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The US-Central America Free Trade Agreement, commonly referred to as “CAFTA,” was signed in December 2003 after twelve short months of negotiation. The negotiations involved the US, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Costa Rica at first refused to join the agreement, then changed its position in late January 2004. The US separately negotiated a bilateral treaty with the Dominican Republic, with a view to folding the deal, and the country itself, into the US-CAFTA scheme.

The US-CAFTA was signed late May 2004, and the Dominican Republic became an additional party to it in August 2004. Since then, the accord has been officially renamed the “United States-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement” or US-DR-CAFTA. But the overall agreement — which a lot of people continue calling just “CAFTA” — still needs ratification by all parties to go into force.

CAFTA is a wide-ranging agreement covering many areas: agriculture, telecommunications, investment, trade in services (from water distribution to gambling), intellectual property, the environment, etc. It essentially serves US business interests by giving them a concrete and high-level set of rights to operate in Central America. Some US sectors, such as sugar producers, feel threatened by the treaty. But by and large, the threats are mainly against the Central American countries which signed on, as it opens the depths of their economies — public and private — to the interests and power of US companies.

In July 2005, US Congress approved the DR-CAFTA and Bush signed it into law in early August. The Central American parliaments eventually also approved it. For the Dominican Republic, the treaty took effect in 2006.

Costa Rica was the Central American country with the strongest resistance to DR-CAFTA. There were large public demonstrations and information campaigns, and a broad grouping of civil society organizations, from trade unions to small farm organizations, signed on. This coalition successfully pushed for a referendum on ratification, which was held on 7 October 2007. The result: 51.62% in favour and 48.38% opposed. The result was considered binding since more than 40% of the electorate voted. In view of these results, CAFTA was ratified.

On December 23, President Bush issued a proclamation to implement the DR-CAFTA for Costa Rica as of 1 January 2009.

last update: May 2012
Photo: Public Citizen

Costa Rica’s CAFTA “Si” vote called into question
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Free-trade fight reflects broader battle
The vote was barely 24 hours away when President Bush’s aides held an emergency conference call at 10:45 p.m. last Friday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid had sent a letter that could sink a US-led free trade agreement up for referendum in Costa Rica. The Bush team decided to put out its own statement to save it. The trade pact went on to pass narrowly Sunday, but the last-minute drama capped a furious few weeks in which the White House and Congress fought a proxy war in the tiny Central American nation.
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