San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Ombudswoman: Human-Rights Education Needed

LISBETH Quesada began her professional career as an actress entertaining audiences in the 1970s. Ten years later her path took a dramatic twist as she entered the field of medicine and became a pioneer in palliative care for terminally ill patients. This month, Quesada’s path hit another detour as she was named Costa Rica’s paramount human rights advocate – Ombudswoman, aka Defensora de los Habitantes (Defender of the Inhabitants).The appointment of Quesada, 53, brings a permanent director to the Ombudsman’s Office for the first time since former Ombudsman José Manuel Echandi left the post in June. The institution is responsible for protecting the rights of Costa Ricans, particularly when they feel those rights are being violated by other government institutions.While Quesada has been working in the medical field, elements of palliative care have granted her overall perspective on the plights of Costa Ricans, she says.Palliative care, a relatively new field, focuses on improving the quality of life of terminally ill patients through reduction of pain and crisis management, Quesada explained. She is the founder of the Foundation for Palliative Care at the Children’s Hospital in San José, the first such center in Central America and one of the first in the world.DESPITE working with dying patients for the past 18 years, Quesada’s dynamic speech rings with life, in part revealing her thespian history.Divorced and a mother of two children in their 20s, Quesada’s private life is as diverse as her professional one; music, cooking, gardening, movies, teaching and caring for her three dogs and two cats top out her leisure activities.Since taking over her new post Aug. 9, Quesada has had to review hundreds of reports awaiting her signature, meet the 140 employees of the office, begin lobbying efforts in various arenas and initiate the search for more money.“All this cannot be done in two weeks. I am running against time,” she said. Despite the early challenge, or perhaps because of it, Quesada told The Tico Times, “A wonderful thing happened in my first days: I fell in love with the Ombudsman’s Office.”Below are more excerpts from our interview with Quesada:TT: What has surprised you about the job and institution? LQ: One thing, which I feared at the beginning but not anymore, is the amount of power this institution has and the real possibility we have to change the quality of life of Costa Ricans.I was also impressed by what the other Ombudsman institutions in Central America think about us… They really think we are doing a great job not only in Costa Rica and Central America, but also in the rest of Latin America.What is the power of the institution, considering that its decisions are not binding?(The reports themselves) are not obligatory by law. Leaders can throw the reports into the wastebasket if they want. But they are binding in the sense that we work within the law, by the law, for the law. If we come out with a resolution it is their obligation to follow, because (the reports are) based on the law.What are the biggest challenges to the institution in defending the people of Costa Rica?The role of the Ombudsman’s Office is to receive complaints from Costa Ricans who come to us, and to educate people about human rights. (The latter) is an area that has not been well supported. If you know your rights, and you know where to go to defend your rights, then you can start exercising your rights.How can this be done? We have to create completely new, creative ways of getting to the people. We can coordinate with the National Theater Company and work with high school students to present a (theatrical) work about human rights. If I gave you a list of your rights… you might put it away and forget it. But if you can construct your rights intellectually, from a work of drama you have seen, that is something that will remain with you.How will your experience in palliative care contribute to your new role? When you work in palliative care, you have to work with terminally ill people; you have to face families always in crisis, always in great need and great pain. (The patients) all die very young. That causes great stress for us because we are always hearing about pain. So we have to learn to take care of ourselves. Otherwise we will get burned out.The people in (the Ombudsman’s Office) don’t ever hear wonderful things, only terrible things. They are always working with people in pain, extreme poverty, domestic violence, violations of human rights. One of the things that I asked myself before coming in here is: how are the people here? They have been working for 11-12 years; are they tired of fighting? Are they still fighting with the same energy? Are they still being creative?What I have discovered is what I feared. People here are not trained to see themselves. They are always responding to external demands. Sometimes their own families are in second place. That cannot be. If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of others? So I am looking inside, before going outside to fight the big fights.How can the Ombudsman’s Office help with issues such as unemployment and the rising cost of living?People think we have all the power in the world to just change things with a magic touch. But that is impossible. We can do half of the work, but the rest has to be done by the people. The way Costa Ricans are, they just stick out their hand and say, “This is what I need, give it to me.”We have a lot of work that shouldn’t come (to this institution), because it doesn’t have to do with human rights. So we educate people, and we show them where to go and what to do, but that takes a lot of time for us. Again, education is a big issue on which we have to work.We can also work more proactively, seeing in the newspaper or smelling in the air what the problems are, not just sitting and waiting for the citizens to come in.For that, you need a good budget and you need time. But this institution is not growing at the same rate as the demand.What can the office do to improve the country’s health care system?We not only defend the people, we defend the institutions. Defending an institution like the Social Security System (Caja) is, in the end, defending the people.The other day, I paid a spontaneous visit to Hospital Calderón Guardia (recently severely damaged in a fire – TT, July 15). We spoke with one of the people on the Caja board of directors.September, October and November arehard months in Costa Rican hospitalsbecause many babies are born. The maternityunit of Calderón Guardia no longerexists, so where are the women going todeliver? Calderón Guardia also had a veryspecial unit for ill pregnant women withchronic diseases, high-risk pregnancy. It’sgone! So what is going to happen?Because I’m a medical doctor and I have been working for the past 18 or so years in the Caja, I know the system. I have very good relations with the people there. This Ombudsman’s Office is not going to attack the Caja, but we are going to make demands; we are not going to close our eyes; but my history will facilitate this relationship.We now have women heading the Ombudsman’s Office, the Comptroller General’s Office and the Vice-Presidency. Are women taking a new role in leadership in the country, or has this been going on for years?Isn’t it wonderful… the power being taken by women (pumping fist into air)? It has been growing and growing, and it won’t be stopped, because we can do the job. You can see all these women with two or three different professions, who are very efficient and very competitive. I cook, because I’m a great cook, but I’m also a doctor, was an actress, studied history and geography. I know my way around.

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