Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Laura Chinchilla’s Struggles in Costa Rica

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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.

Government officials claim that all the cabinet changes—more than half a dozen in as many months—are normal adjustments for an administration that is responsibly evaluating its performance. But the public knows better.  And a growing chorus of politicians in the opposition has called for more legal investigations into alleged foul play by members of Chinchilla’s centrist Partido de Liberación Nacional (Party of National Liberation—PLN) party.

Marking lawmakers’ first year in office in May, right- and left-leaning opposition parties formed a hodgepodge alliance—the Alianza Parlamentaria por Costa Rica (Parliamentary Alliance for Costa Rica)—that seized the legislative majority from the PLN, a situation not seen since 1949.

At first glance, this should cause Chinchilla’s reform plans to fumble. However, this five-party coalition boasts a better track record of passing legislation than the PLN-led Legislative Assembly. Still, lawmakers are entrenched in critical positions concerning Chinchilla’s biggest legislation initiatives: namely tax reform and a bill to open up the state-run energy market. But these bills run as great a risk of splitting the delicate Alianza as they do of tarnishing the embattled Chinchilla administration should they fail.

As a nasty dispute with neighboring Nicaragua looms, the tension is still mounting for Costa Rica’s first female president. Chinchilla is more isolated than ever, political analysts observe, and they note she is hardly talking to the opposition.

To be fair, much of the trouble piling on her administration—namely a nearly $150 million deficit and a government deficit above 5 percent of GDP—was inherited from previous leaders. Chinchilla’s ability to problem-solve and bring opponents together will determine the course of her three remaining years in office.

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


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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