News of a binding referendum on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) left most of the country wondering how the idea, which seemed to be off the table mere days ago, had suddenly resurfaced. After all, the proposal to put CAFTA to a public vote is not a new one, and had often received negative responses from government officials in the past.
Pro- and anti-CAFTA activists first came together to support the idea of a referendum in early 2005, approximately one year after CAFTA was signed. Then-President Abel Pacheco was still waffling over whether to send the agreement to the Legislative Assembly for discussion and an eventual vote, claiming long-discussed tax reforms in the assembly were a higher priority for Costa Rica.
At the time, Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) president Oscar Fonseca said the problem with a referendum would be putting it together before Aug. 5 of that year, since by law, a referendum can’t be held six months before or after a presidential election. (The next election was 11 months away, in February 2006.) Also, leaders such as Ombudsman José Manuel Echandi – now a legislator – said the 2001 constitutional reform allowing referendums couldn’t be applied to CAFTA because the trade pact contains tax material, which is ineligible for a public vote.
Another obstacle voiced in 2005: ensuring the voting public would be prepared for taking such a decision. A CID-Gallup poll showed that 56% of respondents said they knew “nothing” about CAFTA. Union leader Albino Vargas said his organization, the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), would support a referendum only if the government could guarantee equal television, radio time and print space for proponents and opponents (TT, March 11, 2005).
The Aug. 5 deadline came and went, Pacheco submitted the trade pact to Congress in October 2005, and the following year former President Oscar Arias was lected to lead the country again. Pro-CAFTA Arias maintained that the close election, in which he squeaked by his anti-CAFTA opponent by just over 1%, constituted a CAFTA referendum of sorts.
Activists brought up the idea of a referendum again last year – without immediate success.
The Government Attorney’s Office, which serves as the legal advisor to the government, issued a report corroborating Echandi’s opinion that CAFTA was ineligible for a public vote because of tax content.What’s more, the TSE rejected a request for a non-binding CAFTA referendum by a group of trade-pact opponents last September. Justices said a non-binding vote wasn’t contemplated in the neverapplied 2001 Referendum Law (TT, Nov. 2, 2006).
For many observers, the referendum plan died there, and CAFTA continued its slow path through the Legislative Assembly.
But a small group of activists calling itself Patriotic Convergence, led by former National Liberation Party legislator José Miguel Corrales, kept pushing for a CAFTA referendum – this time a binding one – and TSE officials began reviewing it (TT, Dec. 22, 2006).
That process bore fruit last week in an unassuming two-page statement allowing Corrales to begin collecting the required signatures (5% of eligible voters, or an estimated 132,000) to convene a binding referendum (TT,April 13) – a process Arias is now attempting to circumvent with his decree,which would move up the vote date by several months.
Why did Elections Tribunal officials decide in favor of a vote? TSE interim president Luis Antonio Sobrado explained this week that in his organization’s interpretation of the referendum provisions, legislation to change, impose or remove taxes is illegible for a public vote, but CAFTA doesn’t fit that criterion.
The agreement, which does not change the nation’s tax structure but rather create exemptions to it to encourage trade, falls into a gray area, Sobrado said.
And “in the case of doubt, in that gray area, we have to interpret in favor of popular participation,” he explained.