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CAFTA Complaints Voiced, Protests Planned

With the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) expected to hit the floor of the Legislative Assembly in the coming days, its supporters and opponents began slinging mud with new fervor this week.

Legislators have begun discussing massive reforms related to the pact as they wait for the CAFTA texts to be published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta so it can be sent to the assembly floor for debate (see separate story). The pact, which is more than 2,000 pages long, will cost an estimated $200,000 to print (TT, Jan. 19).

The trade agreement, negotiated in 2003-2004, has been ratified by all of the signatory countries except Costa Rica. Here are some of the latest developments:

_ The Social Security Workers’ Union (UNDECA) filed a formal complaint with the International Labour Organization Monday, accusing the Costa Rican government of violating members’ rights to freedom of expression.

The complaint referred specifically to a decision by the Social Security System (Caja) executive board to discourage Caja employees from circulating CAFTA-related literature within the institution.

Luis Chavarría, president of the labor union, said “our biggest concern is the censorship, limiting our opinions that the government doesn’t agree with,” he told The Tico Times.

Caja president Eduardo Doryan wasn’t available for comment before press time.

_ Though groups opposed to CAFTA had announced last week they were planning a massive protest Feb. 26, they later announced they are planning to have it sooner, though no date has been set.

President Oscar Arias’ administration should “sit down at the table and renegotiate the several negative aspects CAFTA has for Costa Ricans,” said Albino Vargas, the outspoken secretary general of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), during a press conference Jan. 18, the wire agency ACAN-EFE reported.

The United States has recently renegotiated trade pacts with South American countries, Vargas argued, so reworking parts of CAFTA should be considered a possibility.

Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz denied this, saying the United States was able to renegotiate agreements with Peru and Colombia because they had not been ratified by any country’s legislature. The situation with CAFTA is different, he said, since the U.S. Congress has approved it and it has already gone into effect in other Central American signatory countries.

At the upcoming march, CAFTA opponents plan to meet at various points downtown before converging on the Legislative Assembly.

Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said people can protest, but “they can’t threaten the rule of law.”

He used the protests to raise the stakes for the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) and its former presidential candidate Ottón Solís, who last month appeared at a protest in front of the Legislative Assembly after steering clear of involvement in protests for more than a year (TT, Dec. 15, 2006).

“The fact that PAC and don Ottón Solís himself have expressed that they will be leading the marches seems to me a guarantee that (the protests) will be peaceful,” Arias said in a statement.

_ Union leaders publicly decried the fact that the Colombian National Police are currently training Costa Rican National Police on how to control massive demonstrations.

The criticism prompted a letter from Vice-Minister of Public Security Rafael Gutiérrez to union leader Vargas.

I           In the letter, Gutiérrez said the training “respects the civil nature and the preventive character of our police force.”

_ Solís was in Washington, D.C. this week, where he urged members of the U.S. Congress, academics and others to seek “a special relationship with our country.”

According to a statement from PAC, Solís – whose agenda included a meeting with Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and speeches at Oxfam and the Center for Global Development – planned to argue in favor of U.S.-Costa Rica interactions that “strengthen (our) national achievements, rather than threatening them, as the negotiated Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) would do.”

Solís, as PAC’s founder and the president of the party’s Political Commission, is the unofficial head of the opposition facing pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias.

Accompanying Solís on his trip was Elizabeth Fonseca, PAC’s faction head within the assembly, and Román Macaya, executive director of the National Generic Products Chamber (CANAPROGE), the statement said. The U.S. Embassy in San José helped organize the tour.



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