Strong feelings both for and against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) found their outlet on the potholed pavement of Costa Rica’s streets during the past several years.
Marches – some large, colorful and broadcasted across the world – became a key tactic for the “no” side, while shows of support were few and far between.
The occasional protest has long been part of Costa Rica’s democratic tradition, but the frequency and intensity of marches against CAFTA are a noteworthy entry in the country’s history book. Opponents insist the ferocity – albeit largely peaceful – is due to the grassroots support enjoyed by the “no” side. Supporters contend that while turnout is numerous, anti-CAFTA street marches represent just a small fraction of the voting population.
Near the end of February this year, before the Oct. 7 referendum was announced, tens of thousands of protesters marched through downtown San José to urge the government to withdraw legislation that would have “fast-tracked” CAFTA through the legislature, forcing a quicker resolution (TT,March 2).
The march was mirrored in smaller showings through the country involving an estimated 200,000 protesters who earned praise from pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias and other government leaders for remaining peaceful.
Most anti-CAFTA events held in Costa Rica since the agreement was finalized in early 2004 have been peaceful, though some allegations of suppression and police brutality have surfaced.
Marches like this year’s have been an integral part of the CAFTA debate since 2003, when the first was held on Oct. 20, and have long since been held as proof of broadbased anti-CAFTA sentiment by those promoting “No al TLC” (as the agreement is called because of the Spanish acronym for tratado de libre comercio).
As the terms of the agreement were being negotiated in late 2003, including opening the state-run telecommunications and insurance monopolies to private competition, thousands of Costa Rican Electricity (ICE) and Social Security (Caja) workers’ unions, university students and members of a wide range of groups representing a variety of political causes marched peacefully along the streets of San José (TT, Oct. 24, 2003).
“CAFTA is a business deal between transnational company mafia and Central American political mafia to steal what belongs to the region’s people. It’s a predatory tactic by the United States aimed at achieving economic domination,” said marcher Isabel Araya, a member of the National Association of Public and Private Employees.
The next year, in 2004, a march held on May 1, International Workers’ Day, followed the conclusion of negotiations earlier that year (TT, May 7, 2004). That protest went one step further – participants burned effigies of then-President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) following recently released reports that showed the possible negative effects on workers in some of the government’s monopolies such as ICE.
Another enormous protest, this one larger than the last, flooded the streets at the end of May 2004, after top trade officials of Central America and the United States signed the final version of CAFTA. Organizers estimated as many as 20,000 people marched through San José, including 7,000 ICE employees, though authorities estimated the number closer to 10,000 (TT, June 4, 2004).
In 2005, focus turned to the Legislative Assembly and protests simmered slightly – but thousands marched again on May 1 to protest increased pressure from U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, despite President Pacheco’s waffling on the issue (TT,May 6, 2005).
In 2006, the labor unions, which led that year’s biggest CAFTA protests in May and October, were angered by multinational telecommunications companies knocking on Costa Rica’s door (TT Dec. 22, 2006). After telecom reform was introduced to Congress in October, protestors hit the streets like they did six years before in massive nation-crippling protests against attempts to reform ICE, before CAFTA was even in the picture.
Though turnout for the two-day October 2006 protest was high, events remained peaceful on the whole – a trend that has held steady in a country that prides itself on not having an army.
Also noteworthy last year, the ongoing CAFTA debate penetrated deep into national culture, as Costa Ricans took their protests to new heights by making art exhibits, releasing a controversial TV documentary and staging a public mock funeral for the trade pact. Theatrical artist Rubén Pagura even wrote and performed a musical against the pact, “Te Lo Canto” (TT, Dec. 22, 2006).