Birth control and free trade… Are any subjects more controversial? The news that President Oscar Arias discussed these two topics during a recent meeting with the Pope has triggered divided reactions – ranging from outrage to approval – in a country whose population is mostly Catholic.
Arias, who met with Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican City Secretary of State Angelo Sodano in separate meetings June 16, said he expressed his support for free trade, contraceptive methods and disarmament during the meeting, part of a two-week visit to Europe (TT, June 9,16).
Arias said that during his discussion on free trade with Sodano, the religious leader offered to send a letter to Costa Rica’s Church leaders expressing his position in favor of this type of market.
“I did not ask him to send the letter. It was his suggestion, his initiative – I told him it would help a great deal. But it would also help if he picked up the phone and talked to our bishops,” Arias said.
The President said Monday the Holy See was not specific regarding whether it supports the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), or free trade in general. Arias, an outspoken CAFTA supporter, has said he hopes to get the controversial pact ratified within months. Costa Rica is the only signatory country that has not yet approved CAFTA; the controversial pact has prompted heated discussion, massive protest marches and big promotion campaigns here.
Debate regarding the Vatican’s supposed support of free trade sent Costa Rican Church leaders and President Arias scrambling yesterday to clarify their positions.
San José Archbishop Hugo Barrantes said Costa Rica’s Episcopal Conference, which groups the Church’s leaders, sent a letter to Sodano clarifying its position on CAFTA.
Barrantes said the Catholic Church here has taken a “position of respect” regarding CAFTA, issuing an ethical, rather than technical, judgment on the agreement.
“We do not opt for a concrete yes or no response,” he said.
The three-page letter, of which The Tico Times has a copy, says Costa Rican bishops “have never opposed policies of economic development that include legitimate social development.”
The letter states that if the Legislative Assembly approves CAFTA, the pact’s complementary agenda is absolutely essential; and if Costa Rican lawmakers reject the pact, alternative measures are necessary.
At a press conference soon after, President Arias said he agreed with the bishops.
“This is a political issue that should be decided in the assembly, period,” Arias said. He insisted he did not ask Vatican officials to intervene in CAFTA.
“How could the Vatican, or anyone, opine on a free-trade agreement they are not familiar with?” he asked, apparently contradicting what he said Monday.
CAFTA supporter Lynda Solar, executive director of the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), welcomed Arias’ free-trade discussion at the Vatican.
“I don’t see why the topic of free trade should be taboo at the Vatican,” Solar said, adding, “If the Pope is in agreement (with free trade) and if they offered to send a letter, well, then it’s welcome.”
Anti-CAFTA union leaders responded to the news by sending their own letter to Sodano explaining their stance against the U.S. trade pact.
Union leaders gave the letter, which expresses “repudiation for those who, with a not-very-constructive aim, try to manipulate” the Church, to nuncio Osvaldo Padilla during a meeting Wednesday at the Apostolic Nunciature, the equivalent of a Vatican embassy.
Opposition leader Otton Solís, who heads the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and maintains CAFTA should be renegotiated, told The Tico Times he prefers to wait until a letter arrives from the Vatican before commenting on the subject.
In downtown San José, an informal Tico Times poll suggests many people are not informed about Arias’ visit to the Vatican.
Of nine people questioned Wednesday, only one had heard of Arias’ discussion with the Pope on free trade, and none knew of the conversation about birth control.
“I don’t know what the Pope has to do with CAFTA,” said Ivonne Aguilar, a 27-year old public accounting student.
Taboo Subject Raised
Arias told journalists Monday, the day after his return to Costa Rica, that expressing his support of contraceptive methods as a way to combat overpopulation and sexually transmitted diseases was not an attempt to change Roman Catholic officials’ views, but merely to “exchange perceptions.”
“The position of the Church (against birth control) is known, it is not going to change… What is important to me is that the general clamor be heard. The Church should consider being more flexible in the control of birth rates,” Arias said.
The President, who said it is important the Church “know what one thinks on the topic,” said while approximately 6.4 billion humans populate the world today, in 45 years they may have multiplied to more than 9 billion, most of them in developing countries.
“Governments, as you all know, do not have the resources to educate these people.
Therefore… we are condemning poor countries to continue being poor. The Church has significant responsibility in that,” Arias said.
Although some activists view Arias’ discussion on contraceptives at the Vatican in a favorable light, others expressed concern about the way he broached the controversial topic.
Paola Brenes, a representative of the Colectiva por el Derecho a Decidir (Pro-Choice Association), said separating the topic of birth control from that of rights, as Arias did in his discussion with the Pope, poses great danger.
Member Adriana Maroto stressed the importance of people being able to make their own decisions about sexuality and reproduction, saying that right is much more significant than Arias’ population-control argument, and should not depend on the Vatican.
Others, such as Richard Stern, director of the San José-based Agua Buena Human Rights Association, a non-governmental organization that promotes the rights of HIV-AIDS patients in Central America and the Dominican Republic, congratulated Arias on his discussion with the Pope.
“I would like to see Oscar Arias continue with his position. He must tell the bishops here,” Stern told The Tico Times, stressing that “it is not the bishops and priests who are dying of HIV-AIDS” although they are the ones opposing condom use.
Doctor Guiselle Lucas, coordinator of the Public Health Ministry’s project to strengthen Costa Rica’s response to HIVAIDS, said a prevention campaign that focuses on condom use will run in Costa Rica until November.
The campaign, which started in March, includes TV, radio and magazine advertisements, and calls for monogamy in couples, abstinence and correct condom use, according to Lucas, who declined to comment on Arias’ contraceptive discussion with the Pope.
Archbishop Barrantes limited his comments about birth control to the observation that the Holy See commonly discusses “difficult topics” with heads of state.