San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Referendum Campaign Financing Discussed

As the campaign surrounding September’s national free-trade referendum continued this week, representatives from Costa Rican business chambers said Tuesday that they’re happy to publish information on campaign donations – but only if the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) asks them to do so.

At a press conference held at the headquarters of the Union of Private-Sector Chambers and Associations (UCCAEP), which represents 42 private business chambers, representatives said the organization does not plan to open its books unless it receives an official request from the TSE.

“We’re going to submit ourselves 100% to the rules the tribunal establishes,” Union board member Franco Arturo Pacheco told reporters. Pacheco and others at the press conference called for the TSE to clarify whether organizations campaigning for September’s planned referendum on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) should publish the sources of their campaign donations.

This statement came on the heels of a letter to UCCAEP from union leaders last week, proposing an agreement between pro- and anti-CAFTA activists to make public their donation records. In the letter, addressed to UCCAEP as well as the Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce, the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), and the pro-CAFTA lobbying group “Por Costa Rica,” union activists Albino Vargas and Fabio Chávez suggested a joint publication of records overseen by a group such as Transparency International.

That letter, in turn, was prompted by ongoing rumors that unions will accept donations from CAFTA opponents in Cuba and Venezuela to help persuade Costa Ricans to vote “no” on Sept. 23.

As in any election, foreigners are prohibited from campaigning or making campaign contributions on either side, though the Electoral Code does authorize them to make donations for “training and research” – an exception Olman Chinchilla, secretary general of the Central Movement of Workers union, told the daily La Nación his organization may take advantage of by soliciting funds for training. Other anti-CAFTA leaders have said they will not accept any foreign funds.

The Citizen Action Party (PAC), meanwhile, got its campaign officially under way Sunday, canvassing homes in the southern San José neighborhood of Hatillo. PAC leader and former presidential candidate Ottón Solís, whom pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias narrowly defeated in last year’s presidential elections, joined volunteers in going door-to-door to discuss potential problems of the trade agreement, signed in 2004.

PAC’s legislative faction has also submitted a request for a review of CAFTA to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), already studying certain aspects of the agreement and expected to present a decision by mid-June. The chamber agreed to study CAFTA’s potential effects on human rights following a request by Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada; however, Citizen Action legislators had already begun a separate consultation (TT, May 18).

The uncertainty engendered by these high-court reviews is slowing campaign donations on the pro-CAFTA side, according to Alfredo Volio, the former Production Minister who recently resigned to head the pro-CAFTA campaign. He told the daily La Nación some businesses are waiting for the high court decision before opening their wallets.

AMCHAM Executive Director Lynda Solar told The Tico Times that though the pro-CAFTA alliance is still getting under way, her organization and others have already begun campaign efforts.

Hundreds of workers given a few hours off work Tuesday swarmed the inauguration ceremony of a new free zone being built in the CartagoIndustrial Park, east of San José, waving signs in a sort of pro-CAFTA rally.

The speakers at the event – including President Arias – warmed to the crowd and thundered out the dire consequences of a “no” vote, and the rosy future of a “sí.”

“Either we have a free-trade agreement with the United States and continue exporting, selling them goods and services,” Arias said, “or we export people, as has happened in other countries in Central America whose main source of revenue is not exports but remittances.”


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