God's Politics

God's Politics

Pro-Prosperity, Anti-CAFTA in Costa Rica by Elizabeth Palmberg

The questioner from a D.C. think tank was confused. Costa Rican politician Ottón Solís had just told an audience of D.C. journalists and policy thinkers how his homeland has a 120-year tradition of democracy, strong respect for human rights, and by far the best economy, lowest poverty and illiteracy rates, and highest life expectancy in its region.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of country that backers of the Central America Free Trade Agreement think is well positioned to “reap the gains” from CAFTA. Yet it’s the only potential member that has so far not ratified the agreement; in an October referendum Costa Ricans will vote whether to join CAFTA, and Solís is urging a “no” vote.

Patiently, Solís repeated his point: Costa Rica is already benefiting from trade (its exports last year grew four times faster than in 2005, far better than neighboring countries who had implemented CAFTA). Joining CAFTA would only undermine “precisely … some of those institutions that you and I are praising”: The universal health care system would be bankrupted by new rules favoring pharmaceutical companies, environmental laws could be challenged in closed-door trade tribunals, and the government-run electric and telephone companies, losing their monopoly, would no longer be able to offer the low prices and wide coverage that are “basic for social mobility.”

Bookish-looking, vocally pro-business and pro-U.S., and armed with a statistics-laden PowerPoint presentation, Solís is as far as you can get from a populist firebrand like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In response to the anecdote-based pro-CAFTA claims of his debating partner from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Solís got spirited, but in a courteous and polysyllabic way:


Why is the U.S.A. building a wall [on its southern border]? If this CAFTA is for us such a magic machine of employment generation and small entrepreneurship strengthening, then the U.S.A.—with all of Central America, practically, and Mexico in free trade agreements—would have been eliminating visa requirements. They are making them more stringent, and building a wall, because the U.S.A. knows very well what’s going on here in our countries [including, in Mexico, the NAFTA-induced] disappearance of 1.3 million farmers. … In these deals, you cannot survive if you are small.

And small- and medium- sized landowners, Solís pointed out, have been “the very basis of [Costa Rica’s] democratic development” and prosperity.

Faced with a media that (not unlike the U.S.’s) offers only pro-CAFTA messages, Solís is leading a group of volunteers going door-to-door to urge his countrymen to vote no to CAFTA in October’s referendum. With 600 people each knocking on a thousand doors (so far Solís has hit 683), they figure they’ll hit half the nation’s households, all on a budget of less than $20,000 (used to print brochures). The anti-CAFTA speakers have found that church doors, unlike television studios or the halls of government, are often open to their presentations.

“I have seen very many instances in history in which hearts, passion, conviction, have defeated money [and] power,” says Solís. “And I hope that this is going to be another case.”

Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners. Ottón Solís spoke recently in Washington, D.C., at a forum hosted by the Global Policy Network.

Comments read comments(13)
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kevin s.

posted August 10, 2007 at 10:24 am

I see Elizabeth Palmberg has gotten a visit from the sugar beet farmers et al… Otherwise, she would mention the most compelling (from a Costa Rican perspective) argument against CAFTA, which is that American farm subsidies eliminate the possibility for real agricultural free trade.
This statement is utterly ludicrous on its face:
“losing their monopoly, would no longer be able to offer the low prices”
And Hugo Chavez isn’t a “populist firebrand”, he is a Socialist dictator who uses government coffers to buy influence and power.

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posted August 10, 2007 at 10:33 am

We should all reject CAFTA, and for precisely the reasons the Costa Ricans are proposing (if I am reading this right). We should all allow unilateral free trade for all. No tariffs, no protectionism at all. Costa Rica can go beyond any trade treaty, and do much better by accepting this policy, than if they enter a limited or conditional agreement with only a few nations. And yes, the farm subsidies must go. Now. Everywhere. As must all subsidization public and private.
Nathanael Snow

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Ted Voth Jr

posted August 10, 2007 at 12:14 pm

That Chávez is a socialist does not mean that he’s a dictator, or that he’s not a populist.
In my case, socialism, populism,and democracy spring all together from the common root of my orthodox,born-again Christian walk with God in the incarnate, crucified, risen Jesus.
Good for Solis! We should all reject CAFTA, and deny another opportunity for Yankee capitalist economic imperialism.
Isaiah 5:8 Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that ye may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

