The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was both cause and effect of a new bilateral consensus between Mexican and U.S. elites that strengthened their hand “from above.” But at the same time, it opened up unprecedented possibilities for civil society convergence “from below.”
More than a decade ago, groups in the United States and Mexico began to respond to accelerating economic integration between their two countries. This binational relationship–anchored in North America ‘s uniquely intense proximity between the “developing” and “developed” worlds–provoked some of the first sustained cross-border encounters among social constituency organizations. Nongovernmental public interest groups had long been developing transnational issue networks, but with NAFTA social organizations directly affected by the pact began to get to know their counterparts face-to-face. Their experiences offer some of the earliest examples of people-to-people “globalization from below.”
Introducing a new actor in Mexico-U.S. Relations
The public debate around NAFTA politicized the on-going process of structural economic changes and broke down the boundaries between international and domestic policy issues in both the U.S. and Mexico. This NAFTA-driven broadening of the public debate around international economic integration made possible unprecedented political turning points, including the 1997 congressional defeat of President Bill Clinton’s request for fast-track trade negotiating authority, and the unexpected “battle for Seattle” of late 1999. The NAFTA debate gave a wide range of actors a common focus and, for many, a ready-made political target–something less abstract than “international trade policy” or “economic integration.”
Nonetheless, in the early nineties important divisions existed within the budding movement. Much of the Mexican trade union movement supported the trade agreement (sold in Mexico as a jobs program), which split Mexican and binational social groups and made discussions with the militantly anti-NAFTA Canadian movement especially charged.
Within the United States, labor unions opposed NAFTA but with significant differences in their level of commitment and their rationale for doing so. The U.S. environmental movement also split on the deal, as did Latino civil rights organizations. Moreover, in both countries the leaderships of these organized constituencies had other priorities to negotiate with their respective governments–priorities they were hesitant to subordinate to concerns about NAFTA.
But the fact that there was a broad-based public debate, at least in the United States, was extraordinary in itself. Never before had such a broad array of national and regional social constituency groups engaged on an issue of international economic policy, and never had there been such breadth of participation and popular debate on the pivotal issues of North-South relations. This fact made the political and economic establishment of each country tremble; here was an uninvited actor trying to gain a seat at the table where international economic and financial policy was being negotiated.
NAFTA’s proponents were caught off guard by the broad public challenge, and they became increasingly alarmed as the popular debate ultimately threatened the legislative survival of their project. The U.S. opposition was strong enough to oblige then-presidential-candidate Bill Clinton to recognize the legitimacy of the need for labor and environmental standards in trade policy for the first time in U.S. history.
The U.S. administration finally included side agreements on these issues, which many considered a major achievement. The side agreements provided some political cover for labor leaders who were privately divided over how intensely to oppose their ostensible ally, Clinton, on NAFTA, but they divided the major environmental organizations. At the same time, an unusual Latino advocacy-environmentalist coalition led to the creation of new binational institutions designed to help buffer NAFTA’s environmental and social costs on the border.
Ten years later, the “miraculous” (for no-one thought it possible) dialogue on how to respond to economic integration that developed among social constituencies both within and between the United States and Mexico still offers a space for new forms of social participation and action in the binational arena. Over the last few years, that space has continued to broaden, and what can be called a “movement”–albeit diverse, incoherent, and not organized like anything before it–has emerged. But as has been the case from the beginning, the question is how social constituencies can use the “space.”
Relationships between social/civic counterparts
To assess binational efforts, it’s necessary to distinguish between qualitatively different kinds of binational civil-society relationships, ranging from networks (loose, by definition), to firmer coalitions (based on actual agreements and joint actions), to fully binational social movements. Networks involve exchange of information and at least discursive mutual support, but not necessarily much more. Coalitions involve actual collaboration through joint campaigns toward shared goals. Those shared goals might be quite limited, however, since coalitions do not necessarily involve shared long-term goals or strategies, much less shared ideologies and political cultures. Binational social movements involve organized social bases in more than one country and do share long-term goals and ideologies.
The most important binational organizing efforts have taken place among trade policy advocacy groups, labor unions, environmentalists, women’s rights activists, and Latino immigrant and civil rights organizations. After a decade of experience, we can briefly assess the varying levels of organization and cohesion in each sector.
