Costa Rica: passionate protests against CAFTA force president to change tactics

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A classic David versus Goliath confrontation is taking place between Costa Rica and the U.S. The Costa Ricans are the lone holdout against ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which covers five countries in Central America, as well as the Dominican Republic and U.S.

The Bush administration has gone to great lengths to secure final approval of CAFTA. It has secretly paid off Costa Rica’s treaty negotiators, waged a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign, and pressured Costa Rica to amend its constitution so that Óscar Arias, winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, could run for president an unprecedented second time in order to do George Bush’s bidding.

If the people of Costa Rica can hit Bush between the eyes with a rejection of the neoliberal agenda, the free trade juggernaut could finally be stalled and hopefully reversed. Therefore, the U.S. is demanding that Arias take care of business — now!

But ever since Costa Rican officials signed the treaty in 2004, an impressive, broad-based movement has fought hard to keep the legislature from ratifying the pact. During the last six months, unionists, feminists, leftists, environmentalists, indigenous people, small farmers, students, and other activists have intensified their opposition by holding mass strikes and protests against the accord, including an 80,000-person demonstration on February 26, 2007, in San José.

AFL-CIO weighs in. In April, at the height of this activity — just as Costa Rica’s Congress was considering a vote on CAFTA — opposition forces got a well-timed boost from the largest labor federation in the United States. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent a letter to President Arias on behalf of the federation’s 10 million members. It urged defeat of CAFTA and expressed solidarity with the “thousands of our trade union brothers and sisters [who] continue to march in the streets voicing their opposition to the agreement.”

The AFL-CIO’s letter was prompted by unions in Washington state. At the urging of labor activists allied with the Freedom Socialist Party, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 304 launched an anti-CAFTA solidarity campaign. Local 304’s call was embraced by several labor bodies, including the state labor council, and ultimately forwarded to the AFL-CIO.

David Morera, secretary general of the Healthcare and Social Security Union and a leader of the Costa Rican Partido Revolucionario de las Trajabadoras y los Trajabadores (PRT), described the letter as “an extraordinary contribution to our fight against free trade.”

Referendum presents new challenges. The combination of street heat and international pressure managed to derail Arias’ efforts to push the pact through Congress — a partial victory for anti-CAFTA forces. But as it became clear that the legislative route for the agreement was in trouble, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) intervened and ruled that citizens could put the accord to a popular vote if they collected 130,000 signatures in nine months.

The tribunal’s decision is a calculated move by officials to legitimize an unconstitutional treaty and defuse militant protest in the streets against CAFTA and the 13 implementing bills, required by the U.S., which are still pending in Costa Rica’s Congress.

Arias quickly took advantage of the ruling and obtained approval from Congress, and the tribunal itself, to hold a public vote by decree as early as September — without any collection of signatures. Once again normal procedures are circumvented to impose CAFTA on Costa Rican citizens, even though a majority oppose it.

Arias and the transnational corporations he serves are confident they can subvert the will of the people through a carrot-and-stick approach. Their campaign includes false promises of new exports and half a million jobs if CAFTA is ratified — and threats of retaliation by the U.S. and the loss of $400 million dollars in duty-free textile exports to the U.S. if CAFTA is rejected.

In reality, Costa Rica’s exports are protected from tariffs by a Caribbean Basin trade agreement that can only be rescinded by the U.S. Congress. And it is countries already under CAFTA that have experienced severe declines in exports to the U.S., while imports from the U.S. have doubled and thrown thousands of Central Americans out of work.

If approved, CAFTA and its related enabling laws will also pry open the electricity, insurance, and telecommunications industries to privatization, and restrict the use of generic drugs. Dismantling the nation’s highly organized public sector will bring large-scale layoffs, union-busting, and reduced services to the poorest Costa Ricans. Other provisions will expose small farmers to devastating competition from heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness.

Activists who agitate against the treaty, including union leaders, academics and leftists, are smeared by pro-CAFTA forces as “disguised terrorists” and “opponents of national interests.” They also face office break-ins, death threats, police harassment, violence and frame-ups. For example, Orlando Barrantes, an outspoken opponent of free trade and president of the banana workers union, was tried and convicted in 2006 on bogus kidnapping charges.

As long as critics of free trade are denied freedom of speech and association, there can be no fair public vote on CAFTA. And in addition to these hurdles, there is also a lack of parity in campaign resources, of equal access to mass media, and of protections against election fraud and economic blackmail.

Turn up the heat to stop CAFTA. The Costa Rican PRT and their left and labor allies hold no illusions. While calling to vote “no” in the referendum, they continue to mobilize for mass actions and strikes to stop CAFTA and related legislation. Militant action in the streets and workplace is the real source of workers’ power and it prepares people to accept no less than the accord’s total defeat.

Continued support from international labor will also help bolster opposition forces in their campaign to convince fellow Costa Ricans to junk this harmful pact. Check the FSP website at or email for copies of resolutions and updates on how you can help Costa Rica beat CAFTA and the conquistadors of free trade.

Fred Hyde, who serves on the FSP National Committee, is a 30-year member of the Washington Federation of State Employees and frequent delegate for Local 304 to the state labor council.

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