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Cablegate: Costa Rica: Ambassadorqs Listening Tour Generates

VZCZCXYZ0000
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHSJ #1820/01 2782028
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 052028Z OCT 07
FM AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 8996
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC IMMEDIATE

UNCLAS SAN JOSE 001820

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

FOR WHA FO, WHA/CEN, WHA/PDA AND H

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ETRD PGOV PREL CS
SUBJECT: COSTA RICA: AMBASSADORQS LISTENING TOUR GENERATES
ONE-SIDED CRITICISM FROM CAFTA OPPONENTS


1. (SBU) SUMMARY: From July to September, the Ambassador
and Emboffs, accompanied by local media, visited companies
and communities around the country to learn first hand how
CAFTA will affect Costa Ricans. These visits gave

employers and employees the opportunity to describe, in
their own words, the importance of, and benefits from
CAFTA. The positive media coverage of this "istening
tour" quickly attracted criticism by radical CAFTA
opponents, who filed a formal complaint with the Supreme
Electoral Commission (TSE) on August 10, alleging foreign
"interference". The TSE's ruling on September 10 (which
was publicized on September 20), effectively dismissed the
matter by transferring the case to the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and suggesting that the Ambassador did not run
afoul of Costa Rican law. The issue dropped out of the
public eye, until resurrected by visiting U.S. Members of
Congress, and has not been a major factor in the debate
leading to the October 7 CAFTA referendum. See para 10 for
details on the Ambassador's itinerary. END SUMMARY.

================================
THE TRIPS AND THE MEDIA COVERAGE
================================

2. (U) The AmbassadorQs first stops were to visit small and
medium enterprises (SMEs) and agricultural producers in
Costa RicaQs central valley on July 25 and 26. The
companies supply machined parts to larger exporting firms.
The farmers grow vegetables for export. All depend heavily
on reliable, low-cost access to international markets.
These trips generated two articles in the widest-
circulating national daily on July 27, one of which quoted
an owner of a small chayote packaging plant who said that
the decision to ratify CAFTA is "life or death" for his
company. During the same visits, the Ambassador told
accompanying reporters what he had heard directly from
Costa Ricans; "CAFTA is key to the future of our
businesses".

3. (SBU) On subsequent trips, reporters often asked the
Ambassador and the entrepreneurs and community leaders he
was visiting their opinions on CAFTA and the referendum.
In response, the Ambassador described the clear benefits of
free trade to Costa Rica and stressed that the U.S. is a
party to CAFTA and thus hopes that Costa Rica will join.
He consistently made clear, however, that the decision to
ratify or not is up to the Costa Ricans, and he
deliberately avoided mention of which way the electorate
should vote. The trips generated a number of news articles
that provided additional perspectives from businesspeople
on how CAFTA will benefit specific sectors of the Costa
Rican economy (see septel on media reaction).

============
THE REACTION
============

4. (U) The early trips and initial press coverage generated
quick reactions from well-known CAFTA opponents. On July
27, public worker's union (ANEP) leader Albino Vargas
issued a press release accusing the Ambassador of becoming
the "emergency chief" of the "si" campaign, in order to
"stave off disaster" in the referendum, and of
inappropriate interference in Costa Rican internal affairs.
On August 10, Jorge Arguedas, head of the militant anti-
CAFTA telecommunications workers' union (FIT,) issued a
release lambasting the Ambassador for visiting companies in
Costa Rica and answering questions from the press about
CAFTA.

5. (U) The same day, union leaders from two of the
government-owned monopolies (Fabio Chaves of ICE and Luis
Chavarria of INSS) joined Vargas in filing a formal
complaint against the Ambassador with the TSE for
"interfering" in the CAFTA campaign. This was not an
unusual move. Both sides have deluged the TSE with
complaints as a campaign tactic, with political parties,
private individuals, companies, and public officials,
including President Arias, as the targets. Opposition PAC
legislator Francisco Molina joined in by writing on August
10 to complain about the Ambassador's "proselytizing" in
favor of the "yes" vote and "interference" in domestic
politics. Molina was the only one of 57 legislators to
send such a letter. (Text of his letter and our response,
dated 10 September, were emailed to WHA/CEN.)

=============
THE COMPLAINT

=============

6. (U) The complaint contained several factual errors. It
alleged that the Ambassador intended to visit companies in
order to speak to their employees about CAFTA in an
environment where employees were compelled to listen. It
also stated that the Ambassador's visits were "obviously"
meant to encourage people to vote in favor of CAFTA in the
referendum. Neither assertion reflected what actually took
place, nor our two-fold intent, which was: 1) to hear
first-hand from those potentially affected by CAFTA, and 2)
to provide Costa Rican entrepreneurs and community leaders
an opportunity to speak to a wider audience via the local
and national media. The unions' denuncia also overlooked
the fact that the Ambassador used these trips to conduct
routine diplomatic business, such as donating English-
language books and baseball equipment to needy communities,
meeting with local officials and political leaders, and
thanking Peace Corps Volunteers for their important work
around the country.

