Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cuba’s Elections Draw Big Turnout

By Circles Robinson

Cubans went to the polls in droves on Sunday to elect their local authorities, a process that takes place every two and a half years.

With 95 percent of the registered voters casting their ballots, 2,971 of the 15,236 voting districts in the country’s 169 Municipalities will require a runoff vote on Sunday October 28.

Cuba’s elections were not a beauty contest and were not influenced by money, in contrast to the saturation advertising campaigns common in most countries.

Instead, the local media emphasized the fairness and justness of the process, where any citizen 16 or over can nominate or be nominated as a candidate, as well as vote.

Without a doubt, there are pros and cons to this system. However, it’s Cuba’s own model, it’s only been around since 1976, and it has room to improve.

One weakness in Cuba’s electoral process is that ideas on important local issues are not addressed. The candidates limit themselves to listing their qualifications in a short biography and expressing their willingness to be public servants for a difficult non-paying job.

Since some of them will also become candidates for the 609-member Peoples Power National Assembly (Parliament) in next spring’s general elections their views on national issues would also add interest and spark discussion.

While the high voter turnout is a good indication of how Cubans would react to any foreign intervention —in mass and without hesitation—, it doesn’t automatically mean uniformity of opinion.

In fact, Cubans have begun to put forth more outspoken opinions and suggestions on how to make the wheels of their socialist revolution turn more efficiently. There are many divergent views on the way the country’s economy is being run and of how specific laws or policies are being applied.

Important encouragement for widespread participation came in the address to the nation by acting president Raul Castro on July 26, 2007.

In that speech Raul Castro noted that there are all too obvious internal deficiencies in the Cuban productive and economic systems. These deficiencies, he asserted, cannot all be blamed on the costly effects of the nearly half century US blockade.

Given the new push for public involvement and the constructive issue-oriented discussions that have followed in workplaces and neighborhoods throughout the country, it would seem natural to extend this practice to the spring 2008 general election campaign. Such debate could bring more meaning to the process.

Not all agree, however. Bringing issues and ideas into the electoral process goes against the logic of those who fear politicking and others who maintain that publicly showing differing opinions on diverse issues would give the perennial enemy to the north dangerous new ammunition.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Costa Rica Remains Divided after CAFTA Vote

By Circles Robinson

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias staked his entire presidency on the CAFTA-DR free trade pact with the United States predicting utter doom if the people voted it down. In the end he and his backers in the Bush administration appear to have won a narrow victory.

With 97.9 percent of the ballots tabulated, the YES on CAFTA vote was running at 51.6 percent with 48.4 percent voting NO. Voter turnout was pegged at just below 60 percent, well above the 40 percent required to make the vote valid.

CAFTA’s promoters in the corporate sector can now breathe a sigh of relief. “The people of Costa Rica have said yes to the free trade agreement, and that for me is a sacred wish.” Arias said on Costa Rican TV.

He was echoed by US Trade Representative Susan Schwab: "We believe, and history confirms, that countries that open their markets have greater success in generating economic growth and development."

Nonetheless, deep divisions remain in Costa Rican society. NO vote spokesperson Eugenio Trejos said his camp will not recognize the defeat until a full recount is concluded. Other opponents of the free trade pact note that the successful pro-CAFTA campaign was characterized by unethical fear tactics and eleventh-hour threats from Washington.

Otton Solis, a CAFTA opponent and the candidate who lost last year’s razor-thin presidential election to Arias, told the Tico Times that he was impressed with the outcome and the turnout. He too refused to concede, citing investigations of possible fraud and constitutional violations.

Pundits around the Americas were surprised to see Costa Ricans, far from being known for defying their government, campaigning tooth and nail and carrying out massive rallies that almost succeeded in voting down CAFTA.

Part of the answer lay in the broad campaign to educate Costa Ricans about the treaty and its detrimental effects on many sectors of society including the country’s many small farmers and large service sector. A near majority came to recognize that such treaties only favor the local business elite and US corporations.

However, a key factor favoring a YES vote was the calculated fear campaign carried out by the Arias administration and the White House, both preaching disaster for the economy if voters didn’t support CAFTA.

Meanwhile, opponents to free trade agreements in the Americas maintain that on a lopsided playing field there may be some winners but lots more losers.

The US Congress narrowly ratified CAFTA in 2005 and five other member countries also approved it by legislative vote: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Costa Rica was the only country where the opposition was able to force a public referendum on the issue.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Costa Rica Free Trade Vote Eyed from Cuba

By Circles Robinson

Costa Ricans vote Sunday in a crucial referendum on the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement with the United States; the issue is being closely followed in Cuba.

Opinion polls in the days leading up to the vote show the YES campaign on the skids. A ten point lead in mid-September suddenly evaporated and on election eve the NO camp is slightly ahead.

While the outcome is anybody’s call, President Oscar Arias highly publicized scare tactics and eleventh hour warnings from the White House could backfire for the YES campaign.

The NO camp fears union busting, layoffs, a takeover of the country’s insurance and telecommunications industries, a death blow to small farmers, and relaxed environmental regulations if CAFTA takes effect.

In violation of the moratorium against campaigning that started Friday, the Bush administration warned Saturday, “The US may not extend trade preferences now afforded to Costa Rican products and set to expire next September,” if the people vote against CAFTA.

White House press secretary Dana Perino pleaded for Costa Ricans to value the agreement’s advantages including, “expanded access to the US market” and to “attract US and other investment.”

President Arias said earlier in the week, “This is the last opportunity to approve the Free Trade Agreement with the largest economy in the world.” Arias added, “If we reject it, the doors will close and with it a universe of opportunities.”

Meanwhile, the NO campaign has brought together diverse sectors of Costa Rican society including, unions, religious leaders, students, professors and environmentalists. Opposition to CAFTA came to a climax on September 30 when an unprecedented 100,000 people turned out for a rally in San Jose.


The campaign for and against CAFTA mobilized Costa Rican society and divided it as never before. In the 2006 presidential elections CAFTA was the leading campaign issue and the vote ended in a virtual tie with President Oscar Arias winning by only 18,000 votes over CAFTA detractor Otton Solis.

Opposition protests continued stronger than ever after the elections forcing President Arias to call a referendum on CAFTA instead of deciding the matter in the legislature as the other countries had done to avoid public participation.

The CAFTA-DR agreement was signed in 2004 and subsequently ratified by legislatures in the United States, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic in 2005 and 2006. A limit for approval was set for March 2008.

The last country expected to lead the fight against CAFTA was Costa Rica. It already had several free trade agreements and was thought to be a walk over for US corporate interests. However, the normally passive “Switzerland” of Central America takes center stage today in the tenacious struggle.

The choice pits the US government and its efforts to obtain advantageous commercial agreements for its corporations on the side of a YES vote, against the latest front of a growing continental resistance led by Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba.

While Cuba did not take an active position in the battle over CAFTA, its news media ran numerous reports and commentaries highlighting the NO vote activism and reporting on the unethical bullying and scare tactics used by the Arias administration to try and sway the electorate.

Costa Rica’s second vice-president Kevin Casas and a government legislator recently resigned when their secret plan for a stepped up fear campaign to encourage a YES vote became public.

The polls open at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday and a high voter turnout is expected.

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