For university student Ricardo Solís, this year’s Independence Day – just three weeks before Costa Ricans decide whether to approve a controversial free-trade agreement with the United States – takes a new meaning.
“It’s not just a reminder of what happened,” Solís said. “It’s something that is relevant now.”
Solís, president of the student federation at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in San Pedro, east of San José, is one of many students who oppose the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
He and others plan to attend festivities in the eastern Central Valley city of Cartago tonight, the eve of Independence Day.
Last year, dozens of students protesting CAFTA scuffled with police in the former colonial capital of Cartago over access to the city’s central plaza, where the festivities took place with President Oscar Arias in attendance (TT, Oct. 6, 2006).
Solís, like many CAFTA opponents, says the accord would jeopardize what Costa Ricans have gained from the day they became independent 186 years ago.
He said he hopes that in the spirit of independence, people reject the free-trade agreement in the Oct. 7 national referendum – the nation’s first.
In 1821, Central America declared itself independent from the Spanish crown. Costa Ricans learned of the news a month after the declaration, which happened in Guatemala, by torch-carrying messengers, or so the tradition tells.
Every year in Cartago people gather to recreate the arrival of the torch from Nicaragua as part of the celebration of independence.
Across the country, children and their parents walk through towns bearing faroles representing torches, and at exactly 6 p.m. everyone stands to sing the himno nacional in unison.
The following morning, Sept. 15, school children take part in Independence Day parades across the country.
Costa Rica has long enjoyed a reputation as the most peaceful country in Central America, staying free of internal struggles that have plagued most of the region’s history.
It has also been one of the most independent countries in the region, avoiding North American influence, said Victor Hugo Acuña, a history professor at UCR.
That independence is at risk, Acuña said, if CAFTA is approved.
Since the United States embarked on becoming a regional power, starting with the invasions of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the early 20th century, Acuña said, Central American and Caribbean countries became “client” states, nations whose sovereignty is directly affected by U.S. policies.
Costa Rica has been able to ward off U.S. influence when compared to its isthmus counterparts, Acuña continued. For example, Costa Rica is the only country in Central America where the United States has not intervened militarily.
It’s also the only country where CAFTA is being put to a vote, despite opposition and protests in other Central American countries.
Should the trade agreement pass, Acuña is afraid fundamental changes for the country will occur.
“Costa Ricans will cede power,” Acuña said. “Accept asymmetrical relations with the United States.”
Acuña’s counterpart at UCR, history professor and author Ivan Molina, said the referendum is showcasing the strong democratic roots this country has planted since independence.
“It’s a form of direct democracy we have not seen since,”Molina said.
He said he doesn’t think the trade agreement will affect Costa Rica’s sovereignty because the country is already moving toward “immersion” in liberal markets.
Solís, 23, expects at least four busloads of students from UCR and the National University (UNA), in Heredia north of San José, to head to Cartago tonight.
He said he doesn’t want another confrontation with police, but he does want access to the plaza.
“Like any Costa Rican should have,” he added.
National Police in Cartago are preparing for the students, this time redesigning the blockades around the city to allow for more access, said Jorge Solano, regional director of the National Police in Cartago.
They will also secure a separate section of the plaza for students.
“So that there isn’t disorder,” Solano said.
Solís remembers celebrating Independence Day as a kid, watching the parades and playing around with friends. Not this year.
Independence “is a perpetual fight,” he said.