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  Number 348 | Julio 2010
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Civil Society’s Representation In the Association Agreement

This civil society representative at the negotiations for the Association Agreement (AA) between the European Union and Central America shares details of Central American civil society’s advocacy during the process that concluded in May.

Haydeé Castillo

The talks leading up to the Association Agreement between Central America and the European Union
hasn’t been of general interest to our population, not because the issue doesn’t concern us all, but because these negotiations tend to take place behind people’s backs and far removed from the sense of their everyday lives. As organized women in the civil society of Central American countries, we decided to try to influence that process. The following are some of the chapters in that story.

From war to peace

Until the nineties Central America was a region at war, dominated by rifle fire, blood and death, with persecution and a lack of democracy commonplace. Only then, following the signing of the Esquipulas 1 and Esquipulas 2 Peace Accords and the Tegucigalpa Protocol, was what is known as the Central American Integration System (SICA) formed.

With the advent of peace, many women’s organizations from across Central America understood that we had common problems we couldn’t resolve in a single country, let alone one municipality. These included the trafficking of women and girls, who are taken out of Nicaragua and turn up in Guatemalan brothels, or problems related to our migrants. We had to integrate our efforts.

I live in Ocotal, which is 12 minutes from the border with Honduras. It’s there in the border areas that we experience real integration. There’s a lot of exchange from one side to the other, with children from the Nicaraguan border area going to Honduran schools and Hondurans crossing the border to use our health centers. And there are cross-country marriages, really “integrated” families. These reflections and our various experiences led to the holding of a Women’s Forum for Central American Integration (FMICA) in 1996 involving organizations from the region’s different countries. We thought that if the heads of state had managed to reach enough agreement to sign the Peace Accords, promising us a Central America in peace with development, democracy and liberty—principles that appear on the SICA flag—then we had a right to participate in building such a region. And we wanted to know where women and the rights of the different peoples fitted into that process.

From CAFTA to the Association Agreement

The United States proposed a free trade agreement with Central America that ended up being a bilateral treaty with each country. That was known as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, now called DR-CAFTA following the inclusion of the Dominican Republic. We didn’t get involved in time to influence CAFTA and while some civil society organizations participated, organized women weren’t among them. At the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007, we decided to get involved when we realized the European Union was proposing an agreement they were calling a “strategic association” with Central America. We thought that since the European Union had accompanied Central America’s peoples at a certain moment to achieve the Peace Accords, it was time to place poverty reduction at the center of the proposed Association Agreement to realize that vision of a region in peace with democracy, development and liberty.

By March 2007, when the process was just getting underway, we had already started drawing up a list of demands we wanted to see established in the Agreement. We joined up with many other organizations in the region representing indigenous peoples, the union movement, private and public universities, the cooperative movement and people with disabilities, as well as several networks, all of which were members of the Central American Integration System’s Consultative Committee (CCSICA). It has to be remembered that when the Peace Accords were signed and SICA was created, other structures were also established, including a Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) to legislate, a Central American Court to be “the conscience of our region” according to the Tegucigalpa protocol, a Presidential Summit, a SICA General Secretariat, an Economic Integration Secretariat (SIECA) and a Social Integration Secretariat. It was also decided to create a participation arena for Central American civil society, known as the Consultative Committee.

We joined to get our voice heard

We women decided to join the Consultative Committee so our voice would be heard. Although it’s an official SICA body, we peoples and organizations know very little about what this system actually does, because, among other things, the governing political class doesn’t understand that the participation of people and their organizations is vital if its actions are to be really effective. The various governments allocate a budget to PARLACEN, the Central American Court and SIECA and its General Secretariat, but no efforts have been invested in strengthening the Consultative Committee, which is where civil society participates. They’ve never given it as much as a penny. Could that be just a coincidence?

We decided to incorporate ourselves into that arena, and try to influence the agreement with the European Union. We knew that the essence of CAFTA is pure trade, and had heard people say that it has served to expand our exports, but we can’t see how that’s translating into an improvement in the poverty rates. We had to take the European Union’s word when it said it shares values with us and some of its countries have had a historical debt pending with us since the Conquest and colonial times. We entered convinced of the need to achieve an agreement that was different from CAFTA.

