In an unprecedented referendum, Costa Rican voters Oct. 7 ratified a “free trade” treaty with the United States, putting their nation on track with neighboring Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — plus the Dominican Republic — to join the U.S.-sponsored Central American Free Trade Agreement. Under CAFTA, tariffs and quotas will phase out over 10 years.

According to the Supreme Election Tribunal, 51.6 percent of voters favored the treaty and 48.4 percent opposed it. Predictions two days before the vote, based on polling data, gave a 12 percentage-point victory to the treaty’s opponents.

Bemoaning the prospect of “collective suicide,” President Oscar Arias quarterbacked a coalition of exporters, businesspersons and media interests to carry out a well-funded campaign to win the treaty’s passage. The campaign, which was outlined in a memo written in July by Second Vice President Kevin Casas, involved promoting fears that the treaty’s rejection would result in “loss of employment,” “an attack on democratic institutions” or an increase in “foreign influences.”

Workers at maquiladoras, U.S.-owned assembly plants, were told that employers would be leaving the country after a “no” vote. A mass meeting at a factory was staged to disseminate government propaganda. Companies allegedly paid employees to vote in favor of the treaty.

Casas’ memorandum eventually came to light and in mid-September he was forced to resign, although observers pegged him as a scapegoat, because fear tactics had had an almost two-month run. Reports circulated that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim and Central American media moguls helped finance the government’s campaign.

The U.S. government chimed in on Oct. 4 with trade representative Susan Schwab warning that the treaty would not be renegotiated if Costa Rica spurned it, and that the country would lose out on benefits from the Caribbean Basin Initiative. One day before the vote, Bush spokesperson Dana Perino reiterated those messages, which U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale personally conveyed to Costa Rican export companies.

At a mass rally in San Jose after the vote tally was announced, Eugenio Trejos, leader of a group opposed to the treaty, called for a recount. Ottón Solís, head of the center-left Citizens Action Party, accused proponents of illegally broadcasting pro-treaty messages during the two days prior to the voting when campaigning is banned. Treaty supporters allegedly used government funds and took government housing vouchers to marginalized communities to sway voters.

Opposition leaders, however, took comfort from a popular alliance involving students, teachers, unionists and small farmers that flourished during the referendum campaign. Working people and peasants articulated long-standing concerns about the inadequacy of health and educational services, and the insufficient availability of telephone service. Indigenous people expressed worries that traditional medicines would be commandeered by multinational drug companies.

Voter turnout of almost 60 percent of eligible adults was high for Costa Rica.

On the immediate agenda is a legislative battle about how to put the free trade treaty into effect and, in the process, how to protect government finances, the environment, intellectual property and social resources serving people’s needs.

Jorge Arguedas Mora, president of an electrical and telephone workers union, told reporters, “Tomorrow begins the fight against … laws implementing the agreement,” adding, “We will continue to fight against delivering our fundamental institutions to multinational corporations.”

For Tom Loudon, an election observer for the U.S.-based Alliance for Responsible Trade, the vote was “about stopping CAFTA, but it was also about a 20-year struggle to preserve publicly run electrical, phone and health care systems.”