On the surface, it looked something like a big party. Referendum day saw cars honking and their drivers waving flags. Crowds of people wearing “yes” and “no” T-shirts headed to the polls and in some places campaign material littered the streets.
All that sound and fury, however, belied the well-oiled political machinery that got out the vote and, according to representatives both for and against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA), probably went a long way toward helping the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA pull out its slim victory.
“We were very organized for many weeks,” said Francisco Chacón, one of the spokesmen and organizers for the Alliance.
“It went like clockwork.”
That clockwork included the inner workings of the National Liberation Party (PLN), the Libertarian Movement (LM) and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), all of which supported the U.S. free-trade agreement.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, party operatives throughout the country asked around to find other party members planning to vote “yes” and made sure transportation could be organized.
“The operatives know their streets, their neighborhoods,” Chacón said. When it came to coordinating transportation, the political parties could count on the deep pockets of the private sector that was also supporting the free-trade agreement.
With a massive flotilla of 250 buses, 200 mini-buses and 250 cars, the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA was able to set up its own public transportation system, parallel to the tickets for free bus rides that the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) handed out to anyone who needed them.
Maps were passed out and published in the daily La Nación noting all the pickup points in the Central Valley, along with an 800-number “yes” voters could call for info.
In the end, the Alliance got strong majorities in the urban areas where it concentrated the transportation effort, Chacón said.
René Castro, the general secretary of the PLN, said that from day one the Alliance had the upper hand thanks to its organizational experience. While the Alliance was quietly offering events in various businesses and passing instructions through its political party structure, the Patriotic Movement for No on CAFTA was holding rallies and printing fliers.
“The experience they have comes principally from the unions,” Castro said. “They get sidetracked making noise.”
Sonia Marta Mora, a spokeswoman for the Patriotic Movement for No on CAFTA and former rector of the National University (UNA), agreed that the Alliance had the upper hand. But for a different reason: “unlimited finances.”
“We say it was a fight between David and Goliath, and the patriotic movement achieved a real upset,” she said.
The Patriotic Movement for No on CAFTA had only a few dozen volunteer mini-buses, as well as volunteers who offered their cars.
Mora mused that the Patriotic Movement probably should have done some things differently – for example, getting more information to Costa Ricans about politics in the United States and international trade issues. In some ways, however, Mora said the referendum was a success.
“Imagine, with these conditions getting 48% (of the vote), almost tying,” she said. “It’s a magnificent thing for the people.”