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.

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Erasmus University Rotterdam
ISS Working Papers - General Series
ISS Working Paper Series / General Series
International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University (ISS)

Rudin, M., & Hintjens, H. (2009). The 2007 "NO CAFTA" movement in Costa Rica. ISS Working Paper Series / General Series (Vol. 479, pp. 1–88). Retrieved from