Emotions ran high this week after the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) published a controversial ruling on the use of public resources in campaigns for and against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
The Tribunal’s resolution ruled that the University of Costa Rica (UCR), as a state organization, can hold only informational – not propagandistic – conferences on CAFTA in its auditoriums. Also at issue was the Tribunal’s prohibition against using university resources to publish CAFTA-related propaganda in the press.
Anti-CAFTA leaders claimed the resolution favored the President and his Cabinet, while limiting speech by other public figures such as university rectors. Tribunal president Luis Antonio Sobrado refuted this idea.
“It is forbidden to use public resources in campaigns for the Yes camp and the No camp, and this applies to the President as well as to university rectors,” Sobrado said.
“It seems that both sides have used our resolution to misinform the public. They change our words and make us say things we did not.”
President Oscar Arias is the country’s most visible pro-CAFTA spokesperson, while the rector of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), Eugenio Trejos, is among the most vocal anti-CAFTA campaigners.
The resolution specifically gives the President, ministers and heads of autonomous state institutions the power to use state cars, drivers and labor time for matters “of a discretional nature.” Citizen Action Party (PAC) president Epsy Campbell has written elections officials a letter seeking clarification.
Sobrado said at a Monday press conference that the President, as well as university rectors, can participate in campaigns during the workday. Both, he said, can organize forums, debates and conferences that have an informational and not a propagandistic purpose. Both could ride in a state car to a debate on CAFTA.
Some 200 people gathered outside the Tribunal Tuesday to protest the treaty and the elections officials’ ruling.
“It seems a lie that in (Latin America’s) oldest democracy … we Costa Ricans are here in front of the Supreme Elections Tribunal demanding democracy,” said Rolando Araya, a former presidential candidate from the National Liberation Party (PLN). “The people have the right to vote, but they don’t have freedom of expression.”
Eugenio Trejos, speaking at the protest, challenged President Oscar Arias to a oneon-one debate. He claimed a powerful ally.
“God is with us because God is on the side of the people,” he said.
CAFTA on the World Stage
The CAFTA debate took an international turn last week at a meeting of social movements in Managua organized by the Nicaraguan National Workers’ Front.
Some 200 delegates from workers’ unions, social groups and guild groups across Central America and the Caribbean agreed to offer training and financial support to anti-CAFTA campaigns in Costa Rica. Their purpose is to fight neoliberalism and promote the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americans (ALBA), a proposal for regional cooperation and integration by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Tribunal president Sobrado reiterated this week that foreign groups cannot participate in the referendum campaign,much less funnel money to either side.
“The discussion over (CAFTA) is Costa Rica’s business and it must remain that way,” he said.
The anti-CAFTA campaign also reached the United States this week. PAC founder Ottón Solís returns today from a five-day tour in the U.S. capital, where he met with Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank. He was also scheduled to visit think tanks and speak with members of Congress.
In other CAFTA news, the Tribunal closed the list of registered voters at about 2.65 million, a 1.95% increase from the elections of December 2006. For the Oct. 7 referendum to be binding, about 1.06 million people will have to vote at the nearly 5,000 voting centers throughout the country.
Sobrado announced Monday that the Tribunal would invite international groups such as The Carter Center, the Organization of American States and the European Union to monitor the referendum.
CAFTA Groups at a Glance
Organizations formed specifically to promote the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) include:
Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA – Coordinates the pro-CAFTA campaign led by Alfredo Volio.
For Costa Rica – Lobbying group of CAFTA negotiator Alberto Trejos.
Organizations formed specifically to oppose the trade pact:
Patriotic Movement for No on CAFTA – The “official” name for the movement of which all anti-CAFTA groups are a part.
National Front against CAFTA – A social and civil group headed up by Eugenio Trejos, rector of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC).
National Coordinators of the Fight against CAFTA – A group headed by National Association of Educators (ANDE) president José Antonio Barquero; attempts to coordinate union and social groups.