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.
Costa Ricans are a small population to begin with, but now there are even fewer of them than previously thought. At the current growth rate, their numbers could one day start to shrink.
For years, expert projections had put the population of this country—the size of West Virginia—at 4.5 million and higher. But the new national census—the first in 11 years—counted just 4,301,712 people, according to preliminary data released this week by Costa Rica’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, or INEC).
Annual population growth from 1984 to 2000—the last two census years—averaged 2.8 percent. But between 2000 and this year’s census, this rate plummeted to 1.1 percent.
In an interview, Costa Rica’s communications minister, Roberto Gallardo, said he was very surprised by the figure. Jorge Barquero, a leading demography expert at the Universidad de Costa Rica, said that, pending on the final results of the census, his team may have to rework years of projections and analysis that had been based on previous INEC studies.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla yesterday signed an agreement in Mexico City with her counterpart, President Felipe Calderón, which will expand bilateral cooperation on security issues, including anti-drug trafficking efforts. Chinchilla and her delegation will also hold talks on a wide range of bilateral issues including improvements in investment and trade between the two countries.
The agreement signed yesterday includes a new extradition treaty to allow for criminals and suspects to be transferred more easily between the two countries and will create new mechanisms to share information on organized crime groups. “Collaboration on security matters is essential to strengthen the fight against crime,” said Chinchilla. “It's a problem that will get out of hand if we don't confront it now."
Following the signing, President Calderón stressed the regional nature of the fight against organized crime: “All nations in the Americas share the common challenge of providing security to our citizens, even in the context of an increasingly intense and challenging fight against transnational organized crime.”
Before meeting Calderón, President Chinchilla visited Mexican businesses organizations to promote trade and investment between the two countries. In 2010, trade between Mexico and Costa Rica topped $2.7 billion, up from $551 million in 2001.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla is struggling to navigate choppy waters. A crisis in the public health system has deepened the troubles facing the Central American republic.
Chinchilla's popularity in this 4.6 million-strong nation is steadily eroding, bucking a trend in which most neighboring leaders are gaining in their approval ratings. In her worst poll score, by Unimer for La Nación newspaper, Chinchilla sank in early July to 26 percent approval from 37 percent in March.
One in four respondents said that President Chinchilla is doing a poor job and 80 percent said they see her having no control over the country. Cathalina García, Unimer’s vice president of research, has attributed Chinchilla’s unfavorable report card to her perceived failure to live up to her promise of handling crime.
The ailing health care system is exacerbating matters. The discovery last month of a hole in Costa Rica’s social security system has set off a fresh crisis for the Chinchilla administration, prompting a workers strike and a series of cabinet shakeups—including the resignation last Thursday of María Luisa Ávila, Costa Rica’s minister of health. Ávila’s resignation does not bode well; she was Chinchilla’s highest-regarded minister, having secured a 79 percent approval rating when Unimer last polled the public opinion of President Chinchilla’s cabinet members in March.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla will visit the United States next week in a bid to build on the charm offensive with American investors and media that she kicked off last September.
Chinchilla and a selection of top cabinet members and investment promoters will set off May 14 for San Francisco, California, and then to Washington DC on May 18, meeting along the way with businesses to spark interest in moving their operations to Costa Rica.
“I want to get the message in the minds of investors worldwide that Costa Rica is the best destination for their operations,” Chinchilla said on Tuesday.
Chinchilla needs to convince U.S. companies that Costa Rica, known for its stability, is still a sound investment despite the country’s infrastructure shortcomings, crime problems and her government’s widening deficit that surpassed 5 percent of GDP last year—the highest as a share of economic output in Latin America, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
In defiance of mounting international pressure, Nicaragua again refused to withdraw troops from the island of Calero as its border dispute with Costa Rica entered a fourth week. After the Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council voted 22-2 on Saturday night to recommend removal of all forces from Calero, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused the Permanent Council of bias and threatened to withdraw from the OAS unilaterally.
The border argument ignited on October 21 when Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of dumping sediment from dredging operations onto the islet that it claims as sovereign territory. Nicaragua continued the operations, citing a need to combat drug trafficking, which resulted in Costa Rica issuing a formal appeal to the OAS two weeks ago to stop the incursion. Nicaragua countered by demanding that Costa Rica withdraw its forces from the same territory; Costa Rica does not maintain a military.
