Today, U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Costa Rica as part of a trip to promote trade and business ties, discuss the implications of U.S. immigration reform for the region, and address security issues in Central America and Mexico. Compared with past visits of U.S. presidents to the country, which were major events, Obama’s trip is generating little excitement, despite his personal popularity in Costa Rica.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, including an uninspiring agenda, few opportunities for the public to see and hear Obama and Costa Ricans’ disgust with their own politicians. According to polls, President Laura Chinchilla is the least popular leader in the Western Hemisphere, which dampens Costa Ricans’ interest in politics, generally. However, the best explanation is that the relationship between Costa Rica and the U.S. has changed fundamentally over the past few decades, making a U.S. presidential visit seem less significant than it used to.
When U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica in March 1963, he arrived to promote the Alliance for Progress. During his visit, huge crowds turned out to hear him speak, with many following him from event to event. Even today, many Costa Ricans remember clearly and speak with excitement about the events of those two days. While Kennedy’s charisma played a role, the United States and its support for Costa Rica’s development also elicited enthusiasm.
Since 1942, when bilateral economic assistance to Costa Rica began, the U.S. government had implemented a low-key, relatively inexpensive but highly effective and popular technical assistance program. In partnership with the Costa Rican government, the project built most of the Inter-American Highway in Costa Rica, supported significant increases in agricultural production, and promoted improvements in public health—notably infrastructure to provide potable water and help build the National Children’s Hospital.
Costa Rica, among Latin America’s oldest and best-established democracies, is facing an unusual crisis of confidence on the part of the population in the country’s politicians and institutions. This goes beyond unhappiness with the administration of President Laura Chinchilla (among the least popular leaders in the Americas, according to polls); it is also targeted at the gridlocked legislative assembly, scandal-ridden government ministries and institutions, and bickering political parties. More than anything, the scorn appears directed toward an entrenched and entitled political class that is widely perceived as corrupt, incompetent and self-serving.
While some say that Costa Rica’s political culture hasn’t changed, but rather that its nature is more visible because of an increasingly resourceful and aggressive press (including online blogs far removed from the country’s political and economic establishment) the unhappiness might also be related to concentration of power in the hands of the National Liberation Party (PLN). While the PLN has always been the dominant political force in modern Costa Rica, the recent breakdown of Costa Rica’s two-party system has made matters worse by taking away from voters the option of throwing the incumbents out (which in the case of the PLN, used to occur roughly every third election).
Since 2006, when a series of spectacular corruption scandals (unearthed by investigative reporters) led to the arrest of two of the country’s former presidents—both from Costa Rica’s second political party, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC)—the PLN has been firmly in control. While shifting coalitions in the Legislative Assembly have sought to temper this dominance, breakdowns in alliances and within opposing parties have only served to highlight the lack of credible opposition. In the last presidential and legislative elections the PLN won easily, while since then, the left-leaning and reformist Citizen’s Action Party and the right-wing Libertarian Party, which came in second and third, have all but disintegrated in the wake of internal divisions and, in the case of the Libertarians, ethical questions related to campaign-finance. The PUSC has enjoyed a mild resurgence in popularity, but is still a far-distant second.
Over the past weeks, an unprecedentedly open debate has arisen over the wisdom of prevailing anti-drug policy in the Western Hemisphere. The present U.S.- led strategy, which relies heavily on aggressive interdiction and law enforcement, is being openly called a failure and even counterproductive by some Latin American leaders, who are asking for renewed discussion of other options, including, most notoriously from the U.S. perspective, the legalization of consumption. The heavy emphasis of anti-drug policy on repression, say these critics, has encouraged the domination of the drug trade by well-organized, heavily armed, ruthless and extremely violent cartels, with horrifying effects.
Not coincidentally, the epicenter of the debate is Central America, a transshipment center for up to 80 percent of drugs headed for the U.S., where criminal gangs have overwhelmed weak governments and helped make some of these societies—especially Honduras and Guatemala—among the world’s most dangerous. One of the most interesting aspects of the debate is that the argument for legalization is being promoted most forcefully by Guatemala’s newly-elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, a right-leaning ex-general and former director of military intelligence during the country’s civil war: nobody’s idea of a naïve idealist.
The U.S., whose treasure, power and prestige has been invested in the war on drugs (a term now officially abandoned) since the Nixon administration, has reacted defensively to criticism. The Obama administration sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on a tour of the region to attempt to tamp down opposition, while Vice President Joe Biden met with the regions’ presidents soon after. Biden said last week that while the U.S. was not opposed to discussing the merits of drug policy, there was no chance that the U.S. would change its position against legalization. In the end, Biden mentioned in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last week only that the Obama administration was asking the U.S. Congress for $107 million in continuing security assistance for the region in the coming year.