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Costa Rican NO to CAFTA Campaign finds a way to Fund the Revolution while Building a Base

By Jessica Walker Beaumont, Alliance for Responsible Trade

October 6, 2007 - the eve before the first ever referendum on a trade agreement

As the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement goes through Congress at a rapid pace with little resistance from the very same Democrats who so adamantly took a stand against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), I am honored to be in Costa Rica to witness a vivacious grassroots movement likely to stop CAFTA's ratification in tomorrow's referendum. The US movement against CAFTA was not insignificant with a near defeat to the trade pact-passing by just two votes in July 2005. However, the rapid rate at which it dissipated is an indicator that the effort failed to include grassroots groups in shaping a strategy that can be sustained by a broad spectrum of movements.

Moreover, a country-specific strategy rather than one that outright rejects the model has left us vulnerable to starting over with each trade pact. Yes it is time to put forward a meaningful alternative to this model so we can be for something, but in the election cycle climate of Washington DC, an alternatives effort coming from a few sectors without broad consultation runs the risk of providing cover for politicians eager to please their campaign financers - like we have seen with Peru.

While CAFTA sailed through the Congresses of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, it has met a very different fate in Costa Rica. A warning was sounded during Costa Rica's presidential elections last year when candidate Ottón Solís came out of nowhere with a campaign message against CAFTA that gave former president and Nobel Peace Prize winning Oscar Arias a tight race-winning by just 1.1%. Once in office, the resistance to CAFTA continued to grow forcing President Arias to let the fate of the trade pact be determined by tomorrow's referendum-a decision he is certainly regretting.

About 2 million of the country's 4.6 million people are able to vote with 40% participation needed to validate the outcome. An October 3rd poll showed the "NO" campaign coming from behind gaining 55% of the votes.

In Costa Rica, saying "NO" is about stopping CAFTA but also about preserving publicly run electrical, phone and health care systems-instant casualties if CAFTA passes. It is about rejecting Costa Rica's future being determined by multinational corporate interests. The "NO" campaign leaped to the forefront when Vice President Kevin Casas resigned last month over a leaked memorandum mapping out recommendations for an iron-fist approach to ensuring the passage of CAFTA-a sensitive issue for a country proud of its democracy. And yesterday, a new scandal emerged linking President Arias to a set of meetings with powerful multinational telecommunications and electrical companies waiting to gain access to Costa Rica's market.

The Financial Times depicts the struggle as one that pits the left against the right and the rich against the poor. This is an oversimplification of the situation as demonstrated directly to me by the chair of the "NO" campaign's finance committee. A MIT educated chemical engineer running a successful business in Costa Rica, he is against the trade agreement because it is so blatantly written with multinational corporate interest in mind. He talked about a mystery account in the Inter-American Development Bank that funded the Costa Rican CAFTA negotiator's salaries at $25,000 a month - likely, he said, filled by multinational corporations. He also talked about his son, an expert on patents and intellectual property rights, who directly had contact with a Costa Rican negotiator whose refusal to consider his concerns about the way the chapter was written, in his opinion, demonstrated negotiators' unwillingness and inability to change the text of the agreement written even before the process began. As a member of a chamber of commerce for Pro-Costa Rica business, he represents a larger movement of business owners working to foster Costa Rican owned businesses.

My burning question upon arrival was to find out how the "NO" campaign built its base and stood up to the well financed government and corporate backed "YES" campaign. Moreover, given that we all know the revolution will not be funded, I was dying to learn how the campaign is financed. Surprisingly the two answers are connected. Campaign organizers came up with the brilliant idea of selling bonds. You got that right, bonds for "millions to hear us say NO". Engaging the grassroots with a door to door strategy, people were brought into the fold through directly purchasing a bond for $2, $10, or $20 dollars getting a paper bond in return that reads "I am financing the NO." To comply with government campaign finance regulations, data is collected from every contributor and submitted to the elections board. With this they have raised $6 million dollars and built a swelling campaign that will take them to victory tomorrow.

The campaign has succeeded in conveying what is at stake for Costa Ricans and brought a huge cross section of religious groups, business people, students, unions, environmentalists, women's groups and other into the fold. They have already won a victory by demonstrating the power of democracy, creating a chance for the people to weigh in on the deal. If they win, I wait in anticipation to see what happens next.

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