The 2007 'NO-CAFTA' Movement in Costa Rica: Reflecting on Social Movements and Political Participation Rights

Mercedes Alvarez Rudin, Helen Hintjens

Research output: Working paperAcademic

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This study addresses political participation rights from the perspective of a
social movement. We focus on the case of the NO movement which emerged
in Costa Rica in 2007 in the run-up to the Referendum on ratification of the
Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The study explores some
ways the NO movement sought to make political participation rights real for
voters during the Referendum campaign. The central focus is on how political
participation rights were claimed and exercised by members of the
movement. We consider how more democratic understandings of political
participation emerged, during the campaign process itself from the NO
movement’s practices. The main findings are that the NO movement’s
understanding of political participation rights was intimately connected to how
the movement framed its own collective actions, which were understood as a
defence of a historically and socially-embedded Costa Rican model of
development. This in turn arose from a certain, shared nationalist vision that
combined liberal democracy, economic nationalism and welfarist
redistribution. During the CAFTA Referendum process, the NO movement’s
members sought to realize participation rights through both formal and
informal claims and practices. On the one hand, NO movement participants
demanded – and claimed – formal institutional accountability for the
protection of these rights. At the same time, they relied heavily on their own
efforts to open up and protect new spaces for collective action. The NO
movement thus defended its own members’ and supporters’ rights to political
participation in several ways. In our view, this process helped promote wider
critical awareness of the prospects for active citizen involvement in public
decision making processes in Costa Rica generally. The study suggests that
even in the absence of effective legal regulations that can be used to protect
people’s political rights to participate, a movement can sometimes build
effective rights realization ‘from below’, through creating spaces for
democratic participation of citizens. It is argued that this is often a crucial
dimension of rights realization and that rights to political participation can be
exercised by citizens as well as claimed from the state. One of the main
democratic contributions of the NO movement was to help open up new
debates what kind of state, what kind of society, and what kind of economic
development Costa Ricans wanted. Contestations of existing power relations
were central to the pre-Referendum debates around CAFTA. And this study
suggests that the NO movement thus challenged neoliberal notions of
development and democracy both through its messages and through its
organizational practices during the Referendum campaign. Authoritarian
exclusionary and vertical logics, as well as the principles of competence and
commercialization, came into question in the process.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationThe Hague
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages88
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2009

Publication series

SeriesISS working papers. General series

Research programs



  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


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