Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Bridge Collapse Forces Accountability in Costa Rica



“Wow, a public official actually quit on her own accord.” These words of amazement are being expressed by many Costa Ricans today in response to the decision by this country’s public works and transport minister to resign after a bridge collapsed and killed five people.

Perhaps Karla González’ resignation shouldn’t come as such a shock. Media and residents have long accused the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) of inexcusable negligence for its failure to repair infrastructure—a necessary precaution that could save lives. But it was nevertheless stunning to see González’ bold show of responsibility in a region (and a world) where officials often shirk away from admitting failure.

Unfortunately, proof of MOPT’s inefficiency came during a tragedy on October 22. That day a rickety wooden suspension bridge snapped apart while a bus carrying almost 40 passengers was crossing it. The vehicle plunged into the Tárcoles River.

Never mind that the bus—and probably many vehicles before it—was over the bridge’s weight limit, a fact González quickly pointed out on the day of the accident. But González rightly remarked in her impassioned resignation speech that the passengers had every reason” to wake up that day trusting in the state to protect them. “But this time we did fail.”

Are officials now assuming greater accountability?

Once the initial shock faded, newspaper editorials began to applaud González’ rare show of taking responsibility for her action, or in this case her failure to act.

Other noteworthy officials recently also have bowed out in shame. In March, then-Environment Minister Roberto Dobles quit amid allegations he rewarded family members with a valuable mining concession.

In April, the now former chief of the National Emergency Commission, Daniel Gallardo, stepped down under fire from critics for allegedly mismanaging the commission. That time, it also took human tragedy—the January 8 earthquake that killed as many as 30 people—to unearth what opposition groups said were vital flaws in the government agency’s leadership.

Although it takes courage to assume responsibility and likely end one’s career, skeptics might say stepping down is easy.

Now comes the tough part for whomever fills González’ spot.

The World Economic Forum recently cited shoddy infrastructure as one of the few wrenches in the system that has softened Costa Rica’s competitive edge. In the bridge collapse, roadway officials had heard experts’ warnings years ago and might even have had funds set aside to prevent the bridge’s inevitable collapse. The problem: slow-paced bureaucracy—another notorious wrench in Costa Rica—got in the way.

MOPT has announced a $15 million injection of World Bank loan money for infrastructure improvements, and singled out 10 of Costa Rica‘s more than 1,000 bridges for urgent repair. Critics assert that these funds don’t come close to fixing the problem, and the number of wrecked bridges actually surpass 100. Either way, her successor will have to follow through with the $15 million project and show signs of improvement to the country’s bridges and roads.

But the harder task will be to regain the trust of Costa Ricans who have lost faith in the country’s basic infrastructure.

Still, most seem to agree that González could be commended for admitting blame. Other state officials should take note. Stepping down is hard to do.

*Alex Leff is acontributing blogger to americasquarterly.org based in San José, Costa Rica, and is the online editor for The Tico Times, Central America‘s leading English-language newspaper.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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