San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Anti-CAFTA, Anti-U.S. Graffiti Seen All Over

It says U.S. President George W. Bush is an “assassin” and calls North Americans “Nazis.”

It tells the United States to leave this country alone. Anti-U.S. graffiti is sprayed on walls around houses, businesses and public parks throughout the Central Valley. It’s everywhere.

The graffiti is a product of the political and economic debate that has been consuming Costa Rica for the past few years: whether to ratify the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

As the CAFTA debate rages across the nation, two sides have emerged, with President Oscar Arias, other high-level officials and major businesses in favor of entering the agreement with the United States.

Their marketing fund is lush, said Julia Ardón, an anti-CAFTA activist who helped create the “Mi Corazón Dice No” strategy (TT, Sept. 21).

Supporters of the “ no” campaign havemore limited budgets – leading some who are against CAFTA to take to the streets, Ardón said.

Opinions differ on whether the urban scrawl helps or hurts campaign efforts. The graffiti, seemingly omni-present around the city, serves as a reminder of the political climate in the country, according to Miguel Regueyra, a professor of communications at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).

Regueyra said the use of graffiti has been known for centuries as an alternative form of expression used by those with limited resources. It’s no different here.

“The walls have transformed into a form of expression,” he said.

One message repeated throughout San Jose claims “the fight is in the streets.” With so many places for people to spray, policing the streets to keep them graffiti-free has been a hard task, said Manuel Garro, director of the Municipal Police.

“It’s an attempt against the city, I feel,” Garro said. “Citizens should seek other ways to express their feelings against CAFTA. It’s a uncultured method.”

Garro said most of the perpetrators of this misdemeanor are students.

Clean up of the graffiti, if sprayed on private homes or businesses, falls on the owners, according to the Municipality of San Jose.

Graffiti sprayed on public property must be cleaned by the agency in charge of the area, said municipality spokeswoman Gloria Marín.

For example, at the Plaza de la Democracia, which falls under the National Museum’s jurisdiction and is the site of a lot of graffiti as it is across the street from the Legislative Assembly, is already being refurbished by the museum and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. Included in the renovations: painting over the graffiti, said museum spokeswoman Wendy Segura.

The message within the graffiti has changed over the years, Regueyra said. In the 1970s, much like today, it was politically charged, while in the 1980s and 1990s some poets decided to write their verse on city walls. When Costa Rica joined the U.S.-led “Coalition of the Willing” for the attack on Iraq, graffiti was sprayed in support of peace, Ardón said.

Now, anti-U.S. feelings are clear, and anti-Bush sentiments stand out even more on the city’s walls. Some graffiti equates CAFTA with “neoesclavitud,” or neo-slavery. Those who sprayed it also want “skinhens” out of Costa Rica.

These sentiments, Ardón says, are not shared by all who oppose CAFTA, but by some who have deep resentment against the United States and its current policies.

The graffiti is not all anti-U.S. and anti-CAFTA. Supporters of CAFTA have painted over graffiti opposing the trade pact, changing a big “NO” to a “SI.”

Another spray says “no to Communism.” Ardón says she dislikes graffiti that contains personal insults such as those seen that target pro-CAFTA President Arias. Nor does she condone defacing private homes and businesses.

Still, seeing the widespread expression against CAFTA has inspired her.

“Honestly, I think they’re beautiful,” she said. “It’s the people’s scream when they don’t know how to express themselves.” One night, not long ago, after a party, Ardón, 44, and her son took a can of spray paint she had in her car, and drew a big “NO” with a heart as the “O.”

She wouldn’t say where they did it, but admitted it was not the first time she has used graffiti. In her youth, she said, graffiti was a way of showing solidarity with causes.

“It’s street art,” she said. “It fills the city with life.”


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