Sunday, October 21, 2007


Today is the TLC referendum. TLC is the CAFTA for Costa Rica: Central American Free Trade Agreement. Yesterday a protest against the TLC was held in San Jose, they say 10,000 people marched. All this week Oscar Arias has been speaking in favour of adopting the agreement. Costa Rica is the only Central American country who has put it to referendum. However in a country where few people take interest in politics, and the majority are simple folk who’s major focus is their immediate family and their own community, there have been some advantages taken: people have been encouraged to vote yes by being given gifts and bus rides to voting stations. Folk wearing brand new ‘my heart says yes’ t-shirts have been interviewed but have very little idea what TLC means, rather some town official said yes was the best way to vote, and took them on a bus ride for the day with lunch and a t-shirt thrown in.
In September a memo was leaked which discussed how to lay on free transport and organize the yes vote amongst campesinos (the rural poor). The US embassy have stepped over diplomatic boundaries and have been involved with helping the government to orchestrate the yes vote. People in positions of local responsibility have been encouraged to spread the yes word through promises of increased funding or other perks.
Oscar Arias and his government want the agreement. Oscar Arias has oil interests. It is thought there is oil in the Caribbean, currently it is illegal to even explore for oil or minerals in national parks and protected areas; 27% of the country is protected parkland, almost 50% of the Caribbean coast is protected. The TLC agreement will provide loopholes.
Feelings amongst the no-voters are mixed. Most want TLC, but they want fair free trade and believe many points in the current agreement need changing. Currently, for example, there is a tariff on US corn entering Costa Rica, (so the coke manufactured here is made from cane sugar, not corn syrup as in Mexico and the States). With TLC cheap corn will be available, effecting cane farmers, cheap rice will be available as will cheaper pulses. Rice and beans are the staple foods for almost every tico (many believe that without daily rice and beans one becomes sick – there’s some kernel in there, together rice and beans provide complete protein). In theory this is better for the consumer but worse for the farmer, and therefore the economy. Cheap imports from the US will flood the markets, further americanising life here and damaging the more expensive Central American products. On the other hand labour is very cheap here (the normal pay is 800 colones an hour, about $1.80), which means that US companies will be able to move manufacturing here, more employment for Costa Rica, less in the States. Currently agriculture is the largest employer in the country, then tourism, then manufacturing. With TLC manufacturing could replace agriculture which in the long term would effect the country’s ability to provide its own food and to maintain it’s own self dependence. It seems that all Free Trade agreements are good for business owners and government, not for the people or the environment, certainly not in the long term.
I think the vote will go through, while everyone I know will vote no, and there are by far more no voters in the Limon region than yes, there are too many people who think as this fisherman:
“I’m voting yes, why not? it doesn’t affect me and change is good.”
(interview in Tico Times, September 24th)
The doesn’t affect me attitude of ticos cannot be underestimated, and with the promise of t-shirts and days out, I think it will be enough to swing the referendum.
And if not, well it’ll probably be swung anyway. In the general election Oscar Arias ‘won’ by less than 4000 votes. Certain parts of the country simply didn’t return or count their votes, mysteriously lost. Investigations were started which lasted for months tied up in incredible amounts of bureaucracy and finally petered into nothing, even the investigation results were somehow lost. This seems typical; lack of funds and ultimately lack of interest and the notion that well, we have this now, it’s already done, after all it doesn’t affect me. Not really.
For information on TLC, CAFTA and US-Central American relationships see the WOLA website: