What began as a good week for opponents of the free-trade pact with the United States ended as a good week for its supporters, as a Supreme Court decision gave a boost to a fast-track procedure that would allow the Legislative Assembly to speed up its vote on the agreement.
The ruling from the court’s Constitutional Chamber (Sala IV) came just days after the largest march ever against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which brought tens of thousands of protestors to downtown San José Monday to urge the government to withdraw the agreement from the assembly.
Participants’ peaceful approach won praise from President Oscar Arias and thers,
though some of the most vocal leaders of the movement say they are preparing a nationwide strike to drive their point home.
President Arias, who, as a fervent CAFTA supporter, was the primary target of many of the T-shirts, buttons and banners at the march, told the press later he admires pact opponents’ spirit, but protests won’t change the outcome of the legislative vote. CAFTA advocates in the assembly say that although it will be a close call, they’ve got 38 votes in favor – a two-thirds majority.
Asked whether the march affected his resolve in support of the agreement, Arias said, “You have asked me this question 400 times and I always respond the same. All the polls here show the majority of Costa Ricans support CAFTA, overwhelmingly.”
In a recent poll conducted by the firm Demoscopía for the daily Al Día, 47.2% of respondents said the assembly should approve the pact, while 34% said it should not.
Epsy Campbell, president of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), told The Tico Times she still holds out hope that protests will convince the government to reconsider the agreement.
“We hope the result will be that the government will finally listen… and begin to discuss a development agenda, and get rid of this free-trade agreement that is dividing the country in two,” she said at the march.
After discussing it for more than a year, a legislative commission approved CAFTA late last year, clearing the way for discussion of the controversial pact on the assembly floor (TT, Dec. 15, 2006). However, that discussion has been temporarily postponed while the issues surrounding the fast-track procedure are resolved.
The Sala IV, which had been evaluating whether it’s constitutional for legislators to set a deadline for voting on international trade agreements, ruled Wednesday the procedure can be applied to CAFTA, but must first be returned to commission so dissenting legislators’ opinions can be heard.
Pro-CAFTA legislators erred in discarding opponents’ appeals in the special commission that approved the fast-track reform, according to the court. Mayi Antillón, who heads the leading National Liberation Party (PLN) in the assembly, told The Tico Times yesterday this process could take a couple of weeks; discussion of CAFTA would then take anywhere from 3-7 weeks.
The decision appears to be a setback for anti-CAFTA activists, but PAC legislative leader Elizabeth Fonseca said yesterday she’s pleased by some aspects of the ruling – namely, that justices’ willingness to protect legislators’ right to express dissent bodes well for an eventual appeal regarding the way CAFTA itself was handled in commission.
“The fact that (the fast-track reform) is sent back with serious procedural defects is a big relief, because those same procedural problems took place in the International Affairs Commission,” she said, referring to the way commission leaders dismissed opposition motions in order to reach a vote on the pact in December. PAC has not yet consulted the Constitutional Chamber on this point, she added.
Most anti-CAFTA events held here since the agreement was signed in 2004 – since then, all signatories except Costa Rica have ratified it – have been colorful and mostly peaceful events. However, the diversity at Monday’s march was particularly evident, with protestors of varied ages, hometowns and political persuasions making the scene.
The sheer number of participants had something to do with it. Organizers afterwards claimed that 200,000 people turned out for protests across the country; the daily La Nación, using aerial images, estimated that 23,500 participated in the San José march, where, at the height of the event, protestors packed Ave. 2 from the San Juan de Dios Hospital to the Plaza de la Democracia near the Legislative Assembly.
Shouts of “No al TLC,No al TLC” rang out intermittently as protestors made their way from La Sabana Park, on the western edge of the city, east on Paseo Colón then Ave. 2 to the assembly building. The colorful crowd was made up of union members, farmers, artists, students, teachers, environmentalists, religious leaders, legislators and others, some of whom traveled from outside San José to march under the hot summer sun.
“There are more sectors participating now,” said Albino Vargas, Secretary General of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), of the varied turnout. “The fight against CAFTA isn’t a union issue anymore – it goes further.”
CAFTA would allow Costa Rica to “sell all of our rich national resources to foreigners,” said Maureen Quesada, 25, of the Paraíso Ecological Front. Quesada, along with others from her group, took a bus from Paraíso de Cartago, east of San José, to the capital early that morning.
Others who turned out for the march included religious leaders such as Lutheran pastor Gilberto Quesada, 48, from San José.
“We have worked in the poor sectors of this country, and have seen with our own eyes the suffering of the marginalized class.
We are convinced that this treaty will never benefit these communities,” Quesada said as he walked amid a group of other Lutherans and organic farmers.
Jugglers, dancers and musicians entertained the crowds, and speakers on a makeshift platform in front of the assembly included legislators Fonseca and José Merino, of the Broad Front, who expressed joy in seeing so many Ticos peacefully protesting CAFTA. In the plaza, built during Arias’ first administration (1986-1990), the President was lampooned in T-shirts reading “He’s not my President” and one sign making fun of Arias’ ears and proclaiming, “So big, and they don’t hear the people saying ‘no’ to CAFTA.”
According to a statement from the National Coordinator of the Fight Against CAFTA, which spearheads the organization of protests, events also took place in the Northern and Southern Zones, the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and the Caribbean province of Limón.
At the end of the day, Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada (no relation to the protestors) concurred that events had transpired peacefully overall. Approximately 50 observers from her institution reported few irregularities, which included the arrest of six protestors in the Caribbean-slope town of Siquirres when police worked to remove a blockade across the highway to the Caribbean port town of Limón. They were later released.
The generally positive outcome stood in contrast to the government’s discussion of possible violence in the weeks leading up to the march. Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, said last month that a group called the Alternative Student Movement had been circulating calls to violence via e-mail, and last week, a video featuring a 24-year-old rapper from the southern Pacific port town Golfito calling himself Nito Man.
In the video, the artist criticizes Arias and CAFTA, swings a machete and proclaims himself ready to “die for my country” (TT, Feb. 23). Nito Man, who spoke to The Tico Times last week, performed onstage at Monday’s event (see interview in “Weekend”).
Tico Times reporters Amanda Roberson and Leland Baxter-Neal contributed to this report.