Tribunal Says President Can Tout CAFTA on Tours

August 31, 2007

The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) ruled Tuesday that President Oscar Arias has not violated electoral rules by touting the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) at nearly every official event.

Tribunal president Luis Antonio Sobrado said the President’s activities are not “propagandistic” and thus do not violate rules against using public resources to propagandize on CAFTA before the Oct. 7 referendum to decide the controversial pact’s fate in Costa Rica. “Propaganda” would include, for example, distributing pro-CAFTA pins or flyers or hiring artists to present cultural events touting the treaty.

The ruling – which responds to petitions by the Access without Exclusion Party (PASE), the National Recovery Party and activist Alberto Cabezas – also said the Tribunal has no power to sanction Arias or Public Health Minister María Luisa Avila for invoking religion in their pro-CAFTA speeches. Still, the Tribunal “vehemently” urged them to avoid making any religious references when touting the treaty.

Citizen Action Party (PAC) founder Ottón Solís wrote to the Tribunal criticizing the ruling.While the anti-CAFTA camp has trouble raising money, he said, the pro-CAFTA camp has vast resources thanks to support from the President and big businesses, which he claims are pressuring their employees to vote “yes.”

“The Tribunal has an obligation to ensure material, not just superficial, fairness in this process,” he wrote.

In other referendum campaign news: The State of the Nation program presented a summary of the U.S. trade pact to the Tribunal, which plans to print it in two national newspapers one month before the referendum. The document does not include texts by the pro- and anti-CAFTA camps, as originally planned, because “the process reached a dead point,” according to State of the Nation Director Miguel Gutiérrez. The pro-CAFTA camp claimed that the anti-CAFTA camp made 69 false arguments in its text, while the anti-CAFTA side said the pro-CAFTA camp had made eight. The two sides could not agree on the make-up of a panel to judge these denouncements. Given the stalemate and looming deadline, the State of the Nation decided to author the entire document itself.

_ The Tribunal this week asked pro-CAFTA Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias and Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal to respond to a complaint by Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator José Joaquín Salazar, who last week alleged he was mistreated by a presidential security guard because of his anti-CAFTA associations (TT, Aug. 24).

_ The Ombudsman’s Office recently urged Sobrado to require the pro- and anti-CAFTA camps to publish the origin and amount of their campaign contributions. Sobrado says he can’t because the law gives the Tribunal power to monitor only the amount spent on media advertisements.

_ Pro-CAFTA campaign head Alfredo Volio and anti-CAFTA leader Eugenio Trejos still haven’t been able to reach agreement on an accord calling for less mudslinging in the campaign and greater funding transparency. Trejos and Sobrado said they support such an accord, but Volio opposes it.

 

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