Kevin Casas, a young political and academic standout, fell from grace a year ago this month.
Casas, 40, resigned as second vice president and planning minister in September 2007 after recommending a series of hardball and, some say, unethical strategies to persuade voters to approve the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
He and lawmaker Fernando Sánchez proposed in a controversial memo that President Oscar Arias threaten to withhold funds from mayors whose cantons did not vote for CAFTA.
Casas also suggested the government “stimulate fear” among voters about the risks of not passing the treaty and fool the Supreme Elections Tribunal to get around restrictions on using public resources in campaigns.
Leaked to the weekly Semanario Universidad, the memo outraged voters and helped erase a 20-point lead for CAFTA in the polls. Shaken, the administration rejected the memo and politically isolated Casas, who resigned within a month.
The pact was narrowly ratified in last October’s referendum, but Casas is still recovering from the fallout. The Oxford Ph.D. graduate was expected one day to run for president. “I will go back to my family, my books, and my long-held ideals, which do not need the pains of politics to be made true,” Casas said upon his departure last year.
Now, he says, he is in no hurry to reenter political life. After keeping a low profile for 10 months, he moved to Washington, D.C., in July to work as a foreign policy analystat the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank. He and his wife, Simone Bunse, who teaches at INCAEBusinessSchool in Alajuela and plans to travel between the two countries, are expecting a baby in November.
Casas recently spoke to The Tico Times about the events of the past year:
TT: How do you reconcile the ideas in that memo with your published articles on democracy and campaign finance?
KC: There’s very little to reconcile. Some of the stuff that I wrote there, even some of the stuff that I regret writing, comes very much from the study of politics that I’ve done over the years.
Most of the things that were said in the document were being implemented by both campaigns (pro-CAFTA and anti-CAFTA), to different degrees and in different ways. And everyone knew it. The reaction was totally disproportionate on both sides. It was an orgy of hypocrisy. Actually, there was a lot more hypocrisy from some people in the “yes” (pro-CAFTA) camp.
Politics everywhere is really tough, and when you operate in politics, you operate in what (former U.S. Secretary of Defense) Robert McNamara would call the “fog of war.” And you make mistakes. And there are countless times when I wish I had not written that document. But I’m very much convinced that some of things that were said there, and that generated an outcry, are things that will continue to be done by almost anyone who takes part in an election campaign.
What was the hardest part about that experience?
One of the awful things that I realized when this whole thing happened was the absolute loneliness I found myself in. My only base of political support was the president, who behaved in a very loyal way with me.
(Others) turned out to be really lousy friends. Some people who had been very close to me really started saying terrible things about me behind my back.
They didn’t throw the sink at me; they threw the entire kitchen with a lot of sharp cutlery. I went through hell.
Do you know who leaked the memo?
I can tell you that this document was leaked by someone in the highest echelons of the Arias administration – a cabinet colleague (and a political rival). People indeed do wacky stuff when they are close to power and they feel they can get closer to power.
Why did you resign?
It was incredibly tiring, the whole situation. The level of pressure was really enormous. Even today I think I did the right thing. If I had stayed in government, I would have been politically crippled for the rest of the administration.
What lessons have you learned that you could take back into political life?
The first one is obvious. When you’re in politics, you should think a lot, say very little and write nothing.
Number two, one of the interesting lessons of all this – and mind you, this is something that might be useful for (U.S. Democratic presidential candidate) Barack Obama – is that there’s a certain wisdom in having a more gradual political career.
There’s wisdom in not getting to the top so fast for a number of reasons. One is that you learn a lot in the process. You learn to avoid mistakes. Number two (is) because the unavoidable mistakes that you’re going to make happen when you’re under the radar screen, when you’re less visible.
And number three, in the process of gradually building a political career, you weave together personal loyalties and alliances that are immensely useful to protect you once you get to the top.
Your position in Arias’ cabinet was your first political office. Was that too much too fast?
Absolutely. I’m pretty convinced in hindsight that I was very well prepared academically and intellectually for the job, but I was not prepared either politically or emotionally for the job. At all.
It was a steep learning curve. I learned an awful lot about the dark corners of human nature, in politics like no other activity. I learned about myself and how I can cope with adversity. I learned a lot about how transient political appointments and political honors can be, and how you really have to rely on much more basic things like your family, the knowledge that you’ve acquired over the years, your principles. Those are the things that sustain you, and those are the things that are left when something like this happens.
Will you ever reenter political life?
I don’t want to speculate about that really. It’s very obvious and publicly known that I still continue to be affiliated with the (National Liberation Party). I’m following the Costa Rican political process from afar.
What will happen in two years or four years or six years, I really don’t know. What I can tell you in very clear terms is that I don’t rule out going back to politics in Costa Rica. At this point, I won’t go out of my way to be involved again, but I don’t rule it out.
What are the biggest challenges for Costa Rica right now?
I would say three substantive challenges.
Number one … is the fiscal transformation of the country. Tax reform, basically.
Number two, citizen security. My impression is that Costa Rica is at a tipping point, and we really have to take the security agenda very seriously. There is a certain inertial quality about violence that is very ominous.
The more you allow violence levels to grow, the faster they grow. Costa Rica is at the point where it can still do a lot of things to bring the situation under control.
And number three, the challenge of governing. We’ve grown totally used to gridlock and political stalemate, and that’s hurting pretty much everyone in the country. Costa Rica probably needs a constituent assembly at this point. The country needs to draft a new Constitution or at least needs to think seriously about a major revamping of the Constitution. The status quo is not viable anymore.
What changes would you want to see in a new Constitution?
The relationship between different branches is deeply dysfunctional. We have a very weak executive with very limited powers and a weak Congress in so far as it’s totally fragmented and it’s very difficult to achieve a working consensus. And you cannot go on like that. On the other hand, we have a very powerful judiciary, and you have a totally disproportionate role for the Constitutional Court (Sala IV). Those are the things that we have to really think through and reform.
How would you compare political life in D.C. to that in San José?
My position is very different here. I can tell you there’s a huge difference between studying politics on the outside and living politics in the flesh. Whether here in Washington or in San José or in Helsinki, Finland, or Madagascar, politics is very nasty.
It’s a very nasty business.