Our proposals: Level the playing field
and fully integrate our peoples

Our demands prioritized the creation of a substantial European Union fund to reduce poverty in Central America, because two totally asymmetrical regions couldn’t possibly negotiate on equal footing. The development of the European countries can’t be compared to that of our countries and the integration level among the 27 European States isn’t comparable to what we’ve achieved in Central America. A look at the regional institutions created in the nineties shows that Costa Rica isn’t a member of PARLACEN or the Court, that Panama is considering withdrawing and Guatemala only recently approved joining the Court…

Based on that priority, we also proposed a sizable investment to finally get the Central American economy off the ground. European cooperation should help us strengthen capacities, invest in people so our women can obtain the qualifications to get well-paid jobs with decent conditions, rather than having to spend 12 hours under a light bulb pedaling a machine in the free trade zone sweat shops known as maquilas.

We also proposed full integration, with the European Union accompanying us so it would be based not just on economics, trade and merchandise, but also on human beings, meaning that if someone studies at the Central American University in Managua, their degree is also valid in Honduras; that small manufacturers can circulate freely throughout the region with their products; and that cultural exchanges take place among our countries... In short, we were talking about the full integration of our peoples. We said that if the commercial part was going to be the central part of the agreement in any case, then it should favor small and medium industry, female small and medium producers and cooperatives and female farm owners. Our food security needs to be respected, so the commercial side of things shouldn’t put our beans and maize at risk. All our products, services and resources—water, community ownership and ancestral knowledge—need to be protected.

Naturally we stressed that democracy is an indispensable condition for achieving integration, peace and development. We’ve learned that a country advances when the laws are respected and we can express ourselves and organize freely and give our opinions on the nation’s affairs, as established in Nicaragua’s Constitution and those of the other countries in the region. Those Constitutions recognize that economic and social rights are inseparable from political and civil ones.

Negotiations start with three surprises

The European Union had told us that the Association Agreement would be different from CAFTA, that it would have three pillars: political dialogue, cooperation and trade. Our proposal stressed that if we really wanted profound transformations in Central America all three pillars had to be negotiated in an integrated way. In other words, discussing how international cooperation could help strengthen political dialogue and democracy and help develop the economy; and how political dialogue could serve to protect our intellectual property and natural resources… Everything had to be linked together to achieve something that would really benefit Central America.

Central American civil society presented its proposal to both the European Union and the Central American negotiators. One of our first big surprises came when we went to meet with the Central American negotiators during the first round of talks and realized that the region’s governments still didn’t have a common negotiating strategy. It was incredible: with all our limitations and difficulties, civil society already had a proposal and the European Union was already clear about what it wanted, but our countries still hadn’t jointly defined a single thing. Another surprise was that our governments hadn’t studied the impact the agreement would have on Central America. There was nothing: no analysis, no assessment, no previous impact study conducted as a region on commercial, social, environmental or political matters. The European Union was doing an impact study on both regions, but after the negotiations had started, and it seemed illogical to us that they were analyzing the impacts as the negotiations were advancing.

When we talked to the Central American negotiators they informed us that the Foreign Affairs Ministries of each country would negotiate the political dialogue and cooperation pillars, while each country’s Economy/Development/Commerce Ministry (this ministry has a different name in each country) would negotiate the commercial pillar. That was another surprise. While the division of labor seemed fine to us, there had to be a moment in which we could look at everything in an integrated way. That was our aspiration, but we began to sense difficulties… In addition, we were told that the commerce pillar would consist of no less than 12 negotiating tables! Where would the money come from for our countries to send sufficiently broad and specialized technical commissions to twelve different tables?

This process has lasted around three and half years. It was quickly decided that the rounds would alternate, with one in a Central American country and the next in Europe, specifically Brussels, where the European Union headquarters are located.

Fighting for a mechanism
for civil society participation

Our greatest effort went into demanding a mechanism for civil society to participate actively in this Agreement, make contributions and receive information about what was happening along the way… It was very hard, trooping from place to place. I was on the SICA Consultative Committee’s board of directors with women, indigenous people, unions, universities, the Federation of Municipalities, and we went from country to country with the document we had produced, explaining to the negotiators that we were an integration body with the same rights as PARLACEN and the Central American Court. Some didn’t even know we existed so we had to explain to them that they were obliged to listen to our proposals, which we took to them.

