WHILE the highly polemic debate over the CentralAmerican Free-Trade Agreement with the United States(CAFTA) has reached legislative hallways, editorialpages, city streets and university classrooms, it mayfinally arrive where many people have said it hasbelonged all along: in the hands of the voting public.Legislators, labor unions and business leadershave reached a rare consensus in the CAFTA debate,agreeing to put the question of whether the trade pactshould be approved here to referendum.The agreement may have come too late, however.FOR a public vote to be possible, the LegislativeAssembly would have to act fast, according to OscarFonseca, president of the Supreme ElectionsTribunal (TSE).“The enemy is time,” he said, explaining that referendumscannot take place six months before or sixmonths after presidential elections. The next suchelection is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2006.Overcoming the various legal and administrativehurdles to holding a referendum before August willbe a challenge, Fonseca added.Although calls for a public vote have been madesince last year, a CAFTA referendum was not officiallyproposed until last week by the LibertarianMovement Party.OTTO Guevara, Libertarian presidential candidate,said Tuesday the assembly has about 15 days todecide and act on his party’s proposal, which suggests July 31 for a nationwide election.This may be a challenge for the assembly,which has been criticized for its slowpace. However, representatives from variouspolitical parties have made the samecomment: “If there is political will, thereis a way.”Legislators from all the major politicalparties have come forward in favor of a referendum.In addition, the NationalAssociation of Public and PrivateEmployees (ANEP), which has led publicprotest against CAFTA, has expressed supportfor the referendum, as has the CostaRican-American Chamber of Commerce(AmCham), which has actively promotedthe trade pact.EVEN President Abel Pacheco thisweek said it is a possibility.Both proponents and opponents alsoexpress confidence the public will votetheir way.However, according to a recent poll byCID-Gallup in the daily La República,56% of those polled said they know “nothing”regarding CAFTA.Increasing the public’s awareness andknowledge of CAFTA – both the pros andcons – is of fundamental importance tomaking a referendum work, according tounion leader Albino Vargas, secretary generalof ANEP.His organization has placed conditionson their support of a referendum, includingguarantees of a national debate that reachesall corners of the country; equal televisionand radio time and print space for proponentsand opponents; and transparencyof financing of all campaigns.CAMPAIGNING for and againstCAFTA has existed for more than a year.ANEP has led marches in the streets andother unions have published anti-CAFTAmaterial.With or without a referendum,AmCham General Manager Lynda Solarsaid the productive sector is preparing tolaunch a counterattack in support ofCAFTA.Through an AmCham program, asmany as 6,000 workers a week in privatecompanies will be educated on “the importanceof CAFTA for them, for their jobs,and for the future of the country,” she said.Though AmCham supports a referendum,Solar has doubts it can be done intime, “so that it is legal, and binding andspecific,” she said.AMCHAM and other CAFTA proponentssay time is running out. El Salvadorratified the treaty in December andHonduras followed suit last week. Once theU.S. Congress ratifies the agreement, it willgo into effect in those countries. Solar saidshe is confident U.S. President George W.Bush will send it to Congress before July.Legislators in Guatemala andNicaragua are discussing the free-tradeagreement.In Guatemala, rocks and bottles werethrown in protests outside the country’sparliament Wednesday, while legislatorsinside approved CAFTA 84-15 in the firstof three required votes. Protestorsexpressed their discontent that theGuatemalan government had not held areferendum on CAFTA in that country.THE possibility of CAFTA movingforward in Costa Rica, where the pact hasyet to be officially submitted to Congress,was aided this week as lawmakers finallypassed the so-called fast-track bill, whichallows the assembly to speed up certainlegislative procedures deemed of nationalimportance.This could mean discussion will moveforward on the long-debated fiscal reformplan, after which Pacheco has said he willsend CAFTA to the assembly.“So a referendum may not be necessaryor even prudent in that respect,” Solar said,“because we think we have enough votesin Congress to get it approved.”An investigation by the daily LaRepública suggested 30 legislators wouldvote in favor of CAFTA, 17 against andfive would approve it if laws were made tostrengthen the National Insurance Institute(INS) and the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute (ICE), which run the state insuranceand telecommunications monopoliesthat would be opened by CAFTA. Five legislatorssaid they are undecided.HOW a referendum on CAFTA isworded and presented to the public for votecould make an enormous difference,according to both CAFTA proponents andopponents.Ombudsman José Manuel Echandimaintains presenting CAFTA in its entiretyto voters is against the law. Material relatedto financial matters and taxation is notallowed to go to referendum, he said.Echandi proposes presenting a referendumthat specifies only whether the voterssupport the controversial opening of thecountry’s insurance and telecommunicationsmonopolies under CAFTA.The Libertarian Movement’s Guevaraobjects vehemently to presenting a referendumas such.“The treaty as a whole should bebrought to referendum. It does not includefinancial material. Let the Sala IV(Constitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt) decide if it does,” he said.“Putting strictly the issue of openingthe insurance monopoly or opening thetelecommunications monopoly to vote is avery partial way. What happens if somebodysays, I support opening insurance, butI don’t support opening cell phones tocompetition?” he continued.WHILE ironing out the details for aCAFTA referendum could be a challenge,exacerbating the time crunch is the realitythat Costa Rica has never held a referendumon a national level, at least not within recenthistory, and has no experience doing so, TSEpresident Fonseca told The Tico Times.Referendums were not allowed hereuntil 2001, when a constitutional reformwas passed. An accompanying law regulatingand instructing how referendums mustoperate has never passed, despite the factthat such a law of instructions was requiredwithin one year of the reform.The Ombudsman’s office filed a lawsuitlast November before the Sala IV,objecting to the assembly’s failure to create a law of regulating referendums.The Sala IV orderedlegislators to act fast,Ombudsman Echandiexplained. They haven’t,and this transgressionhas caused some todoubt the possibility of areferendum taking placebefore the Aug. 5 deadline.The NationalCouncil of Rectors(CONARE), with thehelp of internationalexperts, has written adocument delineatinghow referendums couldoperate and be regulated.The document –described as “apolitical”and the result of aninter-institutional commission– could be presentedto the LegislativeAssembly any time legislatorsare ready, CONARE director JoséAndres Masis said.This proposal is not specific to a referendumon CAFTA.GUEVARA believes the assemblyshould instead concern itself with a law specificto a CAFTA referendum. Such a lawwould have to be explicitly clear and bindingfor legislators to ratify the treaty or not,based on voters’ desires, Fonseca said.After whichever referendum law isapproved in first debate, it is likely itwould be sent to the Sala IV to review itsconstitutionality, Guevara said. The SalaIV has one month for review. If it isdeemed constitutional, it will move on tosecond debate. If approved in second vote,the law must be signed by the President,then published in the official governmentnewspaper La Gaceta.Once it is published, the ElectionsTribunal could begin the arduous task ofplanning an election. Doing so in two orthree months would be difficult, Fonsecasaid.“If it gets to us and we don’t have time,we would just have to tell legislators no,”he said. “If we can’t do it right, we are notgoing to do it.Fonseca could not comment on howmuch a referendum might cost.