Among the tens of thousands who marched last week against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) was a group whose presence may have surprised some observers: the Anti-CAFTA Front of the National Liberation Party (PLN). The recently formed organization, along with a similar opposition group within the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), has proved that despite strong loyalties among the faithful in these traditional strongholds, CAFTA is one area where some members won’t toe the party line.
While the pro- and anti-CAFTA stances of most parties’ legislative representatives appears fairly stable, these counter-movements cast doubt on the claim that last year’s elections, which pitted pro-CAFTA candidate Oscar Arias against anti-CAFTA Ottón Solís, constituted a kind of “referendum” on the agreement – an idea Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias repeated this week when asked why the administration doesn’t feel a popular referendum on the pact is necessary.
Though the Liberation Party is the source of the country’s highest-profile CAFTA advocate, President Arias, as well as the united legislative faction leading the fight for the agreement’s ratification, members of the newly formed front say the party itself is divided.
“The position in favor of CAFTA has not been unanimous within Liberation,” former PLN presidential candidate and Front Against CAFTA member Rolando Araya told The Tico Times. He said though he believes most liberacionistas are ambivalent toward the pact, minorities both for and against it exist within the party.
“What’s happened (in the party) has been the same as what’s happened in the country – great indifference,” said Araya, who said he has met many anti-CAFTA Liberation members throughout the country, several of whom eventually formed the group.
Oscar Campos, a former legislator (1998-2002) and Front organizer, said the group has approximately 110 members – and is growing. Participants include veterans of the National Liberation Army, which fought in the 1948 Civil War; former ministers and legislators; and young people, he said. While the group does not categorically oppose any trade agreement with the United States, it opposes the current proposal because it would change Costa Rica’s development model and create low-quality jobs rather than expanding promising sectors such as high-tech industries, Campos said.
Araya, the brother of San José Mayor Johnny Araya, also of the Liberation Party, explained opposition to CAFTA didn’t necessarily affect party members’ support for Arias in last year’s elections.
“Many people voted for Oscar Arias but aren’t in agreement about CAFTA,” he said. Political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, himself a CAFTA opponent and former Liberation member, agreed.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily any contradiction in opposing CAFTA and supporting Arias. CAFTA doesn’t fill the whole agenda of a political party. One can be very much against one part of the agenda and for other parts,” he said.
Araya said Liberation members on both sides of the CAFTA debate have certainly sought to discern what renowned party founder and three-time President José “Pepe” Figueres (1948-1949, 1953-1958, and 1970-1974), would have thought about the agreement, though he believes it’s clear.
“He once said, ‘Poor people are the lamb on the altar of free competition,’”Araya said of Figueres, who abolished the army and helped draft Costa Rica’s current Constitution. “A man who says that isn’t pro-CAFTA.”
Members of Social Christian Unity –which has a shakier history of CAFTA support, with former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) moving back and forth on the agreement and the current legislative faction unified in favor, but with certain conditions – recently launched an anti-CAFTA front as well. What’s more, party president Luis Fishman, who served as Pacheco’s estranged vice-president, has established himself as a firm opponent of the trade pact.
Speaking at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) Feb. 22, Fishman said he and the rest of PUSC had been part of “an ideological error… in thinking that neoliberalism was the solution.
“I could never agree with a free-trade agreement like this, where 10% of the documents deal with products while the other 90% impose upon us a model of development that absolutely contradicts our principals of solidarity,” Fishman said, according to online news site Informa-tico (www.informa-tico.com).
Ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994), who recently announced plans to run for President again on the PUSC ticket in 2010 (see separate article), told the daily La Nación this week he is in favor of CAFTA.
PUSC’s five legislators support the pact with certain accompanying legislation; Liberation’s 25 legislators have promised full support for the pact, now awaiting debate on the assembly floor (see separate story).
Asked this week whether any members of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), whose 17 legislators lead the fight against the trade agreement in the assembly, might favor CAFTA, party leader Ottón Solís told The Tico Times it’s likely.
“There must be” pro-CAFTA members, he said. “There are many people who are with PAC even though they differ with our position on development, because (they support) our ethical struggle against corruption. But I haven’t spoken with them.”