No country has ever had a national referendum on a "free trade" agreement before - which is not surprising since most of these agreements wouldn't be approved by the citizenry. Bill Clinton couldn't even get a majority of his own party in Congress to vote for NAFTA in 1993, and it's been downhill for these types of agreements ever since.
So Costa Rica - the region's richest and most democratic country - will be setting a precedent on Sunday with its referendum on CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement), which was negotiated in 2004.
Costa Ricans might want to watch out for a repeat of presidential elections last year, where current President Oscar Arias squeezed out a narrow (1.1 percent) victory over progressive candidate Ottón Solís, who criticized CAFTA in his campaign. In that campaign, erroneous polls reported by the media showed Arias with a large lead of 11-19 percentage points. This led to a record low turnout at the polls. Costa Rica could very well have a different president, and a different trade policy, if not for the impact of this false polling.
The latest polls in Costa Rica give an advantage to the "yes" vote, but things have been moving rapidly towards "No" since an embarrassing high-level government memo was leaked a few weeks ago. The memo, as the Los Angeles Times described it, "outlined a campaign of dirty tricks intended to sway voters." This included telling mayors that their cities would "not get a penny from the government for the next three years" if they did not deliver a majority of voters for CAFTA. In the words of the memo, the government also needed to "stimulate fear" among the voters, including "fear of the loss of jobs."
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Mark Weisbrot at The Huffington Post.