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Costa Ricans Choose Chinchilla and Continuity

Reading Time: 3 minutesThe president-elect is expected to maintain pro-business and pro-free trade policies while ramping up the fight against crime and narcotics trafficking.
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President-elect Chinchilla’s signature campaign poster.

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Laura Chinchilla was elected Costa Rica’s first female president in a colorful election on February 7 that delivered a high vote of confidence to outgoing President Óscar Arias. The 50-year-old moderate Chinchilla, who resigned as Arias’ vice president last year to campaign for the country’s top office, won with more than 46 percent of the vote—clearing the 40 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff in April.

The vote reflects a desire among Ticos (Costa Ricans) for “change within continuity,” as political analyst Constantino Urcuyo describes it. Change, in the sense that she’s a fresh face in a line of decades of male leaders. Continuity because her platform promises to stay the course set forth by Arias: favoring free trade and pro-business initiatives while bolstering longstanding social-democratic institutions, like Costa Rica’s coveted socialized health care system.

Chinchilla, of the National Liberation Party (PLN), ran on the slogan “Laura: Firme y Honesta” (many candidates campaigned on a first name basis), and her platform followed the traditional center of Costa Rican politics. Costa Ricans hope Chinchilla’s credentials, having served in the 1990s in the Public Security Ministry, first as vice minister and then as minister, will prove to be sufficiently firme (firm) in cracking down on rising crime. She has pledged to beef up and better train the police force and increase security spending by as much 50 percent. In a sign of ingenuity when state coffers have shrunk, Chinchilla is betting on a possible new casino tax—pending lawmakers’ approval—to help finance this.

Costa Rica is increasingly caught in the middle of the region’s violent drug trafficking circuit, which experts say largely explains the crime problem. Chinchilla likely will instate a drug czar, said Urcuyo, to route out trafficking. He added that Costa Rica, without an army of its own, might seek closer cooperation with the United States to fight drug trafficking.

After a year in which unemployment grew to a more than 20-year record of 7.8 percent and the rate of poverty rose to 18.5 percent of the population, Chinchilla wants to generate “green jobs” by opening the state-run power monopoly and enabling private enterprises to compete. She also promises to build on social programs started by the Arias administration. One of these is Avancemos (Let’s Progress), which helps up to 150,000 children by offering $25 to $85 a month scholarships for staying in school. She also wants to expand the state-aided childcare program, Red de Cuido, so that every family is covered by 2017.

Under Arias, Costa Rica implemented the Central American free-trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA-DR), and just this month negotiators brokered free-trade deals with Singapore and China. Chinchilla likely will pursue commerce opportunities with Asia, which trade officials believe will help Costa Rica bounce back from the recession.

Although she promises to lead the country with “absolute independence,” late-campaign smear ads portrayed Chinchilla as nothing more than Arias’ marionette. She may face further criticism should she choose to maintain Arias administration cabinet members, as she has suggested. However, her choices for vice ministers, environmentalist Alfio Piva and businessman Luis Liberman, will be new to Casa Presidencial.

Doubt No More

In an interview with the daily La Prensa Libre, Chinchilla acknowledged she and party members were surprised by her large margin of victory—winning in all seven provinces and losing just two of the country’s 81 cantons, or counties. She was the favored candidate but there was doubt as to whether she’d sweep in a first round. Opinion polls consistently gave her a 10 to 20 percentage point lead over her opponents—left-leaning Ottón Solís and right-winger Otto Guevara—but Unimer polling company recently projected a close, second round contest between Chinchilla and Guevara.

The rise of Guevara, an outsider from a small conservative party, the Libertarian Movement (ML), which he helped form in 1994, shocked observers. A 49-year-old Harvard-educated former lawyer, he had promised free laptops for schoolchildren, less red tape for businesses, a push toward dollarization, and no tolerance for crime, or “mano dura.” In the end, he finished third on Sunday with less than 21 percent of the vote.

Solís’ second-place finish (25 percent) came as an upset to the Left, which was unable to unify behind him despite a last-ditch effort by smaller left-wing parties. Here was the same candidate who had championed the cause against CAFTA-DR in a 2007 referendum and led a grassroots campaign against President Arias in the 2006 election, just barely losing each contest.

But President-elect Chinchilla will no doubt face early challenges upon taking office on May 8. She will be tested by a diverse legislature and will need to form alliances with smaller parties on both ends of the political spectrum.

In the meantime, Chinchilla is poised for her grand debut on the international stage. On February 21, at President Arias’ request, she will join him at the summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Cancún, México. Although her exact role is unclear, it will give Latin America “the opportunity to see why we Costa Ricans elected Laura to lead our country for the next four years,” according to Arias.


Alex Leff is a correspondent for Reuters and GlobalPost based in San José, Costa Rica. He is also a contributing blogger to AQ Online.

Tags: CAFTA-DR, Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, Oscar Arias
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