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has met with the presidents and foreign ministers of both nations. Shortly after, he issued a set of recommendations, the most notable of which called for the removal of armed forces from “an area where they could generate tension”—a carefully-worded salvo leveled at Nicaragua.
The Permanent Council vote on Saturday endorsed Insulza’s recommendations with only Nicaragua and Venezuela opposing the measure. In light of Ortega’s threat, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla warned that she would involve the UN Security Council if necessary.
The Organization of American States (OAS) heard arguments this week from Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro on the Nicaraguan military’s alleged “incursion” on to Costa Rican soil. And now, with tensions continuing to heat up, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza arrives in San José tonight for talks with Minister of Foreign Relations René Castro and President Laura Chinchilla. He will continue to Managua on Saturday morning to meet with President Daniel Ortega.
The dispute is over Isla Calero on the San Juan River. On Monday, Costa Rica’s security ministry reported seeing a Nicaraguan flag, five soldiers and tents on Isla Calero, an island Costa Rica claims as its own. Costa Rica says this is a violation of its national sovereignty.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been trading barbs over who is violating whose sovereignty and who is even sending troops on whose turf since Nicaragua’s San Juan River dredging project began last month.
Costa Rica first decried alleged environmental foul play by Nicaragua, claiming it dumped sediment from the river dredge and then cut down Costa Rican trees, all on its side of the San Juan. Costa Rican Security Minister José María Tijerino also accused Nicaragua of secretly planning to carve a canal across its territory. Costa Rica deployed well-armed and camouflaged police to the border, while the authorities sought communication through diplomatic channels.
Opponents of open-pit mining in Costa Rica have been delivered yet another blow. After their hopes had risen that recently elected President Laura Chinchilla would strike down any attempt to dig here, the Chinchilla administration refused to repeal an executive decree issued by her predecessor, Óscar Arias, green-lighting a gold mine project near the border with Nicaragua.
The Crucitas gold mine has caused contention for years. Environmentalists claim that the mine would cause serious harm to the land and to families in surrounding villages if it goes forward. Nicaraguan authorities are also up in arms over the possible danger an open-pit mine near its Rio San Juan could cause. Concerns focus not only on clearing forest but also on the use of cyanide in open-pit mining. Environmentalists have said that a cyanide spill would cause irreversible harm.
But then President Arias surprised the country’s fervent environmental community and neighbors by decreeing in October 2008 that the Crucitas mine is of national interest.
The project went forward, chopping down trees that conservationists note are vital to endangered species such as the great green macaw. Then a high court halted the project while it mulled over complaints. The project remains at a standstill, tied up in courts amid a pile of environmentalists’ legal action.
Legislators in Costa Rica will hold a final vote today on a measure to increase their own salaries by 60 percent. Debate on the bill, which passed a preliminary vote, 35-20, on Monday, has taken up much of the lawmakers’ attention since the start of the current session of Congress on May 1, with the center-left Partido Acción Ciudadana leading the opposition.
President Laura Chinchilla has threatened a veto of the bill if it adds to the government budget, even though it has the support of all but two legislators in her own party, the Partido Liberación Nacional. “My position has not changed,” President Chinchilla said through a spokesperson on Tuesday. “I will veto this law if clear guarantees are not made to the Executive and to the country that it does not create any new costs.” The government’s fiscal deficit is at 5 percent of GDP, and President Chinchilla has already pledged to increase spending in other areas, including security and infrastructure.
If the law is passed, it will go before the Supreme Court for review, which could take up to a month, according to AFP.
Laura Chinchilla, president-elect of Costa Rica, urged a quick return to the Organization of American States for Honduras, which was expelled following the June 2009 military ouster of Manuel Zelaya. Chinchilla, who takes office on May 8, met with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo in Tegucigalpa on Monday during a three-day tour of Central America.
The first woman to be elected president of Costa Rica also urged her fellow Central American leaders to support Honduras during a stop in San Salvador, El Salvador—hours before she arrived in in Tegucigalpa. She said it is especially important that the Inter-American Development Bank extends credit to Honduras.
Lobo met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who has yet to recognize Lobo's presidency, in Managua last Friday, to discuss reopening the stalled process of Central American integration. A meeting in Guatemala City between Ortega and the presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador to discuss reincorporating Honduras into the Sistema de Integración Centroamericano, however, was postponed on Sunday because the leaders could not agree on the agenda.
Chinchilla’s three-day Central America tour concludes today in Nicaragua.