Telecomunications As A Public Service Threatened In Costa Rica: Civil Society Reacts Against It.
María Suárez Toro, FIRE.
WomenAction 2000 - CSW


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María Suárez Toro, FIRE. The right to communicate including access to the airwaves for women was just one of the human rights promoted by FIRE and other members of the Media Caucus recently at the United Nations as part of the Beijing +5 process. Point J, which focuses on media, was one aspect of the five-year evaluation of the Platform for Action from the IV World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995, which calls for promotion of women's access to and decision-making power in communication.

But ironically, as FIRE, which broadcasts from Costa Rica, was lobbying these communication issues, the Costa Rican government was preparing to adopt a measure that would threaten that right to communicate. Many opponents of the proposal claim that it creates conditions for the privatization of tele-communications and electricity in the country by weakening the national institution that runs both services

On March 17th, also the last day of the Prepcom in New York, the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly received the bill known popularly as the "Energy Combo" which would "modernize" the state-run Costa Rican Electrical Institute (ICE). The 51-year- old public monopoly has remained a healthy revenue-producing national institution in the country, whith which other public services are funded.

Indeed the project to "transform" ICE is almost two decades old. Past Administrations between 1982 to 1998 had asked specialists, public opinion and workers in the field to analyze strategies to modernize this major state institution that provides electricity and telecommunications to the country. Characterized by multiple processes of consultation, in 1996 most of the unions left the dialogue and issued a statement declaring that the supposed project to modernize was really a strategy to privatize.

Under the current government of the Social Christian Party, which was elected in 1998, President Miguel Angel Rodriguez convened a National Consultation Forum that once again examined both the ICE Electric Combo and other reform proposals. Once again the proposed bill about telecommunications and electricity became a critical point of contention, challenged by a variety of civic sectors, including women's groups and unions. However, the President did not take these groups into account, but instead strategized to pass the ICE bill in the Legislative Assembly without further public consultation.

In the recent process of negotiations between the governing political party and the opposing National Liberation Party, little or no information has been given to the public, nor has public opinion been solicited. Meanwhile, the ICE Energy Combo was modified so that it does not explicitly call for privatization of this institution. But the fact is that the typical neoliberal proposal now being debated in the Legislative Assembly debilitates the institution by: dividing it up into at least four institutions, moving it under the governance of private law instead of public policy, and overall nearly demolishes the historic social role that the institution has played, which is of greatest public concern.

In his public statement to the country, President Rodriguez, a defendant of Neoliberalism has stated that ending the ICE monopoly is crucial to the country because competition will make ICE improve services. However, opponents of the measure state that the step towards the break-up of the monopoly is a first step towards eventual privatization. Most people oppose privatization, because they fear that as in other countries such as Chile, it will lead to higher costs in services, thus eroding the right of all to communicate. Some claim that it can also destroy the crucial source of revenues for the State to provide other public services traditionally enjoyed by the population.

The Energy Combo bill covers both institutional structure of ICE, as well as other areas of telecommunications such as allocation of broadcast frequencies. Under current law, frequencies are considered public airwaves, and so cannot be sold but only allocated to individuals or companies that can use them, but cannot turn them over to others. However, loopholes in the law have made it possible for foreign companies to acquire frequencies through turnovers of local owners. An earlier version of the Energy Combo proposal would have regulated how broadcast frequencies would be assigned, but insistent lobbying by media corporations led to changes in the bill that instead legitimize the loopholes under current law, making it easier for foreign media interests to acquire broadcast spectrum. Although many citizens opposed such neoliberal measures that reflect media globalization trends in many countries, the two major political parties in Costa Rica conceded to broadcast corporations' demands to "liberalize" frequency allocations in the current law under discussion in the Legislative Assembly.

Furthermore, the proposed law states that owners are "obliged to freely give half an hour a week to the Ministry of Education for cultural and scientific programming." That is about as "public" as media will get, and owners might freely decide that it is best to have that kind of programming at midnight!

Motivated by great concern about the ICE Energy Combo bill, thousands of citizens attended the formal Legislative Assembly session on March 17, to listen to the debates. Their attendance was not unusual-past efforts to change ICE have also spurred considerable debate and public protests. But this time, protestors were outraged to the point of smashing windows and furniture when they heard only positive support for the ICE bill from both major political parties, with little concern about the negative public impact.

Men and women students, workers, union leaders and community leaders began to organize public opinion and street mobilization against the neo-liberal measure. They went back to the Legislative Assembly the following day to attend the ICE bill debate, only to learn that the public seating area had been closed. Outraged to be shut out of the debate once again, the protesters decided to climb the walls to get in. The police then came and used force to get them out. The debates were halted and the deputies went on "vacation."

Further frustrated, protesters took to the streets again. On Wednesday March 22, some 3,000 students of the University of Costa Rica in San José marched to the Rotonda de la Hispanidad in protest. Again they were met by the police who attacked them with brutality. Twenty-six students were detained by the police, among them the President of the Federation of University Students of the University of Costa Rica, Eva Carazo. . Human rights activist and feminist Roxana Arroyo, a lawyer of the Central American Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) approached the police to try to stop them from beating up the students. She told FIRE the story: " I could not just stand there and watch the brutality with which they were attacking the students, so I went to try to stop them. They [the police] then held me, and told me they were going to take me in for disturbing the peace. My colleagues from the human rights movement pulled me away from the hands of the police. One TV channel (6) and two newspapers later publicized the image, saying that I was disturbing the peace!"

Together with other feminists, Roxana organized a meeting at which women´organizations took a strong stand against the Energy Combo bill that would change the status of ICE. On March 23, the Women's Political Agenda­a post-Beijing women's NGO follow-up coalition of more than 50 groups formed in 1996--issued a statement that denounces "the repression and police brutality that is being used against the protesters of the 'combo,' the violent actions promoted by the government and the legislators when they do not listen to and dialogue with a movement that defends national interests."

The statement demands the following: "The retrieval of the bill from the Legislative Assembly debates, and that the statements by the social protest movement be heard." The Women's Political Agenda calls for the women of Costa Rica to contact women legislators to request that they take a strong stand in relation to the bill, consistent with the interests of the majority of the public. The Agenda also demands of the Government to stop the repression against the protest movement and to promote a dialogue consistent with democratic principles."

On Thursday, March 23rd the 26 students were released from jail after more street protests, but a national march from the University of Costa Rica to the Presidential Palace had already been convened that day. According to the newly created news agency SeMueve more than 100,000 people marched in the streets of San José, and al least 30 rural communities throughout the country mobilized and created barricades in support of the protest. Complemented by a national strike declared by public workers such as health and hospital unions, teachers unions, public employees unions and students among others, the public employees union declared that the one day activity become "an indefinite strike until the [ICE Electric] Combo is withdrawn from the Legislative Assembly debates."

A mobilization that began as a protest against one neo-liberal measure in the country has expanded into a profound and holistic agenda: the erosion of democracy, neoloberalism as such, and the right to communicate. All civic sectors involved in the protest complain that there has been no public participation in the recent discussion about the ICE Energy Combo bill, and have raised their voices in indignation against police brutality and authoritarianism in government.

For letters of solidarity with the Women´s Political Agenda arite to


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