Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David Harvey

Subject Categories

Geography | Latin American Languages and Societies | Latin American Studies | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Costa Rica, Direct Democracy, Free Trade Agreement, Latin America, Politics, Social Movements


In October of 2007, Costa Ricans voted in a referendum to ratify a Free Trade Agreement with the United States (DR-CAFTA, or CAFTA). The first referendum in their nation's history--and the first referendum ever held on a Free Trade Agreement--marked the culmination of a cycle of contention over liberalization that transformed practices and expectations of politics in a country often considered an exemplar of representative democracy. In this dissertation I provide an account of the opposition to CAFTA (the NO), based on two years of ethnographic research with the Patriotic Committees (Comites Patrioticos), the decentralized, grassroots network at the heart of the movement against the treaty.

I emphasize the contested meanings of democracy invoked in the struggle between the grassroots NO campaign and the transnational elite coalition that promoted the treaty (the SI). I argue that the opposition to CAFTA in Costa Rica was a movement to defend the “social state” (Estado social) against a globalizing neoliberal property regime, while challenging existing forms of political representation in the name of a more authentic popular democracy. I show how the struggle over CAFTA was shaped by an ongoing process of contention over liberalization and representation in the context of Costa Rica's particular social democratic institutions and traditions. I argue that, as the struggle evolved, the SI and the NO appealed to different aspects of the country's “institutionality” (institucionalidad), raising some fundamental contradictions within and between liberalism and democracy. One outcome was a controversial and ambiguous popular consultation, an exercise in “direct democracy” that paradoxically highlighted the limits of an elite-dominated political order.

Drawing on theory and scholarship of populism and direct democracy, I show how protagonists of the NO turned a diversity of interests into unity of purpose, enabling them to nearly win a markedly asymmetrical contest. I also explain how the Patriotic Committees worked with established social idioms to pioneer new forms of political participation as they challenged the limits of existing representative institutions. I argue that in doing say they articulated a conception of democracy and social state that makes a distinctive contribution to discussions of post-neoliberalism.