Controversial resistance

How does one effectively a national campaign to change how one’s country’s deputies vote on a certain issue when there seems to be a clear parliamentary majority established already? How radical does one have to be in order to actually change the outcome of the vote? How broad does one need to be in order to have any impact?

Such considerations, people active in social movements, need to make everywhere — and the different positions in the question seem to be awfully similar as well. Or at least those activists active in CAFTA protests I met here in Costa Rica had to discuss things very similar to what we activists in Europe often do.

Grace García represents the eco movements in the national coordination committee against CAFTA.
Grace García represents the eco movements in the national coordination committee against CAFTA.

Let me try to exemplify with the activists Grace García and Marcela Aguilar. Grace from Friends of the Earth Central America, has worked in the national coordination committee against CAFTA for the past year, but also the two preceding years she has been working against CAFTA. The ecologist movement is something I personally do not know very much from the Norwegian activist scene. Marcela is from the Socialist Party of the Workers (PST), and was one of the three I talked to last time. The PST is considered one of the more radical groups that also tend to be quite small. But they do get noticed, “like the black block in Germany” a German journalist Torge Loeding from the media group Voces Nuestras tells me.

Why Costa Rica?

But first of all, why did the strongest movement against the CAFTA come into existence in Costa Rica — the richest of all Central American countries? After its civil war in 1948, Costa Rica abandoned its military and was included in the US American “Marshall help” program that western Europe was included in. “Here we actually have something to loose, and we have the possibility to do more” Grace explains, “we have a middle class, a public health system, a good public education system, public water and energy, and a state monopoly in telecommunications.” She picks here cell phone up, “just like in Europe!” Grace believes that is the reason why “civil society” in Costa Rica is “more developed” than in the rest of Central America.

We have already heard about the PST, but the presence of an ecologist movement is also rather special for Central America. “In reality, we’re really just very few people,” Grace tells me, “but it’s more part of the national conscience and so we’re more present in civil society here than anywhere else in Central America.” And the environmental groups involve themselves in social movements. “We have a green block at the demonstrations against the CAFTA, and anyone who wants to, can say they’re part of the green block,” Grace hints that there are no strict lines as to who can count himself as an ecologist.

“But so are you all part of the left then?” I ask her, knowing that in parts of Europe there are also conservative green groups and parties. “Well, we’re not bound to any party. […] But yeah, all of us that work against CAFTA are on the left. CAFTA is a neo-liberalist project; it’s of the far right!” According to her there are no ecological organizations in favor of CAFTA in Costa Rica, “but maybe there are some [ecological] institutes that do, I wouldn’t know about that.”

I also wonder why exactly ecologists would be against CAFTA. I imagine that it is changes in the agricultural sector that they are afraid will lead to environmental damage. But when I ask Grace, she shows me that it is not that simple, when I ask her which parts of CAFTA will have an impact on the environment. “Well, all aspects of it will”, she starts and exemplifies after I press her for details:

“See for example intellectual property. There are UPOV [The International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants] and the Budapest Treaty. The Budapest Treaty will institute a copyright on micro organisms and the UPOV puts copyrights on plant varieties. Costa Rica would have to in effect sign up for both of those, although the UPOV has been voted down twice already in our national assembly already.

Or take investments: if some foreigner investor wants to put money into petroleum, water, mining, some huge tourist thing or factory or something, the government right now can stop him from doing it, and that’s the end of it. But with CAFTA, the investor will be able to drag Costa Rica to an international court to get his license to built it anyway.

You really can’t separate the ecologic factor out as something independent of everything else.”

Organizing resistance

The resistance against CAFTA is built up on three levels: in the national coordination committee, amongst he three opposing parties that sit in the national parliament, and in regional coordination committees all over the country. “And how does the coordination of all that work out,” I ask Grace, “do the parliamentarians actually meet up before meetings in the assembly?” “I don’t know what they’re doing. They say they meet, but I don’t think they really do,” Grace responds with a smile.

And neither does Marcela, but she is more critical of those working parliamentary — “For example, take Cesar Lopez [working in the cultural group at the demonstrations and working as a helper for the deputy of one deputy of the Frente Amplio]. Often, we are working together, but when it comes to what to do, he normally says like his party that ‘we need more time’ and that ‘the conditions for a national strike aren’t there yet’ — but when he comes to the university he does not dare say that.”

Marcela Aguilar is among the more radical and active activists -- usually a night mare for any national leadership of 'broad organizations.
Marcela Aguilar is among the more radical and active activists — usually a night mare for any national leadership of ‘broad organizations.

Chaos in the way the left organizes itself is quite common everywhere on the planet, it seems to me.

But Grace is sure that word gets to them as what is happening in the national coordination committee. From there on, communications go through the various organizations networks to the regional committees — many of which are autonomous. “Why are they autonomous? Is it the same kind of people sitting in the national committee and in regional committees?” I inquire. “No everyone is [organized like] a trade unionist,” Grace responds, thereby making clear that there are indeed differences, “we have ecologists all over the country that are concerned about their local product and are active in their local committee.” It is due to these political differences that groups have autonomous status.

