logo logo

CAFTA referendum heightens social tensions in Costa

Workers World (New York) | 2 Nov 2007

CAFTA referendum heightens social tensions in Costa

In the Oct. 18 issue of Workers World we covered the news that Costa Rican voters had narrowly approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). We have since received the following in-depth article from an associate who has been living in Costa Rica.

By Carlos Morales-Mateluna

Costa Ricans approved the so-called Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) by a margin of only 3 percent of the votes in the Oct. 7 referendum. Sixty percent of registered voters went to the polls.

Costa Ricans have discussed CAFTA since the start of the “negotiations” with the U.S. in 2003. But with a somewhat strong government sector that has provided basic services to Costa Ricans since the 1950s-including health, education, insurance, electricity and telecommunications-many were hesitant to include these services in CAFTA. Only three years ago, large popular mobilizations prevented former and now indicted President Miguel Angel Rodríguez from opening up the national telecommunications company (ICE) to foreign buyers. It remains a state-run monopoly today.

Costa Rica’s “negotiating” team was mostly educated in the U.S. and team leader Anabel González holds U.S. citizenship. Her husband, Francisco Chacón, was involved in the sale of the international airport to a Bechtel subsidiary, Alterra.

Former President Abel Pacheco delayed sending CAFTA to the Legislative Assembly (Congress), and so it was left to current President Oscar Arias, elected in 2006, to make sure it was approved. Arias made it his top campaign issue and, for most of his presidency, it seemed that it was “his” government’s only project.

Tensions were rising in Costa Rican society. As CAFTA languished in Congress, a group of citizens asked the Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to allow a referendum to decide whether CAFTA was approved or rejected. Costa Rican law provides for citizens to gather signatures to request that controversial projects be decided by popular vote.

Surprisingly, the TSE authorized this initiative. The next day, Arias submitted a decree requesting Congress to authorize the vote. The groups that had originally requested the referendum protested, claiming that this would prevent them from educating the public, which they expected to do while requesting signatures. Arias himself had previously refused to allow a referendum. Eventually “his” initiative won and the legislature approved the referendum.

Costa Rican society generally welcomed the opportunity to decide about CAFTA. Some opponents of CAFTA, however, warned that the government “allowed” the referendum only after massive street protests and when pro-CAFTA groups realized they might not be able to win a vote in Congress. They estimated they had only the exact number of votes needed to approve it.

By holding a referendum, the battle for CAFTA could be moved off the streets and people would be demobilized. In the electoral arena, money, the media and the government-including a friendly TSE-could influence the results, the pro-CAFTA forces reasoned.

Ruling class favors CAFTA 100 percent

The mainstream media, business chambers, major corporations and government officials favored CAFTA’s approval. Production Minister Alfredo Volio resigned and was named head of the Alianza por el SÍ (Alliance for YES). The regime launched a massive public relations offensive. The YES campaign spent an estimated $3 million, bombarding Costa Ricans with billboards, television ads, full-page ads, all in favor of CAFTA.

Costa Rica’s so-called “paper of record,” La Nación, which has long favored neoliberal policies that reduce wages and cut social services, openly campaigned in favor of CAFTA, using its editorial pages to print several articles a day favoring the treaty.

The Yes campaign included virtually all elected officials, headed by none other than the president, who used all their public appearances to campaign in favor of CAFTA, often offering housing assistance or scholarships in front of television cameras and the press. In one of these appearances, Arias told a group assembled in an industrial park, in what has become a common occurrence, that “those who come by bicycle, with CAFTA will come in a BMW motorcycle, and those who come in a Hyundai, will come in a Mercedes Benz.” (

Arias likened rejecting CAFTA to “massive suicide.” Not surprisingly, and just as he had done in the electoral campaign, Arias refused to debate anyone, even his rivals. So the main proponent of CAFTA in Costa Rica did not dare to defend it in front of anyone willing to challenge him.

Other methods used to influence public opinion included “informative talks” held in large industrial parks and corporations, where employees were herded to one-sided meetings where they were told in various ways that if CAFTA was rejected, their company might close or that they might lose their jobs. Many Costa Ricans work for the private sector in manufacturing or in the service sector.

These talks often featured government officials. Astonishingly, even U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale visited companies to “warn” about the consequences of a NO win. Langdale also published opinion articles, and made regular statements to the press about what was good for Costa Rica. This flagrant interference in Costa Rica’s electoral process is specifically prohibited by its electoral code. Sadly, the TSE ignored all of these violations.

Popular sectors mobilize

Anti-CAFTA groups, which consisted of public sector workers, unions, farmers, indigenous peoples, artists, university students and professors, and working class Costa Ricans, started organizing in community groups called “Comités Patrióticos” (CPs-Patriotic Committees). These CPs were grassroots organizations made up of neighbors who started campaigning door to door, organizing seminars, making appearances in community radio stations and leafleting in an attempt to overcome their almost complete lack of funds compared to the YES groups. The CPs existed in virtually every town, from the remote highlands to the urban neighborhoods.

