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Trade-Pact Opponents Speak Out

IT had all the makings of a classic Costa Rican antitrade-pact march: handmade banners, familiar chantsthrough megaphones, and a giant papier-mâché caterpillarwith sharp fangs and an Uncle Sam hat.However, the April 14 protest of the Central AmericanFree-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), aswell as other anti-CAFTA events held last week, were differentfrom previous efforts. Now that Costa Rica is one ofonly two Central American countries that have not ratifiedthe agreement – Nicaragua is the other, along with theUnited States and the Dominican Republic – leaders hereare organizing their efforts in unprecedented ways, bothnationally and internationally.Last week, after informal discussion of CAFTA beganin the U.S. Congress (TT, April 15), the pact’s opponentshere held not only the protest march, but also a social summitand a meeting at the Legislative Assembly that includedCAFTA critics from the national legislatures of CentralAmerican countries and the United States. In the works forMay are regional and national protests and a CentralAmerica-wide summit to be held in San José.DANIEL Brito, a participant in the April 15 assemblymeeting and a legislative assistant to U.S. CongressmanRaúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, said increasedcommunication between countries considering CAFTA iscrucial to end what he described as “a race to the bottom.”“The important thing now is just to stop the stampede toward CAFTA,” he told The Tico Timesafter the meeting with legislators fromGuatemala, El Salvador, Honduras,Nicaragua and Costa Rica. “Our concern isto make it clear that it’s not at all a surething in the United States. In fact, the oddsare against it.”If CAFTA were brought to a vote todayin the United States – which must ratify theagreement for it to take effect with theCentral American countries that havepassed it to date, and any other signatorycountries that follow – “I am certain itwould fail by at least 40 votes,” Brito said.ASKED how much political capitalU.S. President George W. Bush, who hasyet to send CAFTA to Congress, appearswilling to spend on the trade pact’sapproval, Brito said, “I think he’s in debt.It’s arguable whether he even had anycoming out of the election.”The U.S. President’s goal of privatizingSocial Security is “the most difficult thinghe could do in American politics” and willdistract from the free-trade agreement,Brito added.According to Brito, the pro-CAFTAlobby has played different countries againsteach other to build momentum toward theagreement’s passage. Supporters such asU.S. Embassy representatives have assuredCentral American countries of rapid ratificationin the United States, precipitatingCAFTA’s passage in El Salvador, Guatemalaand Honduras, he said. In turn, lobbyists inWashington have used those countries’ supportas a pro-CAFTA argument before theU.S. Congress.“Both sides end up being bamboozledinto something they weren’t very positiveabout,” he added.FURTHER discussion of CAFTA inCosta Rica by representatives of the U.S.Congress will take place next week when acongressional delegation visits Costa Rica.Thirteen members of the House ofRepresentatives – one of the largest U.S.congressional delegations ever to visitCosta Rica, according to a statement fromthe Costa Rican-American Chamber ofCommerce (AmCham) – will attend variousevents including an AmChamExecutive Breakfast Monday at the HotelReal Intercontinental in Escazú. Call 220-2200 for more information.U.S. Embassy spokeswoman ElaineSamson told The Tico Times that althoughshe is not able to release specific details ofthe representatives’ agenda in Costa Rica, thegroup includes both Democrats and Republicans,CAFTA opponents and supporters.THE Central American legislators whoparticipated in the meeting at the assembly,organized by the Costa Rican social andpolitical network Popular Encounter, criticizedtheir governments for negotiating –and, in the case of El Salvador, Hondurasand Guatemala, ratifying – CAFTA withoutpublic input.Hugo Martínez, a legislator of ElSalvador’s Farabundo Martí NationalLiberation Front (FMLN), said the agreementwas ratified in his country through “atotally anti-democratic procedure.”According to Martínez, Salvadoran leaders’hope that the United States would supportformer Salvadoran President FranciscoFlores’ bid to lead the Organizationof American States (OAS) helped motivatetheir decision to support CAFTA.Flores has since withdrawn from therace (TT, April 15).OPPONENTS also voiced complaintsabout a lack of popular involvement inCAFTAnegotiations, which took place primarilyin 2003 – Costa Rica was the lastCentral American nation to conclude itsnegotiations, in January 2004 – at theNational Social Summit, a four-hour meetingheld April 14 at the Melico SalazarTheater in downtown San José.Outside the theater, college students,union leaders and other faithful activistsfrom previous protests were in abundance, but inside, some atypical participants tookto the stage.Carlos Campos, a member of the Pro-Costa Rica Business Chamber, spoke froma business executive’s perspective.Like other speakers, he said the agreement“was negotiated behind the backs ofCosta Ricans,” will create low-quality jobsand force Costa Ricans to import productsthey could grow at home.The businessman also criticized theagreement’s potential to strip businessleaders in Costa Rica of their freedom tomake decisions free of U.S. influence.“In any developed country, you’ll seean autonomous business class that canmake its own decisions to benefit its owncountry,” he said.A string of other speakers from a varietyof backgrounds, such as former CostaRican President Rodrigo Carazo (1978-1982), took the stage one by one to delineatestrategies for CAFTA’s defeat.Speakers rebutted accusations that theiropposition to CAFTA comes from ignorance– claims which, according to thespeakers, have been made by the mainstreammedia and neo-liberal politicians.They said they have factual evidence fortheir arguments that CAFTA will stimulatewealth only for the rich, at the expense ofCosta Rica’s farmers and small businesses.THE presence a diverse group ofspeakers at a genre of protest that, in thepast, has been dominated by environmentaland labor leaders, represented the turningof a new leaf in CAFTA opposition, laborleader Albino Vargas told The Tico Times.Vargas, the secretary general of theNational Association of Public and PrivateEmployees (ANEP), said such oppositionwill not end until CAFTA is defeated.“If (President Abel) Pacheco sendsCAFTA to the Legislative Assembly, thatvery day we will begin an indefinite generalstrike,” Vargas said.Pacheco has stated he will not sendCAFTA to the assembly until legislatorspass a tax reform bill, and until he is surethe agreement will benefit poor CostaRicans as well as the rich. Despite pressurefrom private-sector leaders who say hisposition endangers Costa Rica’s economicfuture, the President has refused to budge.ONCE the April 14 forum ended,shortly after 5 p.m., and the hundreds ofprofessionals, teachers, students andenvironmentalists left the theater, theyjoined those outside and a more typicalanti-CAFTA protest ensued. At least 400protesters marched from the theater upAve. 2 to the Legislative Assembly,where they presented a declaration tolawmakers.The document, signed during the precedingmeeting, included plans for regionaland national protests on May 1 and 16,as well as a Central America-wide summitto be held in Costa Rica May 27-29.To Brito, the march last week is anexample of visible activism in Costa Ricathat could make an impression abroad.“It’s interesting: Costa Rica has a reputation…of being relatively stable,” he said.“Still, you could see a lot of action on thestreet, a lot of dissent.”(Tico Times reporter Rebecca Kimitch contributedto this report.)


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