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Friday, June 2, 2023

CAFTA Referendum Campaign Heats Up

Looks like we’re in for an interesting ride.

From Cabinet ministers on podiums to union organizers going house to house, activists on both sides of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) are gearing up to persuade voters of the pact’s merits or vices before the national referendum to determine whether Costa Rica ratifies the controversial agreement.

While many details of the campaigns are still pending, one thing is clear: unlike a presidential campaign, run from the top by political parties, this process promises to involve participants from career politicians to enthusiastic first-time campaigners.

It’s also generating plenty of controversy – not only regarding how CAFTA might effect the country, but also who should be involved in the campaign, and how. The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) has ruled that public officials can opine on the agreement, but no public funds can be spent, and foreigners cannot contribute to the campaign in any way.

Sounds simple, but the Arias administration has already drawn fire for Cabinet ministers’ plans to lobby for the agreement as they go about their duties.

So has Cuban President Fidel Castro, whose criticisms of CAFTA and comments about possible electoral fraud prompted an onslaught of indignant responses from Costa Ricans on both sides of the debate this week. Amidst the disputes, both sides are working to bring their message to Costa Ricans, whatever it takes.

“They’re going to work in communities,” anti-CAFTA union leader Albino Vargas said of local volunteers planning to campaign.

“They’ll visit house by house, or (talk to people) as they leave Mass, at the corner store, at the soccer game.”

Ground Rules

Though the nation has known for well over a month that a popular referendum on CAFTA is coming down the line, campaign efforts did not take shape until this week, perhaps because of a pending Elections Tribunal decision on whether public employees would be able to publicly express their opinions on the topic.

The Tribunal’s three justices cleared up those doubts May 18 with a resolution clearing the way for such expression, with the exception of police officers and Tribunal employees, who must keep mum.

The justices also reiterated their “absolute prohibition” of the use of public funds for campaigning for or against CAFTA. And as in any election, foreigners are prohibited from making campaign contributions.

Many CAFTA opponents have urged the Tribunal in the past to ensure equal funding for the pro- and anti-CAFTA campaigns, arguing that opponents such as environmental groups or community organizations can’t compete with the funds available to the business chambers that support the agreement.

However, TSE interim president Luis Antonio Sobrado has explained that because the sectors endorsing and protesting CAFTA involve practically every facet of Costa Rican society, ensuring even spending would be virtually impossible.

No sooner were the ground rules established that each side began accusing the other of breaking them.

On the international front, Castro, in an article published May 17 in the Cuban government daily Granma, summarized comments made by a Costa Rican activist identified as Jorge Coronado at the Sixth Hemispheric Conference to Fight the Free-Trade Area of the Americas, held April 27-30 in Havana.

“We ask social organizations to arrive in Costa Rica as international observers,” read the article. “The right wing is preparing to stimulate, if possible, a fraud to guarantee it will win a fight it’s already lost.

“Today, after a year,CAFTA has not brought to any country in Central America more employment, more investment, or better conditions for the trade balance,” it continued.

These comments drew criticism from both sides of the debate in Costa Rica. Former presidential rivals Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement, and Ottón Solís of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) –who met Tuesday for a debate on CAFTA, which Guevara adamantly supports and Solís just as adamantly opposes – said Castro has no right to intervene.

Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said this week that the government of Cuba “has no authority to teach us about this issue.”

Vargas, however, told The Tico Times the government has no right to criticize Castro until it makes sure U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale stops making pro-CAFTA comments.

“When they close Mr. Langdale’s mouth, we will have the authority to (silence) other foreigners,” he said. “We want that ambassador to leave Costa Rica so he’ll stop intervening in the internal affairs of Ticos.”

Langdale met with President Oscar Arias earlier this year, before the referendum plans, to urge him to persuade lawmakers to promptly ratify the pact.

Activist Vargas said he shares Castro’s fear of fraud and has his eye on the government.

“We distrust the Supreme Elections Tribunal,” he said, referring to the decision of TSE magistrates – including Eugenia Zamora, Arias’ former Justice Vice-Minister and Presidential Office Head – to use a government decree, rather than a lengthier citizen-led signature-collection process, to convene the referendum. “It’s in favor of the government… they accommodated the referendum to the needs of the Arias brothers.”

President Arias consistently opposed the idea of a referendum until the TSE ruled in April in favor of a public vote convened through citizen signature collection. Following that decision, Arias utilized the other method the law establishes for convening a referendum, a joint Executive Branch-Legislative Assembly decree that eventually won the endorsement of the Tribunal justices.

Vargas said members of his organization, the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), are literally trailing Arias’ Cabinet ministers to ensure they are not using publicly funded assets such as government cars or their own work hours to aid the campaign.

The administration has maintained that ministers will speak in favor of CAFTA during their regularly scheduled tours, visits and speeches, which trade-pact opponents argue constitutes use of public funds.

Edgar Guillén, a psychology professor at the Technological Institute of Costa Rica, said he and fellow CAFTA opponents at the publicly funded school are trying to keep their campaign activities out of regular working hours to prevent such a conflict.

The institute has become a hub of the anti-CAFTA movement, thanks to recently reelected Rector Eugenio Trejos’ post as leader of the National Front against CAFTA.

Hitting the Campaign Trail

These disputes aside, both sides are preparing their campaigns with a variety of tactics.

Those who support CAFTA are working to coordinate an overall effort in the hands of former Production Minister Alfredo Volio, who stepped down last month to head up the campaign.

Volio is out of the country this week and referred The Tico Times to Luis Javier Castro, who identified himself as a business owner but said he prefers not to explain his specific role within the pro-CAFTA movement. He said unity is the goal.

“Really, what we’re creating is a big alliance of ‘Yes,’ incorporating all political and business efforts in favor,” he said, adding that the five pro-CAFTA parties represented in the Legislative Assembly will be working together. “The political parties have a structure that goes to the base, and they’ll use all their local leaders on every block to explain to their communities the agreement’s advantages, and what happens if there is no agreement.”

The Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) sent its members a business-focused grassroots strategy in which business owners are encouraged to inform employees about the trade pact and implement measures such as a transportation plan to ensure employees can get the polls Sept. 23.

Meanwhile, those who oppose CAFTA are taking different paths toward their common goal.

“We’re not coordinating anything,” Solís said when asked whether he is working with other organizations to plan PAC’s campaign. “We already have a campaign.We’re going to houses one by one, with volunteers, who will turn over a two-page document (explaining our CAFTA position).”

Solís, who said he will personally visit 1,000 houses, told The Tico Times that their only campaign costs will be photocopies of those leaflets, estimated at ¢3 million (approximately $5,770).

For its part, the Technological Institute’s newly inaugurated Front against CAFTA – an effort that mirrors similar efforts at the other public universities, where a majority on campus seem to oppose the agreement – plans to begin by voicing opposition to the agreement among the institute’s teachers and students, then spreading beyond their walls.

Vargas said this lack of coordination might just be the anti-CAFTA movement’s forte. “There’s no unified rule here,” he said. “We just have a strategic objective: bury CAFTA at the polls… There are (differing) work styles, abilities, strengths.”

A number of communities, such as the southern San José suburb of Alajuelita, have formed “Patriotic Committees” to coordinate local campaigns. Julio Soto, an Alajuelita resident and committee member, said he’s confident the dedication of his colleagues will result in a victory over “those señores del Sí.

“There are tons of people who are willing to reach into their pockets to support this patriotic fight,” he said.



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