For the first time this week, President Oscar Arias’ administration said it may seek an extension of the deadline required to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Costa Rica has until Feb. 29 to pass bills putting the country in compliance with CAFTA, which was approved in a national referendum in October. But with only two of 11 bills passed after three months of intense debate, several lawmakers said the deadline cannot be met.
Costa Rica could get more time with permission from the treaty’s other signers – the United States,Guatemala,Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, while still publicly optimistic, said the administration will decide in the coming weeks whether to ask formally for more time – perhaps a two- or three-month extension.
President Arias may start discussing the issue with other Central American presidents next week, when he visits Guatemala for President-elect Alvaro Colom’s inauguration, said Rodrigo Arias.
Lynda Solar, director of the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce, said prospects for an extension look good.
“As far as Washington is concerned, if they see that there has been substantial progress, I think there is wiggle room in terms of the deadline,” she said. “I don’t foresee that the other (Central American) countries will make that a problem.”
U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale said the United States is keeping a place for Costa Rica in its budget for trade-related assistance to CAFTA countries.
The CAFTA bills would open the state telecommunications and insurance industries, as well as strengthen intellectual property rights. The pro-CAFTA lawmakers, who have a two-thirds majority in the assembly, have applied a fast-track procedure to seven of the bills. The other two are in special committees with the power to pass laws.
Still, the 17-member Citizen Action Party (PAC), which opposes CAFTA, has slowed progress by refusing to attend legislative sessions and presenting thousands of motions or suggestions to change the bills. Citizen Action will also challenge the bills before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) in a process that could take a month.
Jorge Méndez, from the government’s National Liberation Party (PLN), said the assembly cannot pass all of the bills before the deadline. The Arias administration is professing optimism, Méndez said, in order to encourage lawmakers to continue working hard. Arias’ pro-CAFTA allies in the legislature scheduled extra morning sessions this week, and they met for nearly 12 hours on Monday and Tuesday.
Lawmakers held a press conference Wednesday titled: “Enough already! Costa Rica must make progress.” Speaking beside a mound of papers – the thousands of motions presented by Citizen Action and two other lawmakers – they criticized the party for stalling progress. Proposals to promote public safety and social and economic progress have been put on the back burner while lawmakers haggle over the CAFTA bills.
“What are we doing here in the assembly, wasting Costa Rica’s time and money?” asked Evita Arguedas, an independent lawmaker and CAFTA supporter.
Elizabeth Fonseca, Citizen Action faction head, said her party was presenting hundreds of motions in order to improve the bills.
“For us,” Fonseca said, “the No. 1 priority (is) that the bills not go beyond what CAFTA demands, and that they do not cause too much harm to the country.”