Costa Rica is a small country. In many ways us not hearing about it often can be seen as a sign that things are going relatively well. But every once in a while things happens in even the most obscure countries that are at least marginally newsworthy. Costa Rica just went through a trying fight over their economic future concerning the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) trade deal and we heard hardly a peep from the mainstream media. Whereas other Central American countries approved CAFTA without the direct input of the populace, Costa Rican's demanded to be consulted and so it was put to the voters as a referendum. What could have been a secret deal turned instead into a divisive struggle, pitting business interests, the government, and the U.S. against labor, with a majority of people left trying to figure out what the possible outcome of either a Yes or No vote would be. This was a struggle for the soul of a country, not just any country but a country where many Americans have visited as eco-tourists or aspiring Spanish speakers.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
All of this conflict and turmoil should seem to have piqued the journalistic appetite of at least one major newspaper editor, but unfortunately this story, like many others before it, fell through the cracks. Here is an example of what the illustrious New York Times ran after it became clear that CAFTA had won by the slimmest of margins:
Yeah, that's it. When the San Francisco Chronicle ran something about as small on page Z16 I noticed and went looking for more information. What I found was another sordid tale of U.S. bullying, business saber rattling, and a confused and angry general population. Elsa Arismendi wrote a very interesting article for Foreign Policy in Focus titled, "Fear and Voting in Costa Rica" (you can read the article here). To summarize, Elsa found that the the coalitions opposing CAFTA were strong but the coalitions that held the means of production were, as always, stronger. Shameless scare tactics, including a message from President Bush himself, were used to frighten the populace into voting Si. In the end CAFTA passed by around 51.6% of the vote, although a few have called foul.
Is this the beginning of a dismantling of the public institutions and safety nets in one of the few functioning democracies in Central America? Only time will tell. What is crystal-clear right now is that we've better get glasses, because all the important stories seem to be small.