Two days of protests against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) this week brought together massive, diverse crowds in demonstrations that were peaceful on the whole –with a few exceptions, particularly in the Caribbean port city Limón.
Thousands of marchers took to the streets of San José and towns throughout the country Monday and Tuesday. The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) shut its doors during the first day of protests, and strikes by health-care workers and schoolteachers meant cancelled surgeries and classes for some, though the administration of President Oscar Arias downplayed these side effects.
Protests in Limón differed from those in other areas of the country in both objective – port workers there took to the streets not only to express opposition to CAFTA, but also to continue their ongoing struggle against port privatization – and tone, with several violent incidents reported (see separate story).
Controversy also erupted over the death of a girl in the Caribbean-slope town of Siquirres following allegations that the ambulance she was in was delayed by protest-related traffic (see sidebar).
San José’s only threat of violence came Tuesday, when university students armed with rocks and bottles of gasoline formed a blockade near the University of Costa Rica (UCR) LawSchool in the eastern suburb of San Pedro.
As in numerous other protests that have taken place since the Costa Rican government signed CAFTA in 2004, protestors played up turnouts while the administration downplayed the number of people who showed up, calling the number of marchers “scarce.” The daily La Nación, using aerial footage, estimated that at least 9,000 people participated in the demonstration Monday in front of the Legislative Assembly, where CAFTA is being discussed.
Costa Rica is the only signatory country that has not ratified the controversial pact, already approved by the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
President Arias said Wednesday that the withdrawal of CAFTA from the assembly, as some protestors called for, is “impossible.”
His brother and spokesman, Rodrigo Arias, told reporters the day before that a popular referendum to decide whether to ratify the trade pact, another option some protestors requested, is not necessary because the 57 legislators expected to vote on the agreement “represent the Costa Rican people.”
In San José, the protests brought together a colorful crowd of workers from an array of public institutions, students, professors, farmers, anarchists, artists, musicians, poets, small business owners, Che Guevara fans, George W. Bush mockers and Oscar Arias detractors.
They marched from various points around the city to the assembly building downtown.
“We don’t want to be a North American colony.We want to be a nation,” one protestor blurted into a microphone at one of Monday’s marches, which began at the ICE building in the western neighborhood of Sabana Norte. The march snaked through downtown streets lined with a dissonant jumble of small local businesses pushed up next to McDonald’s and Pizza Hut restaurants, and shadowed by enormous billboards for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“We don’t want to sell out to the multinationals,” another protestor screamed as the march passed a McDonald’s.
Across town, other anti-CAFTA activists gathered at the traffic rotonda outside of the UCR campus. A megaphone-equipped organizer told participants to ignore President Arias’ request, made in an open letter to union leaders Oct. 19, to keep half of all roadways open to traffic.
“We’re not going to play along,” said the organizer, high-school social studies teacher Eliel Villalobos from the AnastasioAlfaroHigh School just up the road. “We will walk along the entire breadth of the road.”
Though many drivers throughout the metropolitan area accepted delays, possibly used to marches and street blockades as a means of expressing dissent in Costa Rica, others made it clear they didn’t appreciate the backups.
“They’re a bunch of bums. At the end of the day, the public workers will probably get paid, but not us,” said Fernando Sánchez, a taxi driver caught in standstill traffic for nearly an hour while protestors marched on Avenida Segunda. (The government announced last week striking workers will not be paid, though it was not made clear how this would be done. Such promises were not always complied with during previous administrations.)
For some, the protests meant business; street vendors sold rosaries, sunglasses, ponchos and Costa Rican flags. For others, it became a means to taunt authorities.
“The police are the dogs of the state. They think a uniform is permission to kill,”
said 19-year-old Hernán Coto, a member of the Costa Rican Anarchist Federation, a group of about 50 youths. Coto, a UCR student who wore a black bandana across his face and a black hood, said he likes to keep a low profile because riot police have arrested many of his friends.
Holding their own among student protestors was a group of more seasoned protestors: members of the National Ex-combatants’ Association, made up of veterans of the 1948 civil war. President Roberto Güell, 78, who fought with the National Liberation Army, told The Tico Times 2,500 veterans nationwide, including former opponents from both sides of the war, have put aside their differences in opposition to CAFTA.
“It’s not political. It’s a national struggle… national and continental,” he said, describing the fight against the agreement as part of an America-wide struggle for sovereignty.
After a clash between CAFTA protestors and police at an Independence Day celebration in the eastern Central Valley city of Cartago last month (TT, Sept. 22), many activists kept a close eye on police during the protests. However, very few police were visible along the routes in the capital Monday.
Those who did appear used a hands-off approach, which continued Tuesday when UCR students blocked off the street near campus. Using tree branches, metal chair frames, cardboard and even a sofa, a group of approximately 30 masked activists –which later grew to approximately 300 when more students and employees from UCR and Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Heredia – north of San José, joined the group – blocked the divided highway, then used the space for speeches, dancing and even an impromptu soccer game.
The protestors stockpiled rocks in a shopping cart and threw some at journalists who tried to approach. Though The Tico Times, members of the foreign press, and journalists from smaller papers were allowed inside the barrier, students formed a human blockade to prevent a TV Channel 7 News reporter and cameraman from entering and sprayed red paint on the camera.
Though a group of National Police officers in riot gear appeared to be preparing to break up the blockade at around noon following an appearance by Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal, the minister returned at approximately 12:45 and told reporters the police would not react.
“It’s a provocation, and we’re not going to fall for it,” he said, exiting the neighborhood Taco Bell with a soft drink in hand.
At a press conference at Casa Presidencial later that day, he explained that police had received word those in the blockade had Molotov cocktails and planned to set the whole area on fire if the police approached. The students did set fire to the blockade later that night of their own accord before heading home.
In the northwestern province of Guanacaste, a group of about 500 protestors surrounded the DanielOduberInternationalAirport in the provincial capital of Liberia before heading back to the center of the city Tuesday, according to police officer Armando Miranda. He said there were similarly sized protests Monday in the Guanacaste town of Cañas.
Protests also took place in the Northern Zone, with university students, teachers and health-care workers marching through town in Ciudad Quesada Monday, followed by a street blockade by farmers, eventually broken up by police; the Southern Zone’s San Isidro de El General and the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas.
In the Central Valley city of Heredia, an estimated 2,500 people participated in marches Monday, La Nación reported, with additional protests Tuesday. Transit Police shut down portions of theInter-American Highway
from Alajuela, northwest of the capital – where 1,000 people turned out to march – to San José both days. In Cartago, a march from the Basílica to Plaza Mayor took place Monday.
Walter Rodríguez, a farmer from the small Northern Zone town of Bijagua, where 120 people gathered at 1 a.m. to board buses for San José Monday, said this week’s protests are not the end of CAFTA opponents’ struggle.
“This is only just beginning,” he told The Tico Times as he marched down Ave. 2 holding a small anti-CAFTA banner. “It’s a small taste of what we’re prepared to do (to stop CAFTA from passing).”
Tico Times reporter María Gabriela Díaz contributed to this report.