We hadn’t reflected on and written about integration so much since the Peace Accords, when the Alliance for Sustainable Development document was drawn up, a text I always recommend because it contains what we, the peoples of Central America, wanted when the wars came to an end. But that document is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, so we had to produce another one, starting from scratch again, as always…

When we submitted our proposal to European Union Ambassador Francesca Mosca, she sat down with us quite openly to talk about it. The proposal covered all the subjects of the agreement, encapsulating the dream of the Central American people. She was amazed. Sometimes we have problems reaching agreement in civil society, but this time we managed to agree on a really beautiful proposal.

As we went from country to country and ministry to ministry explaining civil society’s right to participate, we found that it was hard for a lot of people to understand. For example, the issue of security and arms had been discussed for the Peace Accords and once, someone in one of the ministries in one of the countries asked us, “What does civil society know about this? Only the experts from the United Nations know about it.” We replied, “How can we not know about it after so many wars?” Many similar anecdotes illustrate how some of our officials think.

When the time came to discuss the “mechanism for our participation,” we proposed that the Central American negotiators inform us what they were going to discuss in each round so we could talk with our organizations about it and take our resulting proposals to the negotiators. During the round they should invite us into the halls to dialogue, and at the end of each round there should be a full report on what it had been possible to incorporate, so the governments and civil society could jointly contribute to negotiations favorable to the region.

Right from the first rounds, Central America had a single spokesperson. The first was Roberto Echandi, from Costa Rica. We told him we wanted to sit down with him to propose a mechanism for civil society’s participation, but in Brussels he called together all of the technical teams from all of the countries. We hadn’t imagined the meeting that way, but we decided to take advantage of it because it was a good opportunity to explain to everybody why civil society had to participate in the process.

At the end of the session Mr. Echandi said to us, quite annoyed, “I don’t understand why you want privileged spaces for participation if we’re the representatives of governments legitimately elected by our peoples.” As if being elected gives them carte blanche to do anything they want. We replied that according to the Constitutions of our countries Central America’s democratic system is participatory as well as representative. Then they accused us of wanting to be negotiators. We told them that wasn’t true, that we weren’t a political party, didn’t run in elections for a post, but had the right to participate, and furthermore were members of the SICA Consultative Committee. We warned them that “You’re the negotiators who represent us, so you have to inform us about what you’re doing and how you’re taking our contributions into account.”

Initially we were told we would participate over the Internet, that it would only be an informative mechanism. Later they told us that we’d be in an adjacent room, the famous “side room” where Central American civil society was shunted during negotiations over CAFTA with the United States. We rejected both ideas, explaining that the days when civil society could be separated off just to receive information were over. At that time Nicaragua’s deputy foreign minister, Manuel Coronel Kautz, was representing Nicaragua in the negotiating process. He insisted that we accept being in the side room, telling us it was a good idea, but we didn’t agree.

Ever since it had been said that each country would define a participation mechanism, we were clear that it would be the SICA Consultative Committee. Each country has a CCSICA chapter, created by its social organizations in each country. Coronel Kautz called us “interest groups” and told us that the interlocutor with Nicaragua’s government would be Citizens’ Power, the national mechanism for citizens’ participation established by the ruling FSLN, with strong party links. In fact, the official government daily La Gaceta later published the creation of Nicaragua’s participation mechanism in the agreement. It was headed by big businesspeople from the business association umbrella grouping COSEP, as well as some civil society organizations. In several cases, the government indicated who the organization should send, but some refused to let the government impose their representatives. The Nicaraguan CCSICA chapter was not included in the official mechanism.

That was when we perceived the difficulties we might have with our country’s government. But to be fair, although the government showed no political will, we did find certain people throughout the process with whom we could dialogue, even if not through the official mechanism. These included the deputy minister and certain officials from the Ministry of Development, Industry and Commerce (MIFIC), as well as a few people from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The degree of openness varied from country to country.

