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CAFTA Agenda Creates Roadblock in Congress

Business basically ground to a halt this week in the Legislative Assembly, as no bills were discussed on the main floor Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Executive Branch, which gets to decide the legislative agenda during the extraordinary session this month, called for debate Monday on a short list of bills addressing social and development issues. But only four of the bills were ready for discussion on the main floor, and lawmakers sent these back to commission Monday for modification.

Meanwhile, the President has not yet called for debate on the most controversial pending legislation: a series of 13 laws required to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). The Executive Branch is waiting for a stalemate to thaw between pro- and anti- CAFTA legislators regarding the agenda.

Public opinion of lawmakers has fallen in recent months, according to a poll conducted by the firm Unimer for the daily La Nación. While 30% of people polled in February said lawmakers’ work was “bad” or “very bad,” that number increased to 35% in July.

Fighting over the 13 CAFTA-related laws may have something to do with this drop in  approval. Anti-CAFTA lawmakers say the Assembly should discuss the implementation bills only if the voting public approves the controversial treaty in an Oct. 7 referendum.

The pro-CAFTA camp responds that given the snail’s pace at which the Assembly does business, there would not be time to approve all 13 laws between Oct. 7 and March 1, 2008, the deadline for passing CAFTA. The two camps also differ on whether this deadline applies to the implementation bills, or just the treaty.

“We should not even be discussing these projects because it undermines the democratic framework,” anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) head Elizabeth Fonseca told The Tico Times this week. “It takes sovereignty away from its rightful owner, the people.”

For CAFTA to take effect, laws must be passed to take monopolies away from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which runs the nation’s telecommunications system, and the National Insurance Institute (INS) (TT,May 11). Other bills in the implementation agenda would simplify the process of obtaining protections for pharmaceuticals and new seed varieties, reform legislation regulating foreign businesses, change the Criminal Code, and call for environmental cooperation between CAFTA countries. Eight of these laws are ready to be discussed by the full Assembly, while five are still tied up in commission.

Anti-CAFTA activists have long insisted that legislative discussion of the bills should be postponed in case voters reject CAFTA in the Oct. 7 referendum.

“There could be CAFTA without CAFTA,” Eugenio Trejos, a spokesman for the anti-CAFTA movement, told The Tico Times last month (TT, July 13). “That is to say, an implementation agenda that is, in essence, the execution of this free-trade agreement.”

PAC vows to use every tool in its power to freeze work on the 13 laws. Party members are refusing to attend plenary sessions to discuss the implementation agenda if their presence would complete the 38-member quorum required to do business (TT,Aug. 3). The pro-CAFTA parties have exactly 38 members in Congress, but absences have prevented them from reaching quorum in recent weeks.

On Monday, PAC rejected a proposal by five pro-CAFTA factions that would have allowed for discussion on the laws. Under the proposal, lawmakers would finish debating the 13 laws without holding a full vote until after the referendum.

If the public rejects CAFTA, the laws would be sent back to commission to be modified. If the public approves CAFTA, the Assembly would vote on the full implementation agenda before Feb. 29, 2008, said Luis Antonio Barrantes, head of the pro-CAFTA Libertarian Movement (ML) faction.

Fonseca said she does not trust pro-CAFTA legislators, which have a majority in Congress, to send the bills back to commission if the public votes to reject CAFTA.

“Neither we, nor the Costa Rican people, believe these stories,” she said. “It is not a very serious proposal.”

Pro-CAFTA faction heads met Tuesday with Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, brother of pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias, to discuss and criticize PAC’s response. National Liberation Party (PLN) head Mayi Antillón called PAC’s statement “radical and negative…an inconclusive response that seems to be made more with the liver than with reflection.”

Barrantes urged PAC to reconsider the political accord.

“(Our proposal) is not set in stone,” he said. “It is open to negotiation.”

Joining his call were the other faction heads: Lorena Vázquez of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), Guyón Massey of the National Renovation Party (PRN), and José Manuel Echandi of the National Union Party (PUN).

PAC lawmakers recognize that the pro- CAFTA camp, with its 38 members, can reach a quorum, apply the recently approved fast-track process, use the special commissions and pass the laws.

“According to these legislative mathematics, our gesture may be symbolic,” the 17 PAC lawmakers conceded in a letter to the five pro-CAFTA faction heads.

Still, legislators cannot discuss the 13 laws this month unless the Executive Branch puts them on the agenda. Of the bills on the presidency’s to-do list Monday, only four were ready for debate by the full Congress, but lawmakers sent these back to commissions requesting changes.

Among the four is a bill to increase job security for teachers by increasing from 32 to 40 the maximum number of weekly classes in a full-time teaching job (TT, Aug. 3).

Also slated for debate are reforms to the Public Works Concession Law, which would remove bureaucratic hurdles for the concession of public works projects to private businesses.

OnWednesday, the Executive Branch put on the agenda a series of non-controversial municipal authorizations, which were slated for discussion yesterday.

The presidency can add or remove laws from the agenda at any time. Minister Arias  said that for now, the Executive Branch would refrain from “convoking projects that will get stuck and not make progress.”


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