Second Vice-President Kevin Casas temporarily stepped down this week from his post as Planning Minister following a scandal that erupted over the government’s campaign for the controversial U.S. trade pact.
In a July 29 memo to President Oscar Arias and his brother, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, Casas and National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Fernando Sánchez suggested a series of questionable and potentially illegal tactics to promote the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which will be put to vote in a national referendum Oct. 7.
The memo proposed that the state withhold funds from mayors whose cantons did not approve CAFTA and “stimulate fear” among voters about the alleged risks of not passing the treaty. They also suggested that the government try to fool the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) to get around restrictions on using public resources in campaigns.
“We have to make (mayors) responsible for the campaign in each canton and strongly let them know, a very simple idea: The mayor who does not win his canton (for CAFTA) will not receive a cent from the government in the next three years,” reads the memo.
The memo was leaked to theUniversityofCosta Rica’s (UCR’s) weekly newspaper, Semanario Universidad, which broke the story late last week.
Tribunal head Luis Antonio Sobrado said the memo calls for an “improper use of public funds” and asked the Internal Auditing Office at the Planning Ministry to investigate whether the recommendations were put into practice.
Rodrigo Arias said he and the President do not agree with the memo’s recommendations and did not implement any of them.
He defended the two men and thanked Casas for deciding “to leave the Ministry so that (the investigation) could be realized in the broadest, clearest and surest form.”
Vice-Minister of Planning Hannia Vega Barrantes will take over as interim Minister during the investigation. Casas has also stepped down from the state’s CAFTA campaign, but at press time he was still Vice-President, despite calls for his resignation from outraged legislators.
Sobrado added that the memo’s suggestions are “unacceptable” and violate the Tribunal’s imperatives against misinformation, smear campaigns and misuse of state money in the campaign leading up to Costa Rica’s first referendum. And despite Casas’ initial claim that the memo is “private correspondence,” Sobrado ruled that it is a public document subject to investigation.
In an opinion piece published in the daily La Nación Monday, Casas and Sánchez said the memo was written in anger after a heated debate July 27 in Heredia, north of San José, with anti-CAFTA spokesman Eugenio Trejos.
They offered “the sincerest apologies to anyone who felt offended.” They added that their right to privacy has been violated by the leaker, whom they alleged illegally stole the memo from a computer.
Meanwhile, the government is conducting its own investigation into how the document was leaked. Lawyer Rubén Hernández, who has argued a case for President Arias, said the leaker may have violated a law against intercepting electronic communication, which is punishable by six months to two years in prison. He said the UCR paper could have violated the law against publishing correspondence without authorization, which carries a fine.
But both laws would come into play only if courts find that the information in the document is “secret.”
The two authors claimed the memo was an e-mail, but the document that Semanario journalists said arrived at their office in an anonymous envelope looked more like a photocopy of a Word document. Sánchez never referred to the document as an e-mail in an interview with Semanario journalist Vinicio Chacón.
“Do we think today that the stolen email had good ideas? In some aspects yes, in others, evidently no,” they wrote in the La Nación piece. “But neither of us should ever give up his right to say or write ideas in the private sphere, although what he writes or says might be wrong.”
If the case went to court, judges would have to decide if an e-mail is more “private” than a printed document, according to David Fallas, public law professor at the privateLa SalleUniversity.
While courts would have to make their own assessment, the Tribunal’s finding that the memo is public would be influential.
The controversial document, written before an August poll by the daily La Nación gave the pro-CAFTA camp a 20-point lead, depicted the state’s campaign as vulnerable.
“The campaign on the free-trade treaty has become… a fight between the rich and the poor,” it reads. “The coalition against (CAFTA) is formidable: universities, the church, trade unions, environmental groups.
And on the other side, in favor of the freetrade treaty, are only the government and big businessmen. There’s no way to win like that.”
To get a leg up, the memo suggested that the state “stimulate fear” among voters that if CAFTA is not approved, jobs will be lost, democratic institutions will be weakened and radical Latin American leaders will gain influence.
