A weakened but passionate group of Costa Ricans met Saturday to define new strategies in their fight against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), approved narrowly last month in a referendum.
In what was largely a venting session, hundreds of people crowded into a sweaty events hall in the eastern San José district of Zapote, while scores of community leaders took turns at a microphone for two-minute speeches. The assembly then approved a series of resolutions similar to ones they adopted at a conference Oct. 13 at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
The group rejected the results of the referendum, which was approved Oct. 7 by 51.6% of valid votes, and they vowed to fight a series of 11 laws that would implement CAFTA.
These include the pact’s most controversial aspects – the opening of the state telecommunications and insurance monopolies.
Jorge Coronado, a sociologist who helped organize the conference, conceded that deciding the next step has been a challenge.
“The referendum was an easier issue. Everyone was on the same page because it was a call to vote “no,” he said. “But now there is a more complex discussion about the methods of fighting the implementation agenda.”
Coronado said the movement’s principal strategy has been bringing protestors to the wings of the Legislative Assembly, where they have chanted and posted signs while legislators meet to discuss the CAFTA laws.
Tensions escalated this week when two legislators posted their own signs on the other side of the glass, and the assembly’s acting president, José Angel Ocampo, ordered all to come down (see story below).
Still, Elizabeth Fonseca, faction head for the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC), said she doesn’t think the treaty’s implementation could be thwarted, given that pro-CAFTA legislators have a two-thirds majority in Congress.
“I’m a lot more realistic,” she said.
Fonseca, who attended the conference with PAC leader Ottón Solís and a handful of other party legislators, said they were there to “take the pulse of the social movement” and to show their support. She added that the meeting was an important outlet for CAFTA opponents to vent their frustration after a frenetic and optimistic campaign.
After conference members spoke for two minutes each, a group of writers compiled their ideas into a short list of resolutions. The assembly then clapped to approve the resolutions and any motions to modify them.
The assembly pledged to spread information about the implementation agenda through universities and the alternative press. They also plan to boycott media outlets and companies that support the pact.
Assembly members further pledged to the international community to refute the results of the referendum, which has been lauded as free and fair by the Organization of American States (OAS). CAFTA opponents say the treaty’s supporters violated electoral rules by using public resources in campaigns and spreading propaganda during referendum weekend.
The CAFTA opposition has centered around Patriotic Committees, small groups of Costa Ricans throughout the country who met regularly to coordinate campaign events.
One of the movement’s challenges is to maintain this structure in post-referendum days without a clearly defined fight. A second challenge is to keep the movement – a hodgepodge of unionists, teachers, students and political leaders – unified on a national level.
“Now the fight has a more sectarian nature,” Coronado said. “We in the “no” movement are trying to avoid ruptures. But well, we’ll see how far we succeed.”
Coronado expects the various sectors to take the lead at different times. For example, he said, union members at the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), a state monopoly, might strike against the opening of the telecommunications industry, or small farmers might lead protests against a law giving patents to developers of new seed varieties.
The movement has had no central leader since the referendum, when one-time anti-CAFTA figurehead Eugenio Trejos stepped down to resume his day job as rector of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC).
Still, Trejos took center stage at the event Saturday. He gave the opening speech and he sat at a table at the head of the room, greeting friends and taking pictures with supporters.
“From the rectorship I will continue to support and accompany the Patriotic Committees,” he wrote in a letter to the university community. “I will work alongside all the social, civil and political organizations, environmentalists and others who…believe that another, better Costa Rica is possible.”
Trejos said his goals for the movement go beyond CAFTA. He hopes the Patriotic Committees will continue to fight for “profound state reform,” including a new tax system and land distribution.
“There’s much more to fight for,” he said. “We have to defeat the neoliberal model that has developed in this country in the past 20 years.”