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Trade-Pact Opponents Petition for Referendum

They came to the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) in downtown San José waving Costa Rican flags and wearing T-shirts that said “Death to CAFTA.”

A small group of poets, business owners, academics and administrators marched on the Tribunal Tuesday and turned in 500 signatures requesting a non-binding referendum of the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

The display of support for a referendum came this week as union leaders announced a nationwide anti-CAFTA campaign this weekend that includes planned protests to coincide with Independence Day celebrations today, according to Ricardo Segura, a member of the National Coordinator of the Fight against CAFTA, a group created to organize protests against the controversial trade pact as it is being discussed in the Legislative Assembly.

Costa Rica is the only Central American Central America country that has signed the trade pact but not ratified it.

A group of about a dozen civic activists calling themselves “Patriotic Convergence” presented the signatures to the TSE Tuesday, bringing the total number of petition signatures in favor of a referendum to 900, according to Fernando Solie, who presented the signatures to TSE.

The referendum, which was officially requested last week (TT, Sept. 8), would be non-binding – meaning it wouldn’t hold any legal bearing nor would it require any institution to take any action. The recently passed referendum law states referendums cannot be held on issues that deal with taxation or fiscal matters. However, that didn’t keep the possibility of a CAFTA referendum from being discussed in the past (TT, March 11, 2005)

“The country is dangerously polarized. There will be more violence if the people can’t express themselves,” said Solie, a former Vice-Minister of Culture and National Liberation Party (PLN) member.

The group decried a lack of social dialogue about the pact, and said the agreement would encourage foreign-run monopolies in Costa Rica.

“A North American corporation will come, and they can work three years without making any profits. I can’t go without profits for a month,” said Flora Fernández, who runs a small, family-owned, 101-year-old watch store in San José.

“Once they become settled in a community, small businesses go broke. When small businesses disappear, they raise the prices,” she added.

Héctor Fernández, Electoral Program Coordinator for the TSE, said a magistrate will have to decide whether the Tribunal will organize the solicited referendum.

He said the TSE would likely have no problem overseeing a non-binding referendum.

“But to organize it and fund it? We’ll have to see if there’s a legal basis for that,” he said.

Meanwhile, anti-CAFTA camps continued their battle plans. The National Coordinator of the Fight against CAFTA planned to send members to Cartago, the colonial capital east of San José, to hand out anti-CAFTA flyers outside the administration’s special Cabinet meeting to kick off Independence Day celebrations last night, according to Segura.

Today, the group planned to protest in San José, and Saturday, regional branches of the group will distribute anti-CAFTA flyers in Perez Zeledón, in the Southern Zone, parts of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and San Carlos in north-central Costa Rica.

Jorge Coronado, director of the National Social Network, said anti-CAFTA groups planning to march in downtown San José during today’s Independence Day celebrations will protest in a non-violent, “civil” manner against “the big-business sector that has CAFTA as its main tool.”

A march will begin in the center of San José and end at the Plaza de la Democracia at noon with a “cultural festival against CAFTA,”which will include a music concert, Coronado said.

Mauricio Álvarez, of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), said environmentalists protesting CAFTA will meet this morning at 9 a.m. at the Carlos Monge Library at the University of Costa Rica, in the eastern San José district of San Pedro, and ride bicycles to the Parque Central, in downtown San Jose, arriving at 10 a.m. From there, they will follow various parades through the city and distribute leaflets about what Álvarez called CAFTA’s “environmental dangers.”

According to organizers, today’s protests will begin a “heated” period of anti-CAFTA campaigning planned throughout the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias told the national press Sunday that “Costa Rica cannot give itself the luxury of turning its back on CAFTA, and I’m sure it will not do that.”

Arias added that the agreement, which he hopes will be ratified by December, “does not offer certainties, but opportunities” and added “a country that lets opportunities pass it by out of fear … is a country condemned to stay in the past.”



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