San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

President Requests Referendum

It was quite a week in Costa Rica, where pigs flew, hell froze over, and sworn opponents on both sides of the battle over a controversial free-trade pact with the United States actually agreed with each other.

The source of this harmony: the announcement of a nationwide vote on the fate of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), a pact that has divided the country for the past several years.

Debate over whether Costa Rica should ratify the agreement drove last year’s hotly contested presidential election and has inspired scores of street protests in recent years; meanwhile, the ins and outs of its slow progress in the Legislative Assembly, where it has been under consideration since 2005, has dominated the congressional agenda.

Suddenly, the gridlock appears to have been broken. The people of Costa Rica will now decide the pact’s future, thanks to a surprising statement from election officials last week giving the go-ahead to a citizen proposal for a referendum. Last Friday, pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias provided a surprise of his own when he reversed his previous stance, expressing not only support for a referendum but fast-tracking the process.

Thanks to an Executive Branch decree submitted Tuesday to the Legislative Assembly, a binding referendum to determine the fate of CAFTA in Costa Rica, the only signatory that has not yet ratified the seven-nation pact, could take place as early as August.

The prospect of a referendum seems to have garnered widespread support this week, with everyone from pro- and anti-CAFTA activists to Catholic Church leaders to bus company owners expressing pleasure over the recent developments.

The vote would be the first referendum on a free-trade pact in the world, and the first referendum in Costa Rica since colonial inhabitants voted in favor of independence from Spain in 1821. CAFTA opponents –who criticize aspects of the pact such as its requirement that Costa Rica lift its state monopolies on telecommunications and insurance, and its potential effects on the country’s sovereignty and environment, among others – have been arguing in favor of a referendum for years, though the Ombudsman’s Office and Government Attorney’s Office had suggested the pact  wasn’t eligible for a public vote (see separate story).

The three justices of the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), a higher authority when it comes to referendum-related issues, changed that with the statement released April 12. The statement allows a group of citizens including former legislator José Miguel Corrales, who last year asked the tribunal to allow a binding CAFTA referendum, the right to begin collecting signatures to convene a vote (TT, April 13). (Arias’ subsequent move may override the need for signatures.)

This decision took most people aback, even Arias himself, who admitted as much when he responded to the decision in a press conference the following day.

“It surprised some of us – including me,” he said.

Once the shock wore off, however, CAFTA supporters such as Arias, business chambers and much of the Legislative Assembly joined their opponents, including academics, union activists and the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), in praising the unexpected turn of events. Though the change in course has created new questions and places the Elections Tribunal, which must now prepare a nationwide election in a matter of months, under intense pressure, the tone this week was of sudden clarity.

Arias called it “a historic decision… a new era in our democratic development.”He even referred to it as “a blessing from God,” echoing pro-CAFTA legislator Guyón Massey, who described the referendum as “an intervention by God” that will allow Costa Rica to overcome political divisions that have been growing ever since CAFTA negotiations began nearly five years ago.

The Catholic Church, which has maintained a generally neutral tone on CAFTA, urged all citizens to participate in the vote. José Francisco Ulloa, president of the Episcopal Conference, which groups the church’s leaders, told The Tico Times a referendum would be an “effective mechanism to reach a national agreement.”

U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale called the referendum “a very democratic solution, and a very Costa Rican solution.” Michael Borg, president of the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce, which represents approximately 400 national and multinational businesses, said the decision is “of utmost importance in the democratic history of the country and the world.”

Even the Chamber of Bus Line Operators of Alajuela, a western Central Valley city, promised its support. Chamber representative Alfredo Villalobos announced Wednesday that he and his fellow chamber members will provide transportation in the area free of charge on referendum day, to ease the financial burden on the Elections Tribunal –which, according to the country’s never applied Referendum Law, must provide transportation to all voters.

Villalobos called on other bus companies to do the same to ensure a real success, where the popular will is made manifest.”

Of course, disagreements and doubts about the future of the agreement have by no means disappeared – just transformed.

CAFTA opponents Corrales, PAC leader Ottón Solís, and union frontman Albino Vargas all praised referendum plans this week.

Solís, who earlier had urged Arias to convene a referendum, praised the President for his decision, and called it “inevitable.”

However, Corrales accused Arias of “fraud,” becoming one of the few voices of dissent this week.

“He wants to confuse Costa Ricans,” the former legislator told the daily La Nación.

“He’s going to avoid the possibility of (organizers) speaking face to face with people about CAFTA.”

Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, responded to this criticism in a statement Wednesday.

“It seems to me that speaking of fraud when a process is beginning, probably one of the most transcendental processes that is gong to happen in Costa Rica… to insinuate the word ‘fraud’ is really reckless,” the minister said.

Meanwhile, Vargas said he supports a referendum if the Executive Branch withdraws CAFTA, as well as accompanying legislation such as reforms to the telecommunications and insurance sectors, from the assembly. That won’t happen, President Arias said; legislative discussion will continue, though legislators will not vote on CAFTA unless the referendum fails due to insufficient voter participation (see separate article). Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) assembly leader Lorena Vásquez criticized Vargas’ conditions.

“Either you take (the decision), or you leave it,” she said during the April 13 press conference at Casa Presidencial, where all five pro-CAFTA faction heads, as well as much of the Cabinet, flanked Arias as he announced his support for the referendum.

Questions Remain

Several other key issues related to the referendum remain to be resolved.

First and foremost, TSE chief Sobrado said Corrales’ proposal to convene the referendum by collecting signatures is still on the table. If the assembly approves the Executive Branch decree, tribunal justices will then have to decide which of the two methods to use.

Using the government decree would produce a vote in considerably less time, he explained. Although assembly leaders had not set a date for a vote on the decree by press time, support for the decree appears to be widespread among legislators, and only one legislative session is allowed for discussion and voting on the decree. Once the Tribunal receives the approved measures and officially convenes the referendum, a vote must take place within 90 days.

Collecting signatures, however, could take more than a year. Corrales and his team would be allowed nine months with a possible one-month extension to collect, then the Tribunal has one month to verify the signatures; add that to the 90-day preparation period, and a vote could be 14 months away.

Corrales says he will need only three months to collect signatures, and wants to go ahead with the process despite Arias’ decree to ensure voters have time to inform themselves.

A second bone of contention: the constitutionality of the agreement. Or, in other words, the possibility that the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) might eventually rule that CAFTA violates the Constitution, a decision that would overrule any vote in favor of the pact.

Sobrado said the TSE has already asked the Sala IV for a preliminary assessment of whether CAFTA contains any potential constitutional problems, so the government can ensure the legislation is viable before undertaking the cost and effort of organizing a referendum.

However, the Supreme Court justices refused to issue such a ruling, stating that legally, they can review CAFTA only if it is approved, whether by the assembly or by a public vote.

Also pending: a decision on whether the referendum requires 30% or 40% voter turnout to be binding. Sobrado said magistrates will make this decision before it officially convenes the referendum; it will be based on their interpretation of whether the agreement affects the country’s territorial extension or political structure.

TSE head Sobrado, 45, a lawyer, faces the referendum challenge just weeks after taking over as interim president after former TSE president Oscar Fonseca retired in March.

Asked whether the interim head might be replaced before the referendum, and whether such a change could affect the current interpretation in favor of a CAFTA vote, TSE spokeswoman Giannina Aguilar told The Tico Times he is likely to receive his fellow justices’ support to become president permanently; that the decision is not likely to take place this year; and the TSE ruling on the viability of a CAFTA referendum cannot be reversed.


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