Beginning a process that nearly every Costa Rican leader says is essential, President-elect Oscar Arias and his main opponent Ottón Solís held their first, much anticipated meeting last Friday.
At center stage was the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). The spotlight was kept on the controversial agreement this week as Arias continued dialogue with outgoing President Abel Pacheco.
Both Arias and Solís called their discussion very respectful and said it is the first of many conversations to come over the next four years between the leaders and their respective parties, the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Citizen Action Party (PAC).
Not surprisingly, little progress was made in finding a common path to address CAFTA, the most divisive issue that separated the two candidates in the Feb. 5 election. Following the two-hour meeting March 24, Solís told the press he was disappointed that Arias was not serious about renegotiating CAFTA, as a letter sent by Arias to Solís earlier this month had suggested, according to Solís. In the letter, Arias invites Solís to go to WashingtonD.C. with future vice-presidents Kevin Casas and Laura Chinchilla to explore the possibility of renegotiating CAFTA (TT, March 24).
As he stood on Arias front porch, with the President-elect a few feet away, Solís called this offer a joke.
Arias, a former President (1986-1990) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, responded to the press that the invitation is not a joke, and that he would like Solís to hear what he has been told by officials in Washington about the possibility of renegotiation.
Republicans, Democrats, common friends, people from the White House, those in favor of CAFTA, those against, have all said the options Costa Rica has are to approve CAFTA or reject it. But they have no interest in renegotiating, Arias said.
To further drive home this point, Tuesday Arias released to the press a letter he received from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman in which Portman reminds Arias that it is not possible to renegotiate CAFTA at this point as was suggested during the campaign.
The CAFTA-DR embodies a carefully drafted balance of benefits reflecting collective negotiating efforts and interests of seven governments including Costa Rica. As you know, the legislatures of six of those governments have already approved the agreement s terms. It cannot be reopened now, the letter, dated March 14, states.
The letter also reminds Arias that Costa Rica has only two years from the March 1, 2006, entry-into-force date to complete the ratification and implementation process or be left out of the pact.
Pacheco and Arias also touched on CAFTA during their lunch meeting Monday to discuss the transfer of power May 8. In a press conference following the meeting, Arias championed CAFTA saying bilateral trade agreements are currently the best way to manage globalization because multilateral trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been paralyzed by rich countries refusing to give up their unjust agricultural subsidies.
During the press conference, Arias and Pacheco were vague on the specifics of their conversation. For the most part, they said they discussed future meetings between their ministers to facilitate the transfer of power, a process Pacheco said will be completely transparent. They also discussed the pending Legislative Assembly agenda and which bills will be priorities during the current legislators final month in office.
Arias said no concrete conclusions were drawn, and Vice-President Lineth Saborío will meet with the heads of legislative factions to determine this agenda.
During their meeting last week, Arias and Solís agreed on the need to return governability to Costa Rica and said continued dialogue is fundamental to this. They also discussed the legislative bill to reform the country s tax system, which last week received setbacks from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV). Both parties support tax reforms and Solís said PAC legislators will likely approve a new bill, drafted by Arias, however it must also include greater fiscal austerity on the part of the government.
Solís said PAC legislators also support a Liberation proposal to increase education spending to 8% of the GDP, from the current 6%.
The former opponents also discussed offering affordable credits to farmers, combating poverty and improving the legislative process.
We talked about how being internationally competitive depends less on free-trade agreements and more on infrastructure, education, social peace of a country, dialogue, macroeconomic equilibrium and the elimination of corruption, Solís said.
Political analysts have stressed the need for dialogue between the two leaders in order for the country to move forward (TT, March 10).
The agreements are greater than the disagreements and we will begin by working with the things we agree on, Arias said. It s the only way to move a country forward.
Arias also met last week with Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang, who presented him with a copy of the Half-Century Plan for Science and Technology, a strategy developed by Chang and other national scientists to improve scientific research in Costa Rica. Chang urged Arias to increase government investment in science and technology.