San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Protestors Disrupt Legislative Assembly

Congressional leaders took extra security measures this week in response to increasing hostility from protestors, who were posting signs, shouting and making obscene gestures in the assembly’s wings.

Executive Director of the Legislative Assembly, Antonio Ayales, met with Vice- Minister of Public Security Rafael Gutiérrez Tuesday to seek support should the conflict escalate. Ayales has also restricted access to the assembly building and asked guards to be extra careful in checking bags and identification cards.

The protestors oppose 11 laws being debated in Congress to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which was approved in a referendum Oct. 7. Under assembly rules, the public is allowed to sit or stand behind a glass pane to watch or protest the legislative process.

Anti-CAFTA protestors have become more aggressive since the referendum, Ayales said.

They have made obscene hand gestures and taunted female legislators from the assembly’s wings. Events escalated last week when a protestor entered the main building and started insulting legislators,Ayales said.He responded by restricting public access to the main building.

He also asked the Public Security Ministry for four extra security officials to complement the Legislative Assembly’s 55 guards.

Tension mounted this week over the signs the protestors pasted to the glass window.

Some signs attacked individual legislators, while others denounced “savage capitalism” and warned, “don’t sell yourself.” Tuesday, Jorge Eduardo Sánchez from the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and José Manuel Echandi from the National Union Party (PUN) posted signs on the other side of the glass, directed at the protestors. They read: “Costa Rica and its democracy won Oct. 7,” and “Who pays you to be here?”

“The gentlemen of this assembly have not risen to defend ourselves from the gestures they make and the vulgarities they say about female legislators,” Sánchez shouted angrily while shaking his fist on the legislative floor Tuesday.

The acting president of the Legislative Assembly, José Angel Ocampo, who is sitting in for an ill Francisco Antonio Pacheco of the National Liberation Party (PLN), tried to diffuse tension by ordering all signs to be taken down on both sides of the glass.

“We are living in a dictatorship in its utmost form,” cried Kenneth Sánchez, a salesman who was protesting in the wings.

Ayales said Congress does not have the manpower to protect legislators if protests escalate. With rotating shifts, only about 15 security officials man the building at any given time. But he said the Public Security Ministry would step in to help.

“They say that any time we need help, they will come immediately,” Ayales said. “Things could get complicated…the situation is a little tense.”

Patent Law Hits Hurdle

Legislators began considering 943 motions this week to change a patent law that would help implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

Under CAFTA and according to a 1991 international agreement, Costa Rica must pass a law that would give the developers of new seed varieties the exclusive right to market them for up to 25 years (TT, March 30).

The motions were proposed by legislators who oppose CAFTA: José Merino from the Broad Front Party, Oscar López from the Access without Exclusion Party (PASE) and legislators from the Citizen Action Party (PAC). Citizen Action legislators claim they are trying to improve the law, while pro-CAFTA legislators have accused them of obstructionism.

“I think there has been direct obstruction,” Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said. “For small bills like this one, a thousand motions are completely unrealistic… it’s clear that there is interest in delaying this bill’s passage.”

The law’s supporters say it would encourage investment in new plant varieties and increase their supply.

Opponents argue that natural resources – unlike, say, machines – should not be assigned ownership.

Motions are usually a significant drag on the legislative process, but the patent law counts on a fast-track process that limits debate. The Agriculture, Fishing and Natural Resources Commission has just four sessions to vote on the motions after discussing as many as time allows. The bill then goes to the full assembly, where real debate is limited to 22 sessions.

Last month, Citizen Action legislators told President Oscar Arias in a meeting that they would not filibuster laws required to implement CAFTA. That worried Rolando Araya, a former presidential candidate and outspoken CAFTA opponent. But when the party started presenting motions, he said he was content.

“They said one thing, but they are fighting” the implementation agenda, he said. “I was worried, but now I’m happy.”


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