San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Look Back at the CAFTA Debate Years


Jan. 27: The first round of trade talks begins in San José with representatives of the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Oct. 1: U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick ruffles feathers during a one-day visit to Costa Rica by announcing that the country must open its telecommunications, electricity and insurance markets to be included in CAFTA, though the administration of President Abel Pacheco maintains it won’t touch them. Union leaders reject aperture and began planning marches to “paralyze the country.”

Oct. 20: A 3,000-plus CAFTA march takes place in San José. (Marches of varying sizes, mostly against the agreement but also a few in favor, would take place over the next four years.) By the end of the month, President Abel Pacheco announces negotiators will explore “partial opening” of the telecom sector. Not long after, negotiators announce they will explore the partial opening of the insurance monopoly as well.


Jan. 25: Costa Rica finishes its trade talks, with the telecom monopoly set to partially open by 2007 and the complete opening of the insurance monopoly by 2011.

Early May: After activists burn Pacheco in effigy, leaders on both sides of the CAFTA debate began churning out propaganda.

May 28: CAFTA is signed although the agreement’s ratification is seriously in doubt in the United States, where presidential candidate John Kerry says the pact would encourage “a race to the bottom of worker rights and environmental protection.”

July: Pacheco says he won’t submit CAFTA to legislators for discussion unless they approve a hugely controversial tax reform bill.

Aug. 5: The Dominican Republic signs on to the pact.

Nov. 7: The re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush reassures CAFTA supporters, launching new lobbying efforts.

Dec. 17: El Salvador becomes the first country to ratify CAFTA.


January: Pacheco’s continued refusal to submit CAFTA to the Legislative Assembly results in Trade Ministry resignations, leaving only one of the seven “Dream Team” CAFTA negotiators in place.

March 1: The Libertarian Movement Party makes the first official proposal for a referendum on CAFTA. Legislators from all major political parties, labor unions and business chambers support the idea, though restrictions on holding a referendum close to a presidential election complicate the situation.

March 3: Honduras ratifies CAFTA, with Guatemala close behind.

April 9: In a surprise move, Pacheco forms a “Commission of Notables” to study the pact and make recommendations to him. The council included U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang and, after months of study, presented a non-binding report that does not make a stance on whether to ratify the agreement.

Aug. 2: Bush signs CAFTA into law following approval by the House and Senate – thanks to some late-hour lobbying by his administration.

Sept. 6: The Dominican Republic ratifies CAFTA.

Oct. 10: Nicaragua ratifies CAFTA, making Costa Rica the only country left.

Oct. 21: Pacheco finally submits CAFTA to the Legislative Assembly. The Foreign Affairs Commission begins discussing the agreement soon after.


Jan. 1: Start date for CAFTA in the rest of Central America is pushed back because the United States says the other signatories hadn’t made the necessary legislative reforms.

Feb. 5: Pro-CAFTA presidential candidate Oscar Arias narrowly defeats his anti-CAFTA rival, Ottón Solís, in what Arias later characterized as a referendum on CAFTA.

Late February: The Assembly unanimously approves the regulatory law for public referendums.

May 8: Arias is inaugurated amidst anti-CAFTA protests. He’d already received a phone call from Bush, who urged the President-elect to ensure ratification.

Sept. 12: Ex-legislator José Miguel Corrales and others ask the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) to allow for signature collections to convene a referendum under the new law.

Sept. 14: The CAFTA conflict gets a little hostile, with Arias upping his police protection and opponents calling for rebellion on the eve of Indepenence Day. Student protesters are arrested, allege police brutality.

Dec. 12: Costa Rica’s International Affairs Commission approves CAFTA 6-3 as protestors hold a vigil outside the Legislative Assembly.


January: Discussion on the assembly floor can finally begin – but doesn’t, because assembly regulations require the entire agreement to be published for the second time in just over a year, along with additional texts the commission has generated. The total cost: approximately $300,800.

February: The discussion finally begins but is quickly stalled as the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) starts reviewing a fast-track initiative that could speed up CAFTA’s path through the assembly.

April 12: The TSE gives the green light to ex-legislator Corrales’ request to convene a referendum on CAFTA by collecting signatures.

April 13: After chewing over this result for nearly 24 hours,Arias sends a decree for referendum to the Legislative Assembly (The assembly, then the TSE approve this decree, and the voting date is eventually set for Sept. 23).

May: Campaigns begin on both sides of the CAFTA debate. The Sala IV agrees to review CAFTA to see whether it violates Constitutional guarantees of human rights.

June 8: The TSE moves the referendum date to Oct. 7 due to potential delays from Sala IV challenge.

July 6: Sala IV gives final go-ahead for referendum, finding nothing unconstitutional in the trade pact. Campaigning begins in earnest.

Aug. 1: Franklin Chang, former astronaut and member of the Commission of Notables, comes out in favor of CAFTA.

Aug. 28: TSE rules President Arias is not breaking any campaign rules by touting CAFTA in speeches all over country.

Sept. 6: Uproar caused when memo drafted by Second Vice-President Kevin Casas and National Liberation Party (PLN) Legislator Fernando Sánchez leaks to press. Memo proposes using “fear” to win votes for CAFTA and threatening to withhold funds from mayors whose districts do not vote for the trade pact.

Sept. 22: Vice-President Casas resigns.

Oct. 7: Voters decide the fate of CAFTA.


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