Costa Rica Votes On CAFTA

On Sunday October 7, 2007, Costa Rica faces a historic moment.  The only country included in DR-CAFTA that has yet to ratify the controversial free-trade agreement, Costa Rica will decide on DR-CAFTA via popular vote this Sunday, October 7.  With the latest national polls indicating that a full 50% of the population is opposed to this unjust agreement, the "No to CAFTA" movement in Costa Rica has a real chance.  This potential victory would send a strong message to Washington that these NAFTA-style agreements that benefit the rich and harm the poor will not be tolerated.

The Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) has been controversial since negotiations began behind closed doors in January of 2003.  By August 2005 all participating countries had signed on and were pending ratification of the agreement by their congresses.  Despite widespread popular dissent, the agreement was ratified by every country, except Cost Rica; passing in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 27, 2005 by one vote, with two representatives not voting.  Thanks to your hard work through education and telephone calls to your members of Congress, the movement to fight unfair free trade agreements continues to grow here in the United States and around the world.  Nowhere, however, is the struggle against free trade agreements more evident than in Costa Rica .

While the rest of the countries have begun to study the effects of DR-CAFTA on their economies, often seeing their imports increase and their exports decrease, Costa Rica has yet to make a decision on the agreement.   Many experts predicted that the decision would come immediately following the 2006 Presidential election.  Yet, despite the election of pro-CAFTA Presidential candidate Oscar Arias (known for his reception of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to end civil wars ravaging many Central American countries), the race was so close between Arias and anti-CAFTA opponent Ottón Solís, taking weeks to hand-count the ballots, that it was obvious that the country was deeply divided over the issue.   Costa Ricans have continued to be so evenly split over CAFTA that the Legislative Assembly (Costa Rica's congress) eventually decided to let CAFTA be determined by popular vote in a national referendum to be held this coming Sunday, October 7.

The streets of San José,  the capital city, have been filled the past few months with thousands chanting, "¡No al TLC! (No to CAFTA!)"  This past Sunday, September 30, an estimated 150,000 to more than 200,000 Costa Ricans joined together to voice their opposition to CAFTA in a peaceful march down San Jose 's main street.   As a former Evangelical Lutheran Church in America missionary who just returned from two years in Costa Rica this past July, I can assure you that the "No" movement is alive and well.  Costa Rican Lutheran Church Executive Director Pastor Gilberto Quesada Mora offers an explanation for the continued resilience of the David vs. Goliath movement, stating that the "Yes (to CAFTA)" movement is fighting only for an interest, while "No (to CAFTA)" movement is fighting with passion, with much at stake. 

Adding to the scene are allegations of corruption and manipulation by politicians, company owners, and even U.S. government officials for the "Yes" campaign, most notably with the leak of a memo sent by Second Vice-President Kevin Casas and legislator Fernando Sánchez to President Oscar Arias and Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias.  The memo details underhanded political tactics such as "stimulating fear" in four different areas and threatening that "the Mayor that doesn't win his canton [for CAFTA] will not get a penny from the government in the next 3 years." (Read more information at the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-cafta21sep21,0,7329608.story?coll=la-home-center or read the memo itself: http://www.wola.org/media/memo%20casa%20sanchez_english.pdf )

As with other free trade agreements, the "Yes" side is mainly comprised of the political and economic elite, while the "no" side has supporters including government workers, university professors, religious leaders, students, union leaders, small business owners, and more.  The concerns about labor, environment, and agriculture are vibrant in the debate.  What makes the stakes unique in Costa Rica is that it stands to lose the many qualities that have made Costa Rica a kind of peaceful anomaly in Central America .  Here are just a few "Costa Rica-specific" reasons to vote no to CAFTA:

"Estado solidario:"  Costa Rica is able to provide high rates of coverage at low cost for many basic services through state-run enterprises, which operate under a commitment to provide basic services to every corner of the country.  Following the Costa Rican mindset of solidarity, those who can pay more help to subsidize the cost for those who cannot afford it.  Under CAFTA, these areas would be opened up for competition to private providers.  While privatization may or may not offer improved quality, it will definitely replace the commitment of service to all with a commitment solely to profit margins.

Telecommuncations:  Costa Rican telephone rates are less than half the cost of the rates in other Central American countries, while simultaneously offering the highest area of coverage in the region.  It is estimated that, under CAFTA, one out of four families will no longer be able to pay for telephone service. (Lea y enteré por qué Nuestro corazón dice NO al TLC produced by MAOCO and the Movimiento Patriótico por el NO).

Healthcare: Costa Rica's healthcare  system is currently ranked 36 in the world by the World Health Organization, just ABOVE the United States , which is ranked 37.  CAFTA facilitates healthcare for the rich and will destroy the ability to provide healthcare to all.

Arms manufacturing:  Costa Rica , heavily dependent on tourism and therefore on its international image, is a country known for its pledge to peace and non-violence.  CAFTA puts this tradition into jeopardy by allowing for the buying, selling and even manufacturing of arms on Costa Rican soil. 
 

The strong opposition to CAFTA in Costa Rica is even drawing attention in the US Congress.  On October 1, US Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio gave an excellent Senate floor speech detailing the shortcomings of NAFTA/CAFTA style agreements and hi-lighting CAFTA resistance efforts in Costa Rica and the U.S.   Watch it on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9gph-bLqso or read the transcript by following the link at the bottom of this page. 

Senator Brown also commented on CAFTA at an interfaith prayer breakfast in 2005, stating, "I am offended by what DR-CAFTA will do to the poor.  I'm a Lutheran, and this trade agreement goes against my faith values and those of my church.  Trade agreements are written for and by the economic elites of both our country and the other countries of the world.  They serve their interests, not those of common, every day people and certainly not those of the poor."

Follow the outcome of the Costa Rican referendum (immediately binding as long as 40% of the population participates in the vote) on Costa Rica 's English language newspaper at www.ticotimes.net or, for Spanish speakers, at www.nacion.com

As we soon face votes on similar free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and Peru, let us be inspired by the energizing and faithful "No to CAFTA, Yes to Costa Rica" movement.  We can have more just trade that will benefit all peoples, not just the economic elite.  ¡No al TLC!