Threats, Dirty Tricks, Fake Polls:
Costa Rica Votes Under Duress on "Free Trade"
by Mark Weisbrot, www.alternet.org
www.zmag.org, October 7, 2007
No country has ever had a national referendum
on a "free trade" agreement before - which is not surprising
since most of these agreements wouldn't be approved by the citizenry.
Bill Clinton couldn't even get a majority of his own party in
Congress to vote for NAFTA in 1993, and it's been downhill for
these types of agreements ever since.
So Costa Rica - the region's richest and
most democratic country -- will be setting a precedent on Sunday
with its referendum on CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement),
which was negotiated in 2004. Costa Ricans might want to watch
out for a repeat of presidential elections last year, where current
President Oscar Arias squeezed out a narrow (1.1 percent) victory
over progressive candidate Ottón Solís, who criticized
CAFTA in his campaign. In that campaign, erroneous polls reported
by the media showed Arias with a large lead of 11-19 percentage
points. This led to a record low turnout at the polls. Costa Rica
could very well have a different president, and a different trade
policy, if not for the impact of this false polling.
The latest polls in Costa Rica give an advantage to the "yes"
vote, but things have been moving rapidly towards "No"
since an embarrassing high-level government memo was leaked a
few weeks ago. The memo, as the Los Angeles Times described it,
"outlined a campaign of dirty tricks intended to sway voters."
This included telling mayors that their cities would "not
get a penny from the government for the next three years"
if they did not deliver a majority of voters for CAFTA. In the
words of the memo, the government also needed to "stimulate
fear" among the voters, including "fear of the loss
The Bush Administration joined the campaign to "stimulate
fear," with the U.S. Ambassador threatening that Costa Rica
could lose some of it existing access to U.S. markets if the voters
reject CAFTA. This led US Congresswoman Linda Sánchez to
remind the Ambassador's boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
that such interference in Costa Rica's electoral politics violates
US, Costa Rican, and international law. Senate Majority leader
Harry Reid and House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi also weighed
in with a letter stating clearly that Costa Rica's access to U.S.
markets under the Caribbean Basin Initiative are not conditioned
on acceptance of any trade agreement.
In fact, the threats from the US government, and repeated by the
Costa Rican proponents of CAFTA, are empty. There is only a small
portion of Costa Rica's trade preferences that Congress would
have to renew next year. It is politically inconceivable that
the Democratic majority in Congress - which voted against CAFTA
when it was approved here - would move to punish Costa Rica for
its voters having rejected the same agreement. Despite the intimidation,
Costa Ricans brought a record 100,000 people (equivalent to seven
million in the US) into the streets last weekend for a "No"
vote. They have good reasons to reject CAFTA: they do not want
their farmers wiped out by subsidized grains and other agricultural
products from the U.S. They also have a strong environmental movement
that vehemently objects to provisions in CAFTA - like NAFTA -
that would give corporations new legal rights to challenge environmental
laws. And Mexico's post-NAFTA economic performance - about a third
of its pre-1980 growth - is less than inspiring.
Of course "free trade" is a marketing slogan rather
than a description of the actual policy that is up for a vote.
These agreements - including CAFTA -- increase some of the most
costly barriers to international trade (such as in pharmaceuticals)
while lowering others (e.g. for subsidized US agricultural exports).
A "No" vote in Costa Rica would deal another blow to
the Bush Administration's foreign commercial policy, which has
already suffered numerous defeats: including the collapse of their
proposed "Free Trade Area of the Americas;" the stalled
talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO); and the administration's
loss of "fast track" authority to negotiate new agreements
with minimal congressional input.
Costa Rica is one of the richest countries in Latin America, and
has a well-developed democracy. That democracy will be put to
a new test with this referendum.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research, in Washington, DC.
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