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Senator Sanders defends democracy in Costa Rica

In an act of solidarity with international democracy, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont traveled to Costa Rica in the final week of September to assure Costa Rican citizens that they would not be punished by the United States for exercising their right to vote in a national referendum on free trade. Costa Ricans went to the polls on Monday, October 7 to express their opinion on the ratification of the Dominican Republic and Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). The Supreme Electoral Tribunal reported on Wednesday, October 9, that after 96.3 percent of the ballots had been counted, 51.6 percent of voters had approved the ratification of the agreement. The apparent passage of the agreement came despite fierce oppositional protests in the capital city of San Jose. Fearing that the agreement would drive Costa Rica under the yoke of United States economic dominance, more than 100,000 people in a country of only 4 million filled the streets in the weeks leading up to the referendum, chanting phrases such as No to the free trade pact, and Costa Rica is not for sale. Wealthy interests in Costa Rica overwhelmingly supported the agreement and, with their influence in the mass media outlets of the country, bombarded the nation with pro-DR-CAFTA propaganda during the weeks preceding the referendum. President Oscar Arias, himself a former winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his work in aiding the peace process in Guatemala and Central America, claimed that a No vote on the referendum would amount to collective suicide. After Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic all ratified DR-CAFTA after its creation in 2005, Costa Rica is the lone signatory of the agreement in which ratification is still pending. Costa Rica is also the only nation who decided the fate of the free trade proposal through popular referendum. The White House exerted considerable pressure on Central Americas second-largest economy to turn the agreement into law. The Bush administration warned that if Costa Rica did not join DR-CAFTA, they would under no circumstances renegotiate the terms of the agreement to make it more suitable to Costa Rican citizens. The White House also claimed that if the pact was not passed, trade preferences currently extended to Costa Rica, which are set to expire in September 2008, would not be reinstated, posing a great threat to Costa Rican products, such as coffee and chocolate, which are very popular in the United States. In the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O Grady accused Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Representative Michael Michaud (D-ME) of traveling to Costa Rica to aid the local opposition, and influence voters in Costa Rica to vote against the trade agreement. In a rebuttal to this accusation, also published in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Sanders defended himself and the integrity of the Costa Rican democratic system. Notwithstanding Ms. O'Grady's assertions, my recent trip to Costa Rica was not about telling the people there how to vote. That's their business, not mine. The trip that Rep. Mike Michaud and I made was to help counter the lies being spread in Costa Rica that suggested that if the people there, exercising their democratic rights, voted no on CAFTA, the U.S. government would punish them by excluding them from the Caribbean Basin Initiative as well as other punitive actions. Senator Sanders has been an outspoken critic of free trade agreements. Citing the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico, he claimed, The agricultural sector has been decimated by cheap exports from American agribusiness. Poverty has increased, the middle class has declined and people are literally dying in the desert trying to flee Mexico for the U.S. Working families in Mexico suffer, [while] the rich have gotten richer We can have trade policies that can do better, that must do better. Mr. Sanders closed his editorial by claiming that whatever the outcome of the referendum may be, it is completely unacceptable for the United States government to issue threats in order to manipulate an open and free democratic contest in another country. He claimed, The Journal and I may disagree on the merits of unfettered free trade, but there should be no disagreement that when the people in a free, democratic and independent country like Costa Rica vote their conscience, they should not be punished by the world's superpower. That is not what democracy is about.

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