The Legislative Assembly this week voted to set deadlines for the drawn-out legislative process of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), inciting ire from CAFTA opponents, who labeled the move “anti-democratic.”
The congressional controversy comes after the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) shot down a citizen group’s request that the trade pact to be sent to a non-binding public vote.
With 38 votes in favor, the assembly Tuesday approved a resolution that will require the International Affairs Commission, which has been discussing CAFTA for a year, to send the controversial trade pact to the assembly floor by Dec. 12.
Some CAFTA opponents questioned the constitutionality of the assembly’s deadline setting, suggesting the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) might have problems with it in the future.
“For the first time in Costa Rica’s parliamentary history it established a limit to discussion in a permanent commission,” said a statement from the anti-CAFTA Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON).
Constantino Urcuyo, a political analyst and former PUSC legislator, said the assembly’s deadline “could be dangerous” for the CAFTA agenda because opponents may try to appeal the move with the Sala IV after the pact has moved through Congress.
The commission has held more than 40 hearings on the free-trade agreement, which Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, brother of pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias, said is “probably a world record.”
“We can’t have our commission be kidnapped by legislators from the Citizen Action Party and legislator (José) Merino,” he said, referring to the opposition’s alleged delay tactic of filing motions.
Costa Rica is the only Central American country that has not ratified the trade pact, which would eliminate trade barriers between Central American countries, the Dominican Republic and the United States.
It would also open Costa Rica’s staterun monopolies on insurance and telecommunications.
The agreement still must be debated on the floor of Congress in two different sessions, and pass through the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), which has been known to find constitutional flaws in the handling of priority legislation such as recent attempts to speed up fiscal reform (TT, March 24).
The assembly’s decision came the week after a group of citizens that has been pushing for CAFTA to be sent to voters in a nonbinding referendum (TT, Sept. 8) announced they will appeal the TSE’s ruling.
The tribunal decided there is no legal basis to consider petitions for a non-binding referendum. The recently passed Referendum Law states referendums cannot be held on issues that deal with taxation or fiscal matters.
The ruling did, however, leave the door open for Congress to pass legislation in favor of a referendum on CAFTA.
A group of legislators submitted a bill in November 2005 that would send CAFTA to popular vote. However, the Legal Affairs Commission’s administrative director Nery Aguero told The Tico Times the commission has not yet taken up the issue.
The Arias administration made its opposition to a referendum clear this week.
“Our position is that in the recent national elections voters knew that CAFTA was a priority, and their decision was clear,” Minister Arias told reporters Wednesday. Also this week, former President Luis Alberto Monge (1982-1986) made a public call for Costa Rica to “retract its signing of the poorly negotiated text.”
Costa Rica “should propose the negotiation of a commercial agreement adequate for both nations, just as the United States has negotiated bilaterally with Colombia, Panama, and Peru, and as Chile has done before them,” he wrote in the anti-CAFTA National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP) newsletter.