San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Former Ombudsman: Human Rights at Risk

FROM aiding campesinos in land disputesto fighting for fair bus prices, formerOmbudsman José Manuel Echandi’sactions brought him a sort of superhero statusamong some Costa Ricans during thepast four years – when in need and withnowhere else to turn, they called his name.Although he had hoped to continuewearing this cape, it was removed earlierthis year when legislators decided theywould not name him as a candidate for asecond term as ombudsman. While legislatorsdebate a replacement, and appearmonths away from naming one, Echandihas now set his sights on an even biggerrole: that of President of the Republic.Echandi spoke with The Tico Timesrecently about what he saw during his timein the post, how his hopes for reelection tothe job were dashed and his new plans as theNational Union Party (PUN) presidentialcandidate in the February 2006 elections.The party announced his candidacy last week.Echandi was ombudsman from June2001 to June 5, 2005. As ombudsman, or“Defender of the Inhabitants” when directlytranslated from Spanish, Echandi acted as aliaison between the public and the government,particularly when people felt theirrights were being violated. His dutiesranged from serving as a mediator in disputes– talking protestors down from statuesand setting up negotiations between clashingparties – to filing complaints regardingchild labor and environmental violations.Echandi, who has degrees in law andbusiness administration, has accusedPresident Abel Pacheco of being behind thelegislators’ decision to not include his nameon the list of finalists named in April. DuringEchandi’s term, Pacheco accused Echandion various occasions of politicizing his decisionsas ombudsman. Several legislatorshave denied Echandi’s accusations.TT: Why aren’t you among the finalcontenders for ombudsman?JME: It is an injustice. I think there wasan agreement between the parties… to takethe position from me, and now theLegislative Assembly is moving slowly inselecting a new ombudsman. The board ofmanagement is in charge until July 3. Afterthat date, the office will be without a leader.This is a demonstration that this countryis not respecting human rights. Legislatorsare not going to decide a comptrolleruntil August, and an ombudsman after that.So what are the residents of Costa Ricagoing to do until then? They are going tobe defenseless. Why? Because the legislatorsare negligent.How political is the position ofombudsman?I firmly believe that the minute a personarrives at the Ombudsman’s Office, heor she has to be independent from politicalparties in all positions and functions, as Iwas, so much so that the party I was inwhen I started (the Social Christian UnityParty – PUSC) is not the party I am in now.I worked independently and transparently,and this is what has caused me troublewith the presidency and the leadershipof PUSC.If I had been a politician over the pastfour years, and hadn’t denounced anythingthe government was doing, in defense ofthe people, I would have been reelected, orI would have had an opportunity to be aPUSC legislator.What did you accomplish in youryears as ombudsman?We succeeded in one way or anotherimproving some human rights. One of thebest programs was the international cooperationwe built with the embassies ofJapan, England, Germany and Canada, ofwhich I am very proud.The country is running the risk of losingmuch of this international cooperationbecause there is no defined structure throughwhich you can arrive at the embassies to askfor help. On our own, we asked for help forindigenous and rural communities. There arepossibilities of help… Even better, an effortis made in this kind of international cooperationto ensure the resources arrive wherethey are most needed – building schools,buying didactic material, building healthclinics… to produce results.We have international cooperation, butwe have none from our own government.What kind of support did the governmentgive to the Ombudsman’sOffice during your leadership?One of the problems with the governmentof Costa Rica is that when there is aproblem of fiscal character, the state concludesthe answer is to reduce social investment,because they view it as an expense.They don’t view it as an investment.During the 1950s to about 1980,investment in health, investment in education,investment in housing, was veryimportant. But from about 1980 to today,the social investment has been decreasing.It is a very interesting country. We areproducing much more than we were 30 yearsago, with the theory that when the cup is full,that it will overflow for everyone, but thenthey bring another, even bigger cup to fill.Why did you decide to resurrect theNational Union Party (with roots as farback as the 1920s) and run for President?Traditional politics have left this countryin an unfavorable situation. The human rightsof Costa Ricans are losing ground. A greedycapitalism is taking over in which humanbeings are not the most important (aspect).Over the last decade, there has been a divorcebetween the fiscal and social characteristics,and the country has lost the social side.Fourteen years in public service…have allowed me to learn and know thereality of the country and the reality inwhich many communities live.

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