Complicated negotiations

The negotiations were very complicated. Two initial problems were that everything was in English and therefore had to be translated, and everything was highly technical. In civil society we’ve learned a lot about social and political issues, but still need more experience in trade issues. These “technicisms” were even very complex for some government officials who worked in this field as their full-time job, so imagine what it was like for our organizations with limited time, institutional capacity and human and material resources. The commercial side was the hard part of the Agreement.

During this process we reaffirmed the need for social movements to generate more arguments of better quality and greater depth to demonstrate the links between economic and political matters, based on our own knowledge and great life experience. If not, we’ll be absorbed by this system, this economic model that is dominating the world and the economy, and commerce will dominate everything.

A process altered by the Honduran coup
and the international financial crisis

There were eight rounds of formal negotiations and everything was going more or less well until two events considerably altered the process: the international financial crisis starting at the end of 2008, and then the coup d’état in Honduras in June 2009, which was even worse.

We already had problems with unity, since Central America hadn’t done previous impact studies and had internal asymmetries, with some countries wanting to speed up the negotiations and others barely treading water in a sea of difficulties… The coup in Honduras took place when Honduras was still Central America’s official representative, but was about to pass the role on to Nicaragua. In addition, during the seventh round, held in Honduras before the coup, Nicaragua had withdrawn from the negotiations following the European Union’s questioning of its proposal to create a multimillion dollar economic-financial fund. Civil society had already asked for such a fund, although we had specified that it shouldn’t be used for big investments and “white elephants,” and shouldn’t just produce profits for the big transnational corporations. Instead, we argued that it should focus on the structural reduction of poverty through investment to generate a solid economy with long-term sustainability that would make it increasingly less necessary to ask for cooperation. We argued for a fund that would allow us to optimize our own resources and increase our skills, education, productivity and job quality levels.

Nicaragua’s cooperation fund proposal failed to achieve the necessary consensus in either the region or its own government, as the Central Bank was apparently not convinced about the way it was defined. It would seem that a more effective joint strategy between MIFIC and the Foreign Affairs Ministry was lacking. Above all, there was no backing at the highest government level to listen to the proposals of the different forces involved, and no prior alliance with Honduras and Guatemala.

Soon after this crisis came the coup in Honduras. Central American integration is still fragile, as is the solidarity among our countries. When Nicaragua withdrew from the negotiations some Central American countries told the European Union “it doesn’t matter, let’s continue the negotiations without it.” And the same happened with the coup in Honduras: “It doesn’t matter, let’s continue without it.” They were in a hurry to sign. From civil society we insisted that if it was a bi-regional negotiation we all had to be there and the European Parliament’s mandate in that regard had to be respected.

There was no possibility of providing continuity to the negotiations without Honduras, since it was still the official representative, or without Nicaragua, the next in line. It was also hard to keep working with one regional spokesperson, and led to the designating of different spokespeople for different issues in each negotiation. What effectiveness could such a mechanism have in negations with a region as highly integrated as the European Union? But despite everything, they continued with that modality, which distorted everything. There were internal Central American rounds, but some countries didn’t recognize the new Honduran government.

The race to sign the Agreement

So we reached 2010, in an incredible race accelerated by Spain, which in the first half of the year held the European Union’s rotating presidency and wanted the agreement signed before passing the presidency on to the next country. Civil society and some negotiators from several countries started asking what the hurry was, arguing that we weren’t prepared to sign, among other things because, just as the United States had done, the European Union was leaving for the last round what for us were the most sensitive issues—sustainable development, migration and the quotas for our export products (meat, sugar, coffee, dairy produce). To exert some pressure, we issued pronouncements everywhere saying that they couldn’t impose signing deadlines on us because as it stood the Agreement wasn’t “any good to us,” as Sinforiano Cáceres told envío [in the June 2009 edition]. It wasn’t any good to Central America, let alone to its women, youth, indigenous peoples, Afro-Americans, all of those who have been historically excluded.

Prior to the Sixth European Union-Latin America and Caribbean Summit held in Madrid on May 18-19, which would precede the signing of the Association Agreement, there was a big public debate about which Latin American countries would attend the Summit and which would not if President Lobo of Honduras was there, as he was in office as the result of a coup. Part of civil society shared the questioning of Lobo’s participation.

