Costa Rica Free Trade Vote Eyed from Cuba
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.
COSTA RICA ON CENTER STAGE
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.