No to CAFTA!

Students Isaac, Sofia and Marcela are working hard against Costa Rican membership in CAFTA.
Students Isaac, Sofia and Marcela are working hard against Costa Rican membership in CAFTA.

After leaving Nicaragua southward, I bumped into Katie Niemeyer for the 4th time, this time walking down a high way In Liberia, and we decided to go to the town of Santa Cruz in northern Costa Rica, where there was to be some kind of cowboy festival. But because this seemed rather posh, we decided to go on to the capital, San Jose, yesterday, and at the bus station I saw a guy with a button saying “NO TLC.” TLC stands for Tratado de Libre Comercio — or the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in English. He told me a little about the campaign to keep Costa Rica out of the agreement, and ended up giving me the button.

Today, I decided to go to the University of Costa Rica, and try to find some more information about the campaign against CAFTA.

At the entrance of the social science faculty, I saw some students hanging out in a room filled with political posters, and so I asked them whether they knew anybody who was involved in the campaign against the CAFTA. “We all are!” they screamed out laughingly, and Isaac, Marcela and Sofia came out. 30 seconds later we were sitting on the floor, as they were explaining me all about the Coordinadora Nacional Contra el TLC (CNCTLC).

From reformists to revolutionaries

The coalition against CAFTA is currently looking at trying to have a majority of the 57 deputies of the country’s parliament vote against the ratification of CAFTA. So far, only the one deputy of the Frente Amplio (FA), Jose Merino, the 17 deputies of the Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC), and Oscar López of the party of disabled people Partido Accesibilidad Sin Exclusión (PASE) have clearly stated that they will vote against CAFTA.

But that does not mean that the students are huge fans of these parliamentary parties. “The PAC is a reformist party,” Marcela remarks, “and the Frente Amplio will say that ‘oh yeah, it’s the people in the streets that are important’ but when it comes to it, they always respect the law. For us, the law is not important, if it stands in the way.”

All three of them are members of the trotzkyite Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores (PST), one of the groups of activists participating in the CNCTLC. As in most countries with a large leftist movement, the organization of the radical left is rather complex, so I end up having to draw a chart of it in order to understand some of the more basic principles of it. It turns out that Marcela, who is studying English but also working, is directly member of the PST. While Isaac and Sofia, who are in their first year of university studies on the other hand, are part of the Juventud Socialista, which a subgroup of the PST , and are active in the Junta Directiva of the Associacion de Estudiantes de Estudias Generales (AEEG). On a national level there is besides the PST, also the trotzkyite parties Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT) and Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) — which is not the same as its name brother in Bolivia — and the stalinist party Vanguardia Popular (VP).

“Back in 1948, they had 5000 militants, and 4000 in arms,” Isaac tries to give a picture of the VP, “but then came the civil war, and all left wing parties were forbidden. Those that are left of them now are from back then.” “The left in this country is really just reawakening,” Marcella adds, “it’s the old ones, and the young ones, but those between 30 and 40, who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union were all quite disillusioned.” “Yeah, we have the same problem in Eastern Europe,” I drop in, “the generation between 30 and 40 seems to be lost… but we got the youth.” “Really? That’s interesting…” Marcella comments. Radicals everywhere seem to be concerned about studying the current situation in far away places as much as changing the it in their own country.

Organized Labor

Besides the leftist groups, there are also there are also the labor unions. “All the main unions in the country are against the CAFTA,” Sofia states: amongst them the teacher’s unions Asociación de Profesores de Segunda Enseñanza (APSE), Asociación de Nacional de Educadores (ANDE) and Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Educación Costarricense (SEC), the workers of the state owned telephone company ICE Frente Interno de Tabajadores del ICE (FIT-ICE), and health care workers of the Unión de Personal del Instituto Nacional de Seguros (UPINS). “In addition, the PST has currents inside the APSE and ANDE,” Isaac tries to make my chart even more confusing, “and also, some of the trade union leaders, as well as the deputy of the Frente Amplio, betrayed a popular struggle against the privatization of the ICE.” But at the end it all comes down to everyone being involved in the campaign somehow or other anyways. “So the whole left is against CAFTA? There is no one who is for CAFTA on the left?” I tried to clear it all up. After a few seconds of hard thinking, they all nod eagerly.

Neoliberalism

Now after having found out that everyone on the left is against it, I also try to find out why precisely it is so bad for Costa Rica, given that it is the richest country in Central America.

“First of all,” Marcela´s tone of voice shows that she has trained this part of the interview quite a bit when arguing with other students over the last few months, “it represents a continuation of 25 years of neoliberalism, directed by the bourgeoisie, and privatization, which is helping the imperialism of the United States.”

