As negotiations between the European Union and Central America over an association agreement kicked off this week, so did something else: opposition.
At a meeting hosted by the Citizen Action Party (PAC) in a Legislative Assembly conference room, representatives of Central American agriculture groups objected loudly to the free-trade element of the association agreement under discussion.
“The negotiations have started very badly,” said Carlos Aguilar, a spokesman for a group called “The Cry of the Excluded in Mesoamerica,” which Aguilar described as a mix of various small agriculture alliances in the Americas.
Agriculture representatives from Honduran and Guatemalan groups made sweeping statements decrying free trade, export agriculture and European farm subsidies.
“Our national sovereignty is at risk,” said Aparicio Pérez, a spokesman for the Guatemalan group Vía Campesina, as he decried “neo-liberalism.”
Though the half a do zen or so groups represented at the meeting gave mixed messages, all expressed dissatisfaction with the access civil society has been granted in the process.
At the moment, Central America’s civil society organizations are being represented by a group of 26 leaders that make up a consultative committee of the Central American Integration System (SICA).
Aguilar said negotiations through that group as a proxy are not good enough, and that the groups want responses to their concerns.
Lidiette Hernández, a spokeswoman for the National Farmers’ Union, compared it to “talking to a wall.”
“You can talk to it,” she said, “but it doesn’t listen to you.”
Aguilar made clear that regardless of what happens, the groups are against the free-trade part of the association agreement.
“The organizations represented here are opposed to free-trade agreements because of previous experience,” Aguilar said.
Alfredo Malespin, a representative from the northern canton of San Carlos for the National Small Farmers’ Roundtable, said the agriculture organizations’ experience fighting the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) “helped us coordinate all the other organizations” in coming out together against the E.U. negotiations.
Meanwhile, west of San José in the Hotel Intercontinental, the first round of negotiations on the association agreement had begun. The round is set to conclude today.
“Central America is ready to play in the big leagues,” Costa Rica’s lead negotiator, Roberto Echandi, said in the opening ceremony on Monday.
The first round of negotiations have so far served only to set the parameters for further negotiations. For example, in the political discussions, negotiators agreed upon the texts – basically, treaty templates – that would be the basis for discussions.
In the trade part of the talks, both sides came to agreements on things such as methodology of statistics that would be compared at the negotiating table.
The parties will return to negotiations in three more rounds – scheduled for December, February and April – and then assess progress during a May summit.