A fragile coalition of legislators is moving slowly but surely toward passing the 12 laws that would implement the free-trade agreement with the United States ratified earlier this month.
The 38 legislators who support the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) approved the first of the 12 laws in an initial vote this week. They also voted to apply a fast-track procedure to two CAFTA laws and send three others to special commissions to speed debate.
The deadline for passage of the so-called CAFTA implementation agenda is Feb. 29, 2008, according to government and opposition leaders, but Costa Rica could request an extension from the pact’s other signers – the United States, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
With 38 members, the pro-CAFTA coalition is just large enough to apply the fasttrack procedure, vote to hold extra sessions, send laws to special commissions and complete the quorum required to do business.
The challenge has been making sure all 38 members attend sessions and agree on strategies to pass the agenda.
The 38 legislators voted Monday to meet every day this week from 8:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., in addition to their regular afternoon sessions from 3-6 p.m. to discuss the implementation agenda. They also voted to apply a fast-track procedure to two patent laws, limiting debate to 22 sessions in the full Legislative Assembly.
A major breakthrough came Tuesday, when the coalition gave an initial green light to a bill that would regulate the relationship between foreign companies and their representatives in Costa Rica. A second and final vote on the law may not take place for another month because the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) has promised to challenge its constitutionality before the Supreme Court.
The coalition also created special commissions this week to consider three CAFTA laws.
One commission has 15 days to discuss reforms to the Penal Code,which would crack down on bribery. A second commission will spend 15 days debating a treaty that grants patents to developers of new seed varieties. A third can take a month to discuss a proposal to open the state monopoly on insurance.When their time is up, all three commissions will present the laws to the full assembly floor for debate. These three laws were previously bogged down in various legislative commissions, with no timetable for discussion.
Despite the coalition’s progress, there have been potholes in its path. A proposal by the Libertarian Movement (ML) Party to combine seven implementation laws into one mega-bill has been dismissed by its pro-CAFTA bedfellows. Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) faction head Lorena Vásquez flatly rejected the idea, while National Liberation Party (PLN) faction head Mayi Antillón said she is skeptical of such plans.
The Libertarians also disagree with PUSC and PLN about the reaches of a bill to open the state’s telecommunications monopoly.
Libertarian legislator Carlos Gutiérrez said he would not support his allies’ version, which involves more state regulation and higher fees for companies than his party would like.
What’s Antillón’s strategy? “Dialogue, dialogue. Take into account all the suggestions that come from (other coalition members). Have a lot of patience and tolerance,” she said. “These are difficult times and I think it takes more convincing than anything else.”
The most basic challenge for the coalition may be getting everyone to show up.
Just one absence – say, due to traffic or sickness – could prevent Congress from meeting. The anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC) has waited at the door before sessions this week, refusing to enter unless the coalition has already mustered the 38 legislators required to do business.
“If they make up a quorum, we will enter and hold session. If not, we won’t enter,” said PAC legislator Lesvia Villalobos.
The daily La Nación reported that Liberation legislator Luis Carlos Araya used a police escort to get to Monday’s morning session on time. The coalition hasn’t always been so lucky: three absences kept legislators from meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss a patent law.
Meanwhile, President Oscar Arias has finished a flurry of meetings with legislative factions to discuss the controversial implementation agenda, as well as consensus social development projects. He met with all factions except the Broad Front party, whose one legislator in Congress – José Merino – turned down the President’s invitation.
“What I saw was a parade through Casa Presidencial,” said Merino, who is in close contact with the broader anti-CAFTA movement.
“There isn’t a serious proposal for dialogue. It seems the President is just doing this as a courtesy act.”
In a letter to Merino,Arias responded that his refusal to talk with a political opponent “erodes Costa Rica’s democratic foundation.”
During her meeting with Arias, PAC faction head Elizabeth Fonseca delivered a letter by PAC founder Ottón Solís calling for an 18-point “mitigation agenda” to counteract CAFTA’s harmful effects.
In a reply letter last week,Arias said: “The doors of Casa Presidencial are always open to those who have constructive proposals for national problems.”
He insisted that the two men agree on more issues than they disagree on. In response to Solís’ demand that the government give subsidies to farmers and small businesses, the President said the administration hopes to create a national development bank, which would lend money under favorable conditions to Tico producers.
Arias said the state is investing in science and technology, but stopped short of addressing Solís’ demand that 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP) go toward that area.
Solís had also asked that Arias comply with his campaign promise to increase state investment in education from 6% to 8% of the GDP.
The President said such an increase would be “practically impossible” and economically risky in 2008, but feasible by 2010.