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Cablegate: National Anti-Cafta Protest October 23-24


DE RUEHSJ #2320/01 2962136
P 232136Z OCT 06

C O N F I D E N T I A L SAN JOSE 002320




E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/20/2016


Classified By: Ambassador Mark Langdale for reason 1.4 (d)


1. (C) SUMMARY: A broad coalition of union and student
groups is posed to square off against the GOCR October 23-24,
protesting mostly CAFTA but also pay increases below the rate
of inflation and the high cost of living. Both sides have
much at stake. The anti-CAFTA forces want to shake GOCR
resolve (and demonstrate their influence) by putting large
numbers of people in the streets. If the opposition cannot
rally their troops now, doing so during the
December-February holiday period (the GOCR,s target window
for CAFTA ratification) will be far more difficult. For its
part, the GOCR needs to avoid serious confrontation or
violence, while maintaining public order. GOCR officials
seem moderately upbeat, believing the public is tired of
union shenanigans and ready to put the CAFTA chapter behind
them. The police seem prepared, but have asked Embassy
assistance to rent busses to re-deploy personnel around
the San Jose area, if needed. Some senior government and
media figures have told us privately that they view this
showdown more as a test of how Costa Rica should be governed
than about CAFTA, per se. Our best guess is that this week,s
events will be neither be violent nor definitive; the actual
CAFTA votes in the Assembly (whenever they take place) are
more likely lightning rods for trouble. END SUMMARY.

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2. (U) A broad coalition of public employee union members,
parastatal workers from the insurance, utility, and
telecommunications industries, university students, transport
workers, and agricultural groups plan to strike and hold
anti-CAFTA demonstrations on October 23 and 24. According to
organizers, the groups plan to demonstrate throughout Costa
Rica, then converge on San Jose to rally at the Legislative
Assembly to protest CAFTA ratification, pay increases below
the rate of inflation and the high cost of living. The
number of protesters expected to participate in this
so-called "National Resistance Journey" is unknown, but
supporters, such as PAC party faction head Elizabeth
Fonseca,(optimistically) hope to see some of the largest mass
rallies since the 1949 revolution. As of late morning on
October 23, the rallies and protests were still getting
organized. Large-scale disruptions of electricity and
telecommunications are not expected and roadblockages had
not been scheduled by truck drivers or taxis.

3. (U) The two largest teachers unions have called on their
members to participate in the strike, affecting as many as
900,000 students. Members of the national social security
system (the "Caja"), who operate the public hospital system,
are expected to join as well. Some 90,000 medical
appointments and 1200 surgeries reportedly were rescheduled
to allow Caja workers to join the protest. (Emergency
medical services and care for those already hospitalized are
scheduled to operate normally.) Flanked by President Arias
and Justice Minister Chinchilla, Minister of the Presidency
Rodrigo Arias announced on
October 18 that that striking government workers would not be
paid for their time off the job. Education Minister Leonardo
Garnier instructed principals to report absent public school
teachers and dock their pay accordingly.

4. (U) Although President Arias and leading strike
organizer, Albino Vargas, head of the National Association of
Public Employees (ANEP), had agreed to meet October 17 to
discuss various issues including CAFTA and the planned
demonstrations, Vargas subsequently cancelled the session,
claiming that the President would not permit additional union
leaders and associated anti-CAFTA groups to participate.
Arias publicly regretted the cancellation and offered to
reschedule, gaining some points in the media in the process
(just as Vargas was criticized for canceling).


5. (SBU) Led by the firebrand Vargas, the anti-CAFTA forces
need to shake the GOCR,s resolve (and demonstrate their
influence) by putting large numbers of people, especially the
easily incited students, into the streets. As this may be
just the opening salvo in what could become a season of
protests, the union leadership is unlikely to resort to
violence - for now. In their view, the threat of violence
and the ability to rally large crowds (which unions will
label as anti-CAFTA, no matter what the groups are
protesting) may be sufficient to force enough CAFTA
supporters in the Assembly to think twice about their votes.
(The PAC,s Fonseca told Pol Couns on October 20 that this
would be an ideal outcome.) Some of Vargas,s rhetoric has
bordered on sedition, however. In an interview published in a
political newsletter on October 16, he asserted the
legitimacy of rebellion as a political tool and asserted that
a "referendum of the street" should decide CAFTA; even having
all 57 members in the Assembly vote in favor would not be
enough. In a television debate with Minister of Foreign
Trade COMEX) Marco Vinicio Ruis the morning of October 23,
Vargas was muted, insisting there would be no roadblocks,
just people exercising their right to democratic protest. If
the opposition forces cannot rally an impressive display of
strength now, doing so during the December-February holiday
period (the target window for CAFTA ratification), when the
public is not thinking about politics, will be far more

6. (SBU) For its part, the GOCR needs to avoid serious
confrontation or violence, while demonstrating control by
maintaining public order. GOCR officials seem moderately
upbeat. According to COMEX Director General Gabriela Castro,
the unions may have overplayed their hand already with the
public tired of union maneuvers such as dragging on the Limon
port slowdown (Reftel), urging teachers and national health
system workers to join the protests and Vargas,s refusal to
meet with President Arias. Castro acknowledged to us on
October 18, however, that the perception of the protests may
be more important than the reality. The real "audience" is
the media, especially television. The GOCR needs to be
depicted as responsibly respecting the people,s right to
protest, without losing control. NOTE: Late on October 20,
the union in the port of Limon announced that it would strike
October 23-24 in solidarity with the protestors elsewhere.


7. (C) In response to our inquiries about preparations for
the upcoming demonstrations and particularly about any needs,
the GOCR has only requested Embassy assistance in renting
four large busses to provide additional mobility to the
police. Police Operations Director Eric Lacayo and other
police officials we have contacted seem confident they are
prepared to deal with the demonstrators. Lacayo stated that
he has orders to keep the roads clear, and unlike similar
situations under the previous administration, Lacayo does not
need to request further authorization to use force if
necessary. Lacayo told us that he is only concerned, for the
moment, about three locations: President Arias,s house (a
few blocks from the Embassy) where protestors had planned a
"serenade"; the street in front of the ICE (Telecom)
building, whose union, the largest in the public sector, can
easily turn out thousands of employees who view their
economic interests as threatened by CAFTA; and the main road
to the airport (which may be the site of a large student
march). A large-scale march on the airport could greatly
complicate Lacayo,s efforts to keep streets clear.


8. (C) Some senior government (such as 1st VP Kevin Casas)
and media figures (such as La Nacion Director General
Alejandro Urbina) have told us privately that they view the
overall CAFTA showdown more as a test of how Costa Rica
should be governed than about CAFTA itself. Vargas in
particular has questioned the legitimacy both of Oscar
Arias,s being able to serve a second term, and his
re-election victory. More broadly, union leaders like
Vargas,s deputy Mauricio Castro, mainstream opposition
politicians like the PAC,s Fonseca and a number of our best
political commentator contacts lament what they view as
Arias,s "praetorian governing style," which seems out of
touch with the people and runs counter to the "consensus" and
"national dialogue" model long cherished in Costa Rica.
While we seriously doubt that Arias,s government will be
jeopardized by the upcoming protests or the final push for
CAFTA ratification slowed, how his government handles events
in the next two-three months (including this week,s
protests) may have a significant impact on the effectiveness
(or not) of the rest of his administration.

© Scoop Media

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