Executive Summary

This article presents a historical overview of the concept of Citizen Diplomacy and its practice in Latin America and Mexico and a projection of its future prospects. From the experience of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the author reflects on the scope and limits of the incidence of civil society organizations in the political and social transformations, both internally and in its global dimension.


There are many definitions for the term citizen diplomacy. For the purposes of this essay, I will define citizen diplomacy as the communication established between citizens or civil society organizations from two or more countries in order to inform public opinion on issues of common concern and to join forces to influence those who formulate and implement policies in their respective countries. I will present to the reader some of the experiences that non-governmental development organizations from Latin America and Mexico have had in the field of citizen diplomacy.

Citizen Diplomacy in Latin America

In this text I refer to the period of historical development in Latin America that began in 1968, following the Latin American Episcopal Conference in Medellín, Colombia, and reaches to the present day. During that period, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) emerged in order to condemn polarized societies, which were divided between oligarchies and impoverished masses with little hope of upward social mobility.

NGOs  rose as a result of the activism of Christian base communities, such as IBASE and INESC in Brazil, CINEP and “National Forum” in Colombia, DESCO and CEPES in Peru, “Sur” in  Chile, “Centro Gumilla” in Venezuela, and “Equipo Pueblo” in Mexico, to mention a few. These organizations were inspired by the bishops, priests and thinkers who sympathized with Liberation Theology, which teaches the doctrine of the Church in the context of Jesus’ liberation of the people from social injustices and poverty. These advocates included: Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru, Sergio Mendez Arceo, Samuel Ruiz and Ivan Illich in Mexico, Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria in El Salvador, Ernesto Cardenal and Xabier Gorostiaga in Nicaragua, Leonidas Proaño in Ecuador, Helder Camara, Leonardo Boff and Peter Casaldáliga in Brazil, and Juan Luis Segundo in Uruguay, among many others. All of them agreed to articulate a vigorous response to poverty engendered by the economic and social injustice across the subcontinent.

However, during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s the Latin American state model was guided by concentrated measures in the economic sphere and authoritarian measures in the political field. The model critics denounced such policies, and they partially attributed them to the so-called Washington Consensus. It is in this precise period when Latin American NGO activism gained a meaningful momentum, seeking to express itself in parallel forums at the annual meetings of the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington; Such activism reached the United States’ Congress, the European Union’s institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg, and the UN headquarters in New York, Geneva and Vienna.

The activism of Latin American NGOs became more impactful with the development of networks, partnerships and associations with U.S., Canadian and European counterparts. The concept of international cooperation evolved gradually from help, donation and assistance to joint efforts and shared responsibilities with common goals.

. The case of Mexico.

In the 1970s, Mexico’s political system took in the dissidents of the Southern Cone dictatorships and national liberation movements in Central America; as a result, Mexico’s international image was that of a progressive regime. However, Mexico’s political dynamics sharply contrasted with the international perception. The brutal repression of the student-working class movement in 1968 and the outright fraud and theft of the presidential election by Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988 showed evidence that Mexico’s system was far from being democratic and that its institutions did not care for the public interest.

In the early 1990s, some Mexican NGOs had established contact with counterparts in North America and Europe on issues of global economic injustice. This was a result of the international campaign “50 Years is Enough”, a call to put an end to the World Bank and the IMF.

Moreover, from 1992 to 1993, the simultaneous negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress (in Mexico, Congress was subordinate to the President at the time) gave rise to the deployment of a citizen diplomacy strategy by Mexican civil organizations. This strategy included three areas:

a)  The presence and dissemination of testimonials and critical views on Mexico’s economic and political situation in Canadian and American media and before governments, legislators and the public of both countries;
b) A close monitoring of formal negotiating meetings, and
c)  Building alliances of citizens of the three countries regarding policy alternatives which aimed to crystallize a pact for development and a new social contract in North America.

On January 1, 1994, the emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in order to make visible the views of indigenous peoples broke the monolithic and idyllic image that the Mexican regime had of itself. The Zapatistas and several civil organizations concluded that the underlying problem was not the dominance of free trade and protectionism but rather an agreement to advance the interests of the rich and powerful, excluding the ordinary citizens of Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Nevertheless, even after the Zapatista uprising, the ruling institutions in Mexico rejected the dialogue with civil society organizations in the economic and financial management, a field dominated by representatives of the private sector. From 2000, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs showed some openness and established mechanisms for consultation with civil society organizations about environmental issues and human rights; however financial matters were not included.

The role of the social networks and the contrast between the 1990s and today.

With the advent of the 21st century, information technologies and the proliferation of social networks facilitate the exercise of citizen diplomacy by Mexican CSOs in key areas such as:
a) Mexican migrants in the U.S.;
b) The fight against transnational organized crime;
c)The campaign against climate change towards environmental sustainability;
d)  Cultural diplomacy and the exercise of ‘soft power’.

A fundamental premise of citizen diplomacy is that in a globalized world, problems are not meant to be solved with a unilateral approach. Migration, organized crime and climate change are ‘intermestic’ issues that combine national and international dimensions. Hence the need for cross-border alliances that promotes the involvement of all responsible actors for a solution.

Mexican civil organizations have become increasingly aware of the ‘soft power’ and the importance of including activists internationally recognized. For example, film celebrities Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna are involved in bi-national campaigns in the US and Mexico to support migrants and combat the trafficking of assault weapons. Similarly, other Mexican activists are linked to global organizations; for example Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam in the areas of environmental, migration and economic justice respectively.


In Latin America and Mexico citizen diplomacy is the result of a collective effort of grassroots organizations, civil society organizations, or social movements. The increasing role of non-state actors marks a structural change in the international legal and diplomatic fields. The development of information technologies tools have enabled a much more fluid communication between partners and a higher incidence in the media elsewhere.

Civic movements in industrialized countries, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados complain that the distribution of power between people, market and state favors the latter to be controlled by the interests of the top 1 percent of the population, which concentrates wealth, income and political power at the expense of the 99 per cent.

The citizens of North and South countries are realizing that their fates are inextricably intertwined, as noted by the civil organizations before mentioned. It is likely, therefore, that citizen diplomacy efforts will increase due to the growing awareness that the economic and social problems of our time are interconnected and require solutions that cross borders in order to reach a global dimension.

About the Author: Carlos Heredia Zubieta is a Mexican economist. He is currently the Director of the Division of International Studies at Centro de Inverstigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City. Former federal deputy in the Mexican Congress. For three decades he has collaborated with civil society organizations in Canada, USA and Mexico, such as Equipo Pueblo and Iniciativa Ciudadana para la Promoción de la Cultura del Diálogo A.C. During the negotiation of NAFTA he lived in Washington,DC. He is member of the Advisory Council of the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center.