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.

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