The negotiations still hadn’t closed by the date of the summit. And even today the Central American States still haven’t received the final document resulting from the negotiations. It’s the European Union’s responsibility to send the definitive document containing everything agreed upon and that takes a lot of time to review, right down to the language. The whole legal and juridical part has to be reviewed and approved by the 27 countries of the European Union and certain adjustments have to be made… Despite this, our Presidents signed a document in Madrid on May 19 welcoming the end of the negotiations for the Association Agreement. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, who didn’t go to Madrid, celebrated the culmination of the Agreement alongside COSEP, saying that while it wasn’t the best, it was the best possible.

A double responsibility
and a double discourse

Knowing that the agreement had problems and that we weren’t getting the quotas for the products we wanted, we thought the most honorable thing our Central American Presidents—now not just the negotiators—could have done at the summit would have been to take a unanimous and firm stance, telling the European Union we needed support, but with other characteristics. But that didn’t happen.

The European Union indeed has a historical responsi¬bility toward Central America. And the rich countries have a pending agreement they don’t always honor: allocating 0.7% of their gross domestic product to cooperation with poor countries. But our States also have the great responsibility to ensure that the resources from international cooperation are managed in a transparent and proper way, and that doesn’t always happen either.

Let’s not fool ourselves: the European Union’s priority in the Agreement is trade: to place its products and open new markets, and also take up a joint position with Central America on strategic issues in international forums. And let’s not fool ourselves about another thing either: most of the current political class governing Central America is far removed from the real interests of impoverished people, women and youth. There’s a dual responsibility for everything that happens to us.

Absent from the final round
and reading between the lines

We didn’t participate in the final round as CCSICA, so we don’t know exactly how the process went. What we do know is that the European Union ended up negotiating issues bilaterally with each country, and Nicaragua was last in line. Everything about this was also managed in our country with a dual discourse. While President Daniel Ortega was calling the Europeans and the Agreement imperialist and colonialist, the Nicaraguan negotiators had clear instructions to go forward with the negotiations, even alongside figures from the current Honduran government, which our government claims not to recognize because of the coup. Some Nicaraguan negotiators on the issues of political dialogue and cooperation, people we saw throughout the process, weren’t invited by the Nicaraguan government to attend its conclusion.

The agreement document our Presidents so celebrated was guarded like a “State secret” until June. We were told it couldn’t be freely accessed. During the negotiations they said this was because it could endanger the whole negotiating process. We could already see the conclusions related to the commercial pillar in the reading room created by MIFIC, but had no access to issues related to the political dialogue and cooperation pillars. Even read as is, the document is still very hard to understand and it’s almost impossible for us to work out whether or not there are any links among the famous three pillars.

The civil society sectors that represented the social economy couldn’t be as involved and representative as required throughout the process, among other reasons due to the lack of resources for such continuous, costly trips. In the case of the CCSICA board, we had the support of the Central American Regional Integration Support Program as a result of our negotiations and demands to participate. But how could we advocate and pressure enough with one round in Honduras, another in Brussels, another in Guatemala, and without enough timely information flow? If would have been different if the Central American governments had come to an agreement with civil society so we could actively participate, optimizing resources and defining strategies. But such a sign of progress in our political culture appears increasingly distant.

A level playing field
and the social cohesion fund

In the cooperation pillar, we know there’s a list of important issues in which the European Union says it’s going to cooperate with Central America: health, education, technology, the environment... In reality, none of this is new, because the European Union has already been cooperating in all of these issues and made it clear that there would be no additional resources. But we continually insisted that with such great asymmetries there had to be extra resources to level the playing field. I remember one moment when the final European negotiator for the commercial pillar responded to our insistence on various issues by hitting the table and saying, “When one talks about commerce, one talks about money in hand, and Central America’s supply is very low.” We responded, “Well, what exactly did you expect? Don’t you know our situation?”

We believe, and said, that the cooperation fund, which we called the social cohesion fund, should have been a condition attached by Central America to the signing of the agreement. We reminded everyone that when the European Union was forged, extra social cohesion funds were allocated for countries in a worse position, to even things out. In Central America, Costa Rica and Panama aren’t in the same situation as Nicaragua and Honduras.