As the referendum approached, the YES groups’ comfortable lead became smaller and smaller. A month before the vote, public opinion surveys showed the difference was within the margin of error.

Costa Rican Vice President Kevin Casas and Legislator Fernando Sánchez-Arias’s cousin-wrote a memorandum to Arias and his brother, Rodrigo Arias, who is minister of the presidency. This remarkable memo unveiled the strategies behind the YES campaign. Its writers expressed their dismay over the NO campaign’s growth, warned of a defeat, and recommended several actions to prevent this.

These actions included threatening all mayors, particularly those who belonged to the ruling party (PLN). “Transmit to them, in the harshest terms, a very simple idea: the mayor who loses his county on Oct. 7 will not receive a penny from the government,” the memo read.

They also recommended to “saturate the media with propaganda” and “stimulate fear,” with fear subdivided into: fear of loss of employment, fear of foreign interference (referring to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro constantly, and associating the NO campaign with these foreign leaders). An analysis of this six-page memo has shown that all of its recommendations were implemented.

When an alternative university weekly published the leaked memo, public outcry forced Casas to resign. Arias’ cousin remains in office. Oscar Arias argued he did not pay attention to the memo, but he failed to discipline Casas in any way, and in fact, did not take any action following its receipt-which he acknowledged. Many have accused Arias of being complicit with Casas, since he did not immediately fire his vice president for making statements that are criminal under Costa Rican law.

Mass protest supports NO; maneuvers steal vote

The enormous effort of the NO campaign culminated in a demonstration on Oct. 30, when 150,000 people-the largest protest in Costa Rican history-out of a population of 4.5 million came from every corner of the country. The last poll released three days prior to the voting showed, for the first time, a comfortable 12-percent lead for the NO.

That day the TSE declared a complete ban on all forms of propaganda, to allegedly allow voters to reflect on their vote. The NO campaign observed this ban. The mainstream media, however, continued to divulge all kinds of “news” favorable to CAFTA, including appearances by public officials, a 90-minute appeal by Arias to vote favorably, and constant repetition of a CNN interview warning against rejection of CAFTA.

U.S. intervention was even more blatant the weekend of the vote. On Thursday, a letter from U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab was released commenting on the unlikelihood of renegotiating the current agreement or negotiating a new one, and also about a set of preferences from which Costa Rica currently benefits. This letter was prominently featured in most newspapers and news programs.

Ambassador Langdale later publicly admitted having called Schwab, requesting this letter. On the eve of the referendum, the White House reiterated the threats in Schwab’s comments. The same day, Intel, which produces Costa Rica’s number one “export,” also declared its support for CAFTA on all major media.

The YES campaign’s funding was estimated to be about 10 times that of the NO in the year of the referendum. In the years preceding, the YES spent hundreds of thousands, including taxpayers’dollars, while the NO did not campaign. That this was allowed by the TSE is not surprising, since its president has publicly stated that economic power is a legitimate actor in an electoral process. He has refused to limit the media’s influence, alleging “freedom of expression,” even though most people cannot express themselves in these media.

Because of the unfair campaign leading to the actual voting day, a large segment of the population now views this referendum as fraudulent. The vote failed to resolve the tensions that have been increasing for the past two decades, since Oscar Arias in his first term introduced the neoliberal model to the country.

The NO movement is regrouping to resist the implementation of CAFTA, which is now law. However, for it to take effect, 13 additional laws and treaties-some of which Costa Rica twice rejected in the past-must be approved by March 1, 2008. These will be discussed at the Congress.

Also, the community groups have decided to reject the referendum’s results and to continue the struggle against CAFTA, using public protest, educating the public, and even, if necessary, by calling a general strike.

The NO campaign has achieved an incredible feat: with barely any resources, and opposed by all elected officials, business chambers, U.S. government, mainstream media and transnational corporations, who openly campaigned for CAFTA and violated electoral law, it still obtained almost half of the votes. Its even greater achievement was to unite Costa Ricans who were apathetic regarding the political process in their country after decades of corruption and so-called “free market” economics.

These organizations united people of all political currents to challenge the system, the so-called “democratic institutions” and “rule of law,” something that had rarely occurred in this country, and certainly not at this level. The process has produced tens of thousands of activists who are using grassroots methods to change the political system in Costa Rica, which has been dominated by a small elite since the founding of the country.

The Costa Rican social movement has grown since the 1970s when it defeated a project promoted by ALCOA, the aluminum monopoly. In the dawn of the 21st century it defeated attempts to privatize ICE telecommunications. And now it has forced the government to hold a referendum on an unpopular treaty that, according to Washington’s plans, was supposed to have been approved three years ago.

 source: Workers World