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Olga González Nichols

posted August 10, 2007 at 1:12 pm

“This statement is utterly ludicrous on its face:
“losing their monopoly, would no longer be able to offer the low prices” ”
What Kevin S. above does not understand obviously is that Costa Rica has a long tradition of understanding that certain vital services like electricity, water, health should never be in the hands of any private institution driven by profit. Costa Ricans view these services as part of their rights as citizens. ICE (Costa Rican Electric Institute) which provides electricity and telecommunications for Costa Rica is owned by the state. It does not spend millions in advertising; there are no stockholders clamoring for their money; all profit is reinvested in more modern equipment, and passed on to the customers. This is an institution ALL Costa Ricans own, not just a few rich ones! Monopoly of this kind does result in better, more affordable prices.

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kevin s.

posted August 10, 2007 at 2:04 pm

“That Chávez is a socialist does not mean that he’s a dictator,”
Doesn’t mean he isn’t, either.
“What Kevin S. above does not understand obviously is that Costa Rica has a long tradition of understanding that certain vital services like electricity, water, health should never be in the hands of any private institution driven by profit”
I understand what Costa Rica thinks it understands. But where has this understanding got them? 68th in GDP per capita? At any rate, the author of the post was talking about telecommunications, not water.

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E. Palmberg

posted August 10, 2007 at 3:02 pm

Everyone at the event, including Solis’s debating partner from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed that Costa Rica has the lowest telephone prices, highest percentage of telephone service, and by far the highest GDP per capita of the region.

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posted August 10, 2007 at 8:01 pm

when i was driving a truck in los angeles i did not join the union, but nearly all of the other employees were union members. i got all the benefits they got. get it? solis can make his own deals when he finally comes around. he doesn’t have to give up his power unless he takes the money.. government owned/health care, and utilities do not come without a price. i wonder what their immigration policies are? me thinks costa rica is surviving on foreign investment and sale of land to foreigners. tourism is their bread and butter which is good.

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posted August 11, 2007 at 8:04 am

tourism is the bread and butter and CAFTA does nothing to stimulate tourism one way or the other since tourist companies already get tax preference on imports for their businesses.
the powerful YES side has been successful in changing the rules for this election, eliminating protections present all other elections, most noteworthy being the ability to vote by marking with an X instead of having to stamp your fingerprint on the ballot and the impediments put up for naming of poll workers for the NO side.
Given the irregularities in the last presidential election and the close race which required a recount taking three weeks but including ballots which were handled irregularly in their shipment to headquarters and the appearance of numerous discarded ballots in schoolrooms (where we vote here) do not give many on the NO side, faith in the system and that can lead to instability. Some do not even want to proceed with the vote given the circumstances, a worrisome situation in a democracy.
The money being poured into tv and radio ads by the YES side seems to be endless while the NO struggles to pay for the pamphlets to distribute. We can only pray that the truth can get out to enough of the people and the elections are fair.

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posted August 11, 2007 at 11:19 am

julie; sounds like solis et. al. have already bitten into the forbidden fruit. he and his team will just have to be satisfied with CAFTA and get rich. maybe if the progressive christians and democrats gain power in the U S they can save costa rica from democracy and capitalism.

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Bill Samuel

posted August 11, 2007 at 11:23 am

Let’s also not ignore how Costa Rica got in the position of being so much better off than the rest of the region. More than a half century ago, they abolished their military.
People told them they were foolish. They had border issues with their neighbors, and the conventional wisdom was they would be overrun.
Costa Rica ignored the conventional wisdom. They redirected their resources from the military to building up their economy and caring for their people.
Would that other nations would follow their example.

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kevin s.

posted August 13, 2007 at 12:05 pm

If Costa Rica does not see it in their best interests to enter the agreement, or if they are holding out for terms that are more favorable to them, I do not begrudge them that right.
I simply question some of the underlying assumptions here.

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posted August 16, 2007 at 4:31 pm

I agree with the above, but even further I am having trouble understanding why this discussion is taking place. Comparing economic positions taken by small countries like Costa Rica, Norway or Lichtenstein to those taken by economic powerhouses like Japan, Germany, Russia or the United States is like comparing a bow and arrow to a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile.
Those small countries should be able to make whatever decisions they want without interference. Who cares if Norway with about 5 million people joins the EU? Who cares if Costa Rica adopts or rejects CAFTA? If what they are doing works for them, let them be.

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