San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

High-level Resignations Rock CAFTA Campaign

Second Vice-President Kevin Casas resigned this week and National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Fernando Sánchez stepped down from two key legislative posts over a controversial memo they wrote to President Oscar Arias about the administration’s campaign for a free-trade pact with the United States.

The memo, leaked to the press and published Sept. 6 by the University of Costa Rica (UCR) newspaper, Semanario Universidad, suggested that the government manipulate voters, blackmail mayors and fool the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) in its campaign for the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

Casas announced his resignation from the Vice Presidency and his post as Planning Minister in a letter to President Oscar Arias Saturday. He said he did not want to “cost the government any more political capital.” “I will return to my family,my books and my ideals, which do not require the pain of politics to be realized,” he wrote.

President Oscar Arias said in a statement that Casas was one of his best ministers – capable, efficient and hardworking.

“I accept this decision… with great respect for Kevin, because he thought first of the country. That’s very noble on his part,” the President said.

Legislator Sánchez stepped down from two legislative commissions of which he was president – the Electoral Reforms Commission and the Commission on the Development Bank Law, which would offer funds and training to small- and medium-sized businesses.

The Tico Times made several attempts to reach both Casas and Sánchez, though neither responded by press time. Sánchez has not attended legislative sessions in recent days because his wife just had a baby.

Liberation faction head Mayí Antillón said the party is “satisfied” and that Sánchez took an “important” step. She said the political fallout for the Liberation party remains to be seen.

“Let’s now turn the page and leave this memorandum behind,” she said. “We must close this chapter and focus on what is really important, the… days we have to put CAFTA in its proper light.”

The memorandum, which sparked outrage among legislators, community leaders and political analysts, has dealt a blow to the CAFTA campaign. The country is now nearly evenly divided between pro- and anti-CAFTA voters, according to a poll conducted by Unimer and published Monday in the daily La Nación.

“I think in politics you have to be realistic, and the memorandum has had a negative impact on pro-CAFTA feeling,” said Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias. “I hope we can overcome that.”

Minister Arias, who is also the President’s brother, rejected suggestions that the government pressured Casas to leave in order to shift the public’s focus from the scandal.

In recent weeks, the pro-CAFTA Libertarian Movement Party (ML) and the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) have clamored for Casas and Sánchez to step down. The Liberation party, business groups and the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA distanced themselves from the memo’s authors and said they rejected their ideas.

PAC faction head Elizabeth Fonseca continues to call for Sánchez’s resignation from the legislature.

“He should leave for his own dignity and principles,” she said. “He has lost all his moral authority.”

Picking up the Pieces

Analysts and politicians alike once cast Casas, 39, and Sánchez, 33, as rising political stars. Both have doctorates in political science from Oxford, and both have been recognized as academic standouts.With some luck, Casas might have one day run for president.

Not anymore, says Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the Institute for the Press and Freedom of Expression (IPLEX) and former editor of the daily La Nación.

“He had many possibilities because of his talent… his energy and attractive personality,” said Ulibarrri, who is Casas’ longtime friend and neighbor. “His political career has basically disappeared.”

Sánchez’s prospects are brighter, Ulibarri said, because a legislative post is more political and carries less responsibility than Vice-President.

“This doesn’t free Sánchez of blame, but it does give him a bit more protection,” he said, adding that Sánchez still has political prospects as long as he remains in the assembly.

The Liberation faction must now choose a new legislator to serve on the commissions, which must elect new presidents. The government will look for a new Planning Minister in the coming days, but the Second Vice Presidency – an elected position that has no duties other than filling in for the First Vice-President or President – will remain vacant.

For now, two key projects Casas headed are in limbo. The Arias administration must find a new director for its National Development Plan, an ambitious four-year strategy for achieving campaign promises such as a decrease in poverty, better health coverage and security, and better infrastructure (TT, Jan. 26).

Also captainless is the Digital Government project, an effort to speed up government services – such as issuing passports and drivers’ licenses – through greater use of technology.


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