San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Campaigns Heat up as Referendum Nears

Polls showing a nearly divided electorate have added a frenetic urgency to the campaigns on a free-trade pact with the United States, which will come to a vote Oct. 7.

Some 49.1% of voters support the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), while 46.3% oppose it, according to a poll conducted by the firm Unimer in mid-September for the daily La Nación. Considering a 3.4% margin of error, the two sides are in a statistical dead heat – a blow to the pro-CAFTA camp, which just one month ago had a 20-point lead.

The National Liberation Party (PLN) announced Tuesday that it would not attend legislative sessions until after the referendum in order to focus on their pro-CAFTA campaigns. That leaves the assembly without the minimum 38 members required to do business.

“The results of the poll show I really should be out clarifying things, rather than in the assembly,” said Liberation faction head Mayí Antillón.

Of the party’s 25 members in congress, only the assembly’s president, Francisco Antonio Pacheco, plans to attend sessions in order to call roll. The legislators will lose about $1,230 each for their six-day absence.

Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said he supported the move, given that the assembly wasn’t getting much done anyway.

“The assembly in the past week has become a forum for politicking, insults and threats,” he said.

Libertarian Movement Party (ML) legislator Mario Quirós criticized the Liberation legislators for shirking their duties. Quirós, who is pro-CAFTA, added that he doesn’t support a recess because he gets better press coverage in the legislature than on the streets.

The pro-CAFTA campaign’s main spokesman, President Oscar Arias, is also back on his feet, after spending days at home with tendonitis, followed by a week walking with crutches. This week, he touted the pact in press conferences, televised speeches and meetings throughout the country. Arias took his campaign to the central Pacific region last weekend, and in the next two days he will tour Limón on the Caribbean coast, meeting with local authorities, church members and agricultural workers.

The Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA is stepping up its campaign with a new slew of television, radio and newspaper advertisements. Alliance head Alfredo Volio said these will give voters concrete reasons to approve the treaty – a shift from the fluffy “heart” ads, which ended their stint last week (TT, Aug. 21).

Volio said he is also coordinating a massive effort to bring voters to the polls. Pro- CAFTA leaders throughout the country will work with local political party bosses to tell Costa Ricans where they are registered to vote and how they can get there.

The “yes” campaign will provide free transportation to the polls from schools, parks, companies and even the Alliance’s headquarters.

“We’re going to have buses, minibuses, taxis, rented cars,” Volio said. “Someone from Guanacaste (on the Pacific coast) who is voting in Limón (on the Caribbean) can leave his house and go to a meeting place, and from there be connected to a great transportation network.”

The anti-CAFTA movement is banking on a high turnout Sunday at a planned march in downtown San José. Figurehead Eugenio Trejos is planning a family affair, with cultural performances, music and face painting. He expects the turnout to surpass February’s anti-CAFTA march, which drew some 23,500 people, according to aerial images taken by La Nación (TT, March 2).

The “no” campaign is also buying new advertising spots on television, on the radio and in newspapers, Trejos said. Members of the “patriotic committees,” anti-CAFTA citizen groups located throughout the country, will step up house visits, handing out flyers and giving mini-speeches. Busy with interviews, speeches and campaign events, Trejos said he is sleeping just four to five hours a night.

Some 94 Catholic priests from across the country declared their opposition to CAFTA in an eight-page manifesto, presented Wednesday at a meeting at the Episcopal Conference in San José.

The margin between “yes” and “no” voters has narrowed in recent weeks. In July, a Unimer poll found some 51% of voters would approve CAFTA while 42% would oppose it.

CAFTA’s lead grew to 20 percentage points in August, according to Unimer. A poll conducted the week of Sept. 12 showed that CAFTA’s support had plummeted.

Rodrigo Arias conceded that the drop was partly due to a controversial memorandum, leaked to the press, in which high-level public officials suggested questionable and potentially illegal tactics in the state’s CAFTA campaign.

Campaign Tactics Questioned

Luis Fernando Escalante, who runs the pro-CAFTA campaign in Heredia, north of San José, sent an e-mail to a handful of Costa Rican companies Sept. 14 suggesting that they pay their workers an additional quarter or half of their salary as an incentive to vote in the referendum the first Sunday in October.

In order to receive the extra pay, the workers would either have to show “proof” that they voted, or they would have to take transportation provided by the company from their workplace to the voting booth.

“This would be the greatest help and the best way of ensuring us the necessary votes,” Escalante said in the e-mail.

Someone forwarded the e-mail to anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator Luis Alberto Salom, who lodged a complaint against Escalante before the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).

“It was a simple question. We were asking what (companies) thought of the idea of paying quarter or half-time for all employees – whether they support “yes” or “no” – to go vote,” Escalante said. “All the firms told me no, it wasn’t necessary because all the workers were already organized and were going to vote.”

The Tribunal has forwarded the complaint to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office for further investigation. Elections officials also said in a statement that giving employees incentives to vote is forbidden. Firms are also not allowed to ask employees to come to work Oct. 7 so that they can be escorted to the voting booth.

The Tribunal emphasized this week that all voters can request a free bus ticket to get to the polls by visiting the Tribunal or one of its regional offices. Voters are also forbidden from bringing cameras or cell phones – which could take pictures to prove they voted a certain way – into the polling place.



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