Claiming that tens of thousands of jobs are at stake, Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz this week appeared before legislators to have what appears to be the last word on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) before it hits the floor for debate.
Though Ruiz said President Oscar Arias’ goal of having the agreement ratified by December is feasible, opposition legislators say that is unlikely, and unions are once again shoring up support for what they say could be crippling anti-CAFTA protests later in the month.
A year after CAFTA was sent to the Legislative Assembly, and nearly 50 hearings and countless consultations later, the mammoth 2,000-page trade pact finally saw its last scheduled hearing in the International Affairs Commission Wednesday with Ruiz.
Fourteen years after Central American countries expressed interest in a free-trade agreement with the United States, possibly no other public policy has seen such a rigorous process of public information, consultation and political participation as CAFTA, according to Ruiz. And it hasn’t even been debated by lawmakers yet.
Ruiz said he hopes the trade pact will be sent to the floor for debate by November, though it is possible more hearings will be held beforehand.
Further behind CAFTA is an enormous implementation agenda that the United States is requiring Costa Rica to pass before the trade pact can go into effect.
Another Call for Protests
Leaders of Costa Rica’s Social Security System (Caja) Workers Union (UNDECA) met with reporters Tuesday to explain the union’s opposition to the U.S. free-trade agreement and to call for a two-day strike and protest against the trade pact Oct. 23-24.
“We want to make it clear what impact (CAFTA) will have,” said UNDECA Secretary Luis Echeverría.
UNDECA representatives explained that they fear the trade pact could boost costs for the Caja by extending international patents that could inhibit production of generic drugs; that the trade pact could mean job losses and a reduction in formal employment that could reduce the number of people covered under the system; and could threaten the socialized health-care system by opening the insurance sector to private competition.
Echeverría encouraged workers at the Caja – the nation’s second largest bureaucracy with 45,000 employees – to join in the upcoming protests.
The National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP) has been advertising the same protest, hailed as “The National Conference of the Fight against CAFTA.”
UNDECA and ANEP are two of the nation’s largest unions, with more than 20,000 affiliates combined.
Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator Alberto Salom’s attempt to get the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to send CAFTA back to day one of debate due to the fact that the official government newspaper La Gaceta did not print enough copies of the trade pact (TT, Aug. 11) was rejected this week by the high court.
However, fellow party member Elizabeth Fonseca said she will continue making requests for motions, though the commission has already rejected some 40 requests for motions from opposition legislators.
“We’ll be looking for issues that need to be expanded on and make motions for more hearings,” she told The Tico Times.
Fonseca said Ruiz’s estimate that the legislation could be sent to the floor by November is “impossible,” saying the assembly will have to take time to organize all the materials involved in processing the massive piece of legislation before discussion can start.
Broad Front legislator José Merino said trying to pass CAFTA without including protections for Costa Ricans is a risk because many Costa Ricans have lost faith in the state’s ability to make effective reforms.
“That’s the sad experience of many of our fellow Costa Ricans,” he said. “They think if a development plan isn’t included in CAFTA, it won’t happen.”
As Congress prepares to debate the trade pact, President Arias has been using every chance he can get to push for CAFTA.
Asked to give a few words at an Oct. 6 conference celebrating the impact of the microchip producer Intel in Costa Rica (see separate story), Arias took the microphone and didn’t once mention Intel. Instead, he talked about CAFTA, going so far as to point out the pact’s opponents in the room.
“The government isn’t made to please anybody, rather to do things it believes are necessary,” Arias said.