San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Trade Pact Debated, Touted, Protested

As the contentious Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) took effect in the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala this year, Costa Rica remained the only country yet to vote on the trade pact.

The Dominican Republic approved the trade pact but had not yet put it into effect at year s end.

After another year of heated debate and boisterous protests in Costa Rica, on Dec. 12 the Legislative Assembly s International Affairs Commission voted 6-3 to send the pact to the main floor in mid-January.

Pro-CAFTA lawmakers accused opponents of using delay tactics to push back the arrival of the pact to the assembly floor, while anti-CAFTA lawmakers accused supporters of violating legislative procedure.

The ongoing CAFTA debate began seeping into national culture this year. Costa Ricans took their protests to new heights by making art exhibits, releasing a controversial TV documentary and staging a public mock funeral for the trade pact. Theatrical artist Rubén Pagura even wrote and performed a musical about the pact.

In March, after U.S. President George W. Bush urged Costa Rica s President-elect Oscar Arias to expedite the free-trade agreement, Arias called for the pact to be approved by the end of 2006. But as the page turned to 2007, CAFTA had yet to reach the congressional floor, and legislative factions were at odds over the establishment of controversial deadlines to try to keep CAFTA moving through a legislative process analysts called outdated and cumbersome.

An anti-CAFTA group s attempt to send the divisive pact to a nationwide referendum was thwarted by legislators and a judge, apparently because the new referendum law doesn t permit non-binding referendums, and allows binding referendums only on items not related to fiscal matters. At yearend, however, the group comprising former legislators, academics and small business owners was still pushing for a popular vote on CAFTA.

On the statistical front, the CAFTA battle was fought with a flurry of numbers that both sides fired back and forth in attempts to prove, scientifically, that support for their side was growing.

President Arias July trip to Europe, during which he asked for the Vatican s opinion on free trade, reaped no fruit for Arias. The Vatican, as well as Costa Rica s Catholic Church leaders, remained neutral on CAFTA.

Anti-CAFTA legislators had some success delaying the trade pact s progress in Congress by presenting motion after motion in the International Affairs Commission, as well as trying to send the pact to a consultation to the nation s indigenous communities (a failed attempt). One legislator even tried to have the CAFTA debate in the legislature sent back to ground zero because the government press didn t print enough copies of the trade pact, which is more than 2,000 pages thick. CAFTA opponents also stirred up a scandal surrounding whether the pact would allow arms manufacturing in Costa Rica (see separate story).

Though supporters had hoped to send the trade pact to the floor by October, the legislation wasn t approved in commission until December.

Unions, which led the year s biggest CAFTA protests in May and October, were angered by multinational telecommunications companies knocking on Costa Rica s door.

During CAFTA negotiations, the U.S. demanded that Costa Rica open parts of its state-run telecommunications and insurance monopolies to private competition.

Telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim who has been described as both the richest and the most powerful man in Latin America began sticking his foot in the door of Costa Rica s telecom sector, going so far as to register his company América Movil s brand names with the Intellectual Property Registry here.

As unions protested plans for telecom privatization, the director of the state-run telecom and electricity monopoly stepped down in September citing health problems, but amid controversy over whether or not he supported the administration s reforms.

After telecom reform was introduced to Congress in October, protestors promised to hit the streets like they did six years ago in massive nation-crippling protests against attempts to reform the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which provides the nation s telecommunications services.

Though turnout for the two-day October protest was high, events remained peaceful on the whole, despite a few small blockades and some acts of violence in the port city Limón that were related to other ongoing protests against port privatization (see separate story).


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