A strong turnout marked Costa Rica's first ever national referendum in October 2007 as Costa Ricans came out to vote on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Even though this is the first time citizens were able to vote on CAFTA (all other citizens of the other countries that are in this agreement, including the U.S. were not even able to read it before it became law in their countries), this is not the first time Costa Ricans have opposed neo-liberal policies that intend to “sell” (donate would be a better word) what is left of the commons to multinational corporations.
In 2000, for example, the government tried to privatize the National Telecommunications System through a law that came to be known as the COMBO. The people took to the streets, as now, peacefully saying NO to the COMBO in very creative and imaginative ways. And after weeks of demonstrations, congress was forced to drop the very unpopular law. During that struggle, Mujeres contra el Combo was formed to raise awareness of the costs to women when any part of the commons is privatized.
In 2004 the CAFTA was sent to Congress for its ratification after having been signed by then President Pacheco. Congress people opposing the treaty with thousands of Costa Ricans backing them used different tactics to delay ratification until a former congressman decided to petition the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to call a referendum to decide the fate of this controversial agreement.
In April 2007, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) called for a national referendum to decide whether Congress should ratify it or not. And yes, it is unpopular even if yesterday a narrow majority of Costa Ricans voted “Yes’. “They voted yes not because they thought CAFTA was good for the country, but Yes because of fear of the reprisals the U.S. would lay on a small country that would dare to oppose its wishes,” said a spokeswoman for Mujeres contra el TLC (Women Against CAFTA) a coalition of feminist organizations who had earlier come together as Mujeres Contra el Combo.
On the Thursday before the Referendum, the last poll by UNIMER Company indicated the NO was winning by 12 points. The fact that a major newspaper published these results made many from the NO campaign nervous. “What is the meaning of this? For months they have not published anything that is favorable to the NO and now they publish this two days before the voting begins!” noted a member of one of the neighborhood committees that were created by the NO people.
By Friday the scare tactics which had been outlined in a memorandum by the vice president and a congressman had increased: a mayor newspaper published a letter by Susan Schwab, Secretary of Commerce of the U.S.A., warning Costa Ricans of what the U.S. could do if we decided to vote against this “free” trade with them. This resulted in Senators Dorgan, Brown and Sanders writing to Bush to demand that he clarify that the U.S. was not threatening to punish Costa Rica if the result of the referendum was a NO to CAFTA.
On Saturday, instead of acting on the Senators demands, the White House sent a communication that was published in the same mayor newspaper saying that if Costa Ricans vote against joining the agreement, the Bush administration would not renegotiate it. The White House press secretary Dana Perino added that the pact “would expand Costa Rica's access to the U.S. market, safeguard that access under international law, attract U.S. and other investment and link Costa Rica to some of the most dynamic economies of our hemisphere.''
President Arias was on T.V. every day of last week before the vote, insisting that without this treaty Costa Rica would be isolated and as poor as Cuba. He was able to do this because he was allowed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to campaign freely in favor of the YES, in spite of the fact that the referendum law clearly says that no public monies can be spent on campaigns for either side of a referendum. This makes it impossible for a public official to be on national television during working hours without spending public monies, at least without using his time which is paid for in the form of his salary from the taxes all Costa Ricans pay.
The president went as far as to say that voting No to CAFTA was committing collective suicide. In his opinion, he is the only Costa Rican entitled to an opinion because that is why he was elected president. He insisted that he cannot do his job as president if he is not trusted to have the right opinions. So, according to his non-reasoning, either we all trust him blindly because he is the president (who by the way was elected by less than one out of every four Costa Ricans) or we will be committing collective suicide. Either we accept that there is only one truth and only one way forward, or we will all perish!
On Sunday, at the schools which were converted into polling places, opponents and supporters of this controversial trade treaty rallied side by side, the Yes people waving commercially made flags, wearing identical Yes T-shirts and giving away thousands of stickers and fancy store bought food. The No people waving their home made banners, their individually designed or hand painted NO T-shirts, which each opponent of CAFTA paid for with her or his own money and sharing their home made lunches.
No major incidents of violence were reported, but FIRE, which was broadcasting all day long, got several testimonies from women around the country who informed us that the Yes sympathizers were sticking their yes flyers over the NO stickers, ripping flags off cars and generally harassing the NO people who had camped outside the schools.
The streets of the country were festive as both sides made final pushes to win over undecided voters, with cars honking horns and waving banners reading “Yes” and “No” rolling down the streets. At every polling place there were dozens of young activists, mostly female, eager to help voters find their way to the voting booths. Packed crowds outside the schools and long lines outside polling places were evidence of a good turnout. Preliminary vote counts showed that about 60 percent of eligible voters came out yesterday, exceeding the necessary 40 percent for the vote to be binding.