Trade Advocacy Networks
During the pre-NAFTA trade debates in Mexico and the United States, domestic constituency organizations often met their counterparts in the other country for the first time. At the same time, because so many diverse actors saw their interests directly affected by NAFTA, unusual “citizen” coalitions brought together local, regional, and national organizations representing labor, farmer, environmental, consumer rights, immigrant rights, Latino, and human rights groups. Many of these organizations had either never worked with each other or had long histories of mistrust, if not outright antagonism.
In the United States , the NAFTA opposition became a movement with somewhat disjointed nationalist and internationalist wings. Some of the anti-NAFTA forces perceived the economic integration process as one that threatened U.S. “sovereignty.”
Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, along with some environmentalists and trade unionists, explicitly stressed this nationalist approach, arguing that NAFTA would supersede the authority of local and national labor, consumer, and environmental laws and standards. These left populists were joined and then overshadowed by conservative nationalist populists, led by Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.
The common campaign practice of building broad, often contradictory short-term coalitions around specific legislative conflicts dominated the U.S. process. U.S. critics found relatively few like-minded counterparts in Mexico , where unilateral trade opening had already occurred and even NAFTA critics limited their political investment in the fight because the outcome was perceived as inevitable.
The nationalist wing of the U.S. NAFTA opposition also employed the message of blaming foreigners for the widespread insecurity among industrial workers, which Mexican counterparts and others found offensive.
In contrast, the internationalist wing of the U.S. NAFTA opposition recognized that some kind of integration was inevitable. U.S. internationalists worked closely with Mexican counterparts and anti-racist social movements in the United States , but their ambitious goal of mass economic literacy required sustained long-term political investments, whereas the legislative campaign momentum imposed a short-term political logic that privileged nationalist discourses.
Mexican critics coalesced around the Free Trade Action Network (RMALC), led by the Frente Auténtico de Trabajo (FAT Authentic Labor Front) human rights groups, environmentalists, and other NGOs. Despite having a very narrow domestic base, this activist network was able to oblige senior government officials to engage in an ongoing dialogue with them during the trade negotiation process, a previously unimaginable possibility. RMALC was bolstered by its partnerships with the Action Canada Network and the Alliance for Responsible Trade in the United States .
Although these groups put economic integration issues on the national agenda, at least temporarily, the overall pattern that emerges from a decade of trade policy debate is not one of ever-increasing binational partnership and coalition-building on trade. Instead, we see an ebb-and-flow pattern in which both nationalist and internationalist trade advocacy efforts clearly peaked during the debate preceding the NAFTA vote.
The U.S. opposition to the 1997 renewal of fast-track involved much less coordination with Mexican counterparts than the NAFTA debate and many subsequent issues have been dominated by the nationalist perspective. The Mexico-U.S. trade advocacy coalition experience suggests that balanced cross-border civil society coordination is far from an inevitable dimension of the increasing international concern and protest about globalization.
Labor Organizations and Unions
The policies of economic integration forced organized labor from both Mexico and the United States to an encounter in a context in which, objectively, they shared no common interest in the short term.
NAFTA was widely seen by American workers as a threat to their jobs, weakening their already limited bargaining power, and lowering labor standards and living conditions. For their Mexican counterparts, NAFTA was perceived as a source of new employment, the “only” solution to years of economic decline and sacrifice.
At the same time, some individuals within both labor movements realized that, in the long term, the interests of Mexican and American working people are now inextricably intertwined: the impact of binational economic integration policies would define the future of working conditions, jobs, and labor rights in both countries.
Thus, only a cross-border response could confront the challenges of transnational economic policies and corporations, and permit organized labor to participate in forging the terms of the economic integration process.
Despite many difficulties, there have been organizing success stories, most of them in the border region. Mexican maquiladora organizers had historically been isolated from one another. The multisectoral Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), founded before NAFTA in 1989, brought together religious, environmental, labor, community, and women’s rights organizers on both sides of the border. This organization has survived and developed experience and organizational depth over the past ten years.
A comprehensive comparative analysis of a decade of diverse CJM campaigns by Heather Williams shows that the more cross-border the CJM in its composition and work, the more impact it has had on targets. Experience in the cross-border coalitions that have developed over the past decade–the Southwest Network for Economic and Environmental Justice, and the CJM–enabled Mexican maquila organizers to call their own border-wide Mexican networking meetings in the late 1990s.
