CARTAGO – Independence Day celebrations last weekend went smoothly, despite worries that tension over the proposed freetrade treaty with the United States would lead to a confrontation like the one last year between university students and police.
President Oscar Arias spoke here the evening of Sept. 14, in an annual event celebrating Costa Rica’s independence from Spain in 1821, amid chants and boos from onlookers – mostly university students – who oppose the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
The one confrontation took place about 5 kilometers outside Cartago, east of San José, Friday night, as high school students, accompanied by the police, carried the symbolic torch to the former colonial capital. Protesters stole the torch so the students continued on with another one, said Jesús Ureña, spokesman for the Ministry of Security.
Still, Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) president Luis Antonio Sobrado said that overall, he is “satisfied with the orderly and patriotic manner in which the Cartago activity was celebrated.”
Events also went smoothly Saturday, when the traditional parades and cultural celebrations took place around the country.
The Tribunal deployed about 200 “delegates” – volunteers who oversee national elections – to supervise the Cartago event while presenting a “symbol of neutrality.”
The delegates, wearing white Tribunal armbands and toting black radios, joined a crew of police officers stationed at the event, including about 100 unarmed policewomen.
“It’s a way to present an image that’s less harsh,” said Rigoberto Rodríguez, the police force’s assistant director general, adding that he had expected many more protesters to come.
Pro- and anti-CAFTA onlookers had to stay behind a gate, about 100 meters from the stage where government officials spoke and students performed dances and sang songs. CAFTA supporters stood quietly on one side, holding up “Yes to CAFTA” flags and banners. A more sizable anti-CAFTA crowd chanted on the other side, sometimes jumping up and down with their “No to CAFTA” paraphernalia.
“We are an independent country and we want to keep it that way. That’s why we are against CAFTA,” said Marcini Icagaivue, a student at the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC).
On the other side stood Rosanna Aguilera of San José, who said CAFTA would give her four children a “future” – better opportunities for work and education. Aguilera, a member of a committee to improve housing conditions, said the National Liberation Party (PLN) encouraged her to come to the event, gave her a pro-CAFTA shirt and provided transportation to Cartago.
President Arias, who touts CAFTA in nearly every speech, did not mention the free-trade treaty. His administration is still reeling from a recently leaked memo by Second Vice-President Kevin Casas and Liberation Party legislator Fernando Sánchez that suggested questionable and potentially illegal tactics for the government’s CAFTA campaign (TT, Sept. 14).
The President, using crutches in one of his first appearances in weeks following an injury to his Achilles’ tendon (TT, Aug. 31), did call for peace and mutual respect leading up to the referendum.
“Nothing in our history has showed that sovereign democratic life is always easy,” he said.“But I trust we have the maturity to accept that no moment is so hard that it should undercut our liberty and democracy.”