Apparently the final agreement on the social cohesion fund is that “the creation of a fund will be negotiated,” but without saying how much, how, or what for, which is what civil society was demanding. Those of us from Nicaragua pushed that issue a lot. Nicaragua is one of the countries that has received most cooperation over many years and we’ve experienced the problems this generates. That’s why we argued that rather than just focusing on amounts, the debate should also consider our proposal about what the fund would invest in, how it would be administered and how organized civil society would socially audit it. The fund is currently being discussed and negotiated by a high-level Central American commission made up of each country’s Central Bank, the European Bank, the Central American Economic Integration Bank and other institutions. We’re aware that negotiating this now puts Central America at a great disadvantage, as it should have been discussed and established before the negotiations concluded.

What should this fund’s resources be invested in? We proposed that the fund should be to level out asymmetries, strengthen human capacities and foster productivity and competitiveness levels. And we pointed to spheres of investment, particularly education, the promotion of decent jobs, the strengthening of the community social fabric, and the construction of Central American identity... We always said that the investment priority should be education because it has been more than proven that countries only pull out of poverty thanks to education.

The fight for migrants’ rights

The migration issue was an agenda point from the first round. No agreement was reached then and it went on to the second; still no agreement was reached so it went on to the third… and so on. It must be remembered that in June 2008 the European Parliament approved the famous Directive on the Return of Illegal Immigrants, which effectively criminalizes migrants into the EU countries. We social networks came out against that directive at the time and in fact much of Latin America labeled it the “directive of shame.” When we sat down with the European negotiator for political dialogue, which was the pillar where the migration issue was being discussed, he told us not to worry; “That Directive doesn’t have anything to do with you; it’s for the Africans.” But on our return flights from the rounds, we ran into Central Americans being deported and it broke our hearts.

The governments of both Nicaragua and El Salvador—particularly the new Funes government and the FMLN—and the civil societies of those two countries had a very firm position on the issue. We rejected calling the migrants “illegal,” insisting that human beings always have rights, wherever they are and whatever conditions they’re in. In the end, Nicaragua and El Salvador asked for consultations over the paragraph about migration and the European Union presented a new proposal, which was apparently “acceptable” to the Central American negotiators. We’re now waiting to see how the final version reads.

Natural resource protection

Protection of our natural resources, particularly water, was another ongoing concern of ours right from the start. The negotiators explained that the Agreement says there can be investment in the generation of water, but not its distribution. However, when one reads the text in greater detail, one discovers that anyone can come to invest, as long as they do so “in the framework of the national legislation.”

Our position is that this isn’t going to work in our countries, with such high levels of corruption and institutional fragility. We know that the “national legislation” can end up protecting foreign investors even when they ignore the rules. A clause in the not-yet-definitive documents specifies that public services cannot be privatized, but there are no guarantees that privatization won’t continue, as has already happened with the consent of our governments.

Civil society and the three pillars

What we read with respect to political dialogue is a very general framework: the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respect for international legislation, the rights and obligations of the parties negotiating the Agreement. Also mentioned are the strengthening of democracy and integration, as well as the rights of indigenous peoples and labor rights. We women fought for the inclusion of equity between men and women, equal opportunities and all of our rights.

The problem comes when we look for consistency between the political dialogue and commercial pillars. For example, the resolution of controversies applied to all pillars bar the sustainable development one, which states that any violation of what has been agreed will be resolved via arbitration and consultation and with a mechanism of cooperation and moral sanctions. Are moral sanctions enough? And who’s going to oversee this controversy resolution process?

We think that no agreement will be favorable to us until the State institutions have been strengthened and made nonpartisan; until it is the law not the strongest that is adhered to; and until there is separation of the branches of State and a transparent judicial branch. What will civil society’s participation be like in Nicaragua? And what do we have a Central American Court of Justice for? We proposed that it should play a role in all of this and certain justices agreed. But in the end there was no consensus, not even among all Central American governments.

