Costa Ricans vote on US trade deal

Controversial proposal to join free trade pact divides Central American country.

    Arias, centre, says Cafta will help Costa
    Rica stay ahead in the region [EPA]
    The deal would permanently assure Costa Rica of tariff-free exports to the US, especially textile and tuna.

    "If this deal is approved, it won't make us better or worse. Just richer"

    Oscar Arias, Costa Rican president

    Supporters, led by Oscar Arias, the president, say Costa Rica needs to open its economy more since it is a small country with few natural resources.
    Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end Central American civil wars in the 1980s, says Cafta will help Costa Rica stay ahead in the region.
    "If this deal is approved, it won't make us better or worse," he said last week. "Just richer."
    But opponents, 100,000 of whom turned out for the largest march in the country in years last weekend, say the agreement would be a disaster for local farmers.
    'Weakened welfare'
    They say it will weaken the country's prized welfare system - among the strongest in Latin America – and threaten the supply of cheap medicine and a state-run telephone company.
    Costa Rica

    Population of 4 million

    Boasts of pristine beaches and jungles

    Has enjoyed almost uninterrupted democratic government for more than a century

    Has better education and healthcare than neighbours

    Coffee farming, tourism, call centres and microchip manufacturing support growing and diversified economy

    Has no army

    Attracts migrants from Nicaragua and Panama

    It will also let in a flood of cheap US farm imports and limit the country's sovereignty by taking investment disputes to international arbitration, critics charge.
    "It seriously hurts the poor and it has benefits for the wealthy class," 29-year-old student Luis Sanchez said.
    A poll last week in La Nacion newspaper showed Costa Ricans rejecting the trade deal by 55 per cent to 43 per cent.
    Other recent surveys showed the 4 million people in the most prosperous and stable country in Central America sharply divided.
    Even if the voters say "yes", Arias still must push more than a dozen implementing laws through his legislature, which has already voted to reject the treaty.
    The White House has warned that it will not renegotiate the deal if Costa Ricans vote against the current proposal.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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