However, although Marcela and her group work in the capital as well, they also have problems with the national coordination: “Take the 23rd and 24th of October. We had a two day mobilization drive, and so the first day we went on a big march with 60,000 people into the city. Very good. So the second day, we had thought that we were going to put up barricades varies places. That had worked back in 2000, when they tried to privatize the institute of energy ICE. The Frente Amplio first seemed to be with us in putting up barricades, but it ended up with them not defending any blockades after all. […] We were all very surprised, but also the second day ended up being like the first, and people went down there to participate in this ‘ceremony’ where deputies were holding speeches against the the CAFTA — but effectively doing nothing to stop it. […] We [from the PST] ended up going down there with them, and then came back with about 500 people. We held the barricade here at the university for all that day.

Cesar Lopez holds a speech at a mini demonstration of about 100 activists who were called togetehr the night before to protest that the national assembly is trying to fast track the vote on CAFTA.
Cesar Lopez holds a speech at a mini demonstration of about 100 activists who were called together the night before to protest that the national assembly is trying to fast track the vote on CAFTA.

So what to do about such differences? The Green movement is according to Grace helping to unite everyone: “It’s something everyone can agree on; everyone likes the trees, the nature… and agree that one needs to protect them.” But when I ask Marcela what she thinks about Grace and her movement, she does not know her.


As you probably noticed, most of the differences are really about strategies — not about goals. This becomes even clearer when I ask the two what they think will be the best strategy to win the struggle. Marcela is the one most certain in her case: “Only a national strike will be able to stop it. And the national coordination committee has been obstruction mobilization to that effect.”

“We don’t just have one sole strategy. And we can’t have one system of organization; we’re not in a political party. If we did have all that, it would be a revolutionary situation,” Grace tries to explain the cause of the seemingly lack of a strategy. “We say that the strategy is to built awareness on the street, that will then transform itself to a change in political majorities in the parliament,” Grace seems not to ave too high hopes, “but we don’t have time for that; the parliament will vote on it now.”

But in radicalism, the two do not seem to differ too much. Although Grace explains that “even if all 57 deputies would vote in favor of CAFTA, it would still be unconstitutional, because it sets itself above our laws and constitution and thereby takes away some of the rights we have been guaranteed as Costa Ricans, such as public access to water, labor laws or a healthy environment”, she is also sure that stopping it through the parliamentary system is impossible; the majority in favor is simply too large, and they do not care about constitutional problems.

A lot of the difference actually seems to come from the difference in what role the different people involved have. Marcela’s view is very similar to my own in Norwegian politics: it is mainly a question of leaders drifting to the right compared to what they were elected for.

But Grace seems to have a little different view. I ask her for whom the most important organizations in the struggle are, and she seems to be a bit unsure: “Well, the labor unions are large. But then they are so big that their leaders can only go so far without breaking them. […] It’s a bit difficult.”

Also there is the state’s possible reaction to it all which Grace seems to fear more than Marcela. In the 1990s, she explains, there was an episode when 4 eco activists were killed — still nobody knows who it was. “Either the government or someone trying to help them,” Grace speculates. She fears, that the same could happen against those active in the movement against the TLC. So far though, the state has not used its toolbox of repression.


Although I have only seen the movement for a little while, it seems to me as if their struggle has been lost. I would not say this if I were mainly blogging to a Costa Rican audience, but given that most of you sit in Europe and the United States, I do not feel that I am hurting anything. And although I have a hard time seeing how they can still win this thing — unless some parliamentary party chooses to change sides for some tactical reason in the last second — I do not really think it is due such differences as Marcela and Grace have in their strategy that make the difference. It is not either that there is not enough awareness — absolutely ever youngster I met on the street had something to say about the TLC, and none of it was positive.

The main problem is, as I can see it, that the Costa Rican government quite differently from most other Central American governments, still enjoys quite a lot of legitimacy among the population. There is simply a very low percentage of people who seem to understand that they need to physically stop things if they want to change things. Of course, the government might loose quite a bit of support after this, but then it is too late already.

What one can hope for is that those active in the movement now, learn how to better deal with their differences. Because if the CAFTA is actually going to start, and the ICE will be ‘modernized’ — the current global codeword for ‘privatized’ — there will be quite a few of new struggles coming up in the following years.

2 thoughts on “Controversial resistance”

  1. The Budapest Treaty is about multinational corporations controlling the worlds seed, food, and medicinal plant supply. It is a danger to every person on our planet, it will be lethal for Costa Rica.

  2. Hi!
    My name is Becca and I am a student at Capital University researching the resistance movement to CAFTA and why it failed to rally a successful "no" vote in referendum. I am going to Costa Rica in February, and am looking for any contacts or information on the topic. Any information or leads you have would be of great help!


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