Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean


Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Feb 27 2007 (IPS) - Although tens of thousands of Costa Ricans protested the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) between the United States, Central America and the Dominican Republic Monday, overall public support for the free trade pact has grown, according to opinion polls.

The organisers of Monday’s march in the Costa Rican capital said it drew 50,000 participants, mainly students and teachers.

Costa Rica is the only country that has not yet ratified CAFTA, which has already gone into effect in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, although not in the Dominican Republic.

Costa Rica has spent four years debating the free trade deal. The government of Oscar Arias hopes the legislature will approve it by the Mar. 1, 2008 deadline.

The protest was convened by the National Front Supporting the Fight Against the FTA (free trade agreement), a group of Costa Rican intellectuals and academics “who realised that their arguments about the negative effects of the treaty had failed to convince the political class,” said Fabio Chávez, secretary-general of the Association of Employees of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the country’s biggest trade union.

“That is why the people were urged to take to the streets, where the FTA issue will really be decided,” he told IPS.

Although there was no official estimate of the number of people taking part in the demonstration, presidential spokesman Rodrigo Arias said that only 20 percent of the country’s teachers responded to the call and joined the march.

“The reports that we have is that all of the public services were running smoothly, and the hospitals…and the ports of Limón (in the east) and Puntarenas (in the northwest) operated normally,” said the presidential spokesman.

Both the organisers and the government stressed that the protest, in which the demonstrators marched up to the legislature, was peaceful and took place without incidents.

The country’s trade unions are worried about the opening up of telecommunications, which are controlled by ICE, and insurance, which is a monopoly of the National Insurance Institute.

Although the opening up of these state-run sectors does not form part of the CAFTA treaty itself, it is stipulated in a complementary agenda of reforms that are requisites to its approval.

Chávez said Monday’s demonstration was “the biggest march held since we began to fight CAFTA four years ago.”

Protesters came to the capital from around the country, like Marlon Bonilla, who told IPS that “I come from Puntarenas (on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast), and we are already in a local war, even though it hasn’t gone into effect yet. We are against CAFTA.”

The ferry line running between Puntarenas and Paquera has already been privatised. The monopoly was handed over to the Naviera Tambor company, which belongs to the Spanish transnational corporation Barceló.

Another demonstrator, ICE worker Rocío Quesada, commented to IPS that “We are among those who will be hardest hit. This treaty favours only a few, not the majority. It has been poorly negotiated.”

“It should be renegotiated in an equitable manner,” she argued.

The number of people who joined the demonstration was significant in this country of four million.

But also significant were the results of the latest opinion polls, which showed that support for CAFTA has grown nationwide, to more than 60 percent of respondents.

“Today there are more Costa Ricans supporting the FTA with the United States than on election day (in February 2006) and also than on May 8, when I was invested as president. That is the reality, as demonstrated by the polls,” said President Arias in an interview with IPS published earlier this month.

Arias called for calm in a statement issued Monday. “We Costa Ricans have grown up looking each other in the eye, talking and discussing together; we have always worked out our differences through dialogue. That is the way we have moved forward,” he said.

Writer and musician Jacques Sagot stated that “the demonstration must be orderly and respectful. Demonstrations give dignity to the cause, but provocations undermine it.”

Giovanni Masís, president of the Corporación Hortícola – the association representing the country’s farmers, another sector that will be affected by CAFTA – also called for dialogue and negotiations.

Costa Rica’s farmers, who were initially sceptical about the free trade agreement, have done an about-turn and today are in favour of CAFTA, because they estimate that only six percent of agricultural producers will see no benefits, as Masís said in a press conference.

Chávez cautioned that “with this peaceful action, we will not defeat the FTA. We are in the final stretch.” Monday’s demonstration, he said “is a march within the framework of the country’s laws and the constitution, and if it does not bring results, we will move on to Plan B, C, D or E.”

When asked about what those plans might be, the trade unionist responded that “if the political class does not pay attention to the demonstration, we will move on to Plan B, which would involve the calling of general strikes, Plan C – roadblocks – and Plans D and E, if necessary,” although he did not elaborate any further.

He said the country’s trade unions see CAFTA as something that “will destroy Costa Rica’s social model. It is not a common treaty, but one that forces us to join a neoliberal FTA, which runs counter to Costa Rican culture.”

Arias’ stance on the issue is “provocative, annexed to U.S. foreign policy, and even strongly opposed to social sectors that have always acted in a democratic and peaceful manner,” Chávez added. “These free trade agreements have already proven to be a failure in the rest of Latin America,” he argued.

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