San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CAFTA Conflict Turns Hostile

The simmering conflict over Costa Rica’s model of development – centered on the divisive Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) – appears to be nearing a boil, with the pact’s supporters and opponents exchanging allegations

of protestor violence and police brutality.As the trade pact inches toward a vote in the Legislative Assembly, where it appears to have the support it needs to pass, the debate outside the legislature has become increasingly hostile. Each side blames the other for the escalation: demonstrators claim Arias’ beefed-up security detail has violated their rights to peaceful opposition, while his administration this week pointed the finger at anti-CAFTA activists for using inflammatory language and violence.

Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 during his first presidency, appears to be relying more on the National Police to impose order than his recent predecessors have done. Police presence has increased at recent civic events, and Arias has deployed more than 200 officers to force protesting union port workers on the Caribbean coast to get back to work (see separate article).

Meanwhile, university students and union leaders have stepped up the intensity of their rhetoric, with some calling for rebellion  or a struggle in the streets.With protestors, police and government officials presenting conflicting accounts of recent events, the questions in the air are myriad: Is the police response justified? Willit diminish, or fuel, future protests? Why did the familiar back-and-forth of the CAFTA debate, which goes back at least three years in Costa Rica, become so heated so quickly? Is Arias to blame?

Cartago and San Carlos

The criticisms directed at the police focus on their actions during two official ceremonies last month. In the colonial capital of Cartago, nine students were temporarily detained and three others were arrested during the traditional celebrations on the eve of Costa Rica’s Independence Day, and more than 100 officers kept protestors away from Arias at an event last week in Ciudad Quesada, in the Northern Zone.

What happened in Cartago is unclear, even after watching a video released on the Internet by the non-governmental Costa Rican Human Rights Commission, or CODEHU (www.derechoshumanoscr/ The video, shot the night anti-CAFTA protestors attempted to approach the festivities in downtown Cartago, shows officers dressed in riot gear keeping streets blockaded and preventing both young protestors and middle-aged locals from entering the park in the center of town.

At one point, an officer, speaking through a bullhorn, tells parents to take their kids and leave, “for the safety of those children.”

No violence is visible in the video, though students tell the camera that they and their friends have been struck by police.

One of the students who was arrested, apparently interviewed the following day, showed purple bruises on his face and neck where he said police grabbed him.

The accounts from police officers present at the scene are contradictory. Rigoberto Rodríguez, a commissioner at the National Police headquarters in San José who was at the Cartago protests, said police used their batons when a group of young people attempted to break through the barrier, some holding glass bottles as weapons. (He said anyone was free to pass through the barricade as long as they surrendered any objects they carried, which many protestors refused to do.) Officers, almost all of whom were unarmed except for their shields and batons, were forced to use batons to repel the group, he said.

However, another eyewitness, Cartago police commissioner Jorge Solano, told The Tico Times Wednesday that the police never used force at any time that night. He denied officers used their batons on anybody. The Tico Times attempted to contact Solano again after hearing Rodríguez’s account, but was told he was out of the office and could not be reached.

Rodríguez said he and Solano weren’t stationed at the same point on the lengthy security perimeter. Both men said protestors threw rocks at police; Rodríguez said he was struck on the leg by one rock.

“What happened in Cartago was not provoked by the National Police. It was the action of young people,” Solano told The Tico Times, adding that young people have the right to protest, but not attack cops.

“Young people have protested in all eras. Youth is a sickness that goes away with time.”

Last week’s presidential visit to Ciudad Quesada in the Northern Zone did not result in detentions or alleged violence, but brought the size of the security force surrounding Arias to the forefront once again.

A small group of CAFTA opponents was held back by approximately 150 police officers, who blocked off roadways up to 200 meters from the church where Arias attended mass (TT, Sept. 29). San Carlos bishop Angel San Casimiro called the police presence “excessive” and said people should have had free access to the town’s cathedral.

Keeping the Peace?

Randall Muñoz, director of the Delta One police force that covers much of San José, acknowledged that police presence around the President has increased in order to prevent violence from anti-CAFTA protestors, particularly students from the University of Costa Rica (UCR).

“Those university students…are characterized by violence,” Muñoz told The Tico Times in a brief phone interview Tuesday.

