The controversy over the recognition of same-sex civil unions in Costa Rica is heating up.
In the upcoming days, the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) will announce whether it has received enough valid signatures to allow for a referendum question on civil unions for same-sex couples. If approved, the referendum would likely be held on Dec. 5, the same day as nationwide municipal elections.
The Citizen’s Observatory, an organization promoting the referendum, was required to present petitions with over 136,750 signatures, or 5 percent of registered voters, before June 15 for the issue to qualify to appear on the ballot, according to the tribunal.
As the TSE tallies the signatures, which it says could take up to three weeks, people on both sides of the issue have become increasingly vocal. The Ombudswoman’s Office, which believes the rights of homosexual couples to form legal partnerships are guaranteed by the constitution and international human rights agreements, said in a statement in early June that, “There are no prohibitions or obstacles in Costa Rican law that prevent acknowledging the rights derived from a partnership of people of the same sex. On the contrary, the law demands that that these be respected (and explicitly recognized).” The Ombudswoman has declared her intention to challenge the proposed referendum before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV).
On the other side of the debate, Father Mauricio Granados, a spokesman for the Catholic Church, said that such a “preferential” treatment for gay unions contradicts Catholic doctrine and the Costa Rican constitution. The Church does not recognize unions other than those between a man and a woman.
Gearing Up for a Referendum
On Tuesday morning, a group of several civil union advocates, including members of the Diversity Movement, the Broad Front Party, the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and CEP-Alforja, a human rights group, met over breakfast to strategize on promoting their cause should it go to a popular vote. While the referendum has yet to be announced, most in the room believed it was inevitable.
“I have to assume that if it is taking so long to count the signatures and make the announcement, that a referendum is likely,” said Abelardo Araya, president of the Diversity Movement. “The logistics of a national referendum take time to plan, and assume that is what the TSE is currently debating.”
All of those present in the room dislike the idea of a referendum, believing that the vote will serve to either earn or deny them basic rights that should already be guaranteed.
“If a partner in a same-sex relationship dies, the other partner cannot claim any of his or her goods, even if they lived together for 30 years and shared everything they owned,” said Carlos Sánchez, business administrator for the Diversity Movement. “These rights are guaranteed for couples of the opposite sex but completely denied for partnerships of the same sex.”
The referendum is based on a 2006 bill to guarantee the same rights for same sex partnerships as for heterosexual partnerships. The bill, which Araya says has always been low on the Legislative Assembly’s list of priorities, was shelved in September 2009.
“We’ve done all we could to impede a probable referendum,” Sánchez said. “But unless we hear something in the next few days, it will most likely go to a vote.”
According to Sánchez and Mario Céspedes of CEP-Alforja, the most crucial rights currently denied to same-sex partners are inheritance in case of death or injury; financial rights, such as shared accounts; shared trust and property; and health, such as sharing insurance policies.
“A civil union has nothing to do with permitting marriage or adoption,” Céspedes said. “It is about ensuring that every Costa Rican citizen be guaranteed the same rights.”
The group will meet with the Ombudswoman’s Office on Friday to further discuss the issue.
Forty Percent Turnout
If the referendum is confirmed, Gerardo Abarca, general secretary of the voting registry, told The Tico Times that the proposed Dec. 5 date has not yet been solidified.
Abarca said that for the referendum vote to be valid, at least 40 percent (1,135,992) of the country’s 2,839,982 registered voters must participate. According to Céspedes, municipal elections in the past have averaged turnouts of 25 percent.
While many have questioned the TSE’s decision to consider pairing the referendum vote with the municipal vote, Abarca explained that it might promote a larger voter turnout.
“If the referendum vote is on the same day as the municipal elections, we think it could generate more voter participation,” he said. “Voters will not have to leave their homes twice for two different votes. And some that are only there to vote for one thing will most likely vote for the other.”
If the referendum is held Dec. 5 and over 40 percent of registered voters participate, over half of them must vote in favor of civil unions for the proposal to be approved.
First Civil Unions in C.A.
If the TSE has indeed received a sufficient number of valid signatures, the vote will go ahead, becoming the second referendum in the nation’s history after the 2007 poll on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). If the referendum passes, Costa Rica will be the first country in Central America to recognize same-sex civil unions. Such civil unions are recognized in several Latin American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay. Earlier this year, Mexico was the first Latin American country to allow same-sex marriages.
“It’s important to note that in the strongest democracies in the world, this has been a popularly discussed theme,” said Costa Rica’s foreign minister, René Castro, earlier this month. “We will not be the first democracy, or the last, that will make a decision of this nature. I think that we live in a country with a sufficiently mature democracy to be able to conduct a discussion of this nature in a rational manner.”
Those who favor the recognition of gay civil unions often cite former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to support their perspective. Shortly before leaving office this year, Arias said, “One doesn’t choose to be heterosexual or not. Not men or women.
Someone doesn’t begin to feel heterosexual or homosexual when they are 14 and then decide what they want to be as an adult.
These are things that happen naturally, and we have to evolve to accept homosexuals as people God sent us. We shouldn’t try to fight against nature.”
Meanwhile, President Laura Chinchilla and Viviana Martín, head of the ruling National Liberation Party’s legislative delegation, have said that the issue of gay unions is not a priority for the government.