San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tribunal President Juggles Dual Role

He’s a family man, a film buff and an avid chess player. He’s also now one of the most important figures on the political stage. Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) president Luis Antonio Sobrado, 46, has the formidable task of overseeing the country’s first referendum Oct. 7, when Costa Ricans will decide whether to approve the polemical Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United State (CAFTA).

He comes well prepared. He has a law degree from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and a doctorate in law from the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain. Sobrado was a legal advisor at the Presidency Ministry (1991-1993) and has worked at the Government Attorney’s Office (1993-1999).

The 22 Supreme Court judges chose him as one of three Tribunal magistrates in 1999, and he became Tribunal president in March in a decision by the three magistrates.

For 22 years, Sobrado has also taught constitutional and public law at UCR. He still teaches there twice a week. His resume is a laundry list of scholarly articles, academic awards and experience monitoring electoral missions.

The man behind these credentials is tall and spry with a low, patient voice, which hardens when reporters ask the same question twice, looking for a good quote amid his restrained words. His roomy office, on the sixth floor of the Tribunal building in downtown San José, features Father’s Day presents and pictures of his two daughters, Ana María, 14, and Isabel, 12, and his wife, Carolina Mora, 46, who teaches history at UCR. Other office fixtures include a century-old clock that his grandmother brought from Germany, a television (his favorite channels are the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and National Geographic), and a portable chess set (he is looking for a partner).

On a recent Friday, Sobrado sat at his desk – unusually disorderly, for him – and mulled over his role as mediator of one of the most polemical debates in the country’s recent history.

TT: What is it like to supervise the country’s first referendum?

AS: We have taken on this job with great excitement, the excitement of venturing into an area where we have never gone. We are aware that as a first experience, it is a time to learn.We also recognize that this referendum has brought up a very polemical issue and has generated a great deal of debate, including anger, from many sectors of the country.

We’re writing an important chapter in the history of political participation in Costa Rica. We have had to write new resolutions, taking into account legal rules. After the process, we have to review what worked, what should change. In a way this is, for us, a great responsibility, a great challenge, but it also exciting to feel that, in a way, we are creating history.

Has the tone of debate changed in recent weeks?

I think the debate’s intensity and popular interest in it have increased. That’s positive. There is great passion surrounding political discussion. The only risk is that this passion could fuel acts of violence or attacks. That worries us. If the (preliminary vote) is very close, it would require a special maturity from Costa Ricans to wait for the final vote count (which would be performed within 15 days).

The polling firm Unimer has found that the country is nearly evenly divided between pro- and anti-CAFTA voters. What will happen if the preliminary vote count is close?

Close (preliminary) results are the worst scenario for any electoral body because it makes the official vote count very tense, full of accusations and suspicion. Many people have treated this campaign as a religious crusade, as if it were an Armageddon with good forces against bad. That makes the discussion fanatical and irrational. My fear is that the level of confrontation and unfounded rumors will reach or even surpass the level of February 2006 (when a virtual tie between presidential candidates lead to a recount). One hopes that the winner – whether it be “yes” or “no” – wins by a good margin.

What is it like for you, an academic, to be in the political limelight during this referendum, and during past elections?

Until now, I have followed an academic path. I was an official at the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, but that too was secluded work, hidden within four walls, with very little exposure to public scrutiny, to cameras and photos. I have been here (at the Tribunal) for eight years, and in the beginning it was hard to accept that part of my work would be this exposure. One is in the first few pages of the newspaper every day.

Of course one feels the weight on one’s shoulders, the weight of responsibility and also the distress, the possibility of making a mistake or not making the wisest decisions. I feel that now I have enough maturity to take on this position – a position that before I saw with a certain level of fear.

There is an important sacrifice that one makes of privacy or intimacy.Now when I go out on the weekends, even in short pants and flip flops, as I am accustomed to dressing on the weekends, people recognize me. And not everyone is happy to see me because in this position, I make polemical decisions. Some receive them with joy and others with sadness or with a “no.”

What decision do you most regret?

If I could change something, I would have started earlier my current policy of openness – of talking with everyone, of trying to approach all the different people related to electoral processes. My style now – where I accept any invitation to meet and talk – has really helped me to do a good job. Before I was more reluctant to expose myself.

You have participated in electoral missions throughout Latin America – in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Panama. How would you compare their electoral systems with Costa Rica’s?

In general, Costa Rica has the best electoral organization of Latin America. Its strengths more than compensate for its weaknesses. All the nations in this subcontinent watch what Costa Rica is doing, how we are doing it.

Nevertheless, each country has interesting experiences from which we can learn. In El Salvador, a fellow magistrate saw how the ballots came not in loose sheets, but in a block, from which they could be torn as in a  book of receipts. We considered that a cool idea, and we introduced that in 2002. We also saw how in other countries, blind people can vote in secret. They have a type of envelope with translations in Braille, so that you simply put the ballot (in the envelope) and the person can vote secretly. We copied that too.

Still, it’s hard to see other Latin American countries with an electoral registry so exact and trustworthy as ours. It’s hard to see – in the transmission of data after the closing of the voting booths – a system so efficient and cheap as in Costa Rica. Finally, it’s also hard to see an apolitical Tribunal in other countries in Latin America. In many, the electoral bodies are composed of representatives of political parties. That’s something we left behind 60 years ago.

How is the referendum different from normal elections?

There are a few clear differences. The first is that competition is not between parties and candidates, but between citizens and organizations. So control over the process is more complicated. When you are in an electoral process, you know who the actors are.When you run a referendum, it’s not so easy.

The second difference: Normally, the electoral booths are (run by) cantons. In the referendum process, this job belongs to us (the Tribunal).

(In a referendum), there are no state contributions. The process moves forward only with private resources.

I would say a fundamental difference is that (during a referendum), the Tribunal has the important job of providing information about the issue in question. The Tribunal does not normally have this responsibility.

The prohibition on the sale of alcohol applies to normal elections but not to the referendum. The bars do not close Saturday and Sunday, as normally happens in Costa Rica in a traditional election.

What do you think of press coverage of the referendum?

I think the press has helped to diffuse important information. I think we can all do things better. The press can do things better. It’s important now that the press concentrate not only on political scandals, but also on the substance of the free-trade agreement.

Have you studied the substance of CAFTA?

If I tell you I have read the 3,000 pages published in La Gaceta – well, I haven’t. But I have tried to learn the most important aspects.

And what is your opinion?

I can’t tell you. All public officials can have an opinion and share it freely, except for two categories: all the officials at the Supreme Elections Tribunal, and all the members of the Police. Of course, I have a position and I will vote.

What will you do after your stint at the Tribunal?

My term is up in six years, and I will have to decide whether to seek reappointment (by the Supreme Court). But I don’t plan to retire as a magistrate. This is an important post, but it is also exhausting, with a lot of stress. What I see doing for the rest of my working life is to continue giving classes at UCR. That’s what I really enjoy.

What do you do to relax?

I have two hobbies. One, the movies, and the other, literature. It’s tremendously relaxing for me to go to the movies. For a short while, it allows me to empty my mind of everything related to CAFTA and the referendum.

Unfortunately, I like (almost) all movies, even children’s movies. I have gone with my daughters to see movies that people cannot believe. I’m very sensitive, including in the movies. Watching (the animated movie) Mulan, I ended up crying.


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