For a day, all eyes, it seemed, fell on Costa Rica.
Observers from across the Western Hemisphere watched voters go to the polls. International media swarmed. The White House sent a memo. Fidel Castro urged resistance.
Costa Rican citizens, instead of legislators, were to decide the fate of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) in the country´s first referendum.
After a preliminary count, the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) announced a thin but clear margin in the historic vote: 51.6% of valid votes supported the treaty and 48.4% rejected it. Nearly 60% of eligible voters turned out, far more than the 40% required to make the results binding.
“The people have spoken,” said Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado to an audience of political and opinion leaders in the Tribunal auditorium Sunday, after an overwhelmingly peaceful day of voting. “Above all, democracy has won.”
The Tribunal is now conducting an official vote count, expected to take nearly two weeks, although CAFTA´s win, based on 50,000 votes, is almost certain to hold.
President Oscar Arias, who has been touting CAFTA for years, celebrated the vote with a speech at the Casa Presidencial.
“Today the borders that divided us disappear. We are no longer ´yes´ and ´no,´ he said. Today we are just one Costa Rica, one people that wants, needs and deserves progress.”
The treaty´s opponents seemed less interested in joining hands. The results were a blow to the movement´s leaders, who seemed confident of a win after ´no´ scored a 12-point lead in polls released four days before the referendum.
Citizen Action Party (PAC) leader Ottón Solís, who was narrowly defeated in the 2006 presidential elections, did not recognize the results until Monday. He cited electoral anomalies, such as the use of public resources in state CAFTA campaigns, and violations of the Tribunal s rule against last-minute propaganda.
Yet leaders on both sides seemed to agree on one thing: Voting day itself was a great democratic party, peaceful and orderly.
Throughout the day, about 1.57 million voters descended on the polls, many with ´yes´ or ´no´ paraphernalia, T-shirts, banners, hats, tattoos.
The nearly 5,000 voting booths were located mostly in schools, but 17 were in jails and 31 were in nursing homes. About 15 voting centers, located in indigenous areas, were so isolated that tribunal officials had to travel there by helicopter with the electoral material.
Some 2,800 boy and girl scouts and students were stationed at about 150 voting booths to assist elderly and disabled voters.
Some Costa Ricans spent most of their day voting and bringing family members to the polls. Others waited in long lines at the Tribunal to replace lost identification cards, required to vote.
The referendum was closely watched.
More than 180 international observers, the most ever in Costa Rica´s history, observed the process (see separate story), as did about 50,000 people accredited by political parties. Some 800 Tribunal volunteers monitored the activity and fielded complaints by voters.
At 6 p.m., the polls closed and two Tribunal officials at each booth counted the votes, as political observers looked on. Elections officials announced preliminary results at 8:30 p.m. to a hushed audience of ambassadors, politicians, electoral observers and reporters.
There were shrieks of glee at the headquarters of the Citizens Alliance for Yes on CAFTA, and sighs and shouts of fraud at the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), where CAFTA opponents were camped.
Amid angry chants from the fringes of the crowd, Eugenio Trejos urged patience and calm, and called for supporters to look to their community organizations, or cómites patrióticas, to voice their frustrations. He assured them that each vote would be scrutinized and counted.
There were a few isolated late-night acts of protest, but no major problems, said Raul Rivera, director of the National Police´s riot unit. Some 7,000 police officers were deployed Sunday to maintain order.
Tribunal magistrates are now checking each ballot for an official tally, in a process broadcast on cable Channel 23 and at www.tse.go.cr. But the 50,000-vote margin is large enough that the Citizen Action Party (PAC) has already accepted defeat. Faction head Elizabeth Fonseca met this week with President Arias to discuss laws that would implement the treaty. (See separate story.)
The days before the referendum were tense. Both sides continued their campaigns during the weekend, flouting a Tribunal rule that prohibited propaganda beginning Thursday at midnight. Elections officials issued a warning Friday night to both sides, and they called on the 800 Tribunal delegates to be especially vigilant.
Saturday, Casa Presidencial called an urgent press conference to discuss a statement from U.S. President George W. Bush´s administration. Wary of Tribunal rules against propaganda, executive officials spoke to reporters in groups of two.
The Bush administration made clear that the United States would not renegotiate CAFTA if the country voted no. The statement also expressed uncertainty over whether the United States would renew unilateral trade benefits for goods like tuna and textiles, set to expire in 2008.
The U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, Mark Langdale, who has worn his ´yes´ heart on his sleeve, said he asked the White House to issue that statement so that “the facts were on the table.”
Citizen Action Party (PAC) faction head Elizabeth Fonseca called such statements propaganda disguised as information.
Still, Fonseca joined CAFTA supporters and opponents alike in celebrating the success of the referendum, the first in Costa Rica´s recent history.
The point wasn t lost on the 1.57 million people who bused, walked and honked their way to the polls Sunday.
Slouching on a chair in Bar Piloto, in south San José, Sunday afternoon, educator Jorge Vargas drank beer with ice cubes after voting against CAFTA. Though there is a dry law in Costa Rica that prohibits establishments from selling alcohol on presidential and municipal election days, the law didn t apply Sunday.
“Some here are for no, some here are for yes, he said, But whoever wins, wins. No problem. This is a democracy.”
Tico Times reporters Blake Schmidt and Manuel Valdes also contributed to this report.