San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Trejos: Uniting the Left Against Inequality

Following in the footsteps of other leaders in a movement spreading throughout Latin America, Eugenio Trejos is attempting to weave together Costa Rica’s left-leaning political groups, hoping to inspire a grassroots revolution for change.

Trejos – campaigning for president in the February 2010 elections under the banner of the fledgling Frente Amplio Party – is calling for greater economic equality, an intensified fight against poverty and renunciation of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

Costa Rica needs a change, says the 50-year-old economist and rector of the Costa Rican Institute of Technology in Cartago, east of San José. But he doesn’t want the kind of change that emphasizes foreign investment and greater economic returns for the wealthy.

Trejos said he seeks a grassroots change – led by the people and not by politicians – that focuses on aiding minorities, single mothers, the poverty-stricken and the jobless.

Trejos, a father of three and resident of Heredia, north of San José, recently met with The Tico Times to discuss his campaign and his vision.

TT: How is the campaign going?

ET: We began the campaign with much energy. This is the first time Frente Amplio has participated in a presidential campaign. The party was born only five years ago and has participated at the level of the province of San José, bringing legislator José Merino to the Legislative Assembly.

We are campaigning for the opportunity to bring people who live outside of politics into office – businessmen, academics. … Only in this way will we be able to restore citizens’ faith in politics. We are offering an alternative proposal … in which the move towards further development is inclusive, unified, respectful of human rights and conscious of the environment.

Such a mission is challenging for an emerging party like ours because – even with the recent electoral reforms – access to mediums of communication is insufficient. Costa Rica is becoming a silent democracy – one where only those with access to money have a voice.

Our strategy is the same we used for the anti-CAFTA campaign, which is a campaign of the people and for the people – one that is open, that addresses the issues (and) includes the participation of organizations and institutions.

What kind of change are you looking for?

The changes we are looking for are the same that are beginning to be proposed (by the left) all over Latin America, including in North America with United States President Barack Obama. We need to unite some of these initiatives and renegotiate free-trade agreements in all of Latin America, including our free-trade agreement with the United States.

One of those changes is that we are proposing that CAFTA be renounced. It was poorly negotiated, and it puts Costa Rica at a severe disadvantage.

But didn’t the people vote for CAFTA?

Yes, they did vote for it, but under pressure that we hadn’t before seen in the history of this country. This is evidenced in the famous fear memorandum from (former vice president) Kevin Casas and (then-legislator) Fernando Sánchez.

We saw all of the chambers and businesses here, which are the greatest benefactors of the treaty, launch intimidation campaigns against the workers and citizenry. There is evidence that some workers were forced to vote in favor of CAFTA. People from the U.S. Embassy and (Costa Rican President Oscar) Arias visited industrial and agricultural businesses, speaking in favor of CAFTA, inculcating fear into the workers. Those who didn’t agree lost their jobs.

In your opinion, have we seen negative effects of CAFTA?

Clearly. It started with the opening of the telecommunications industry, and it’s continuing with intellectual property rights. The impact on students will be huge. Thousands of people don’t have the money to buy (text) books … especially if students only need a few pages. Sometimes the books aren’t even on the market.

We are still in a grace period. But what is going to happen when we can no longer (sell) generic medicines? What impact is that going to have on the Social Security System? How will that impact prices for consumers?

We have yet to see the benefit of CAFTA. The promise of employment hasn’t been fulfilled. On the contrary, we have seen unemployment increase to levels higher than before CAFTA was signed.

You don’t think it’s the global economic crisis that is causing higher unemployment?

The crisis is a result of the implementation of this model. When more power and flexibility is given to businesses, we will have more and more of the wealth ending up in fewer hands. Costa Rica has more social inequality now than it had before.

We are a richer, more productive country, more competitive … but we are also more unequal. And we haven’t achieved a reduction in poverty. If a model produces growth, but destroys the environment or doesn’t reduce poverty, it doesn’t serve its purpose. This is what we are living, and this is what we want to change.

To what do you attribute the high level of development in Costa Rica compared to other Central American countries?

Some people attribute (the high level of development) to foreign investment. Yet, Costa Rica has had a high level of development compared to the rest of Central America since the 19th century, due in part to early implementation of free and obligatory primary education. We’ve also advanced due to the elimination of our army, the introduction of a labor code and our Social Security System. Costa Rica made a commitment to education, to health and quality of life, which wasn’t done in other Central American countries. Foreign investment did not create the difference. Foreign investment is necessary, but it is complimentary.

The (ruling) National Liberation Party committed a serious mistake (in relying on foreign investment as the only answer) and delegated all our strategic planning at the national level to the open market. This has placed our small- and medium-sized producers at a great disadvantage in competition with people from other countries.

After four years, what is your vision for the country?

In the first place, it is to reverse the initiatives that have hurt the country socially, and reverse the privatization of our institutions and public services. We want a regulated society in which businesses respect human rights and the environment. … We want the population to have access to clean water and higher salaries. We want to see more support of small-and medium-sized businesses. We want more employment. We want land that is in good condition to encourage production. We want people to be able to sell their produce both at the national level and the international level.

We are looking to strengthen our entrepreneurial programs and improve the laws governing businesses … to ensure that our producers are more efficient and have a high level of quality and environmental sustainability so that they can be competitive in the local climate.

Where would you get the money for all the things you want to do?

The money will come in an integral reform that involves more efficiency in taxation … and a system based on more solidarity where the people who have more, pay more, and the people who have less, pay less. The system is based on a true commitment to the people, in which we don’t give favors to anyone, no matter whom that person or business is. Those who receive favors have compromised their liberty. In Frente Amplio, we are free to serve.

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