At least three skirmishes allegedly involving physical violence, including by police officers, prompted the Executive Branch to issue an “urgent” plea this week for peaceful debate between supporters and opponents of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
“I regret the recent acts of violence,” Presidency Ministry Rodrigo Arias said in a statement Wednesday. “One knows where violence begins, but no one knows where it ends, and Costa Ricans cannot forget for one second that we live in an exemplary democracy.”
Such campaign violence is considered an exception in Costa Rica, which has a pacifist history but where emotions have been running high in the increasingly intense campaign leading up to the Oct. 7 referendum to decide the controversial trade pact’s fate.
Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator José Joaquín Salazar told The Tico Times that one of President Oscar Arias’ security guards forcefully obstructed his entry into the municipal building in the north-central town of Zarcero where Arias inaugurated a community computer center Saturday.
Zarcero Mayor Marco Vinicio Rodríguez told the daily La Nación that the ceremony was closed off to a group of anti-CAFTA protestors who had been trying to interrupt the event and with whom Salazar had apparently been associating before the anti-CAFTA lawmaker tried to enter the building.
Eleven PAC lawmakers, meanwhile, said in a statement that they met with officials from the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) Wednesday morning to discuss the incident, and planned to file an official complaint before the Tribunal regarding the “illegal detainment, infringement on freedom of movement and verbal and physical aggression” Salazar allegedly suffered.
Minister Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, publicly apologized to Salazar Wednesday and asked Security Minister Fernando Berrocal to investigate the accusation.
The Ministry is also investigating whether police used excessive force against two anti-CAFTA protestors in San Ramón, northwest of San José, after pro-CAFTA President Arias’ visit there Saturday. The shoving match was videotaped and posted on an anti-CAFTA Web site (www.notlc.com). Though the two protestors – a University of Costa Rica (UCR) student reporter for the Web site and his 16-year-old brother – say they were attacked, police say they stopped the two youths on a motorcycle because one wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Police say the driver, Adrian Carranza, didn’t have his driver’s license on him and was acting “disrespectful.”When police threatened to impound the vehicle, Carranza said he wanted to take his pellet gun with him. When he reached for the gun, in a compartment of the motorcycle, one of the officers shoved Carranza and a fight broke out.He was arrested and later released when a friend brought his license to show authorities.
In the third incident, pro-CAFTA legal advisor Mario Coto accused anti-CAFTA activist Fabio Cháves, the head of one of Costa Rica’s biggest labor unions, of beating him up outside a San José bar Saturday because of differences over the trade pact.
Cháves, secretary general of the Association of Costa Rican Electricity and Telecom Institute Employees (ASDEICE), denied involvement in the group beating, though he didn’t deny having been in the bar drinking before the Saturday fight occurred, Channel 7 TV News reported. Coto appeared on TV soon after the incident with swollen eyes and blood dripping from his face after the alleged attack. Authorities are investigating the case.
In other CAFTA campaign news:
About 800 students, union members and other personnel from the University of Costa Rica in San Pedro, an eastern suburb of San José, and the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José, staged a march Tuesday protesting a July 12 resolution by the Supreme Elections Tribunal that they say violates university autonomy. The resolution held that university personnel, like other public officials, cannot use public resources to campaign for or against CAFTA. The marchers demonstrated outside the Tribunal as about 50 police officers stood guard near the building. Still, Olman Segura, Rector of the NationalUniversity, and Yamileth González, Rector of the UCR, said they are pleased with a statement issued by the Tribunal last week clarifying the resolution and reaffirming the important role that universities play in the national debate on CAFTA. Both universities have come out against the U.S. trade pact.
The statement read: “(We) consider desirable and necessary that public universities of the country stimulate national debate (on CAFTA)” through such activities as classes, conferences, research and publications.
Segura said the march went forward because it had been planned before the clarification was issued, and because it was important to “reiterate” university autonomy.
The Tribunal hosted a day-long seminar Wednesday titled “The Referendum in Costa Rica: International Lessons and National Challenges.”A host of prominent officials and academics from Latin America and Europe spoke about electoral experiences in Panama, Uruguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Italy and Switzerland. Other topics included mechanisms for direct democracies and challenges facing Costa Rica as the country approaches its first national referendum Oct. 7.
Exporters from around Central America and the Caribbean have issued a plea for Costa Ricans to vote in favor of CAFTA. The Federation of Chambers and Associations of Exporters from Central America, Panama and the Caribbean (FECAEXCA) is planning a meeting in Costa Rica before the referendum to present the advantages it believes the agreement holds for Central American countries, said Mónica Araya, president of the Costa Rican Chamber of Exporters.