The longer until the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) reaches a vote in the Legislative Assembly, the longer an emerging pro-CAFTA bloc will have to remain united, legislator Janina Del Vecchio said this week.
After opponents slowed attempts to send CAFTA on a fast track last week, supporters of the controversial trade pact questioned whether the five-party pro-CAFTA coalition can endure the lengthy legislative process to come.
“We have to maintain that block of 38 (legislators). It’s a tight block,” said Del Vecchio, president of the International Affairs commission that has spent the past year debating CAFTA.
The bloc was created in recent weeks in a series of political negotiations in which the National Liberation Party (PLN), which brought pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias to power last year, tried to scrape up some political capital by offering potential CAFTA allies support for their initiatives.
CAFTA is on the agenda to be discussed on the assembly floor, but Liberation legislator Del Vecchio told The Tico Times lawmakers will wait to see whether a proposed fast-track legislative reform will make it past constitutional review before discussion on the pact begins.
Besides Liberation, which has 25 of 57 legislators, the other parties in the bloc include the six-member Libertarian Movement, the five-member Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), and one-member parties National Restoration and National Union. The parties have been politicking in recent weeks to agree on a complimentary and social agenda that would be passed with CAFTA (TT, Feb. 2)
However, an opposition bloc has also emerged, composed of the 17 Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislators and two one-member parties: Broad Front and Access Without Exclusion.
A proposed legislative reform that would put CAFTA on a fast track was slowed last week when the opposition bloc asked the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to weigh in on the proposal’s constitutionality. The court has a month to opine.
The fast-track measure would reform the assembly’s regulations, allowing legislators to speed up CAFTA’s vote by limiting the number of sessions legislators can spend debating it to 22, according to Del Vecchio.
The legislative trámite of CAFTA wasn’t the only battlefront in the free-trade debate this week. Former presidential candidate and opposition leader Ottón Solís used his recent trip to Washington D.C. to cast some shadows on the Arias administration’s CAFTA strategy; a group of indigenous people from the southern Caribbean region of Talamanca traveled to the capital to demand a fair say in CAFTA; and PAC made sure to bring to everyone’s attention potential conflicts of interest that CAFTA-bloc legislators may have in supporting the opening of the telecom market as required under CAFTA.
A new round of free-trade verbal jousting began after PAC founder and presidential runner-up Solís returned from a trip to the United States last week, where he met with U.S. congressmen and aides (TT, Feb. 2). Solís pointed a finger at Arias for using what he called a “fear campaign” to push the CAFTA agenda.
He said that during his U.S. visit he consulted members of the Democratic Party – which swept November elections and raised concerns worldwide over how protectionist the new Congress will be. Solís said everyone he consulted said the benefits of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) will not necessarily expire – statements that caused confusion back in Costa Rica.
The CBI is a U.S. program aimed at promoting economic development in Central America and the Caribbean by diversifying CBI country economies and expanding their exports. The initiative refers to three different acts passed between 1983 and 2000 in the wake of regional disasters and civil wars, and guarantees duty-free treatment for most exports from the CaribbeanBasin region to the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In a Feb. 8 meeting between Solís and Arias, Arias confirmed Solís’ statement that the United States doesn’t plan to eliminate trade preferences of the initiative if Costa Rica doesn’t ratify CAFTA. Costa Rica is the only signatory yet to vote on CAFTA.
“It’s true. At least they’ve never told me that they’re thinking about doing that,”Arias told the daily La Nación.
Part of the initiative is set to expire, however. An act passed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, which allowed apparel manufactured in CBI countries using U.S. fabric, among other products (i.e. certain footwear, tuna, petroleum products, watches, and luggage) to be exported into the United States duty-free, will expire in September 2008. The 2000 act demanded that countries make progress in worker rights, intellectual property, environmental protections and support the U.S.-led war on drugs.
Solís said CAFTA will bring Costa Rica few additional benefits beyond the existing CBI agreement, which is why he has been pushing for the renegotiation of CAFTA. Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias fired back this week, saying, “it’s not the same to be granted a unilateral concession as to have a bilateral agreement.”
Being a unilateral agreement, Minister Arias pointed out, the CBI can be modified, suspended or eliminated by the United States at anytime.
The minister called CAFTA a “more solid” agreement.
A group of about 40 indigenous Costa Ricans this week demanded that the nation’s 24 indigenous territories be included in the CAFTA debate.
“I feel abused. Stop mistreating indigenous people. Stop robbing them,” said Timoteo Jackson, leader of a group of organic banana producers in the southern Caribbean zone of Bribrí, at a press conference at the Legislative Assembly Tuesday.
Jackson and others,who traveled from the far southeast corner of Costa Rica to appear at the assembly, asked why the indigenous communities of Costa Rica haven’t been consulted in what they say is a mandatory consultation under Costa Rican law.
Benjamín Mayorga, of the Friends of Talamanca Association, said CAFTA could threaten the nation’s food security and small farmers, many whom are indigenous; could threaten access to medicine for indigenous communities; and could mean national resources that these communities use such as water, forest and minerals could fall into hands of multinational companies who will be given more incentives to exploit those resources under the agreement.
The consultation tours are required for legislation that would affect indigenous communities. Though there are differences of opinion in the assembly about whether the consultation law should apply to CAFTA (TT, Sept. 1, 2006), the assembly’s technical services department recommended the consultation tour in June of last year.
“We want you to take into account what we’ve brought to light,”Mayorga said before requesting that the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) side with indigenous communities.
Broad Front legislator José Merino said there are more than enough votes in the anti-CAFTA bloc to request the Sala IV review the constitutionality of not conducting nationwide indigenous consultation for CAFTA.
Assembly president Francisco Pacheco then briefly shook hands with Jackson, saying “I’m happy to see indigenous communities express themselves.” He made it clear that he is in favor of the trade pact, however.
He promised to review the group’s documented anti-CAFTA positions before he scurried off to the assembly.
“We’re in session and I have to do my job,” he said.
Clash over Telecom Interests
Though two legislators named on the special commission to discuss reforms to the telecom sector and the state-run Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) have possible conflicts of interests, only one has stepped down from the commission.
National Liberation Party legislator Gilberto Jérez, a Guanacaste native who founded and owns the electricity business Monting, declared his conflict.
“Because of the activities of my business, there could be a conflict of interest in my participation in the commission,” he said in a Jan. 25 letter announcing his departure from the commission.
Libertarian Movement party leader Evita Arguedas is a partner in the telecom law consulting group Comunica M y T, and her husband is a company chairman. She didn’t step down from the commission, however, drawing fire from opponents.
“There is a clear conflict between her duty as a representative and her particular interest,” PAC legislator Alberto Salom said in a statement.
Arguedas told the daily La Nación there is no conflict and that she wants to contribute her experience in telecom to the debate. Salom is trying to “shut her up,” the pro-CAFTA legislator alleged.
She also pointed to the fact that PAC legislator Leda Zamora is an ICE official and is on the special commission dedicated to modernizing that agency.
“I don’t see it as a conflict of interest … I haven’t benefited from anything up to now,” Zamora, an ICE administrator of 14 years, told The Tico Times. She is currently on leave without pay. Zamora said she plans to vote on the telecom and ICE reforms.
Costa Rican corruption law calls for one to eight years of prison for public officials who vote favorably on legislation that benefits them personally.