SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Costa Ricans prepared on Monday to join a controversial free trade agreement with Central American neighbors, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. after a thin majority apparently backed the pact in a national referendum.
But even Sunday's vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement did not end a yearlong battle over the agreement.
Opponents said they will wait for a mandatory recount, set to begin Tuesday, before recognizing the referendum's results. The ballot-by-ballot recount is required by Costa Rican law, and can last no longer than two weeks.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting Monday, 51.5 percent of Costa Ricans voted in favor of the trade deal, which is known as CAFTA.
Costa Rica was the lone holdout among the six Latin American nations that now constitute the trade bloc. The pact has already taken effect in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The White House kept a close eye on Sunday's election results, having fought a bruising political battle to get the deal ratified by the U.S. Congress in 2005, when it passed the House of Representatives by just two votes.
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Washington last week urged Costa Ricans to recognize the treaty's benefits and vowed not to renegotiate the terms of the deal if voters rejected it. U.S. officials also suggested they might not renew other trade preferences now afforded Costa Rican products, set to expire next September, if the pact is not approved.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias called the trade deal crucial to industry in the Central American nation of 4.5 million people.
Opposition legislators on Monday vowed to use a pending vote on a package of laws required by CAFTA as leverage to win increases in education outlays and farm subsidies.
Bills that would open state telecommunications and insurance monopolies to competition are among the most controversial of the package of 13 laws.
Critics also object to requirements that Costa Rica open its agricultural and service sectors to competitors, fearing a flood of cheap U.S. farm imports.
© 2007 The Associated Press