Passions continued high among pundits on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) as elections officials this week worked on ground rules for the Oct. 7 referendum.
A heated debate between Vice-President Kevin Casas and anti-CAFTA figurehead Eugenio Trejos in Heredia July 27 piqued nerves on both sides. The daily La Nación reported that anti-CAFTA sympathizers in the crowd physically threatened Casas.
“I was deeply worried and disappointed by what happened Friday because it seemed we had reached levels of intolerance that this country has never seen,” Casas said last week at a press conference.
Rodrigo Arias, Minister of the Presidency, criticized Trejos for showing disrespect to the country’s “democratic institutions.”
He also questioned the implications of Trejos’ remark, “Over my dead body this free-trade treaty will pass.”
“This is one of the most serious things that has been said in this country,”Arias said.
“I ask, what does this mean?”
Trejos, who is leader of the Patriotic Movement for No on CAFTA and rector of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), discussed this with The Tico Times Tuesday.
“Death is not only physical. There is also ethical death and civil death,” he said. “A treaty of this sort would…represent the death of part of our national sovereignty… our national dignity.”
Trejos further claimed that by criticizing decisions by the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), he is working to strengthen – not derail – the country’s democratic institutions.
“I swore to respect the Constitution and the laws of the Republic when I assumed the mandate as rector of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica,” he said.
Casas has invited Trejos to a second debate on national television. But Trejos told The Tico Times that he would accept the invitation only if President Oscar Arias agrees to debate him.
One Catholic leader tried to cool the rhetoric on CAFTA in a speech to pilgrims gathered at Cartago, east of San José, in honor of Our Lady of the Angels day Aug. 2.
Angel San Casimiro, bishop of the Alajuela province, called for respect and understanding in the free-trade debate.
Costa Ricans should “be careful because the country will not have a future if we believe that those who think differently than us are our enemies,” he said. “The base of democracy is tolerance.”
Casas struck a similar note, although in firmer language.“Here no one… has a monopoly on patriotism, nor good intentions, nor love for Costa Rica,” he said.
The Supreme Elections Tribunal officially started printing the nearly 3 million ballots Tuesday for the Oct. 7 referendum. The ballot, a white paper six by nine inches, will have one question: Do you approve the freetrade treaty with the Dominican Republic, Central America and the United States? One of two boxes can be marked: “No” on the right side, or “Yes” on the left.
Elections officials released a document this week addressing demands made by Trejos and other anti-CAFTA leaders in a protest outside the Tribunal July 24 (TT, July 27). Officials said voting booths would be manned exclusively by Tribunal representatives, while members of political parties and other national observers could watch over the process and denounce any suspicious activity.
The document also said Tribunal representatives could use only red pens in the voting booths, while voters would use black pens. “(This is) to quell any suspicion that the ballots could be improperly marked,” said Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado. He added that the vote count will be televised “so that any Costa Rica can, from his or her house, observe what is happening in the session.”
Rejecting a request by Trejos, the Tribunal said there is no legal framework for applying dry laws to the referendum, even though alcohol sales are banned in other elections. Elections officials nevertheless suggested that the Legislative Assembly pass a dry law in order “to promote a more appropriate climate during the electoral day.”
Playing the mediator, the Tribunal has invited Trejos and Alfredo Volio, a pro-CAFTA leader and former Production Minister, to meet with elections officials next Wednesday to discuss Trejos’ request to increase transparency regarding the source and use of resources by pro- and anti-CAFTA camps.
In other CAFTA news, the research program that produces the annual State of the Nation report is making progress on an informational document about the treaty.
The document, which will be distributed to the public by Sept. 7, will include specifics on the referendum and an explanation of the treaty’s content.
The longest section will include analyses by the pro- and anti-CAFTA camps on how CAFTA will affect the environment, education, agriculture, the cost of goods and services, conflict resolution, telecommunications, employment and foreign investment, arms, insurance, anticorruption mechanisms and national sovereignty.
State of the Nation Director Miguel Gutiérrez said a first draft of this section has been distributed to the pro- and anti-CAFTA camps. Each side can identify what it thinks are unfair or untrue statements by the other side.
As the CAFTA debate rolled to a boil this week in the Legislative Assembly (see separate story), Citizen Action Party members reminded voters of their weighty responsibility.
“The referendum is a new institution in the life of the country,” they wrote in a letter to pro-CAFTA lawmakers. “This institution substitutes citizens for politicians…the Supreme Elections Tribunal for the president of the Legislature, the voting booths for our offices and 2.6 million citizens for 57 legislators.”