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Referendum on corporate personhood
NewsNotes, March-April 2010
Vol. 35 No. 2

Those concerned about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow unlimited spending by corporations and unions to influence elections could learn from churches and social movements in Brazil, which have used grassroots plebiscites, or referenda, to educate and mobilize around similar issues. While many in the U.S. may not be aware of the problem of corporate personhood (see our 2009 NewsNotes series), a plebiscite could reach large numbers of people and form the beginnings of a bigger movement to return corporations to their proper place in society. The referendum could also integrate the various groups that have sprung up since the Court’s January 21 vote (Don’t Get Rolled, Move to Amend, Free Speech for People, etc.) with other movements and churches.

The Jubilee Brazil coalition was able to connect a large majority of social movements and churches to work together to lower that countries debt burden. An important organizing tool used to gain the adherence of so many groups and individuals was a grassroots plebiscite on the debt issue in 2000.

Debt payments and onerous demands from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) topped the political agenda in Brazil in the 1980s. But during the 1990s, media stopped reporting on the problem, despite the fact that nothing had changed in terms of the debt’s effect on the Brazilian economy. In order to revive interest around the issue and to educate Brazilians on the real effects of the debt on their daily life, the Jubilee movement organized a campaign to hold the plebiscite in September 2000.

The campaign began by establishing three questions that focused on the key problem areas of Brazil’s debt: external debt payments, internal debt payments, and Brazil’s accord with the IMF. These questions helped focus the extensive educational campaign carried out by activists during the first eight months of the year. They spoke to church groups, schools, clubs and anywhere else where groups of people were interested in hearing about and discussing the problem of Brazil’s public debt.

As every organization in the coalition recognized how debt and trade directly affected their constituents, they dedicated resources and staff time toward the campaign, helping create educational resources, posters, media, going door to door in neighborhoods and holding events around the theme.

Finally, for one week in September, volunteers put out homemade ballot boxes in front of churches and schools, at bus stops and farmer’s markets, to allow people to vote on the three questions. Hoping for at least one million votes, organizers were surprised by the over six million votes that were collected. Over 96 percent of participants voted for Brazil to break its accord with the IMF and suspend debt payments until the realization of an official audit of the debt. In December 2005, Brazil paid off its debt to the IMF ahead of time and in 2009, the Brazilian Congress began an audit of the debt which will likely result in reduced debt payments that will free up public money for things like health and education spending.

In 2002, the Jubilee Brazil campaign organized another plebiscite, this time around the issue of international trade, specifically the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In the beginning of that year, hardly anyone in Brazil was aware of the negotiations taking place to establish the FTAA. But after another extensive educational campaign around the questions in the plebiscite, over 10 million people voted in the grassroots effort, with over 95 percent saying that Brazil should pull out of the FTAA negotiations. While the vote was not officially recognized, it provided a clear sign that millions of Brazilians wanted nothing to do with the FTAA. The results bolstered president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva at the 2003 trade summit in Miami, FL where Brazil put a hold on the negotiations and completely stopped them in 2005 in Mar de Plata, Argentina.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that a vast majority of people in the U.S. opposed removing limits on the amount of money that corporations and unions can use to influence elections. The poll reveals relatively little difference of opinion on the issue among Democrats (85 percent opposed to the ruling), Republicans (76 percent) and independents (81 percent).

This may be the only topic on which such a large majority of U.S. voters agree. A grassroots plebiscite could serve as an important tool to bring those people together, as well as to unite the various corporate-focused movements that have sprung up since the Supreme Court’s decision.

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