7. (U) The core of the complaint focused on the legality of
a foreigner becoming involved in an internal political
issue. On September 10, the TSE responded. The Tribunal's
ruling went into detail to suggest that the Ambassador had
done nothing wrong, since foreigners enjoy the same rights
as Costa Ricans to exercise free speech but are prohibited
from taking part in political campaigns. The TSE
interpreted this to include collecting signatures for a
referendum, paying for campaign costs (including for
propaganda), or conducting surveys. Obviously, none of
these applied to the AmbassadorQs travels. After offering
their critique of the union's denuncia, the TSE then punted
to the MFA, pointing out that the Ambassador enjoyed
diplomatic immunities outside the purview of the Tribunal.
The MFA accepted action on September 21.

===================
COMMENT: THE IMPACT
===================

8. (SBU) This was a one-sided complaint, by the "usual
anti-American suspects," filed as a partisan campaign
tactic. In fact, even with the "denuncia," the alleged
Embassy's or USG's role has not been an issue at all in the
referendum campaign, to the surprise (and consternation) of
some of our opposition contacts. No GOCR or "si" campaign
official has viewed the Embassy's role as "interference"
nor have any respected media outlets expressed this view
(beyond reporting the complaints from the "no" campaign.)
That the TSE used so many pages to undercut the union
leadersQ complaint makes clear the Tribunal did not believe
it had merit. TSE staff acknowledged to us that as far as
they can recall, no foreigner has ever been sanctioned for
the activities alleged in the complaint against the
Ambassador.

9. (SBU) The issue was fading from public view until
resurrected as the result of a private visit to Costa Rica
by two U.S. Members of Congress September 21-24. A press
conference, held at PAC leader Otton Solis' home on
September 23, interviews granted by the two Members, and
media reporting since, have helped keep the "interference"
story alive. Opposition press releases also stirred the
pot. On October 3, for example, the PAC party printed,
verbatim, a letter from Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) to the
Secretary questioning the Embassy's role in the referendum

SIPDIS
campaign. The Sanchez letter received wide local press
coverage on October 4.

=============
THE ITINERARY
=============

10. (U) For the record, the following lists the date and
background for each visit, and the entities visited:

A. July 25 - Heredia
The two SMEs visited in this trip participate in PROVEE, a
program of the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Trade
(COMEX) that links SME suppliers with larger multi-national
businesses. The owners of these small businesses told the
media that that CAFTA will benefit SMEs much more than
larger companies.

- Etipress Limitada - printer of product labels
- Serpimetal - metal finisher

B. July 26 - Cartago
On this trip independent agricultural producers spoke to
the press about their dependence on trade for their
livelihood and how they need CAFTA to ensure future access
to the U.S. market.

- Chayote growers and exporters
- ADAPEX (mini-vegetable producers)
- PRETECSA (SME machine shop)

C. August 30 - Grecia and Pavas
During this visit the owners of two textile plants
confirmed to the press that without CAFTA they would need
to move operations to another Central American country.
Likewise, the owners of the plants said that despite
allegations by the "No" campaign that textiles were dead in
Costa Rica with or without CAFTA, their enterprises could
remain viable in the face of increasing Chinese competition
in the sector.

- Rincon Grande S.A. (two separate plants - fabric and t-
shirt producer)

D. September 10 - Puntarenas
One year ago the Caldera Port began operating under a
concession; a private company now manages operations. In
the ensuing year, the port has realized substantial gains
in productivity. On this trip the manager of a tuna plant
explained to the press that the Costa Rican tuna industry
will essentially leave the country if CAFTA fails. The
Ambassador also visited a shelter for abused children where
a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer has spent the last year
working.

- Port of Caldera
- Sardimar (tuna and vegetable processing company)
- Peace Corps Volunteer project (PANI Children's Shelter)

E. September 12-13 - Perez Zeledon
During this trip, the Ambassador met with a wide range of
entities to learn more about how SMEs are developing in the
region, to visit with Peace Corps Volunteers, and to donate
books to a local secondary school. As this was the
Ambassador's first official visit to this canton, it
generated a great deal of attention in the region.

- Casa de la Juventud (Center to assist at-risk youth
complete school and develop job skills)
- Courtesy call with local political leaders
- Peace Corps Volunteer project (Tierra Prometida
elementary school)
- Peace Corps Volunteer project (Centro Biologico Quebradas
- Conservation Center)
- Meeting with heads of regional national parks and heads
of local environmental organizations.
- Meeting with PYMEs-Brunca project leader and participants
(PYMEs-Brunca is a program that assists SMEs in developing
business plans, finding markets, and navigating
bureaucracy)
- Glove manufacturer that participates in the PYMEs-Brunca
program
- Sports apparel manufacturer that participates in the
PYMEs-Brunca program
- Visit to local market to view micro and small
entrepreneurs at point of sell, many of who are
participants in the PYMEs-Brunca program
- Townhall Meeting to discuss consular issues and answer
questions on working in the U.S.
- Courtesy call with local press outlet
- Lunch with heads of Coopealianza and Coopeagri, two local
financial institutions that work with SMEs
- Donation of English language books at UNESCO school

F. September 18 - Limon
The Limon province is the poorest region in the country.
On this visit to Limon, the Ambassador was able to visit an
entrepreneur that is trying to start up one of the first
service-sector companies in the region. The Ambassador
also donated little-league baseball equipment to the city.

- Donation of baseball equipment at Big Boy Stadium
- Courtesy call with local political leaders
- Visit to Admire America (the only local call center)


LANGDALE

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