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Cablegate: Anti-Cafta Protest in Costa Rica: Tactical Victory

VZCZCXYZ0019
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHSJ #2431/01 3042351
ZNR UUUUU ZZH (CCY AD4143FF MSI9789 538)
P 312351Z OCT 06
FM AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6493
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SAN JOSE 002431

SIPDIS

(C O R R E C T E D C O P Y - MODIFIED PARAGRAPH MARKING)

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR WHA/CEN AND DS/IP/WHA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELAB PGOV CS
SUBJECT: ANTI-CAFTA PROTEST IN COSTA RICA: TACTICAL VICTORY
FOR GOCR

REF: A. SAN JOSE 2320

B. SAN JOSE 2312

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: On October 23 and 24, a two-day strike and
associated demonstrations against CAFTA ratification took
place throughout Costa Rica. The peaceful demonstrations
fell short of organizers, expectations and disruptions in
basic services and transit were largely avoided. Costa Rican
security forces were mobilized and successfully maintained
transit while avoiding clashes with demonstrators. Union
leaders proclaimed the event a success and planned to strike
and protest again in November. The Arias government
downplayed the size and influence of the demonstrations, and
again called for dialog as a better way to address the issue.
The GOCR was pleased with its performance during the two-day
event and upbeat about its ability to face future protests.
The anti-CAFTA movement cannot really be satisfied with the
outcome of this protest. The GOCR took the high ground,
respecting the right of the strikers to protest, but
maintained order and avoided direct confrontation. Upcoming
CAFTA votes in the legislature may spark renewed action "in
the streets." END SUMMARY.

------------------------------------------
ANTI-CAFTA STRIKE FAILS TO MAKE BIG IMPACT
------------------------------------------

2. (U) The long-planned two days of protest October 23 and 24
saw a few thousand people (peacefully) rally and march around
the country, but fell far short of the "referendum of the
street" hoped for by anti-CAFTA forces (Ref A). Although the
broad and loose anti-CAFTA coalition of public employee
unions, parastatal workers, university students, opposition
legislators, and other groups mustered protestors around the
country, most of the action was in San Jose. Basic services
such as electricity and telecommunications were not affected.
State-run emergency medical care functioned, though many
appointments for non-critical care were canceled.

3. (SBU) On the first and heaviest day of protests, some
rural roads were temporarily blocked by protesters in parts
of Costa Rica. In San Jose, marchers temporarily blocked
roads as they trooped to the legislature in the city center.
On the second day, which featured smaller but more aggressive
protests in some areas, a roundabout in front of the
University of Costa Rica on San Jose's "beltway" was blocked
for most of the day and there were reports that motorists
trying to pass were harassed. Attempts to block major roads
near the airport were foiled, without incident, by security
forces (keeping the airport road open was a prime objective
of the GOCR.) There were no reports of clashes between
protesters and security officials.

4. (U) The cab of a tractor trailer was burned by protesters
in the port city of Limon on October 24, but that disturbance
was more related to the on-going strike by port workers
regarding a collective bargaining payment issue and the
possible concession of the government-run ports (Ref B). The
Arias government had vowed beforehand to respect the rights
of the protesters to march peacefully, but requested in turn
that protesters respect Costa Ricans' basic rights, including
the right to free transit and the right to work.

--------------------------
THE NUMBERS? NOT HISTORIC
--------------------------

5. (U) Size estimates of the crowds varied. Protest leaders
claimed 100,000 demonstrators marched through San Jose the
first day. A methodical estimate of crowd size commissioned
by leading daily "La Nacion" suggested that the real number
at the legislative assembly gathering point was closer to
9000 demonstrators, putting this round of protests on a par
with previous anti-CAFTA actions. Our police contacts
estimated the turnout to be closer to 6000. Both sides
agreed that turnout the second day was smaller although more
tense around traditional flashpoints, such as the university.
At 3:00 P.M. on October 24, poloff saw no protesters at the
legislative assembly, but dozens of police officials
scattered throughout the downtown area. Students maintained
a blockade outside the university campus until after dark,
however. Media coverage was much lighter for the second day,
with reporting overall highlighting the much
smaller-than-expected crowds and the lack of violence.

--------------------------
BOTH SIDES DECLARE VICTORY
--------------------------


6. (U) Protest organizers publicly declared success. Union
leader Albino Vargas described the event as an "extraordinary
advance toward the defeat of CAFTA." Organizers vowed to
continue monitoring CAFTA progress in the legislature,
pledging to return to "the streets" in November (no date
set). Poloff discussed the strike with Gilberth Brown,
Secre tary General of the Rerum Novarum labor union, on
October 26. Brown stressed the variety of interests that
participated in the strike as well as its nationwide scope.
He stated that the unions could mobilize ten times the number
of protestors in future strikes, but did not commit to any
future strategy. He said that changing one or two votes in
the legislature against CAFTA would be enough to defeat it.


7. (U) President Arias announced October 25 that he would
not withdraw the CAFTA legislation, as demanded by the
protestors, but would make good on his campaign pledge to
ratify CAFTA. The president also reiterated his call for
dialog as a preferable way to address the issues. In a press
conference on October 24, Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo
Arias pointed out that the strike and protest did not enjoy
widespread support, with only two percent the
employees from the social security administration and 28
percent of teachers participating (no doubt affected by the
GOCR,s threat the week before to dock striking employees,
salaries). The protests seem to have had little effect in
the legislature, where staffers evinced surprise to us at the
lower turnout, and CAFTA debate continued as scheduled --
neither slower nor faster -- in the International Relations
Committee.

8. (SBU) The Ministry of Security requested Post,s
assistance in renting four buses which were used to transport
police and their equipment around San Jose October 23-24.
Police contacts told us this behind-the-scenes help (all the
GOCR asked of us) had proved invaluable. Overall, the GOCR
was pleased with how events unfolded. Minister of Production
Alfredo Volio told the Ambassador and Econ Chief on October
26 that preparing for and dealing with the protests had been
a "good teambuilding exercise" for the cabinet, which left
the GOCR "more confident" about dealing with future protests.

-----------------------------------
COMMENT: OPPOSITION LOST THIS ROUND
-----------------------------------

9. (SBU) Victory declarations aside, the anti-CAFTA movement
cannot be satisfied with the outcome of this latest round of
protests. Turnout was low and the opposition did not appear
to have gained any new public support. The GOCR seems to
have prepared and reacted fairly skillfully by docking
striker's pay, mobilizing large numbers of unarmed police
and avoiding direct confrontation with the harder-core
student protestors. By making clear that violations of the
law would not be tolerated but that people had the right to
protest peacefully, the Arias government took the high ground
and came out ahead of the protestors. The anti-CAFTA crowd
is in a difficult position, having repeatedly failed to
mobilize large enough crowds to make a lasting impact, nor
having found significant resonance for the "right to
rebellion" philosophy espoused by Vargas and some of the
other leaders. We would not rule them out just yet, however.
The upcoming CAFTA votes in the legislature, starting with
the International Affairs Committee's report, scheduled for
November 30, may spark renewed action "in the streets."
LANGDALE

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