Five minutes into an interview with The Tico Times, Alfredo Volio’s cell phone interrupts him with a loud ring. Though the former Production Minister is surely no stranger to such occurrences, he gives the phone a bemused, almost puzzled, look and shuts it off with a theatrical sigh.
“Every day, it’s this,” he says. “It’s such a terrible thing. All day long, that phone is ringing.”
It won’t stop ringing anytime soon. Volio is the head of the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA – and, as such, the man in charge of ensuring Costa Rica votes to ratify the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) in a referendum scheduled for the first Sunday in October.
The movements both for and against the controversial trade pact are massive and diverse – including multiple political parties, chambers, social groups, unions and other organizations on both sides. However, pro- CAFTA activists, unlike their anti-CAFTA counterparts (see separate story), have chosen to attempt to coordinate their campaign efforts through a single leader: Volio, who stepped down from his Cabinet position earlier this year to take on the challenge. He’s working without a salary, as a statement from the Citizens’ Alliance recently declared.
A longtime farm industry advocate and board member of Costa Rican business chambers representing diary and beef producers, Volio was also general manager of Macadamia de Costa Rica S.A. from 1989 until 2006. In 1994, he helped launch the National Chamber of Macadamia Producers.
He’s served on the boards of directors of the National Stock Exchange and the state-owned Banco Internacional de Costa Rica (BICSA) and Banco Nacional, among others.
He was president of the board of Banco Nacional from 1997-1998, and of BN Valores S.A. from 1999 to 2002.
An exporter with three children ages 17-24,Volio, 47, is a loquacious leader who peppers his speech with English and rhetorical questions.
He sat down with The Tico Times just days after the alliance officially launched its campaign, at the mostly bare “Casa del Sí” just west of La Sabana Park, to discuss the group’s strategy and his thoughts on CAFTA. Excerpts:
TT: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get here, to this…
AV: To this mess? (Laughs.) Well, the President (Oscar Arias) asked me to coordinate this process: it was clear that we needed someone who could represent the different participating sectors, and who was close to the government without being in the government.
That’s why I resigned (as Production Minister).
This is an extremely complicated process, most of all because five political parties from the Legislative Assembly are participating in the “yes” movement. Every party has its own structure, and I don’t have the legal power to stop actions any sector is carrying out.
I’m convinced about free trade. In the whole region, we’re the country that’s benefited the most from trade with the United States, and all we’re doing by signing this treaty is laying some ground rules.
What three countries from the American continent opposed the United States over the war in Iraq? Canada, Mexico and Chile.
Those three have free-trade agreements signed with the United States. They could be against the United States without it affecting their trade relations. So some people say, let’s stay with the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) – but it’s like begging the United States not to dump us.
But former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said during one of his visits here that the United States expects its trade partners to cooperate on foreign policy issues. You believe it gives greater freedom to dissent, not less?
They’re facts, they’re realities. One won’t make trade agreements with enemies, and there should be mutual cooperation, but the fact that we have certain elements defined in terms of trade means … that we won’t be victims of arm-twisting.
A whole series of countries is standing in line for a trade accord with the United States, and never in history has a country left a trade agreement with the United States. There must be some important reasons why no one leaves.
Those who oppose CAFTA might argue that reason is the cost and complication involved in leaving a trade agreement.
The people from PAC (the opposition Citizen Action Party) have some arguments, mostly lies, to say that we’re turning over our country. For example, that we’re going to lose all our water. The United States has the Great Lakes, the most significant source of fresh water in the world, five times the size of Costa Rica. You say to yourself, puchica, why are we talking about this stuff?
Even Arias has said CAFTA isn’t perfect. You say the agreement’s opponents are inventing negative consequences that don’t exist – so what are some negative consequences that do exist?
No treaty will be perfect, from someone’s point of view. It’s a negotiation, not an imposition. The aspects that some Costa Ricans see as very negative, such as breaking up state monopolies – others don’t see them as so negative. I would love to have a choice about who gives me cell phone service.
When I get to the airport in Nicaragua, I get off the plane and buy a chip, and they give me a cell phone number. Whereas here, it’s front-page news if the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) is going to sell a few cellular lines … and people go to stand in line at 3, 4 a.m.
We’re used to service here that’s totally outdated in other parts of the world – and I’m not talking about the First World. I’m talking about Nicaragua.
Or the agriculture sector, one of the most benefited by CAFTA. People say, well, the U.S. government gives subsidies to some producers – but those subsidies end up benefiting us. The principal products the United States exports to Costa Rica are corn, wheat and soy. We don’t produce any of these … I hope they don’t take away any of those subsidies.
But there are subsidies on products that are produced here, too.
Yes, on rice, dairy products and some others. But for the first 10 years nothing happens, and then (tariffs gradually drop) until the 20-year mark. That gives us the chance to structure our production to be more competitive … to see whether it’s possible to create conditions to produce better, and if not? To change to another activity.
We can’t use arguments like, “My grandfather produced rice and my dad produced rice; I want to produce it and I want my grandson to produce it, even if we’re all ruined.” That can’t be anyone’s aspiration.
What do you think of the quality of information about CAFTA in the campaigns so far?
What a problem when it’s not a rational or technical discussion! I wish it were a more positive discussion, with fewer lies. Like, we’re going to lose Isla del Coco … where do they make up that stuff?
Isn’t that happening on the other side, too? “You won’t have jobs without CAFTA,” for example?
Yes, but nonetheless, look. Diay. If CAFTA isn’t approved, there will be significant consequences from a socioeconomic point of view – probably some businesses will move elsewhere. But it’s not like the country will die. We’d have to think of another trade agenda, or something.
What’s your strategy? We’re going to use lots of means to get the message out, through all the media – Internet, blogs, e-mails, community visits house to house, discussion forums, debates. So that it’s more of an educational campaign than a war.