Omar Cerdas, a bicycle cop who spoke to The Tico Times while on duty at the Plaza de la Democracia in downtown San José, said police presence around the President now includes 300 officers – including anti-riot units such as the Police Intervention Unit (UIP) – and a security perimeter of 300 meters.

The officer said he has witnessed police using force, including their batons, against protestors, but insisted it was in selfdefense.

Further up the chain of command, the perspective is different. Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal, consulted by The Tico Times Wednesday as he rushed out of the President’s weekly Cabinet meeting, denied there are more police confronting protestors. The minister also denied that demonstrators are a concern for the administration, brushing them off as “an orchestra making noise wherever we go.”

Asked why Muñoz, then, indicated that police had been increased in response to protestors, Berrocal said, “That is not true. Muñoz, I don’t know who that is, but he is not telling the truth. “We are increasing police to resolve the problems of citizen security,” Berrocal said.

“It has nothing to do with the protests.What protests?”

Other members of the Arias administration appeared more willing to address the issue, particularly after Cuba joined a rising chorus accusing Arias of going too far. The official daily newspaper Granma published an article Monday accusing Arias of “militarizing” the police force.

Arias called the article “ridiculous” and noted it comes from a dictatorship “where there is only one media (organization).”

“They want to silence the criticisms I have made and will continue making against the only dictatorship in the western hemisphere,” Arias said, according to the news agency ACAN-EFE.

Rodrigo Arias – the President’s brother and Minister of the Presidency – said Wednesday that there are hidden motives behind the “internal and external attacks” against the Arias government that go beyond CAFTA. Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno called the accusations in the article published in Cuba “lies” and “an attempt to damage Costa Rica’s image.”

Scrutinized, the article appears to be based largely on a statement released in Costa Rica last week, signed by a group identified only as the Frente Comunitario de Lucha Contra el TLC “Generales Mora y Cañas” (The Generals Mora and Cañas Community Front for the Struggle Against CAFTA). The statement and the article included almost all the same information and even some identical wording criticizing Arias for increasing military presence andaccusing police of abusing and repressing protestors.

Uncertain Consequences

The recent shift in the tone of the CAFTA debate has Ottón Solís, leader of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC) and one of the country’s most outspoken CAFTA critics, appearing to tread a middle road at times.

“The last thing we need is provocation, an excessive police presence,” he told The Tico Times. “I make a call to all sectors, so those who oppose CAFTA do so in peace, with language that doesn’t provoke (violence).” He made his opposition to government tactics clear, however.

“It’s obvious that Costa Rica is passing through experiences never before seen (here), experiences very typical of military regimes,” he said. “It’s very sad. It takes us away from the country’s civil tradition.”

Political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís (no relation to Ottón),who worked with Arias during his first administration (1986-1990) but later dropped out of Arias’ National Liberation Party (PLN), spoke with The Tico Times shortly after the San Carlos event.

“I don’t think Oscar Arias condones or endorses this kind of thing,” he said of the police action. “This is very unbecoming to the Oscar Arias one generally knows.”

According to the analyst, who said he assumes the government has taken a more aggressive approach toward protestors to send a clear message at the start of Arias’ term, the increased police presence runs the risk of inspiring violence.

“Those who are not protesting (may) say, ‘OK, you want to have protection – we’re going to give you a reason to protect the President,’” he said.

Edgar Morales, Secretary General of the Board of Directors at the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), the umbrella organization for unions that led the criticisms of police behavior in Cartago, said the government has nothing to worry about.

Are references to military campaigns by CAFTA opponents such as ex-President Luis Alberto Monge (1982-1986) – whose recent speech, published Monday in the daily La Nación, urged Costa Ricans to “to combat with sinewy and booming arm for peace, for justice, for brotherhood, for liberty and democracy” in “the coming struggle” – part of a call to violence for CAFTA critics? Morales said no, arguing that protestors understand theirs is a peaceful effort.

“Mora called to arms because that was the historical context,” he said of Juan Rafael Mora, the President who led Costa Rica’s fight against U.S. filibusterer William Walker in 1856 and who is cited in the La Nacíon ad. “Now there are other arms – peaceful arms. Weapons aren’t worth anything now… We understand the (context) of ’56… we understand the (context) of 2006.”


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