Beyond the border, U.S. and Mexican labor unions have held innumerable discussions, exchanges, and conferences that have led to frequent internationalist proclamations, but relatively few consolidated partnerships. Some important U.S. unions have been divided over whether to pursue international or nationalist strategies.
The Teamsters’ high-profile campaign against the implementation of NAFTA’s trucking provision provides the only case of a bottom-up U.S. protest that blocked part of NAFTA implementation. Together with border state politicians, the Teamsters managed to frame the issue in terms of public safety and the threat of drug imports, rather than appearing to promote “special interests.” In the process, they used media campaigns that many Mexicans considered anti-Mexican in tone.
At the same time, the Teamsters’ internationalist wing and the United Farm Workers (UFW) pursued an organizing campaign in the Washington State apple industry that was sensitive to Mexican migrants and involved significant participation by Mexican unions. The campaign organized a broad-based binational coalition that pursued a worker-rights complaint under the labor side agreement to NAFTA.
These two approaches within the Teamsters union reflect both political diversity within the largest union in the United States and the pragmatic, short-term political calculations made by U.S. anti-NAFTA forces more generally.
However, within the 13-million-member AFL-CIO, the NAFTA decade has seen an important change in attitude with the growing recognition that attempts to defend labor’s interests in one country can no longer be accomplished without addressing the concerns of labor in other countries.
The most notable binational union-to-union partnerships have been between relatively small, progressive unions such as the alliance between the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and the FAT. (Authentic Labor Front). The FAT-UE alliance, sustained by a shared commitment to internationalism and worker empowerment, led to the creation of a trinational union coalition, the Dana Workers Alliance, which brought together many industrial unions to defend freedom of association in a Mexican autoparts plant.
This case has wended its way through the extremely slow procedures of the labor side agreement. Along the way, the two U.S. unions most involved withdrew from leadership of the initiative.
The relationship developed between the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM) offers an example of the rapid evolution of potential alliances between labor unions. Although they differed over STRM’s support of NAFTA, they continued to seek areas of common interest, such as the exchange of information and experiences around the impact of rapid technological change on their members.
They signed a formal alliance in 1992, and this relationship led in 1995 to the first NAFTA labor complaint from a Mexican labor union in support of U.S. workers’ right to freedom of association–a case on behalf of U.S. Latina workers at Sprint who were fired for union-organizing.
In sum, cross-border union collaboration has brought some blatant violations of labor law to public attention, but so far with few tangible effects. The stakes are high: some U.S. plants that supported their Mexican counterparts were shut down, allegedly in retaliation. The new trend for Mexican unions to pursue trinational claims about the violation of freedom of assembly of workers in the United States–often Mexican-origin workers, as in the Sprint and Washington State apples cases–shows promise because it contributes to more balanced coalitions by showing that the right to freedom of association is systematically violated in both countries.
Entering NAFTA, and to this day, U.S. and Mexican environmental movements have been split between groups that see economic growth as the answer to environmental needs, and groups that see conventional, unregulated economic growth as the problem.
Many major U.S. conservation organizations chose to follow the official logic that Mexico needed trade-led economic growth to generate resources for environmental investment. They espoused “free-market environmentalism,” and the boards of directors of the most powerful pro-NAFTA U.S. conservation organizations included prominent corporate representatives, some of whom were simultaneously active within the pro-NAFTA corporate lobby.
However, since passage of NAFTA and its side agreement, U.S. environmental organizations have seemingly lost interest. None of the large U.S. groups has devoted significant sustained attention to limiting the environmental costs of the North American integration process after NAFTA’s passage in the U.S. Congress.
Beginning in the early 1990s, many of the large conservation organizations (Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International) received U.S. government and corporate funds to create biological reserves to protect biodiversity in Mexico. They collaborated with Mexican organizations like Pronatura to create the Mexican Nature Conservation Fund to channel funds to this effort.
Other groups have criticized this top-down approach for its anti-democratic nature and failure to take into account local residents and their role in conservation. Some have worked to build more citizen-based binational cooperation.
