As protestors held a vigil outside, the Legislative Assembly’s nine-member International Affairs Commission approved the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) 6-3 in a heated late-night vote Tuesday.
The move clears the way for the bill to be discussed on the assembly floor next month, putting the controversial trade pact one step closer to ratification.
Costa Rica is the only signatory country that has not yet decided whether to ratify the regional agreement. The United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic have all approved it.
The commission vote appears to be a small victory for CAFTA supporters in a country notorious for its suffocating trámites, or bureaucratic processes.
But if supporters won the battle, they haven’t won what is shaping up to be a war over the constitutionality of the pact and its legislative process.
CAFTA opponents, who say the pact will negatively affect the environment, small business owners, farmers and other Costa Ricans, allege the legislative majority has violated procedure by setting Tuesday’s deadline for the commission to vote on sending CAFTA to the main floor. They also say there hasn’t been enough time to debate it properly – even though the pact was sent to Congress 14 months ago.
They promise to take their complaints to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (IV), which in the past has set back controversial legislation – including fiscal and telecommunications reform – for procedural violations.
CAFTA supporters, who say the agreement is necessary for the country’s economic growth, insist a legislative majority supports the free-trade agreement, and opponents are just trying to delay its ratification. In a poll by the daily Al Día of all but three of the 57 legislators, 25 said they are in favor of the pact, 18 said they’re against, and 11 said their support depends on other legislation (TT, Nov. 3).
Former Foreign Trade Minister Alberto Trejos, who was part of the Costa Rican team that negotiated CAFTA with the United States, said all legislative procedures have been followed, and opponents are merely “seeking a procedural way around electoral defeat.”
He added that the opponents’ tactics are a reminder that Costa Rica needs to revise its congressional procedures. Political analysts have told The Tico Times the assembly faces collapse if it doesn’t make drastic changes to its outmoded structure, which is built for a system with a strong two-party loyalty that no longer exists in Costa Rica, where there are now eight parties (TT, Nov. 3).
University of Costa Rica (UCR) law professor Jorge Romero told The Tico Times he is preparing a case to present to the Sala IV alleging that CAFTA and its legislative procedure violate the Constitution.
The assembly “must respect minority groups in debate; they can’t set deadlines at the expense of minorities,” said Romero, whose new book, “The Public Universities’ Positions on CAFTA,” will be published in January.
Romero said his book will explain all the ways CAFTA allegedly violates the Constitution. He referred to a 2002 sentence that shined light on the Sala IV’s position on the legislative process.
“The final legislative decision requires the necessary time for the parliamentary will to be formed. In a democratic system, that assumes giving wide participation to all actors, or at least a considerable part of them,” the sentence says.
“Due legislative process is not designed to be an accelerated or emergency process… the legislative process should guarantee the access and participation of the minorities, for they also represent the interests of civil society.”
Sala IV president Luis Fernando Solano won’t comment on CAFTA unless a ruling is made, his secretary Patricia Mora told The Tico Times.
The assembly is expected to take up CAFTA debate on the legislative floor in mid-January. If legislators approve CAFTA in the first debate, Sala IV justices have a month to review it before it goes back to the assembly for a second, final vote.
In a press conference Wednesday, President Oscar Arias’ brother and Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said, “In no country in the world has a commission had so much time to make a decision on a treaty.”The International Affairs Commission has discussed CAFTA for a total of 278 hours, he added.
In October, a two-thirds majority of the Legislative Assembly passed a motion requiring the International Affairs Commission to vote on CAFTA by Dec. 12 (TT, Nov. 3) Tuesday, the commission’s National Liberation Party (PLN) members Mayi Antillón, Janina Del Vecchio, Fernando Sánchez and José Ángel Ocampo, as well as Evita Arguedas of Libertarian Movement and Lorena Vásquez of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) voted in favor of CAFTA. The three Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislators, Elizabeth Fonseca, Ronald Solís and Francisco Molina, voted against it.
The 11:30 p.m. vote was held in spite of nearly 400 motions that PAC and the anti-CAFTA Broad Front Party, represented by legislator José Merino, have presented to the commission – most of which haven’t been addressed.
Many of the motions are for interpretive clauses that aren’t legally binding, since trade agreement’s negotiations are final and can’t be changed by Congress, which can vote only yes or no.
Opposition legislators “publicly say they want CAFTA to be voted on… but they are showing there are many ways to obstruct a vote,” PLN leader Antillón told The Tico Times as she headed into commission Tuesday night.
PAC leader Fonseca said she wants the pact to be voted on, but not until all parties have sufficient time to discuss the proposal and the proper legislative process is carried out.
“None of that has been done,” she told The Tico Times Tuesday, adding that PAC plans to file suit before the Sala IV alleging that CAFTA’s legislative process violates the Constitution.
After the commission voted to send the trade pact to the floor, legislator Merino got up out of his seat and began shouting, as CAFTA opponents watching from the public viewing area jumped up and down, pounding on the glass.
Protestors blocked the street in front of the Legislative Assembly throughout the afternoon and night, dancing to bongo drums, waving Costa Rican flags and brightly lit faroles, and cheering on CAFTA demonstrators who took to a provisional stage.
Former presidential candidate and PAC founder Ottón Solís joined the activities outside the assembly building.
“They are paving a dangerous path,” Solís said in his first public appearance at a CAFTA protest. He promised larger protests to come.
In light of Solís’ appearance alongside union leader Albino Vargas, one of CAFTA’s most outspoken opponents, Minister Arias said Wednesday PAC is beginning to “act like the unions.”
In a meeting with pro-CAFTA business leaders Monday, President Arias said the two-thirds vote in favor of setting the Dec. 12 deadline for the commission is proof enough that there is majority support for the project.
Rafael Carrillo, president of the Union of Private-Sector Chambers and Associations (UCCAEP), which represents 41 private business chambers, was one of many business leaders who expressed support for the commission’s vote this week.
He said the trade pact will generate jobs, attract investment and guarantee the region’s preferential access to “the most important market in the world.”