San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Legislators consider repealing dry law on election days

Liquor and elections don´t mix in Costa Rica, or at least they haven´t for the last half century.

A law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on election days has been on the books since 1952, keeping voters away from those iced Pilsens at local bars after braving the polls.

Yet, an effort is underway to lift the prohibition in time for February´s presidential election and, so far, it has resounding support in the Legislative Assembly and such high-level government offices as the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).

“The sale of alcohol poses no problem to the electoral process,” said Héctor Fernández, coordinator of the electoral program at the TSE, who said he favored lifting the ban. “And (the current law) doesn´t significantly reduce the consumption of alcohol on those days.”

The original law stemmed from violent voting days in the 1940s, when a dispute over a presidential election led to a 44-day civil war that left 2,000 dead.

But that was the last election that resulted in violence, say those who want to repeal the law.

“We think this law is obsolete,” said Kattia Monge, aid to Congressman Mario Núñez who authored the motion to repeal the law. “And, in reality, it is no longer necessary. We haven´t had a violent conflict relating to elections in decades.”

In the midst of a recession, Monge added, the country should take measures to support its businesses and, by lifting the ban on alcohol, restaurants, bars and hotels expect to bring in more money.

The last presidential election coincided with the United States football championships – the Super Bowl – which is the most watched sporting event among U.S. citizens.

With Costa Rica´s high influx of U.S. expats and tourists, Tico bar owners and managers resented the lost business.

“We´re usually sold out for the Super Bowl. We´ll probably lose between $5,000-$10,000,” Adrian Vira, food and beverage manager at Club Colonial in downtown San José, told the Tico Times before that election. “The law should have exceptions for tourists, who can´t vote” (TT, Jan. 27, 2006).

The law also poses a problem for all-inclusive hotels, which can´t offer alcohol to fulfill prepaid packages on those days.

Among the legislators currently discussing the bill, Francisco Marín was the sole voice against it.

“In the one day we have to strengthen our democracy, why do we need to open the bars?” he asked. “This has been the way we have done elections for so many years, why do we need to change it?”

He opposed the law because it went contrary to the effort of addressing Costa Rica´s drug and crime problem, but also because it could result in manipulation of the voters (a politician could buy votes with liquor).

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