The number of Costa Ricans who support the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) dropped from 61% in October 2005 to 41% this month, according to a new CID-Gallop poll for the daily La República.
Declining support for the agreement was the backdrop for Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada’s warning this week to members of the Legislative Assembly that CAFTA will exacerbate poverty and inequality. Her words prompted a quick response from the Foreign Trade Ministry (COMEX) defending the pact.
Quesada, a government-sponsored ombudswoman who has become a leading voice in the nation’s CAFTA opposition, on Wednesday morning presented her 500-page critique of the trade pact to the members of the Foreign Affairs Commission.
Following her appearance, COMEX officials fired back at Quesada in defense of the trade pact. During a press conference later the same day, they presented their own document in support of the controversial agreement, and said Quesada’s argument “simplifies very complex issues to an extreme.”
Talking to reporters before her appearance in the commission, Quesada said the assembly isn’t taking enough time to deal with the complex issues in what should be a “titanic exposition” before CAFTA legislation comes to a vote.
She said the assembly has yet to take an in-depth look into what effects the trade pact would have on the agricultural and livestock sectors, food security, consumers, rights of the country’s indigenous population, the pharmaceutical industry, the environment, the labor market, telecommunications and insurance, among other issues.
Vice-Minister of Trade Amparo Pacheco said the deliberation process could be “infinite” if a decision on CAFTA is not made soon.
“We’re a little bit tired of the issue. We need to make a decision,” she told reporters at the COMEX offices in San José. Costa Rica is the only signatory country that has not ratified the agreement. Quesada’s appearance and COMEX’s response came the day after the CID-Gallop poll was released.
Though the poll revealed declining support for the trade pact with the United States, 80% of those polled said they do not support protests against CAFTA.
Leaders of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP) recently announced plans to organize more street protests against legislation in the CAFTA agenda that has arrived in the assembly and would break up the state-run insurance monopoly.
Responding to union-led calls for protests, Costa Rican bishops called a press conference last week to discourage violence and “confrontation.”
In the conference, bishops Ángel Sancasimiro, Hugo Barrantes and Francisco Ulloa maintained their neutral position on CAFTA and lamented a growing “social polarization” over the controversial trade pact.
Though the three bishops publicly refused to pick sides in the CAFTA debate, San Carlos bishop Ángel Sancasimiro told The Tico Times he is concerned that the CAFTA agenda may consider only growth, not human development.
“The problem is that economic growth hasn’t reached the people,” he said.
The Catholic Church in Costa Rica has maintained a solid position of neutrality on CAFTA ever since President Oscar Arias sparked controversy by mentioning the Vatican had expressed support of free trade during his visit to Rome in June.
The Vatican later sent Costa Rican church leaders a vague letter neither embracing nor condemning the free-trade agreement with the United States, saying it is a political issue up to the country’s legislators to decide (TT, June 23).