The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) announced this week it has found nothing unconstitutional about the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), essentially clearing the way for a referendum on the controversial pact.
The Sala IV reviewed CAFTA at the request of a group of legislators and Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada. Five of the seven judges voted that the pact contains no unconstitutional elements while two voted to the contrary, according to the Judicial Branch.
The court’s decision means there’s nothing stopping the referendum from proceeding as planned Oct. 7, said Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) spokesman Cedric Solano.
Now that the Sala IV has ruled comes the “most important decision Costa Ricans will make about (CAFTA) – deciding whether or not it suits the interests of the country,” said TSE interim president Luis Antonio Sobrado.
Both pro- and anti-CAFTA groups scrambled to release their reactions to the court’s decision on this heated issue. The Chamber of Industries even beat the Judicial Branch to the punch, sending out a statement expressing its “satisfaction” minutes before the court notified the press of its decision midday Tuesday.
President Oscar Arias, perhaps CAFTA’s biggest supporter, expressed his “tremendous joy” over the ruling, which he said “clears up any doubt about unconstitutionality and means we can go very calmly and with great peace to voting places to decide the future of this small country we love so much,” according to a statement from Casa Presidencial.
Tuesday evening, in a short television address, Arias called on the country to respect the Sala IV’s decision and prepare to vote in October’s referendum.
“The Constitutional Chamber assumed its responsibility in this matter, and it did its job,” he said. “It is now the Costa Rican people’s turn to do the same.”
Ottón Solís, leader of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), a former presidential candidate who gave Arias a run for his money in the 2006 elections and a vocal CAFTA opponent, was less than thrilled by the decision.
Legislators from his party were among those who filed the complaint of unconstitutionality before the Sala IV.
Solís told wire service ACAN-EFE he was “surprised” at the court’s decision since “university professors had identified constitutional violations in the treaty.”
“The fact that CAFTA is not unconstitutional doesn’t mean it’s good. The Sala IV didn’t give its opinion on the implications of CAFTA… so our arguments against it remain,” Solís said.
About a hundred women wearing white marched to the Supreme Court building yesterday morning to protest the ruling. They carried a sign saying “History Will Condemn You,” and brought a crown of thorns as a symbolic gesture against the judges who declared CAFTA constitutional. They brought a candle for the two dissenting judges.
U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale had a clear message for Costa Rica during his Fourth of July commemorative speech Tuesday at the Intercontinental Hotel west of San José: Time is running out for the country to secure a free trade agreement with the United States.
“We hope that Costa Rica will decide to join the rest of the Latin American region before the (free-trade) train leaves the station,” Langdale said. “And the truth is that the train is leaving.”
A few minutes later, Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno took the microphone and announced the Sala IV’s decision regarding the constitutionality of CAFTA. He was greeted with cheers.
Wednesday, the Sala IV made another key decision related to CAFTA, ruling that the socalled “fast-track” reform to the assembly’s regulations – a procedure that can speed the passage of legislation, including international treaties, through the assembly – does not present any constitutional violations.
Though the reform was supposed to speed the passage of CAFTA through the Legislative Assembly, it quickly got bogged down in its own passage procedure (TT, March 9).
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias this week expressed pleasure at the Sala IV’s decision, noting the government would use the fast-track reform for the CAFTA implementation agenda, which is proceeding through the assembly independent of the trade agreement and includes bills to open the telecommunications and insurance monopolies.
Last week, the Press and Freedom of Expression Institute (IPLEX) issued a statement rejecting any regulation of the media during the campaign leading up to October’s referendum.
“In the debate on the referendum, or any other subject, it is the citizens, not the authorities, who should judge and decide on the quality, balance… and relevance of what the media produce,” the statement said.
The statement comes after the Press Observatory asked the TSE to monitor the media’s referendum coverage and ensure equal coverage of both sides (TT, June 15).
While the TSE has yet to officially respond to the Press Observatory’s request, it has announced plans to hire a company to monitor CAFTA coverage (though it will not intervene).