Costa Rica: CAFTA scandal hits veep

On Sept. 13 Costa Rican vice president and planning minister Kevin Casas took a leave of absence pending an investigation by the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) into charges that he used public resources improperly to support a campaign in favor of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Costa Rica signed the accord—which reduces trade barriers between Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the US—in 2004, but it hasn’t obtained the required approval from its legislature. CAFTA is already in effect in the other countries.

In April CAFTA opponents forced the government, which strongly supports the accord, to call a referendum on the issue; the vote is set for Oct. 7 and is binding if 30% of the voters participate.

Casas and a legislative deputy from the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), Fernando Sanchez, sent President Oscar Arias and his brother, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, a secret memorandum on ways for CAFTA to win approval in the referendum. They recommended a campaign charging that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were behind the forces calling for a “no” vote; they also suggested that the president threaten mayors with reductions in funding for their municipalties if they failed to back the “yes” vote. “It’s possible that this campaign may bother some people,” Casas and Sanchez wrote, “but it’s almost certain that it can have a considerable impact among unsophisticated people, which is where we have the most serious problems.”

After the memorandum had been leaked to the media, Rodrigo Arias said he and the president had disagreed with the recommendations and had ignored them. But in an interview published on Sept. 12, Epsy Camphell Barr, president of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC), said that the media, which she characterized as “90%” for the “yes” vote, had carried out a “million dollar campaign” against CAFTA opponents based on accusations that they were “with [Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez, with [Cuban president] Fidel Castro.” Shortly before the scandal broke out, opinion polls showed 56% of the country’s 2.6 million voters backing CAFTA and only 36% opposing it. (La Jornada, Sept. 14 from DPA, Reuters, AFP; Servicio Informativo “Alai-amlatina,” Sept. 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 16

See our last posts on Central America and Costa Rica.

See also WNU’s special report, “Protests Rock NAFTA Security Summit—as reports reveal free trade’s empty promise.”