Cablegate: Costa Rica: Next Anti-Cafta Protest On 26 Feb


DE RUEHSJ #0361/01 0541928
P 231928Z FEB 07

C O N F I D E N T I A L SAN JOSE 000361




E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/14/2017

REF: A. 06 SAN JOSE 2431

Classified By: CDA Russell Frisbie per reasons 1.4 (b & d)


1. (C) 1. (C) The next anti-CAFTA protest is scheduled for
Monday, February 26, with the locus of action likely to be
San Jose. Organizers promise a larger event than last
October's protest, but predicting turnout is impossible in
advance. The GOCR has vowed to prevent disruption of
essential services (not anticipated) and roadblocks
(probable) while respecting the right of citizens to protest.
Costa Rican security officials are confident they can
prevent major disturbances. With assistance from Post
(rented busses) as well as Colombia (Post-funded training)
and Taiwan (vehicles and equipment), the police have improved
their ability to respond to the protests. On the other side,
labor union leaders privately acknowledge that the event
probably will not be a decisive blow against CAFTA
ratification. A less antagonistic but equally determined new
leadership - the National Front - has become the public face
of the CAFTA opposition, seeking a "time out" to develop a
national consensus on the GOCR,s entire development agenda.
PAC leader Otton Solis has urged CAFTA opponents to take to
the streets in a celebration of Costa Rican democracy.
Assuming no violence, both sides will likely declare victory,
but momentum seems to favor the GOCR. Anti-CAFTA forces may
try to mount further (and perhaps more violent) protests
later, especially around the ratification vote. END SUMMARY.


2. (U) Both sides are squaring off for the next anti-CAFTA
protest, scheduled for February 26. Led by the "National
Front of Support for the Fight Against CAFTA," an umbrella
group drawn from university students and faculty, labor
unions, and members of various social organizations, the
protesters plan to focus most of their action in San Jose.
They plan to assemble at the old national soccer stadium and
march through downtown to rally at the Legislative Assembly.
The organizers hope to far exceed the 6-9,000 person crowd
assembled for the last protest, October 23-24 (Ref A). As in
the October protests, a few additional marches and attempted
road blockages may take place around the country. The GOCR
has made it clear, including in stern television
advertisements featuring Minister of Presidency Rodrigo
Arias, that the public's right to protest peacefully will be
honored fully, but no disruption to essential services or
roadblocks will be allowed.


3. (SBU) PolCouns and Poloff met with public employees,
labor union leader and outspoken CAFTA critic Albino Vargas
and two associates on February 7. Vargas, as feisty as ever,
repeated his familiar mantra: Since the GOCR has refused a
true national dialogue, CAFTA must be "decided in the
streets." The Agreement is illegitimate, anyway, because it
was negotiated "in secret" by the former administration.
And, the Arias Administration has no right to "impose" CAFTA
on Costa Rica because a) Arias "stole" the 2006 election and
b) Arias should not have been allowed to run again in the
first place. When asked why he continued to boycott meetings
with Arias and other union leaders, Vargas insisted the
President never listens to their concerns. When asked about
the impact if the protest turnout is lower than expected
(based on just-published CID-Gallup data showing that only
six percent of those polled supported the protests), Vargas
insisted "numbers don't matter". Although he dismissed the
CID-Gallup figures as biased, Vargas acknowledge that the
February 26 events probably will not b decisive. He expects
the GOCR will claim victoy no matter the tunout.


4. (U) The National Front, led byEugenio Trejos, Dean of
the Technology Instituteof Costa Rica at Cartago, has
increasingly become the public face of the opposition, part
of a clear effort to play down the role of the more
antagonistic unions. In a long meeting with PolCouns and
Poloff on February 21, Trejos said he and other Front leaders
had met with a wide range of protest organizers and GOCR
officials, including Public Security Minister Fernando
Berrocal, to urge that the events be peaceful. Trejos was
optimistic that ex-presidents Luis Alberto Monje (PLN) and
Rodrigo Carazo (PUSC) would join the protests to lend them
more gravitas. Trejos was fairly confident that the San Jose
events would remain peaceful, but he warned that the Front
could not "guarantee" calm everywhere, especially in the
hinterlands, and particularly if the police "provoked"

5. (U) Trejos echoed the legitimacy concerns about the Arias
Administration raised by Vargas. Insisting that the GOCR,s
38-seat working coalition in the Assembly was weak, he said
the best case scenario for CAFTA opponents would be to peel
away one or two of those legislators, so the GOCR would have
to halt CAFTA, "listen to the people," and seek a new
national "consensus," not only on CAFTA, but on the GOCR,s
entire development agenda. Trejos said a national referendum
would be the ideal vehicle to help build the consensus, but
admitted that it wasn't clear a referendum related to CAFTA
was constitutionally feasible. A team of opposition legal
experts are studying the issue, he said. For CAFTA
opponents, the GOCR,s pushing ahead to ratification would be
the worst case scenario, according to Trejos. A ratification
vote in April might provoke real violence, he warned. The
contest at hand, he maintained, is about the "60% of the
population that has not really made up their minds" about
CAFTA. Like Vargas, Trejos also dismissed the recent
CID-Gallup results (that 62% of those who are familiar with
CAFTA support it.)


