The paradoxes of a “democrat”
By Nidia Díaz
27 April 2007
For those who do not know it, it is at the very least paradoxical that it was precisely President Oscar Arias, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and impassioned defender of “democracy,” who attempted to block a citizens’ initiative that would approve the convening of a referendum to decide on the Costa Rican people’s approval or not of a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States.
In a thousand different ways, he tried to prevent the inevitable referendum, because he completely advocated for Congress - where 38 legislators support the FTA, with 19 against - to give the trade agreement fast-track approval, as was the case with other Central American nations.
In a last-minute maneuver, the Costa Rican administration presented a decree to the Supreme Electoral Court to hold a referendum, knowing that three days earlier, former presidential candidate José Miguel Corrales, together with other opposition forces, had initiated the so-called “citizens’ initiative” as stipulated by law.
Seen in that perspective, it would seem that the administration is going in the same direction as the opposition, when actually the idea was to impose a presidential decree so that the referendum is held before September - August, to be exact - without having defined aspects like the regulations that would guide the process, and above all, on whether the referendum will be binding if participation by Costa Ricans is no higher than 30 or 40%.
The president, who represents a very important economic sector in the country, gave his word to it, and to others outside and within, that under his mandate, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) - which includes Central American and the Dominican Republic - would be approved without difficulty.
With the proposal made by the political opposition as well as the labor and social movements, the time periods will be longer, given it is required that they collect signatures, as laid down by the Supreme Electoral Court.
And time is what the Costa Rican government does not have, given that March 2008 is the deadline for that country to definitely join the CAFTA. The Central American nation is the only signatory from 2004 that has not yet approved it. The Parliaments of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic approved joining the CAFTA despite the opposition of their respective peoples.
According to experts on the issue, Oscar Arias’ decision is a violation of the Constitution and will produce a conflict of competence between the government and the Electoral Court, given that it is ignoring the legal principle of “first in time, first in law.”
In any case, looking at it as an observer, a referendum on the FTA would be a triumph for the Costa Rican people and the political, social and labor organizations that represent them, beyond the tricks imposed on them by the administration and the rest of the state.
It is, above all, the result of a relentless struggle that, once initiated in the country to put a check on the privatization attempts of previous governments, had its climax during the giant march against the FTA last February, smoothing the way for the people to not let that initiative be taken away from them in the face of a response to a one-sided deal with Washington.
This makes Costa Rica the only country of those that have signed free trade agreements with the United States to approve its final entry or not via a popular referendum.
The struggle between the administration and the people, according to observers, will give rise to talk but above all, they warn that the Electoral Court should give the green light to Corrales’ proposal to initiate the collection of signatures to continue forward with the “citizens’ initiative.”
The decision by the Electoral Court should correspond, if it doesn’t want to fail, with the history of struggle by the Costa Rican people against actions of this type and their firmness in not ceding until they reach their goal. For example, there are the recent campaigns of 2000 that resulted in Congress having to abolish the decree that would have facilitated the privatization of the state monopolies on electric power and telephone service.
A similar situation arose when then-President Abel Pacheco signed a contract in 2002 with a transnational oil company for oil and gas exploration that benefited the foreign company. The resultant opposition forced the nation’s Supreme Court to declare the project unconstitutional. Sufficient reason to make the government understand that the Costa Rican people will not stop until they defeat the FTA, whose real objective is the re-colonization of the continent and revert what remains of the traditional welfare state to the benefit of the transnationals and local oligarchy.
It is worth recalling that Costa Rica, also known as the Switzerland of the Americas, saw its social stability affected as a result of neoliberal policies, for which the former mandate of President Arias (1986-1990) is also responsible, in addition to having been characterized by serving the business class.
To cite just one example, because of the implementation at the time of belt-tightening measures, wages were drastically reduced and poverty grew by over 4%. The State gave away tax cuts to exporters, importers, oligarchs and business owners, and while it reduced subsidies for small farmers, it allowed the free entry of tariffs on the import of basic grains, to their double detriment.
Oscar Arias returned to power with the support of only 25% of the electorate, and did so to complete his unfinished business against the people. Transnational capital wants to take over the state monopolies of electric power, telecommunications, Social Security, the National Insurance Institute, the Institute of Water and Sewer Services, the state universities, and - as if all of that weren’t enough - it is sharpening its teeth to gobble up the social guarantees that still remain: the labor code and biodiversity; the latter, in Costa Rica’s case, being the equivalent of 5% of that existing on Earth.
This is what the government’s offensive is about; hence its need to pass the FTA with the United States and its counterparts in Central America and the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, Oscar Arias has given his word on that.
The coming days will be witness to this struggle, in which the Costa Rican people will give it their all not to allow their country to be snatched away.