and “The press has been sold to the bourgeoisie.”
During most of the event, protestors were peaceful. Some performed juggling acts on unicycles, and a group of theater students from the University of Costa Rica lay on the ground to spell out CENAC with their bodies as student Andrea Gómez shouted “CENAC for the arts and culture” through a megaphone – echoing protestors’ calls three days earlier at a smaller demonstration in front of the National Culture Center.
However, Monday’s demonstration became more aggressive when a Channel 7 TV News crew arrived after most of the crowd had dissipated, around 1:30 p.m. The small group of protestors that remained surrounded cameramen and a reporter, shouting “liars,” “frauds” and “sold to Arias.”
Police, on horse and foot, barricaded protestors to keep them from advancing any closer to the National Stadium, a few blocks away,where the President’s inauguration was taking place.
Artists Surrounded CENAC
Several days earlier, a group of actors, musicians, writers, dancers and other artists had protested Arias’ proposed change for the National Cultural Center by holding hands to form a human chain around the CENAC building and grounds.
“We oppose the closure of CENAC because it notoriously affects the country’s cultural development, because its closure represents a dangerous form of unilateral thinking, closer to authoritarianism than democracy,” said a statement from the Baco Theater-Dance Group.
Arias has said he hopes to move Casa Presidencial to the CENAC cultural complex, which houses the offices of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, a museum, two theaters and an amphitheater, within the first half of his administration (TT,May 5).
The 150-year-old building formerly housed the National Liquor Factory.