San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Macaya: More of the Same Won't Bring Change

Román Macaya looked at the lineup of candidates making a bid at the presidency, and felt that the selection lacked new energy, a diversity of experience and a freshness of ideas.

Rather than watch with indifference from the sidelines, Macaya threw his own name into the race, and – in one day – went from being an everyday citizen to a presidential candidate.

The Florida-born businessman and son of a Costa Rican father spent much of the last decade fighting the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), believing the treaty would further polarize social classes, destroy the small farmer and exacerbate many of the problems the country is experiencing now.

He’d like to direct the economy away from one that is largely unregulated and free ranging, and towards one that protects Costa Ricans and provides them a simple but solid platform in education, health and opportunities from which they can succeed.

Educated at the University of California in Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Macaya, 42, runs Agroquimica Industrial RIMAC, an agrochemical business that supports 80 Costa Rican families and is a leading exporter to Central America and the Caribbean. He also worked in health and education and served as president of the Chamber of Generic Agrochemicals as well as president of the Latin American Association of National Generic Agrochemical Industries.

He spoke to the Tico Times last week about a country that is off balance, the shortcomings of the present government, and his vision to set Costa Rica back on track.

TT: Why did you decide to run for president?

RM: We have a very atypical election year. Usually election years here are very active and people are very hopeful. Everyone has their favorite candidate and party, and everyone is rooting for change no matter what party they are with. This year, we find something very different.

People are somewhat detached from politics right now. There is a loss of credibility. I started thinking about who would I vote for and, essentially, the supply of political leaders is the same this year as in other years. We can’t expect much change in this election year from what we have had in other years and the country needs a major change right now.

So I decided to throw my name into the game.

You believe you can bring something different to the next presidency. What is that?

First of all, I am a new person on the political scene. One of the reactions I have received constantly in the streets, from people coming up to me, is that they really want change. They want a new political offering.

They want people who are fresh and new to the system and who will not come with any preconceptions, but will change the way this country is governed.

Second … I am both a businessman and scientist, but with my business cap I come from a sector that is underrepresented within the Citizens Action Party (PAC), and I would say I have a more pragmatic view than the other contenders in the party.

What do you mean by “a more pragmatic view”?

The PAC has been a party focused almost monothematically on ethics. Ethics is an issue that is more relevant today than ever, given what we see in the press (politicians being accused of corruption and all these cases coming out). But we can’t stick to that theme exclusively. Ethics in public service must be a given. It must be something that anyone that enters public service is assuming they will abide by. We have to propose and execute concrete actions that make a difference in people’s lives. If we lock this door and talk about ethics all day, we might all go to heaven, but the citizen in the street won’t feel any difference (from) our internal discussion about ethics. We have to have a positive impact on that citizen’s life. The existence of the PAC must be felt constantly on the streets and that means concrete actions, that means legislative proposals, that means negotiating with other political parties to achieve certain goals or certain projects that we think are beneficial to society.

The PAC is often thought of as “antibusiness” for its stance on CAFTA and other issues. As a businessman, why do you identify with PAC as your party?

For me, it’s the natural party to enter. Basically, I was against CAFTA; PAC was against CAFTA. I coincide with their positions in a lot of areas. (Mainly, we relate) in the philosophical view that …we have an unbalanced Costa Rica. Costa Rica has always been a country balanced economically, socially and politically and – in all three parameters and maybe a fourth which would be environmentally – we are way off tilt.

Economically, there has been a focus on growth as almost an exclusive measure of development and this was done under the assumption that everyone would benefit from economic growth under the trickle down theory. We did get economic growth over the last 20 years. It was a very explosive growth. It created jobs. It attracted investment. In that same time period, Costa Rica became polarized socially. The difference between rich and poor increased, and it is very clear that a trickle down economy doesn’t work.

What we have today is a country that has symptoms of other Latin America countries: violence in the streets, organized crime, social disparity, declining quality in social services (in health and education.)

On the campaign trail, what are you hearing is the greatest problem facing Costa Ricans?

Security. That is the number one problem. I ask people in every village that I visit, “What is the number one issue for you?” Probably 90 percent of the time (they say) public safety.

Do you have a plan for addressing this?

It is something that takes a lot of effort and a lot of perseverance, and there isn’t a magic wand to fix it. There are some basic steps we can take. First of all, I think the problem is so bad we need to declare it a national emergency. Second, we need to name a minister of public safety who really knows about this field or this issue. This is not a field for novices. We are not only dealing with regular crime on the streets, we are dealing with organized crime, drug dealing and drug trafficking, people trafficking. This is really a tipping point right now. We are in an undeclared war against drug traffickers, and we are losing it. We need to address every manifestation of public insecurity with appropriate measures.

What is your vision for Costa Rica?

That it becomes a balanced country, a country that takes the philosophical view that we have a safety net for citizens that guarantees universal access to health care, to education … to insurance, to pensions.

That basically establishes a deck, a floor, on which citizens can stand. And from there on up, it is up to each person’s natural abilities and their own efforts, how far they get in life.

When you step into office in May of next year, what do you see as your greatest challenge to implementing your vision for Costa Rica?

I think the greatest challenge for the next president is that this is an off-balance country in every way. You have to fix simultaneously a lot of problems – economic and social. I would immediately convene a general dialogue, but more than a dialogue, a real negotiation to reach agreements between different sectors of society – business sectors, labor sectors, agriculture, cooperatives – to come up with concrete solutions to our problems.


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