San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Foreign Observers Pleased with Results

The referendum on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) Sunday drew more than 180 foreign observers – the most in the country’s recent history.

Paul Durand, who headed a team of 93 observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), said it was one of the best-run electoral processes he has observed. “We were delighted,” he said. “It was extremely well managed. There was no violence.

Everyone was able to vote on time. There were no lineups at the end of the day…There were minimal complaints. What else can I say?”

Durand spent the day visiting voting booths with OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who also gushed about the process at a closing ceremony Sunday night at the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).

“It’s been an exemplary day,” he said. The referendum also drew some 40 observers from elections tribunals in Latin American and the Caribbean. A handful of ombudsmen from the region came, as did representatives from the LutheranChurch.

The U.N.-charteredUniversity for Peace, southwest of San José, organized a group of 27 student observers from across the globe.

University for Peace professor Tatiana Benavides said the experience was “extremely important” for her students, who are pursuing master’s degrees in issues related to peace.

“Logically, electoral processes are linked to political stability and peace,” she said. Angel Baños, from Panama’s electoral tribunal, visited five jails and three nursing homes during the referendum. Panama will set up voting booths in these locations for the first time in 2009, and Baños wanted to see how it worked.

“They were having a ball,” Baños said of the prisoners and elderly voters. “They felt like they were legislators for one day.”

Costa Rica’s elections tribunal organized a series of events for the observers during referendum week. Friday, about 75 observers went to an information session on the referendum hosted by the International Institute on Human Rights. Saturday, observers met with pro- and anti-CAFTA leaders.

The OAS observers fanned the country Sunday, reaching all seven provinces in their fleet of rented cars. They visited the voting booths and monitored the Tribunal’s centers where voting data was processed.

Durand said he noticed only minor flaws. One, he said, was the presence of people with “yes” and “no” gear inside the booths. These people – some accredited by political parties and others acting as “guides” – approached voters and asked if they needed help.

“It was a pretty minor thing and it’s not against the law here, but it’s not considered best practice,” he said.

Durand will draw up a report for the OAS in about three weeks detailing his observations on referendum day. He will incorporate what he learned about a month ago on a fact-finding mission to Costa Rica.

He came away from that trip intrigued.

“I know Costa Rica pretty well,” he said.

“I was quite surprised to see how polarized it is.”


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