It’s starting to get a little personal.
The most controversial issues facing the Legislative Agenda are creeping toward the assembly floor, causing rising tension and finger-pointing between the Executive Branch and its most vocal critics, members of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC). As legislators headed back to work this week after their holiday break, President Oscar Arias told The Tico Times PAC is “the party of ‘no,’” while his brother and spokesman Rodrigo Arias – the administration’s legislative liaison – took off the kid gloves in a letter to party leaders.
While Citizen Action faction head Elizabeth Fonseca said her exchanges with the Executive Branch haven’t affected interparty relations within the assembly, the general tone has certainly become more confrontational as the assembly prepares to tackle the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), along with equally divisive accompanying legislation.
Citizen Action opposes the U.S. trade pact, which it maintains should be renegotiated to better benefit Costa Rica.
The National Liberation Party, which brought Arias to power last year, firmly supports the pact. In fact, Arias has made its approval one of his administration’s top priorities.
Each side accuses the other of attempting to sour last year’s relatively cordial relations in the new assembly, which took office May 1, 2006.
“The one who has used a violent tone is the Executive Branch,” Fonseca told The Tico Times this week. “And they have much of the media under their control.We think this is a pluralist country, and big accords can be reached only through dialogue.”
Back and Forth
Though Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias ended his five-page missive this week with a call for “leaving behind verbal violence,” he dished out plenty of criticism of PAC, which holds 17 seats in Congress (second only to Liberation with 25) and whose presidential candidate, Ottón Solís, gave the confident frontrunner a serious scare in February’s elections.
Minister Arias accused Fonseca of using “a line of discourse your party has kept repeating, with the same words and same degree of hyperbole, for a year, as if the electoral season weren’t over and as if the time to make decisions and govern responsibly hadn’t yet arrived.”
According to the Presidency Minister, Fonseca and her crew aren’t being realistic. “I want to think PAC will manage to understand that, as desirable as it may appear, the search for a great national agreement that will dissolve all our differences in a sea of unanimity isn’t more than a dangerous mirage,” he wrote. “In those things where consensus isn’t possible, the majority should prevail.”
Unsurprisingly, Fonseca and Solís told The Tico Times the problem isn’t on their end. According to Fonseca, PAC remains eager to negotiate with the Executive Branch, but the Arias brothers aren’t used to ceding any ground.
“The country has changed a great deal. In the last 20 years since don Oscar Arias took office (the first time), the country isn’t the same,” Fonseca said, referring to Arias’ first presidential term (1986-1990). “It’s a country where you can’t make pacts under the table or govern by decree, where you need humility to govern. That’s what we’ve been missing from them.”
Solís said that before Arias took office again May 8 of last year, the former electoral opponents agreed to meet every 15 days to work on a common agenda. The idea was proposed by U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut and national hero Franklin Chang, who hosted the meeting at his home and whom Fonseca called “a witness to our disappointment.”
The twice-monthly meetings never materialized, Solís said.
According to the President, PAC’s criticisms are misplaced.
“She (Fonseca) should be demanding that I comply with my campaign promises” rather than complaining about dialogue, he told The Tico Times during an interview at his home in the western San José suburb of Rohrmoser Tuesday. Asked about Fonseca wanting to wait to implement reforms to the assembly’s procedures – another measure Arias says is urgent – the President said her comments “only demonstrate her absence of will to help the country… PAC is the party of ‘no, it can’t be done.’ In our campaign, we said it can.”
CAFTA Moves Forward
Heightening the rhetoric is the imminent – or somewhat imminent – discussion on the assembly floor of CAFTA, an agreement signed in 2003 and since ratified by all signatory countries except Costa Rica.
Assembly procedures require that commission majority and minority opinions on the pact, as well as the hefty agreement itself, first be published in the official government daily La Gaceta, which could take a while.
Fonseca said the opinions in favor of CAFTA, presented by Liberation, the Libertarian Movement Party and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), and PAC’s opposing opinion, presented Wednesday, are “voluminous” and will need to be published in several editions of the government daily.What’s more, the commission ruled in December that the entire agreement, which totals more than 2,000 pages,must be republished as well, according to the daily La Nación.
Why? Because the 17 “interpretive clauses” the commission approved during its discussion, along with the opinions, or dictamenes, must be published together, the commission decided.
Liberation legislator and International Affairs Commission president Janina del Vecchio told La Nación this won’t delay the agreement’s arrival on the assembly floor, scheduled for mid-January.
Congressional Executive Director Antonio Ayales said the publication of all these documents will cost about ¢80 million (approximately $155,340). The first publication of CAFTA in La Gaceta took place in November 2005 and cost ¢35 million, approximately $68,360 at the time (TT, July 21, 2006).
Legislative president Francisco Antonio Pacheco announced last month that in his estimation, CAFTA needs only 29 votes for approval, not 38 votes as opponents of the pact claim. Fonseca said Wednesday that this decision indicates Liberation’s fear that they don’t have the votes.
“I’m absolutely certain” the pact won’t be approved, she said.
CAFTA isn’t the only issue on the agenda. In its first days back this week, the assembly ended an ongoing appointment over a Supreme Court nomination, thanks to the withdrawal of a controversial candidate, Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese. The assembly quickly elected judge Carlos Chinchilla, 43, to the post, which had been vacant for two months.
In 32 rounds of voting in December, Chinchilla – who led Dall’Anese consistently – never achieved the 38 votes necessary for approval, falling short at 36 votes or fewer. Members of PAC and Oscar López, the only legislator from the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE), stood by Dall’Anese, renowned for his role in the investigations of two former Presidents and other public officials for alleged corruption.
Part of the controversy was that as a Supreme Court justice, Dall’Anese might have had to decide on the appeals of cases involving the two former Presidents, if they ever go to trial. Dall’Anese, however, had maintained that if selected, he would not participate in those cases.
In a letter this week, the Chief Prosecutor indicated that he was stepping aside “to unclog the labors of the legislators,” the daily Al Día reported.
Legislators this week also made progress in areas of consensus among parties – which, contrary to what recent public disagreements might suggest, are ample. The assembly, now in one of two annual “extraordinary sessions” in which the Executive Branch, not assembly leadership, sets the agenda, has approved two of the key bills the Arias administration convened in December: a law that will strengthen the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) and a cooperation agreement between Costa Rica and the European Investment Bank.
In light of this success, the Executive Branch this week submitted more projects to the assembly. Reforms to the country’s Public Works Concessions Law, which were approved last year but struck down by the Supreme Court because of a procedural error, tops the list; the bill streamlines the requirements for companies seeking concessions for public works such as airports or highways, and strengthens the National Concessions Council.
Also on the agenda is a bill to combine existing public technical institutions into a new public university, the National Technical University, in Alajuela, west of San José; and reforms to the Criminal Code and Illicit Enrichment Law.
Notably absent from the list is the Freedom of the Press and Expression Law, to which the Arias administration gave a huge boost in December by including it in third place on the extraordinary agenda. However, press freedom activists – who’ve lobbied fruitlessly for years to change the existing press law, which includes prison terms for journalists convicted of libel – barely had time to celebrate the massive step forward when the administration announced it was clearing the agenda of everything but CAFTA to force the International Affairs Commission to vote.
Once the commission did vote, the press freedom law was not included. Nor was another point of agreement between the Arias administration and PAC: a bill to reform the Constitution and dedicate 8%, up from 6%, of the gross domestic product to education each year.