For Costa Rica, it was 1982 which marked the beginning of privatizations. Before that, the state even owned things such as cement factories, fertilizer plants and super markets. “Cement prices would be held cheap to allow for ordinary people to build houses, and fertilizer prices were controlled to allow for poor farmers to afford it. It was a time of super rapid development for this country,” Marcela elucidates. And all of them almost seem proud of these social democratic sounding state model. The state still holds four banks, but they lost their monopoly in the 1990s and they now have to compete with about 50 smaller private banks. “Why 4? Why not just 1?” I ask, and Isaac has the answer: “They had different functions: one was designed for workers and would give options that would suit them, another was for agriculture and would give farmers micro credits, then the national bank would be…” Isaac does not seem to be too sure of the purpose of the national bank, and Marcela starts suspecting that the national and central bank are two different banks, but I tell them that I understood the concept, and we leave the subject.

Santa Cruz: The ultra rich are the only ones who would profit from CAFTA.
Santa Cruz: The ultra rich are the only ones who would profit from CAFTA.

And on we go with CAFTA…

Now with CAFTA, the process of privatizing or “putting into competition” will continue with the last few sectors that still are state controlled: Electricity, water, health care and telephone (including Internet). “We have 97% of the country covered with electricity,” Marcella says, “and that includes some of the most remote areas. And for health care, we have a ‘solidaric’ system: everybody pays 9%, no matter how much you earn, and everyone gets the same services.” Obviously, it would be bad to loose this for ordinary Costa Ricans. “And also our telephone system is based on a system of solidarity,” Sofia tries to convince me, “when you phone from a cell phone, you pay 70 colones/minute [14 US cents], while from a land line you pay 10 colones/minute [2 US cents]. About 2/3 of Costa Ricans have cell phones and they finance the land line phones in far away places.”

Another sector they point out is agriculture. About 10 years, Costa Rica was producing 90% or more of its own food, such as rice, pig and chicken meat and brown beans. Now it has already gone down to 60% — a change which they attribute to the fact that is has become harder for farmers to get credits from the state agricultural bank as it has to compete with the private sector and that prices for fertilizers have gone up. And once there is free competition with farmers in the United Sates, it is likely that even fewer farmers will be able to survive producing these goods. “Our minister of agriculture is aware of that, but he simply says: ‘well, then we’ll have to produce other things that the US will buy from us, like pineapples, oranges and flowers…'” Marcela almost starts to laugh, “flowers, yeah right, and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll have to start eating those flowers!”

And there are numerous minor issues, that indirectly would affect the everyday life of Costa Ricans. One of the are medicine patents are a problem, as Isaac enlightens me: “Right now, the public health insurance is producing generic medicines, as Costa Rica is not respecting the patents foreign brands hold. With CAFTA, the state would need to buy the brands instead for the first 15 years after the invention of a drug.” “For example, the ‘caja’ [commonly used term for the public health insurance] can pay for 400 generic drugs, but would only be able to pay for 4 brand products,” Sofia visualizes the problem. Also, the three are afraid of large company fusions, that will end up selling all national companies to foreign countries. For Nicaragua, that has already happened: “When you were in Managua, did you see the huge tower of the BAC bank? They have fused with US American general Electric, and they’re now holding 49.99% of them”, Marcela points out, “or the super market CUU? Walmart is majority owner there now!” I had not seen the BAC tower, but I obviously seem shocked by the news about Walmart, so Sofia decides to push it a little more: “60% of all super markets in Central America are already controlled by Walmart.”

I do understand that they do not need see history repeat itself in Costa Rica.

But why not ALBA?

As the last question, I chose to ask them about Alternativa Bolivariana para la América (ALBA) — the alternative trade network set up by Cuba, Venezuela, Nicragua and Bolivia. “Well, they say we need to build up an alternative to CAFTA, and so a lot say that Alba is the answer”, Marcela starts, “but also ALBA is between the different bourgeoisies of the different countries. It’s not the workers of individual countries exchanging goods. And even when Morales or Chavez nationalize companies, they end up being controlled by the state, and not by the workers… Well, that is some criticism we have of it.” That last sentence makes me think that they do not just equate CAFTA with ALBA, but that they do not see it as their solution either.

Isaac and Sofia have to go to a meeting, and so Marcela instead starts to inquire me about Norwegian politics. “We were wondering, what is there to fight for in a country like Norway?” And I have to start taking down the image of Norwegian as some kind of pre-communist wholly state. Sofia has a movie about the CAFTA that I should watch, so I promise to be back tomorrow.

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