Greenpeace has developed ongoing binational partnerships to campaign against the impunity of industry in its use of toxic materials, going beyond the mainstream “end-of-the-pipe” focus on managing toxics to stress the importance of reducing their use in the first place. It has worked closely with the Mexico Pesticide Alternatives Action Network (RAPAM), which is also part of a worldwide network that includes the U.S. branch of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN).
In contrast to the relatively thin efforts of national environmental organizations, the binational public sphere along the border has been occupied by an environmentally aware civil society that has been gradually thickening from below. Many NGO coalitions predated the NAFTA debate: the Environmental Health Coalition (Tijuana-San Diego), the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, the Tohono O’odham Nation and other cross-border tribal initiatives, the CJM’s anti-toxics efforts, the Border Ecology Project, and the successful partnership between Chihuahua’s Comisión de Solidaridad y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos and the Texas Center for Policy Studies to stop a World Bank logging loan in the Sierra Madre’s indigenous territories in 1991-1992.
Since NAFTA, these initiatives have been joined by the Alianza Internacional Ecologista del Bravo, the Red Fronteriza de Salud y Medio Ambiente, the Coalición Binacional Contra Tiraderos Tóxicos y Radioactivos, and the Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin Coalition, among others. More institutional cross-border public health partnerships have also sunk roots in San Diego-Tijuana and in El Paso-Ciudad Juárez.
Border campaigns have set precedents for constructive public participation in local and binational policy processes. After the NAFTA vote, when U.S. national environmental NGO agendas moved on, the task fell primarily to border groups to encourage the promised Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and the North American Development Bank (NADBank) to begin to fulfill their mandates.
Most independent environmental policy observers see the BECC and NADBank as setting higher standards for public participation in the policy process, at the same time that they have yet to demonstrate significant tangible impacts on the border environment.
Not only have the pace and intensity of binational civil society collaboration on the border increased significantly since NAFTA, such collaborations have also had some important tangible successes. Border environmental coalitions have blocked several controversial proposed projects, including the Tamaulipas canal waterway and the Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump in Texas.
Another success story worth mentioning is the binational campaign that led to the cancellation of a joint venture between Mitsubishi and the Mexican government to expand an industrial saltworks in Baja California Sur. The project threatened to affect the breeding grounds of whales that migrate from Mexico past the continental United States to the Bering Strait .
The sensitivity of many border environmental organizations to interlocking human health and natural resource concerns facilitated cross-border coalition-building. Border groups have also been willing to take on the difficult challenge of recognizing and overcoming cultural differences. This commitment is crucial because–as the history of the border shows–proximity does not necessarily lead to mutual understanding.
The Sierra Blanca dump and the Mitsubishi saltworks both had unusually media-worthy characteristics–whales in one case, nuclear waste in the other–that significantly increased campaigners’ leverage. These two successful campaigns show that, given sufficient lead time, environmental NGOs can influence or block new, high-profile, high-risk policy decisions. Both campaigns involved balanced coalitions with clear, tangible, shared goals.
Women’s Rights Networks
Women’s rights activists have carried out extensive binational networking, focusing primarily on bringing gender perspectives to broader social movements–most notably, supporting the empowerment of women workers and indigenous women. But many of the binational women’s movement experiences reflect the problem of moving from mutual learning and exchanges to sustained coalitions and campaigns.
Teresa Carrillo notes that the lack of resources is not the only obstacle to binational coalition-building: “differences in central focus and agenda are also important; Chicanas and Latinas in the U.S. have focused on questions of race and ethnicity, while Mexicanas have focused on class issues and survival.”
One of the most significant cases of binational feminist coalition-building has emerged from the reproductive rights movement. The U.S. and Mexican branches of Catholics for Free Choice (Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir) have developed a close working relationship.
Though each is an independent NGO, each also conceives of itself as providing voice for a very large, underrepresented constituency. Both emerge from and are extensively networked with diverse feminist movements in each country.
Both combine policy advocacy with efforts to influence broader public opinion. They also work together on joint campaigns, such as the effort to convince the United Nations to withdraw the Vatican ‘s nation-state status, in the name of separating church and state.
They also work together to infuse pro-choice Catholic perspectives in the international debates following the Cairo UN summit on population and development. The U.S. and Mexican pro-choice Catholic groups clearly constitute a binational coalition.
