In a far-reaching and historic decision, election officials have given the green light to put the most controversial and hotly debated issue in recent Costa Rican history in the hands of the nation’s voters.
The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) released a ruling yesterday afternoon that allows a group of citizens to collect signatures to send the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) to a binding referendum.
The decision sparked mixed responses and apparently left others, such as pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias, speechless. Casa Presidencial released a statement late yesterday indicating that Arias was still studying the TSE decision and will comment today.
The Tribunal last year rejected anti-CAFTA activists’ proposal for a non-binding referendum on CAFTA (TT, Sept. 15, 2006).
Yesterday’s monumental decision is the latest chapter in what has become not only a debate about a free-trade agreement, but a nationwide discussion over what kind of developmental model best suits Central America’s most developed economy and the only CAFTA country yet to ratify the agreement.
“Costa Rica is living an historic moment,” said José Miguel Corrales, a former legislator and anti-CAFTA activist who has been leading a two-year push to allow the citizenry to vote on CAFTA (TT, March 11, 2005).
“Never in the history of this country has there been an opportunity to convene a binding referendum,” he said.
To send the trade pact to a referendum, some 130,000 signatures, or 5% of the voting population, are needed.
Mayi Antillón, who heads the ruling pro-CAFTA National Liberation Party (PLN) faction in the Legislative Assembly, expressed mixed feelings about the decision.
“If the TSE has defined (its decision), as a legislator, I can only be respectful,” she told The Tico Times. But legislators will move ahead with their ongoing consideration of the pact, since “we already have a route for approving CAFTA.”
Should referendum organizers get the necessary signatures together before the assembly votes on the pact, Antillón said she’d welcome a vote “if it strengthens democracy.”
And if there is to be a nationwide referendum, “Let it take place as soon as possible so Costa Ricans can say ‘yes’ to CAFTA with their vote, not with the democracy of the street,” she added.
Albino Vargas, secretary general of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP) and a outspoken CAFTA opponent, called the Tribunal’s decision “correct” and “democratic,” but said the government should also remove the trade pact and all complimentary bills from the legislative agenda.
After the International Affairs Commission approved CAFTA last December (TT, Dec. 15, 2006), the trade pact has been awaiting discussion on the main floor.
Antillón explained that a legislative commission is still working to correct constitutional flaws in a fast-track procedure that could allow for a vote on CAFTA in less than two months once the procedure is in place. That procedure is expected to be voted on later this month.
Lynda Solar, executive director of the pro-CAFTA Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), said the proposed timeline for the referendum is worrisome.
“What troubles me is the timeline,” she said. “They said it’s going to take nine months to put this thing together – well, nine months from now, we’re pretty much near the deadline to ratify CAFTA, so there are a lot of things that need to be clarified.”
Though the TSE ruling gives referendum proponents up to nine months to collect signatures, Corrales said it would take only three months. He said that during his campaign for a referendum, he has acquired a network that includes the nation’s labor unions and the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), which will help collect signatures.
It’s not clear from the TSE statement, addressed to Corrales and signed by Tribunal Secretary Alejandro Bermúdez, what would happen if the assembly votes on CAFTA before enough signatures are collected.
Solar added that it’s essential for the assembly to continue working on the hefty complementary agenda for the trade pact, which includes telecommunications and insurance reforms, intellectual property rights legislation and other bills.
“If all of those can make substantial process through Congress while this referendum is being prepared, I think it can be worked out,” she said. “If (the referendum) can be done in time…it’s a good thing for the country. It relieves the pressure, and nobody can complain afterward that this was something shoved down the population’s throat. And if there’s a referendum, I think there’s enough support that it will pass.”
The TSE said in a statement that the decision doesn’t suspend the Legislative Assembly’s ability to process CAFTA.
However, Corrales claims if enough signatures are collected, the assembly discussion must stop.
For the referendum results to be binding, at least 30% of the voting population, or
781,000 people, must come out to vote. If it is determined that CAFTA requires 38 legislator votes instead of 29 to be approved, then a binding referendum would require 40%, according to an online report from the daily La Nación.
The referendum would basically ask voters whether they agree with CAFTA, according to Corrales, a former Liberation legislator.
The debate over a referendum arose at least two years ago, when CAFTA supporters said a referendum can’t apply to legislation that changes the country’s tax structure (TT, March 11, 2005).
TSE president Luis Antonio Sobrado told La Nación that CAFTA’s text doesn’t change the tax structure of the country, rather it creates an exception to it.
Corrales calls for “participative democracy” on important issues such as CAFTA.
“What’s the meaning of democracy? The people are above the Legislative Assembly,” he concluded.
Tico Times reporters Amanda Roberson, Blake Schmidt and Katherine Stanley contributed to this report.