As the top business leaders always participated in the rounds, some of them proposed at one point that civil society should follow up on the political dialogue and cooperation pillars, while they would do so on the commercial pillar. We replied, “Aren’t we part of the workforce, aren’t we also farm owners, coffee farmers and ranchers? And aren’t indigenous peoples, who own our territories, interested in the economy?” It’s both our right and our duty as social movements to involve ourselves in economic matters. It would be vital to open a deep horizontal dialogue between the social movement and the upper echelons of business on the links between the social and environmental agenda and the economy, politics and integration so we can be jointly involved in building another Central America.

The European Union always backed us on issues of civil society participation, gender equity and Central America’s integration into the International Criminal Court. But it was a different story when it came to the commercial side of things. The European Union brought its full arsenal to this Agreement, the whole power of its transnational companies. And there are no differences between gringo transnationals and European ones.

Parliamentary disinterest

There’s still a long way to go before the Association Agreement comes into force. The texts have to be reviewed, the language has to be reviewed, then the 27 European Union States and the Central American States have to approve the Agreement. And that’s were we had another surprise: we realized when we asked for a meeting with our Nicaraguan legislative representatives and also in certain forums with them that they don’t know the contents of the negotiations and haven’t given them the due follow-up. The worst thing is that once the text gets to the National Assembly they can’t change anything: they can only reject or approve it. So why didn’t they get informed right from the first round so they could influence the Agreement to make sure it’s what we needed?

I don’t think we’ll have the Nicaragua and Central America we want until we transform today’s political parties, which compete in the elections that choose the officials who then administrate our public resources. As long as they continue being people who help themselves to what the State has rather than helping the State and who protect their own business interests rather than the collective interests, our future is dim.

Can we move from “a la carte”
to “real” integration?

We in civil society are convinced that Nicaragua and Central America need commercial exchange and we need to diversify our trade partners. We’ve always known that. But we also want fair exchange. We know we need more cooperation to pull ourselves out of poverty, but we don’t want any more cooperation that isn’t decided in the framework of a national and regional development plan. We want the governments to stop using that cooperation as charity handouts or on behalf of groups linked to their ruling parties. Central America still doesn’t have a development plan.

We wanted a negotiating process that would strengthen Central American integration, but during the final hours there in Madrid the European Union ended up closing out issues bilaterally, which we totally opposed. Costa Rica didn’t always show much solidarity with the other countries during the negotiations. We didn’t even achieve everyone’s solidarity and consensus on the issue of the social cohesion fund. The ideal thing would have been to agree to this among Central Americans and champion it together. That way the Central American proposal would have had greater force. But we couldn’t make it happen.

Now we’re seeing more “a la carte” integration. Panama says it will join SIECA to be a party to the agreement with the European Union, but plans to leave PARLACEN. Costa Rica entered into negotiations over the three pillars, but still doesn’t want to join PARLACEN or the Court…

Where do we go from here?

As CCSICA and through other civil society initiatives we have the moral authority of having drafted proposals, of having presented them to decision-makers. Now it’s time for them to be accountable to the citizenry about what they agreed to and inform us whether or not our proposals were incorporated. It’s time to pass from the rhetoric of political dialogue and cooperation to make the social cohesion fund what it must be to reverse our poverty indicators. Our governments have that ethical responsibility to our populations.

The Central American Integration System in its current form has been questioned and needs to be transformed to be more at the service of the Central American peoples. That’s one of our priorities as civil society: to demand and propose that transformation. We require a PARLACEN with fewer but more upright representatives whose decisions are more binding. We’re demanding a Central American Court that effectively creates a community law that strengthens the rule of law based on everyday needs. We want presidential summits that focus on supra-nationality and on regional development based on democracy and freedom.

But it’s also not a question of tearing down integration, because that would leave us worse off than we are now. What we need are political parties, governments and States that bank on real integration; the kind we’re experiencing in the border zones, exchanging health, education, economy, commerce, culture, emotional relationships, solidarity… We need the kind of integration we experienced with Hurricane Mitch; the way we helped each other during those days. That was real integration and that’s what we dream of for the whole of our region.

Haydeé Castillo is a member of the Women’s Forum for Central America and of the SICA Consultative Committee.

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