“We must emphasize ‘no’s’ ties to (Cuban leader) Fidel (Castro), (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chávez and (Nicaraguan President Daniel) Ortega,” the document reads.
“It is almost certain to have a big impact among the simplest people, which is where we have the most serious problems.”
On Aug. 2, four days after the memo was written, a full-page advertisement ran in La Nación with photos of these three as the face of the “no” movement.
The controversial memo also suggested that state officials bring the CAFTA campaign to workers at Costa Rican companies.
The government would purport to be discussing another issue – such as national development – in order to “cover their backs from the scrutiny of the TSE,” which has prohibited the “improper” use of public resources in CAFTA campaigns.
Political and community leaders sprung to opine on the memo. The Libertarian Movement party (ML), which supports CAFTA, said Casas should resign and Sánchez should give up his post as president of two legislative commissions – the Electoral Reform Commission and a special commission studying a law to give funds and training to small- and medium-sized businesses.
The anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) joined calls for the men to resign. “This is the worst thing that has happened to Costa Rica’s democracy since 1949,” the year after a civil war, said PAC faction head Elizabeth Fonseca.
Liberation faction head Mayi Antillón and the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA rejected the document’s suggestions, but they kept short of calling for the two men’s resignation.
The San José Municipal Council passed a motion Tuesday in a 9-4 vote asking Congress and the government to investigate Sánchez and Casas.
“What (they) wrote… rubs dirt in the wounds of those Costa Ricans who fought for electoral processes to be independent of the sitting government,” the Council said in a statement.
Fallas wrote on a political blog that the memo was “contemptible,” and he dubbed the event “Casasgate,” after political scandals in the United States.
Before this week, both men were thought to have promising political careers according to analysts. Casas was named one of the most distinguished young world leaders in January by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (TT, Jan. 17).
“At this early age to have your name smeared with all these serious charges can have a lasting impact even for young politicians,” said Luis Guillermo Solís, a historian at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO).
Constantino Urcuyo, a researcher at the Center for Political Research and Training (CIAPA), appeared unfazed by the developing scandal.
“This is politics as usual,” he said, adding that the anti-CAFTA camp is likely thinking up equally slimy tactics. “On the other side, there is a deliberate campaign of fear also – that the Gringos are going to take our water away, and that the Gringos are going to trade with human organs.”
But Solís, a former Liberation secretary general and Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Foreign Relations during Oscar Arias’ first administration (1986-90), said the memo’s implications are more serious. The Liberation Party and the pro-CAFTA camp are scapegoating Casas and Sánchez for suggesting tactics that have long saturated the campaign for CAFTA, Solís said.
Five Liberation mayors in theCentral Valleyhave told him that the party leaders threatened to cut off resources if they did not sign a letter supporting the free-trade treaty.
The letter, signed by 73 of the 81 mayors, was published in La Nación and presented to President Arias last month (TT, Aug. 17).
“Scare tactics, pressure tactics – the overall ‘yes’ campaign has been using this for months,” Solís said.
Such threats to mayors could violate laws that define the use of resources by public institutions and hold state officials to certain standards, said Marvin Carvajal, a constitutional law professor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
Carvajal said the ideas in the memo also could have led to a violation of the Electoral Code, which prohibits manipulating voters with gifts, promises of gifts, violence or threats. The punishment is two to six years of jail time.
A group of anti-CAFTA leaders – including Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC) Rector Eugenio Trejos and former Liberation legislator José Miguel Corrales – presented a petition to elections officials Monday asking them to investigate potential violations to the Electoral and Penal Codes and the Constitution.
But Carvajal said some legal twists could throw a wrench in efforts to punish the letter’s authors. First, Sánchez and Casas enjoy diplomatic immunity, which can be stripped only by the legislature. In addition, Sánchez is protected by a constitutional provision that absolves him of responsibility for things he says as a legislator. Carvajal also questions whether the memo can be used as evidence if it was obtained illegitimately.
“Independent of the very grave stuff this document says – and it is grave – my opinion is that it (will) not have judicial consequences,” he said. “The consequences are fundamentally political and ethical.”