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CAFTA Opponents Prepare for March

As legislators waited to find out whether they can apply a “fast-track” procedure to speed up a vote on the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), opponents of the pact this week worked to increase their momentum with press conferences, energized statements and the launching of new anti-CAFTA groups.

The Campesino Agrarian Front, the National Liberation Party (PLN) Members Against CAFTA Front, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) Members Against CAFTA Front, and the University of Costa Rica (UCR) Anti-CAFTA Front are among the newly formed groups that have joined the fight against the pact in the past couple of weeks.

The National Coordinator of the Fight Against CAFTA is spearheading the efforts of a dizzying number of telecom and insurance workers, teachers, farmers, fishermen, Civil War veterans and even exporters who oppose the agreement, as they prepare for an anti-CAFTA march planned for Feb. 26 in downtown San José. Some of the groups, including the campesinos, visited the Legislative Assembly this week to make their opinions known.

“CAFTA means unfair competition, and today we are showing that we’re ready to fight,” Campesino Agrarian Front organizer Oscar Campos said Monday at the assembly, pointing to subsidized U.S. agricultural products that would enter Costa Rica at reduced tariffs under CAFTA. “Never in 25 years have we seen a threat like this for farmers.”

Later that afternoon, police removed signs from the assembly’s public gallery, where anti-CAFTA activists had placed banners calling pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias “the devil,” referring to diminutive assembly president Francisco Pacheco as “a smurf” and calling other pro-CAFTA legislators “traitors of our homeland.”When protestors prevented assembly security guards from removing the signs, Pacheco, who told the daily La Nación he didn’t mind the smurf comments, called for police officers to get rid of the signs.

The following day, during another press conference to express opposition to CAFTA, Lorenzo Cambronero of the National Union of Farmers and Fishermen (UNPA) said Pacheco is cruising for a proverbial bruising.

“The only thing Mr. Pacheco is doing is making the confrontation come nearer and nearer,” he said, adding that this conflict will take place not only on Feb. 26 but until the pact is defeated.

Cambronero and his colleagues accused the assembly’s leading faction, the Liberation Party that brought Arias to power, of abusing its apparent pro-pact majority. César López,  of the Cultural Movement Against CAFTA,reading from a statement produced by three anti-CAFTA groups, said, “laws don’t acquire democratic legitimacy through the simple application of a numerical majority.”

In response to the heightened anti-CAFTA activity, Rodrigo Arias, President Oscar Arias’ brother and spokesman, said in a statement that he is pleased with march organizers’ assertions that the event will be peaceful, and “hopes it really will be like that.”

As he did last year, when student organizers accused police officers of brutality in reacting to protests in Cartago, Arias said the police force has “no interest in aggression… but of course, if there’s an attitude of violence against the National Police, (officers) will have every right to act differently.”

The most recent anti-CAFTA march, held in October of last year, brought massive crowds to the streets of San José, observable restraint on the part of San José police and most participants and resulted in a generally calm day (TT, Oct. 27, 2006).

Controversy also continued this week about what some opponents of the agreement, including Broad Front legislator José Merino and union leader Albino Vargas, say are conflicts of interest threatening the impartiality of several legislators.

Merino held a press conference this week to ask Liberation faction head Mayi Antillón to recuse herself from further discussion or voting on CAFTA because her husband’s law firm represents pharmaceutical firms that could benefit from the pact, according to the Broad Front leader. Antillón dismissed Merino’s efforts “a witch hunt.”

The Legislative Assembly is poised to discuss the pact, but is waiting for the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to rule on whether legislators can apply a fast-track mechanism to the agreement (TT, Feb. 9).

Next: A look at alleged CAFTA-related conflicts of interests in the Legislative Assembly.



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