On Oct. 26, The Tico Times hosted its first live online chat with University of Costa Rica (UCR) political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís. Readers visited www.ticotimes.net and logged on to ask him questions about how the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) could change Costa Rica.
We plan to make live chats with expert guests a monthly feature at www.ticotimes.net. The next chat will be Nov. 30 at 10 a.m. with Tico Times columnist Kate Galante.
She’ll answer questions about the Spanish language, cross-cultural matters and English education in Costa Rica.
Here are excerpts from the chat with Solís:
First, what is your stance on CAFTA? Did you support it in the nationwide referendum last month?
I opposed CAFTA and continue to do so. In my opinion, this free-trade agreement imposes a number of inconvenient demands on Costa Rica and ultimately threatens its possibilities to continue developing in a context of fair and equitable social and political relations.
I do not oppose free trade per se, but think CAFTA goes far beyond a conventional understanding of what a treaty in this field entails. The significant asymmetries that already exist between the United States and Central America will increase as a result of CAFTA and this will have a direct and lasting impact on the region’s development.
Now that Costa Ricans have voted in favor of CAFTA, how soon is it likely to go into effect?
It will take a while. You ought to remember that in order for CAFTA to go into effect, the country has to approve 11 so-called “implementation” laws (including several treaties) that require 38 votes – a qualified majority – in the Legislative Assembly.
My guess is that the official bloc will do as much as it can to expedite the approval of these laws, but even then it will take several months before all the legal and constitutional consultations take place. I am sure that the intention of the Costa Rican government and its legislators is to have everything in place by March 1, 2008.
How has the referendum changed democracy in Costa Rica? Do Costa Ricans no longer have faith in the Legislative Assembly, and will there be more referendums to come on big issues like CAFTA?
Costa Rican democracy has been changing for at least the past two decades. CAFTA has only accelerated this transition from the so-called “Welfare State” model into something else, probably resembling a more open, less compassionate system where the market is not as regulated as one would wish in a modern capitalistic context such as the United States or Western Europe.
At any rate, my impression is that the changes brought upon the country by the referendum and in more general terms, by CAFTA, have deepened citizen awareness but also have raised very serious concerns regarding the capacity of state legal institutions (such as the Supreme Elections Tribunal or the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court) to operate fairly for all the parties involved.
This de-legitimating of institutions that used to be regarded as fair judges of political relations in the country has been furthered by a widespread sensation that political parties are no longer responding to their traditional functions.
Public and private corruption as well as mistrust toward the political elite are also pretty much central to the country’s contemporary political debate. CAFTA therefore, cannot be blamed for all of these dysfunctions.
Yet, it is now part of the country’s political reality and in my view its approval has only worsen the trends of political disarray Costa Rica has had for a number of years.
There was a huge opposition movement to CAFTA. Are we likely to see future freetrade agreements met with the same level of opposition?
I surely hope so.Again, it is not a question of opposing free trade altogether (although I personally wish we could develop more and better fair-trade practices in the future), but to ensure that whatever free-trade agreements we have are more equitable and safeguard some of our vital political and social interests.
The opposition to CAFTA is larger than CAFTA.Most of us are not satisfied with the current state of affairs in the country nor are convinced that the unrestrained reign of the free market will suffice to take care of most of our people’s needs. Thus, above and beyond CAFTA we are likely to continue pressing for large-scale economic and political reforms, as it is has been the case in many democratic countries everywhere.
Why do you think there was a change in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, which supported Arias in the presidential election but didn’t support CAFTA? Do you think it is related to the fact that areas where there are many foreigners (Garabito, Quepos, Guanacaste) saw “no”win?
Yes. In many ways Guanacaste is how Costa Rica will look if CAFTA is successful.
As you probably know, the province of Guanacaste is the one with the highest percapita investment ratio in the country, but also one of the poorest in human development terms. This is the result of bad planning, public and private corruption, lack of reasonable but strict environmental regulations and an economic model that does not privilege public-private associations to ensure a better distribution of wealth and the benefits of economic prosperity. My impression is that guanacastecos voted against CAFTA because deep inside they know that this is not a good road for the rest of the country to follow.
It may be more complicated than that, but it is clear to me that the Guanacaste example remains a very relevant testcase that Costa Rica should use to prevent some very negative impacts from CAFTA in the future.