Two ideological enemies took baby steps this week toward a political accord that would cool rhetoric in the debate on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Eugenio Trejos, an anti-CAFTA figurehead, and Alfredo Volio, a pro-CAFTA leader, met with Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) president Luis Antonio Sobrado Wednesday to discuss rules for campaign behavior, as well as increased transparency when it comes to funding.
The two leaders agreed on one thing.
“There was an important consensus to meet again,” Sobrado said, drawing chuckles from the press. The two campaign leaders emerged from the building at different times and gave separate statements to reporters.
Next Wednesday, Sobrado, Volio and Trejos will again discuss ground rules for social and political leaders’ behavior in the CAFTA campaign leading up to the Oct. 7 referendum on the divisive trade pact. Volio and Trejos declined to sign the accord this week because they wanted to speak first with other members of their campaigns.
Both leaders praised the Tribunal for organizing the meeting, which they said was a good first step. But Volio, a former Production Minister in President Oscar Arias’ administration, said he was left with a bad taste because “Trejos does not want to confront me, he wants to confront the President.”
Trejos is insisting on a one-on-one debate with Arias, who touts the free-trade pact wherever he goes on official business.
The leaders also discussed a proposal by the anti-CAFTA camp to make more transparent the source and use of campaign funding.While Sobrado said such an agreement would be “advisable,” pro-CAFTA leaders are objecting.
“The sources and uses of the money are multiple…no one can determine them,” said José Rossi, a pro-CAFTA leader who helps manage the trust Fideicomiso Por el Sí. “This (proposal) is pure politicking.”
He declined to say how much money the trust fund has.
The Tribunal’s records show that two pro-CAFTA companies contributed more than the ¢4.2 million ($8,153) limit for advertisements in the mass media. The Costa Rican Textile Chamber Association (CATECO) is listed as contributing about ¢8 million ($15,536) for radio ads, while one of its members, Rincón Grande S.A., is listed as paying about ¢5.8 million ($11,160) for radio ads. The Electoral Inspection Board, now studying these cases, could fine these companies three times the amount by which they exceeded the limit.
OMD, the publicity agency the pro-CAFTA campaign contracted in July, said it is responsible for misreporting contributions by each firm.
Rodolfo Molina, director of Rincón Grande, said he donated $5,000 – within the limit – to the Fideicomiso, which then decided how to spend it.
“The money I give, I don’t know if it’s going to flags…if it’s going to shirts…if it’s going to radio or television,” he said. “I am not involved in the financial part of the Yes campaign. I’m just a businessman who thinks CAFTA is important.”
Despite Sobrado’s efforts to tone things down, campaign ugliness continued this week. The Union of Private-Sector Business Chambers and Associations (UCCAEP)
announced Wednesday it had received an email threatening its employees with death if the organization does not suspend its campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum.
The e-mail came from a Hotmail account and was sent to UCCAEP executive director Shirley Saborío. The message said its sender knew where all eight of the organization’s employees live, as well as where their children go to school.
“I cannot believe that Costa Rica is becoming a country where we cannot raise our children,” said Saborío, on the verge of tears. “I have never before received threats like this. Never.”
UCCAEP president Rafael Carrillo said the message has been reported to the appropriate authorities and that measures have been taken to protect employees.
Sobrado also met with four public university rectors Wednesday to clarify a July Tribunal resolution that provoked outrage within the university community for allegedly infringing on free speech by restricting the use of public resources in CAFTA campaigns (TT, Aug. 3). In a statement Wednesday, the Tribunal said it “considers desirable and necessary” that public universities engage in the CAFTA debate. Laws proscribing the use of public resources in campaigns should not limit that activity.
Trejos, rector of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), called this “an improvement in the interpretation of the university spirit,” but he declined to comment further until his team of lawyers analyzes the Tribunal’s statement.
The Tribunal is now studying a denouncement by anti-CAFTA parties accusing President Arias of using public resources to “propagandize” on CAFTA.
In another resolution this week, elections officials said clergymen are allowed to participate actively in the CAFTA campaign. But the statement prohibits any Costa Rican –whether clergyman or layman – from engaging in campaigns that invoke religious reasons or manipulate religious beliefs.
Sobrado said he hopes to create a framework for the most extensive debate possible.
“The philosophy of this Tribunal is that…we must promote a broad debate where everyone has space, from the President of the Republic to the most humble official in the administration,” he said at a press conference Monday.
In that vein, the Tribunal has asked the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) to organize a series of debates on CAFTA in the next two months. FLACSO will host a debate with representatives from the pro- and anti-CAFTA camps every Thursday at 7 p.m. until the Oct. 7 referendum.
The debates, held in the Tribunal Auditorium, will also be broadcasted live on public TV Channel 13.
Topics slated for discussion include CAFTA’s effect on the environment, intellectual property, medicine, telecommunications, agriculture and sovereignty.
Some 73 of Costa Rica’s 81 mayors met with President Arias Tuesday in the auditorium of the Episcopal Conference to show support for CAFTA and request increased government support.
In a letter to the President, published in the daily La Nación, the mayors said: “Notwithstanding (our support for CAFTA), we believe that the success of (market) opening and less regulation has not led to a better distribution of income, nor has it contributed, in a conclusive way, to make poverty disappear.”
The Legislative Assembly,which in recent weeks stalled because of disagreement over whether to debate the CAFTA implementation agenda, a set of 13 laws that would help implement the treaty, this week went back to work on non-CAFTA-related legislation.
Although the Executive Branch gets to decide the legislative agenda during this extraordinary session in August, Presidency Ministry Rodrigo Arias signaled that he would not call for debate on the CAFTA implementation bills.
The 38 pro-CAFTA legislators do not have enough political strength to make progress on these laws, he said, given a pledge by the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) to use all tools in its power to obstruct their debate before the referendum takes place in October (TT, Aug. 10).
“When one convokes projects in such a short period…one (wants to ensure) that these projects can be approved,” Rodrigo Arias said. “This is not now the case with the implementation agenda.”