By Armando Chaguaceda
Two years ago a social struggle radically changed my life and vision of politics.
I was in residence at the Ecumenical Research Department (DEI) in Costa Rica, when the study on civic participation that I was carrying out -by the force of circumstances- turned into passionate accompaniment of the social movement opposed to the signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. My experience was not the exception; the reserved and detached observation of the events by a group of Latin American colleagues resulted in an experience of shared militancy and mysticism.
This situation that occurred in October 2007 had precedents. Between 1950 and 1980, Costa Rica had experienced the golden epoch of its “style of national development.” Over that period it recorded a number of achievements: modernization that was inclusive of the middle and lower classes, appreciable social mobility, institutionalized representative democracy and conditions that reflected this. However, all of this took place in line with liberal canons and social conflict was managed through equally liberal-democratic methods. Its high levels of public education and a relatively homogeneous social structure established the base of a political culture capable of cushioning any such social conflict.
However the wave of neo-liberalism, with its attacks on government and its social policies, unchained popular protests. One of these was the unsuccessful teachers’ movement of 1995 and the successful struggle to defeat the privatization of the Costa Rican electricity company, in March-April 2000. This latter struggle was important in that it resulted in the politicization (and coordination) of organizations of students, interest groups (environmentalists, feminists) and the community. What united them was the decisive support of public universities (especially the University of Costa Rica). That struggle constituted a milestone for successive struggles.
The social conflict that emerged as the October 7, 2007 Referendum brought two large social blocs face to face around their two incompatible positions. The pro-free trade “Yes bloc” was made up of neoliberals, drawing together the powerful national and transnational business class, like-minded middle class elements, the government and the machinery of the political parties (except for the vacillating Partido Acción Ciudadana and the sparse Frente Amplio y Accesibilidad sin Exclusión).
Although the “Yes” bloc relied on voluntary structures at the grassroots level (the invisible Civic Committees) and on paid activists, it had the publicity machinery of the mass media at its disposal, particularly the pages of the newspaper La Nación. That power deployed a vast and illegal campaign of vote buying and fear, carried out by journalists, officials and bosses against popular sectors – the same ones to which President Arias promised, “Those who today come to work on bicycles will come in BMW motorcycles, and those that come in Hyundais will come in Mercedes Benzes,” Arias at a rally in Cartago where the participants carried posters in favor of the Free Trade Agreement distributed by their bosses.
For their part, the movement opposed to the free trade agreement, the “No” forces, united the activist unions, wide segments of the cooperative and campesino movements, radical environmentalists and feminists, some national business leaders, as well as collectives of intellectuals and employees of the wide public sector.
Funded with resources from its members (through donations, T-shirt sales, etc.) the anti-FTA “No” movement organized from the community level through the Patriotic Committees, conducting a door-to-door campaign and involving themselves in monitoring and logistics on the day of the referendum.
The surprising strength of the “No” bloc was based on the commitment of its membership, coming from diverse social sectors, in a fragilely coordinated alliance and lacking of a center of control; instead, there was a plethora of personal activism. The outcome of this, despite the obvious imbalance between the two sides, was an election decided by a narrow margin in favor of the “Yes” bloc (51.7 percent) over the “No” bloc (48.3 percent), with a participation rate of 59.4 percent the total registered voters.
Over the following months, the movement had to endure the reproach of those poor regions that had voted “No,” directed by the middle class electorate that had decisively succumbed to the psychological war. The combined effect of material precariousness, atomizing tendencies, localism, one-person leadership and partisan cooptation created havoc within the activist movement. This decreased the tide of the 100 Patriotic Committees to just a few communities unbending in their commitment to continue the battle, though now within the rigged web of the legislative agenda.
However, despite of the defeat of the 7/10/07 movement, the “No” bloc left a legacy. It contributed to the strengthening of activism and civic culture from the electoral front. It demonstrated the importance of legally limiting the funding and press coverage imbalance to stop the right wing wave within the country. Likewise, it clearly exposed a host of vices of traditional party politics and it introduced new faces and proposals of the popular movement.
To have known and accompanied -along with my friends from DEI- the protagonists of this struggle (in the meetings of the Committee of Sabanilla and the Columbus march, in the struggles in Puntarena and Talamanca, in the cheerful messages of the artists of La Casadora) made me a better intellectual, militant and human being.
Today this permits me to dream with hope -even in light of the setbacks of the situation- that there will continue to exist a place in Central America where citizens defend their decision “to be free, not reduced to servants” as their national hymn invokes them to do.