In the last few years, feminists have also converged cross-border in response to the mutilation and murder of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juárez. Chicana and Mexican feminists have succeeded in framing the issue in terms of international human rights standards and the Mexican government’s responsibility to end impunity, helping to draw the attention of United Nations and Organization of American States monitors to the problem for the first time.
Over the past 20 years, U.S. public interest organizations have built broad and deep advocacy institutions and coalitions to defend immigrant rights. Until recently, however, these efforts developed largely without sustained exchange or collaboration with Mexican counterparts.
Indeed, some major national immigrant rights advocacy leaders, after many years on the defensive, pursued in the early 1990s a “pragmatic” strategy of attempting to “de-mexicanize” the U.S. policy debate.
But as organized migrants themselves began playing an unprecedented role in advocacy campaigns, recent joint U.S.-Mexican efforts to develop binational civil society approaches to immigration issues have been coming together. One sign of this is the formation of the broad-based Mexico-U.S. Advocates Network, which later became Enlaces America.
Binational constituency-based organizing among immigrants themselves has followed diverse paths, marked by the difficult choice of whether to participate primarily in U.S. or in Mexican arenas. More recently, however, organized migrants are transcending this dichotomy by participating in social and political movements in both countries at once.
Many Mexican citizens in the United States remain engaged with Mexican civic life, and even though immigrants lack voting rights, Mexican political candidates have carried out open electoral campaigns in the United States for more than a decade.
In response, the Mexican government has paid a great deal of attention to Mexican migrant associations, using its extensive network of consular offices to create semi-official channels for the growing cross-border participation. Some immigrant organizations collaborate with Mexican authorities, while others prefer more autonomous paths.
Most hometown associations practice “translocal” Mexican politics, but until recently have been relatively disengaged from U.S. politics–even during major moments of public debate, such as California ‘s anti-immigrant Proposition 187.
After the Mexican Congress granted its citizens abroad the right to vote–in principle–in 1996, Mexicans residing in the United States mobilized new advocacy networks to encourage the Mexican state to comply with its commitment. The Mexican state’s strategy, in contrast, has been to encourage migrants to become U.S. citizens and participate in U.S. politics, rather than implement the right to vote abroad.
Nevertheless, the fact that Mexicans abroad won their political rights in principle has permanently redrawn the boundaries of the Mexican immigrant civic arena.
Of immigrant organizations, the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front (FIOB) is one of the few that can be considered a fully transnational social movement. Its participants constitute a cohesive social subject–politicized paisanos–whether they are in the Mixteca, Baja California, Los Angeles, or the Central Valley.
The issue of immigrant rights has produced several different binational networks and coalitions. Some have cross-border targets, as in the successful campaign to rescind the obligation to leave a large deposit on cars crossing the border, absentee voting rights, and immigrant rights policy advocacy issues.
Other partnerships have actual cross-border constituencies, as in the case of the immigrant hometown associations, although the degree to which U.S. hometown associations have Mexican hometown partner organizations varies significantly. In terms of the distinction between networks, coalitions, and movements, different hometown associations vary across the spectrum.
Networks often need shared targets to become coalitions.
Mutual sympathy or shared concerns are usually not enough for networks to become coalitions. Because ideologies are rooted in political cultures, few are shared identically across borders. Shared targets make joint campaigns possible, though not all shared targets are either obvious or predetermined, Shared targets can create a tangible “political opportunity structure” that can make (specifically joint) collective action seem at least potentially effective.
For targets to be shared, they should involve more than shared general problems or common but diffuse threats (like “racism,” or “capital mobility”). Shared targets can range from specific policy decisions that affect both countries (such as congressional trade votes); shared transnational corporations (such as Campbells, Ford, Hyundai, or Nike); binational sectors (maquiladoras); specific products (organic coffee); shared watersheds (Rio Grande/Río Bravo); a militarized border; cross-border migrating fauna; and international institutions such as the BECC, NADBank, the trilateral labor or environmental commissions, the World Bank, and even the Catholic Church.
Broad-based organizations that have sustained cohesive partnerships tend to “think locally to act binationally.”
The classic formulation of global environmental philosophy, “think globally, act locally,” still represents a delicate balancing act for many organizations, rather than a simple mandate.
Mass-based social organizations governed by their members are often under more pressure than NGOs to be accountable to organized constituencies. Therefore, they must allocate resources based on perceived tangible benefits for their members. To justify resources invested in binational coalition-building, social organizations usually need to be able to make direct connections to local results.