Calls coming in to FIRE reported hundreds of people on the streets in front of the schools were the voting was taking place. The NO people arriving by foot or being brought by private citizens who had offered their cars and time for transportation while the YES people arrived in big buses covered with commercial banners paid for by the multimillion dollar campaign.
Inside, after months of subtly and not so subtly favoring coverage of the campaign in favor of the Yes, the two mayor local television stations continued their strategy: for every NO, at least 10 images of the Yes, for every interview favoring the NO, triple those favoring the Yes. For all those who didn’t say for who they would vote or had voted, a voice would say “they voted YES, not to the CAFTA because we don’t know that, but YES to the referendum, because when you vote you are saying YES to democracy.”
During the previous months, the propaganda in favor of the Yes was 10 to one at the very least and yet with all the millions of dollars spent, the Yes was at such a loss for creative ideas that they stole the symbol of the NO -- a red, white and blue heart preceded by the letter “N”. But since Yes in Spanish is “Si”, they could not substitute the heart for a letter and so just added the heart to the “Si” until the Supreme Electoral Tribunal resolved that the heart was a symbol of the NO campaign and therefore could not be used by the Yes side.
On Monday morning it was clear that the final push by the Yes side to instill fear into undecided voters was a fruitful if illegal and unethical strategy. “I was at a dinner Saturday night when I received a call from the president himself begging me to believe what the newspapers had reported about the reprisals the U.S. would take should the NO win” said Sandra Bonilla, a housewife for the NO. “Several other people got calls that same night and later told me they could not risk getting the U.S. angry at us. They changed their minds right then and there.”
On Monday afternoon FIRE received this wonderful note from our feminist sister Rhonda Copelon: “My heart is with you and I can almost feel your disappointment as I share it here from a distance. From here, I dare say that the stunning thing is that the vote is so close and the fight was so powerful. You've aroused a power in your country that will not go away now. I know that doesn't feel good in the face of losing what would have been such a stupendous and needed victory, but the fight can't be over. No matter how down we get, the fight can never be over. Too many have kept it alive.
“You're entitled to grieve but always remember you've enlivened generations to feminist political consciousness and you've made the fabulous step of linking that to the broader struggles against poverty, exploitation and yes, that old word imperialism. That is a great contribution.”
Many more notes came in throughout the day from women all around the world who wanted to remind the women and men of Costa Rica that our struggle had been an inspiration to them and that even though this battle was apparently lost, much had been gained. “Now Costa Rica has a movement which will be able to transform society as it created itself into a movement capable of financing itself through its own creative membership, with its own symbols and language, its art and its rhythm, and with the courage to study and understand the social and economic problems faced by most small countries in this hemisphere.
A movement which learned to mobilize in the face of much adversity with no traditional leaders even though the media kept trying to make some of the spokespeople into ones” wrote Rocio Alfaro a member of Frente Amplio, a small political party which opposes the treaty. As one woman from Oaxaca, Mexico wrote, “remember that you are almost 50 percent of the people who voted and that the other 50% only voted out of fear, or because of the money offered or because they are greedy for more. You are a half composed of strong dignified willing and able women and men while the proclaimed victors have only money and political power. That is not enough to keep them in power forever. You and we will overcome!”
Even so, many women from Mujeres Contra el TLC woke up very sad today. Their eyes watering as did the sky on this gray Monday. They sent emails explaining their pain while others consoled them. Many felt their hearts had been cheated and torn out of their bodies. Many felt embarrassed to have a president and a media that accepts the intromission of foreign public officials just because it advanced their agenda.
True, the women of Costa Rica are grieving today, not only for what was lost here yesterday but for not being able to share the victory with the rest of Latin America so that women and men all around us could also begin to have hope. Hope that is needed to win another referendum that will be held in Peru on another bilateral free trade agreement between that country and the U.S. Yes, the women are grieving today but not for long. Soon we will regroup to share with our sisters and brothers in Peru and elsewhere what we have learned. Tomorrow we will regroup to continue our struggle against this newest form of Patriarchy which some call Corporate Globalization and others call Extreme Capitalism. We will continue the struggle because we know and have experienced that another world is possible.
Alda Facio, a well-know Costa Rican feminist lawyer and a member of Mujeres Contra el TLC, a Global Fund grantee, wrote this article for F.I.R.E. Photo Courtesy: Jimena Alvarado, a Costa Rican feminist activist currently working to promote awareness among the Costa Rican people about the devastating consequences that CAFTA will have over Central American economies.