6. (SBU) The GOCR seems ready for the protests. The
intelligence service is confident it knows who the real
troublemakers will be, but is still wary. In a detailed
pre-protest strategy session convened by Minister Berrocal on
February 3 (the first such planning session in our memory),
police officials were worried that the February 26 events
might be more disruptive than those of last October. Radical
elements outside of the organized anti-CAFTA groups, for
example, might block roads in defiance of the GOCR,s
warnings. Alternatively, a group of students perhaps aided
by opposition legislators - could "peacefully" take over the
Assembly building, forcing the police to remove them, at the
risk of looking "too aggressive." Security and screening has
been tightened at the building to prevent this. NOTE:
Poloff will also attend the final pre-protest strategy
meeting on February 23.


7. (C) As in the case of the October protests, mobility is
the chief concern of the police. With approximately 450 riot
police available in San Jose, but only 160 of those
fully-equipped (and recently refresher-trained by
Embassy-funded Colombian police instructors), the police may
need to move resources quickly to potential traffic choke
points and protest hot spots throughout the capital. The
Ministry of Public Security thus asked Post to rent buses for
their use, using available INL funds. Post will provide 10
buses, for February 26 only. (The police do not believe they
will need the buses after that.) Berrocal believes that
managing the image of the demonstrations is crucial and that
the government will win this showdown if security officials
are not provoked into violence with protesters. Berrocal is
so determined that he told national police commanders that
"if blood must be shed, let it be our blood first." Berrocal
has announced publicly that police will not be armed during
the protests.

8. (C) COMMENT: The Colombian police instructors, provided
with the very helpful assistance of Embassy Bogota and the
Colombian Embassy here, greatly boosted the confidence of the
police anti-riot personnel. Poloffs observed this firsthand
during a visit to the National Police training facility in
Guanacaste. Adding to the police's confidence was the first
tranche of security assistance provided by Taiwan. An array
of 125 motorcycles, 60 pick-up trucks and other equipment was
received in a public ceremony on February 22, deliberately
timed to be a signal to protesters. END COMMENT.


9. (SBU) CAFTA opponents have maintained pressure on
legislators, even in advance of the big day on February 26.
On January 23 and February 12, union leaders including Vargas
tried to disrupt proceedings in the Assembly by noisily and
personally threatening legislators from the visitors,
gallery. After trying to reason with the protesters,
Assembly President Fernando Pacheco called the police,
leading to a brief, but well-publicized scuffle as the
gallery was cleared. CAFTA opponents, including Trejos,
decried this use of "excessive force." Meeting with the
Ambassador on February 16, PLN faction chief Mayi Antillon
said the noisy union leaders had overplayed their hands by
being "too disrespectful." She acknowledged, however, that
some individual legislators - such as Jose Manuel Echandi of
the PUN -- were concerned for their safety and would be
allowed to be "absent" on February 26. (Echandi also
requested police protection near his residence.) Antillon
acknowledged that the protests, if widespread enough and
violent at all, could make some members of the GOCR,s
working coalition "waiver" a little. She remains confident,
however, that the Asamblea can complete the first
ratification vote by April. Once that is done, she predicts
that the opposition will lose most of its steam.


10. (U) And what about PAC party leader Otton Solis, who
vowed to join the protests when the CAFTA bill was voted out
of committee last December, and who has taken a higher
anti-CAFTA, pro-CBI profile since his January visit to
Washington? In a lengthy radio interview on February 6,
Solis said his PAC party was not organizing anything, but
would join the protests if they were convoked under "correct
terms," i.e., as "day for Costa Rica." He has since been coy
about his own participation, and whether PAC would take any
responsibility for keeping the protests peaceful. Minister
of Government Arias insisted to the media that if Solis
joined the march, then his participation (as leader of the
main opposition party) should be "a guarantee that the march
will be peaceful." In a TV commercial aired on February 22,
however, Solis urged those concerned about CAFTA to take to
the streets on Monday in a peaceful celebration of Costa
Rican sovereignty.


11. (SBU) Both sides seem ready and determined for Monday's
events. Assuming no violence, both sides are likely to claim
victory. Momentum seems to favor the GOCR, however, based on
the increased discipline and confidence in the Assembly (Ref
B), the better organization and higher confidence of the
police, and the CID-Gallup polling data (generally in support
of CAFTA, against the protests and unfavorable to the more
notorious union leaders). The opposition cannot keep holding
"rehearsals." But, if the GOCR does not blink in the
Assembly (and we don't think it will), then the anti-CAFTA
forces may try to mount further (and perhaps more violent)
protests later, especially around the ratification vote. The
CID-Gallup data also shows that most Costa Ricans expect more
turbulence before CAFTA is ratified.

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