When this happens, binational campaigns are more likely to succeed, and more likely to strengthen the organizational base of their constituencies. For example, the Teamsters Union worked with Mexican unions and immigrants in the apple campaign because such a strategy would increase their bargaining power.
The U.S. and Mexican telephone workers’ unions joined forces in 1992 in spite of differences over the upcoming NAFTA vote because they perceived that such an exchange would reinforce their respective bargaining powers in the longer term.
Both U.S. and Mexican environmental organizations on the border seem willing to make serious investments in the difficult process of dealing with cultural differences because they increasingly share the view that the local is binational, and vice versa.
Binational ideological convergence, though rare, can also help to sustain the mandate “think locally, act binationally” because it allows a longer time horizon for assessing local benefits, and shared convictions help carry members through periods of few tangible benefits or even setbacks.
Binational networks and coalitions have influenced official policy discourse, but only rarely achieved tangible impact on the policy process.
Policymakers and corporations now have a much more difficult time dismissing social actors in the Mexico-U.S. policy arena than they did only a dozen years ago. The degree of political and financial investment now dedicated to “incorporating” or “consulting” the views of social actors involved at the binational/transnational level is one indicator of their success and effectiveness.
However, consultation and discursive legitimacy is one thing; tangible impact on the policy process is another. The experience of human rights, labor, and environmental coalitions suggests that there is a wide gap between their influence on public discourse and more tangible kinds of impact.
Aside from several clear-cut campaigns, mainly on the border, assessing impact is methodologically difficult, especially when some of the most important kinds of impact involve hypothetical situations (“it would be even worse if not for.”).
In terms of potential policy reforms or qualitative changes in actual state behavior, binational partnerships have not had much impact, thus far. The border environmental institutions are the main exception to this generalization, and their impact to date has been quite limited compared to their mandate.
In summary, binational networks appear to have much more influence on public agendas and official discourse than on what their target actors actually do.
Civil society critics have gained influence, but partial concessions from powerful institutions can be a double-edged sword.
As powerful institutions respond to the critics of globalization with partial concessions, movements face the challenge of figuring out which ones are important cracks in the system and which ones are window dressing, or “green-washing.” For example, the NAFTA side agreements and related institutions were the most tangible achievement of binational–although mainly U.S.–campaigning before the NAFTA vote. Because they lack serious mechanisms of implementation, the question remains whether these partial concessions were steps toward further change, or diversion tactics to avoid more substantial reform.
In the current debate over the social and environmental costs of globalization, many of the concessions offered by powerful institutions involve some degree of increased official transparency.
Transparency is widely assumed to lead to accountability. In practice, however, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Analysts are only just beginning to consider the conditions under which partial transparency concessions create openings for further change. It may be useful to distinguish, for example, between “clear” and “fuzzy” transparency.
Clear transparency sheds public light directly on those responsible for failing to meet minimum human rights and environmental standards, for example, by providing the reliable, accessible, and focused information needed to formulate campaigns and critiques in the public interest.
Fuzzy transparency, in contrast, is unfocused, fails to reveal the mechanisms through which basic standards are violated, and may be unreliable or biased. Not only does fuzzy transparency fail to serve as a guide to action, it may divert attention from the need for more serious reform efforts.
Over the past decade, national and border trends in binational relationships have followed two distinct path.
Border and national trends in binational networks and coalitions have followed two different paths: border environmental and labor coalitions have gradually increased their density and cohesion, starting before NAFTA and continuing after the vote, while national-level networks and coalitions have continued with sporadic and often decreasing efforts since the NAFTA vote.
In environmental, human rights, and labor organizations, the pace of off-border binational social and civic relationship-building slowed after 1994 in both countries while border organizing increased. One explanation for these tendencies is that groups in the border region face binational integration every day, making it easier to link binational and local issues.
In contrast, groups focused on the ebbs and flows of national policy agendas in Mexico City or Washington, DC, have often lost or minimized a binational focus.
Binational coalitions are long-term investments with uncertain payoffs.
Networks that do more than exchange information from afar require human and material resources. Coalitions, because of their higher levels of coordination–according to the definition used here–require even more resources to sustain.
