The first major disruption of the nine-month-old Costa Rican-Panamanian free trade agreement came on July 6, when approximately 200 truck drivers from Panama, Costa Rica, and other Central American countries paralyzed cargo crossing from Paso Canoas, Panama to Cerro Punta, Costa Rica. The protest, sparked by exorbitant Costa Rican tariffs and taxes, draws attention to the inconsistencies within the current import/export fee system.
Costa Rica previously was charging vehicle operators for driving through the country, even though the fees violated a law passed in 2001. Manuel Mora, president of the National Association of Truck Drivers of Panamá (Canatraca) told Inside Costa Rica that the country “wants U.S. $70 for hauling a load between Paso Canoas and San José and U.S. $140 for travel between Paso Canoas and Peñas Blancas” on the Nicaraguan border. The organization’s secretary, Rafael Araúz, called for international cargo traffic along the Inter-American highway to be digitally tracked in order to “to verify who leaves with and without a load, [giving] us the opportunity to check every single load, to make sure that it does not endanger the transporter,” a move which would increase transparency in the system. The protesting Costa Rican truck drivers also demand that San José remove taxes on diesel fuels and regulate the amount of non-tico truckers using Costa Rican fuel in order to lower prices.
Without reliable transportation to and from major ports, a break in the system can have serious consequences to both countries economies. The number of businesses using Panama as a thoroughfare for their goods increased from 428 to 466 in 2006, with the number projected to rise after the expansion of the Panama Canal finishes. The renewed free trade agreement between the two countries calculated the increase in trade by reducing the tariffs on most industrial and agricultural goods over the next decade, but did not take into account the dramatic rise in fuel prices. Costa Rica is currently looking for other options to lower the cost of fuel and has accepted a July 8 invitation to send a delegation of observers to the upcoming Petrocaribe summit in Maracaibo, Venezuela on July 11 and 12. In spite of strong U.S. ties, the Arias government might be turning towards Petrocaribe, an energy cooperation agreement which offers Venezuelan oil to signatory countries on preferential financial terms. The bill for Costa Rica’s fuel imports doubled in 2008 to U.S. $2.8 billion.
Canatraca is currently considering breaking the strike because the Costa Rican government eliminated all restrictions on Panamanian imports in response to the truckers claims. The Costa Rican government, however, would do well to step up its efforts to mitigate the effects of the fuel crisis, lest it finds itself facing more protests from the transportation sector.