San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Candidates Face Each Other, Students in Debate

WHILE a piñata depicting National Liberation Party candidate Oscar Arias made an appearance at a presidential debate at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) Tuesday night, the candidate himself did not.Arias opted out of participating in the debate because of an earlier incident in which students booed him off the university campus in July while he was trying to attend an interview with the UCR television station (TT, July 22).Arias’ presence was missed by his fellow candidates at the debate: National Rescue Party candidate Alvaro Montero, United Left Party candidate Humberto Vargas Carbonell, and Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) candidate Ricardo Toledo, who took the brunt of student ire meant to be shared with the absent Arias. But when Montero said the room was hostile to Arias, legislator Toledo disagreed, saying it was “sabroso (delicious)”.The debate was the second in a university-sponsored series of debates between the 14 presidential candidates. While the candidates espoused their views on inflation, unemployment, genetically modified organisms and the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), the audience, made up primarily of students, responded with uproarious applause or shouts of disapproval, depending on the candidate.At times, it was difficult for the candidates to get their words out, drowned in heckles or chants of, “Unidad y Liberación, sólo la misma corrupción (Unity and Liberation, just the same corruption).” When they did speak, Toledo promoted the Permanent Fiscal Reform Plan to guarantee the wealthy pay their share of taxes, thus avoiding putting the entire tax burden on the middle class. He also suggested more high school graduates should receive technical training, rather than professional training, in order to reduce the number of unemployed professionals. This earned the candidate heckling from students in the audience, as did his repetition of an earlier promise to give computers to all high school graduates.Toledo’s suggestion that neighboring countries with immigrants here should be asked to contribute to the Costa Rican health-care system was met with shouts of xenophobia and a sign calling him a Nazi.Vargas, a communist, spoke of “savage capitalism” and encouraged Costa Rica to find a development route free of foreign interests and investment, which causes earnings to be exported, he said.“If Costa Rica wants to develop, we have to do it ourselves,” he said – a statement met with loud applause from the students.The candidate’s criticisms of the private sector and globalization were consistently met with cheers.Montero agreed that foreign direct investment is not the solution to the country’s problems, but added that it can bring benefits if more products from Costa Rican firms are used in production changes, through linkages, and if technology transfer is more common between foreign and local companies. The Rescue Party candidate also said Costa Rica must focus its research and technology on finding solutions to problems of developing countries, such as malaria and tuberculosis, often overlooked by first-world research.Arias told the press hours before the debate that “verbal and physical aggression” on his previous visit to UCR caused him to decline the debate invitation, the daily La Nación reported.

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