While some organizations can afford to invest such resources without a short-to-medium-term costs-benefit analysis, organizations that are less well endowed must carefully weigh the trade-offs involved. Coalitions can also involve certain risks, insofar as one set of partners may or may not consult before making decisions that could be politically costly for the other.
On the positive side, investments in networks and coalitions often generate social capital–resources for collective action–and social capital can produce unpredictable multiplier effects.
But precisely because the empowering effects are difficult to assess, political investments in coalitions compete with much more pressing demands and with alternative investments that promise more immediate results.
Grassroots struggles can empower their participants even when they lose.
Assessing movements’ impact is always an analytical challenge, especially when they do not reach their explicit goals. So far, binational civil society networks and coalitions have had much more impact on themselves than on the broader processes and targets that provoked their emergence. Their members have gained valuable political experience and learned more about both the limits and the potential of their activism.
Organized constituencies in each civil society have gotten to know their counterparts better. Greater mutual understanding is very likely to have empowering effects, at least in the long term.
Broad-based actors in both civil societies are qualitatively more open to and experienced with binational cooperation than ever before. This accumulated social capital constitutes a potential political resource for the future. Whether and how national civil society actors will choose to draw on it remains to be seen.
Some key struggles on the front lines of globalization lack binational partners.
The map of Mexican and U.S. civil society organizations that have managed to establish and sustain cross-border partnerships with social counterparts only overlaps partly with the array of actors confronting the effects of globalization on the front lines.
For example, one might think that Mexico’s broad-based campesino and indigenous coffee co-op movement would be a leading candidate to form dense transnational partnerships with U.S. environmental, human rights and trade organizations.
Their struggle for sustainable agriculture, fair trade, protection of rural natural resources and the promotion of democratization and accountable governance in militarized regions all represent major themes of the alternative globalization movement. But few U.S. social organizations or public interest groups have strong partnerships with independent Mexican coffee and other agricultural co-ops.
Lessons from Mexico-U.S. Civil Society
Is globalization producing a transnational civil society? Are the transnational economic, social, and cultural forces that are ostensibly weakening nation-states also empowering civic and social movements that come together across borders?
Analysts differ over the degree to which a “global civil society” is emerging. If there is more to this trend than internationalist dreams, then clear evidence should be emerging from the accelerating process of Mexico-U.S. integration. This binational relationship is the broadest and deepest example of global integration between North and South, offering a clear “paradigm case” for assessing the dynamics of cross-border civil society interaction.
Most Mexico-U.S. civil society relationships involve networking and occasional binational coalition campaigns between social and civic organizations that remain fundamentally local and national in orientation. These relationships often depend heavily on the initiatives of a small number of cross-border bridge-builders, while remaining on the margins of the participating organizations’ main strategies and sources of leverage.
Moreover, relatively few networks have consolidated into dense, balanced partnerships that could be called coalitions, much less “transnational social movements.”
Compared to where U.S.-Mexico civil society relations stood a decade ago, there is no question that a wide range of networks, coalitions, and alliances has emerged. But compared to the pace of binational integration among other actors–including auto manufacturers, investment bankers, toxic waste producers, drug dealers, TV magnates, border radio networks, police forces, immigrant families, mayors, governors, and national policymakers–the level of organization and impact of binational civil society coalitions have been quite limited. The most notable exception involves partnerships actually on the border.
Sympathetic journalistic coverage often features headlines like “budding cross-border resistance,” yet we have been reading similar headlines about relations between social movements in Mexico and the United States for more than a decade. For reasons not yet fully understood, these “buds” have had difficulty flowering. Consolidating cross-border partnerships turns out to be easier said than done and their impact has often been overestimated.
So far, most cross-border networks have not generated sustained, balanced coalitions or movements. Historical legacies, cultural differences, and multiple power imbalances make U.S.-Mexican social movement coalition-building especially challenging.
The future of the bilateral relationship will no longer be defined only within the corridors of power in Mexico City or Washington, DC, nor will it be interpreted and reviewed exclusively by policy “experts,” nor will its direction be determined by powerful private-sector interests alone.
Now, despite the lack of a formal invitation, there are new participants at the binational bargaining table. The challenge for social constituencies is how to sustain joint action–across sectors and across borders–that can influence the powers that be and promote creative, viable, and more democratic approaches to social and economic integration.