Costa Rica Remains Divided after CAFTA Vote
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.