For the second time this year, President Oscar Arias spoke out in favor of arms control abroad – this time, while presenting his Costa Rica Consensus disarmament proposal before the United Nations in New York Tuesday – while his opponents at home argued the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner is opening the door for weapons to be made in Costa Rica.
A decree signed by Arias and published Aug. 23 in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper, updates and simplifies existing regulations for business permits from the Public Health Ministry. An annex that categorizes commercial activities according to risk contains a section on the manufacturing of arms, including machine guns and heavy artillery, despite the fact that Costa Rica’s Arms Law prohibits the manufacture, possession, import or sale of these weapons.
The 1995 law does allow the manufacture of “permitted weapons” including non-automatic pistols and revolvers from 5.6 to 18.5 mm, semiautomatic pistols and revolvers up to 11.53 mm, rifles up to 18.5 mm, and sports and hunting guns. The Arias administration says a bill to ban the manufacture of all firearms is in the works.
According to legislator Ronald Solís, of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), including banned weapons in the decree contradicts Arias’ long-standing support of disarmament.
“The President has a tradition against weapons,” Solís told The Tico Times. “It’s been his theme, and it’s still his theme… (The annex) is an absolute contradiction.”
PAC contacted journalists to voice criticisms of the decree minutes before Arias addressed the U.N. General Assembly in a speech that called arms trade and increased military spending “offenses to the human condition.”
At press time, administration officials had not explained why illegal weapons were included in the decree’s annex. Casa Presidencial representatives first indicated that Foreign Trade Vice-Minister Amparo Pacheco would answer the question, then that Health Minister María Avila would do so.
Avila did not return Tico Times phone calls by press time, and Pacheco said in an email that the decree’s annex is based on the U.N. Classifications Registry, which, according to unstats.un.org, includes weapons from small guns to heavy weaponry. Asked whether Costa Rica could have omitted weapons on this list from the health-permit decree, Pacheco responded that countries are free to prohibit commercial activities in their laws, and that the activities mentioned in the current decree are the same ones mentioned in previous legislation.
Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, said that the decree is “normal” and those denouncing it are “distorting” the truth. He added that Executive Branch officials are working on a bill that would place additional limits on manufacturing weapons in Costa Rica.
Vice-President and Justice Minister Laura Chinchilla, a longtime opponent of weapons manufacturing, described this bill as she entered a celebration of World Peace Day at the National Culture Center (CENAC) yesterday in downtown San José. Though still under revision, the bill would most likely make manufacturing any type of firearm illegal in Costa Rica, as well as increasing sanctions for crimes committed with firearms, she said.
“Costa Rica has no reason to be producing arms,” the acting President told The Tico Times. She added that while the process of getting the bill ready to submit to the Legislative Assembly has been “slower than I’d hoped,” she thinks it will be ready within three or four weeks. The Tico Times did not get a chance to ask her about the weapons mentioned in the Aug. 23 decree.
As a legislator in 2004, Chinchilla proposed a ban on gun manufacturing here.
That year, Venezuelan arms distributors Michel and Gorka Ibáñez proposed a gun factory in the eastern province of Cartago, but discarded their plan after Chinchilla, then Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress – which President Arias founded with his Peace Prize money – and others opposed the idea (TT, Dec. 3, 2004).
What about CAFTA?
Legislator Solís said he believes the inclusion of arms manufacturers in the decree is a bow to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which Arias favors and PAC opposes. Debate over whether CAFTA would allow other countries to import illegal weapons to Costa Rica erupted in June, when Arias spoke in favor of disarmament before the International Labour Organization (TT, June 16).
Supporters of the trade agreement deny this assertion, saying that CAFTA does not prevent member countries from enforcing existing weapons bans, or enacting new bans after the trade pact takes effect. Vice-Minister Pacheco reiterated CAFTA has nothing to do with the decree.
Costa Rica’s 352-page CAFTA tariff schedule mentions rocket launchers, flame-throwers, grenade and torpedo launchers, cannons, sables, swords, bayonets and “arms of war.” In addition, Annex 3.2, in which Costa Rica and the other countries that signed the agreement with the United States in 2004 listed national legislation that would restrict imports or exports, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras included their national arms-control legislation. Costa Rica did not, mentioning only laws that control the import or export of crude oil, hydrocarbons, coffee, ethanol, bananas and certain types of wood.
CAFTA supporters say this doesn’t make any difference, and that it’s common for negotiators to set tariffs for a wide range of products even if some will probably never be traded by the signatories. The inclusion of tariffs for these products would not affect Costa Rica’s Law 7530, which bans certain weapons and empowers the Public Security to control the import of any weapons, according to Pacheco. She said the agreement’s only effect on the trade of weapons is that if the Public Security Ministry authorizes the import of arms permitted under Law 7530, such as pistols or revolvers, the current 15% tax on those products would be gradually eliminated.
However, Solís said the “just-in-case” logic for both CAFTA and the new decree sounds fishy.
“To me, it’s doubletalk,” he said. “If an activity is prohibited… the government has no reason to make a law to regulate it.”
During Arias’ first presidency (1986-1990), he authored the Central American Peace Plan in 1987, won the Nobel Prize as a result, and established the Arias Foundation, which advocates arms control.
In his second term, he has been working to drum up support for his Consensus, through which developed countries would restructure their aid schemes to reward developing countries that reduce their military spending.
He continued this drive at the United Nations Tuesday. His speech – which the quotation-happy leader sprinkled with the words of William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Orwell, John F. Kennedy,Aldous Huxley, and even himself in the 1980s – held up Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1948, as an example for the world.
“This is a road. . . we wish all humanity to follow,” he said.
He also asked member countries’ support for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that would prohibit arms sales to countries that violate human rights, among other controls. His U.S. tour began Saturday, when he visited the Peace Jam in Denver, Colorado, a conference that brought together young people and Nobel Peace Prize-winners to discuss issues such as violence and tolerance.
The President, Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruíz, and representatives of multinational companies with branches in Costa Rica, such as Hewlett Packard, also met Wednesday with business executives from 90 companies regarding investment opportunities in Costa Rica, according to a statement from Casa Presidencial.
This was his second visit to the United States in two weeks. He inaugurated the Americas Conference in Miami, Florida, a business and political forum, Sept. 13, but returned home for last week’s Independence Day celebrations before heading to Colorado.
He was scheduled to return to Costa Rica last night.