Monday, February 26, 2007

Thousands in Costa Rica protest free-trade deal

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of students and teachers opposed to a free-trade pact with the United States marched in Costa Rica's capital on Monday, while the deal itself remains bogged down in Congress.

The protesters, part of a coalition of hundreds of unions, student, environmental and community groups, said the march was a show of strength to be followed by a nationwide strike.

Costa Rica is the only participant of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA, not to have ratified the measure, and the government hopes to have a deal passed by the end of the year.

The treaty is in Congress, slowed down by a legal battle over whether President Oscar Arias can use a fast-track system to limit debate.

Smaller protests also took place across Costa Rica, and several people were arrested when police broke through a protesters roadblock in the town of Siquirres.

Albino Vargas, general secretary of the National Association of Public Employees, conceded the march would not stop the passage of the deal when Congress finally votes on it.

Arias looks likely to win enough votes to approve the deal.

The treaty would create a free-trade zone between the United States and Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Some in Costa Rica worry the trade deal will lead to the privatization of the state-run telephone company, ICE, and hurt the social security system.

At the protest, Eddie Sandi, 23, a farmer, led one of three traditional carts drawn by teams of two oxen.

"What is a farmer going to do if they pass CAFTA?" said Sandi. "It's good for the millionaires who have money to invest, but not for the small farmer."

In the United States, the measure only barely passed Congress in 2005 in the face of strong opposition from lawmakers and unions who feared the pact would lead to job losses there.

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