San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Woman Beside the Candidate

Shirley Sánchez, 40, is an unfailing presence in her husband’s campaigns for the presidency.

Not one to grab the microphone or seek the spotlight, she has nevertheless become a fixture at debates and town hall meetings.

And, in media photos of campaign activities, she almost always appears at her husband’s side.

This is her third time on the campaign trail with Ottón Solís, founder of the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC). And each time she’s watched him gain more momentum and more support. In 2006, when he ran against Oscar Arias, he came within two percentage points of winning the presidency.

Yet, passing out flyers in rural barrios and shaking hands at evening political events has meant she’s had to put her own career as an environmental lawyer on hold, and she is not always home at night to put her three girls (who range in ages from 7 and 12) to bed.

It’s meant she couldn’t return to live in her hometown of San Isidro de El General to give her daughters the rural upbringing that she and her husband dreamed of providing them. And it’s meant that the phone has become something of a fourth child in the home, demanding attention at all hours of the day.

But she insists it’s an experience she wouldn’t trade for anything With three months left in the campaign, The Tico Times sat down with Sánchez to learn about her life on the campaign trail and to glimpse a new side of her husband as presidential candidate.

TT: How did you meet don Ottón?

SS: It’s very interesting. He is 14 years my senior so there wasn’t really any reason for us to meet. We didn’t have friends in common. We had our own social circles. We had our own professional lives.

But it happened like this. He was (head of the Ministry of Planning), and I was a law student. In San Isidro de El General, like in many rural towns, there are fairs. We had recognized each other from prior occasions, and we met at one of these events (in December 1988). We both acknowledged there was a quick attraction. But I saw him as very mature, and I was still very young.

We talked, but that was it.

Many years passed. One day in San Isidro, he visited the law firm where I worked. He was campaigning for (a seat in) the Legislative Assembly. I don’t know if he knew that’s where I worked. But the secretary said there was a politician at the door handing out brochures. I came out, and … after a month we started dating.

From there, it proceeded very quickly. We were married in 1994.


Why do you think don Ottón is the best person to lead Costa Rica at this moment in its history?

As soon as people began urging him to run (in 2001), I was convinced – completely convinced. He has studied Costa Rica thoroughly. He knows what the country needs to do and the best form in which to get there. He understands the economics of the country. He’s someone with an enormous appreciation for service, and he has the right values to be in a public position. He is very studious and organized. He has a way of making things less complicated and getting them done. He has an extraordinary sense of clarity. And through these years of playing a central role in PAC, he has developed the ability to listen.

This is your husband’s third time on the campaign trail. What do you think his chances are?

We are very optimistic, for several reasons. One, we have a solid proposal for the country that has a lot of political support. We have been working on these proposals for more than eight years. I think this is a vital piece. In order to have motivation and energy in a campaign, we need to have very clear proposals. Some of the proposals have been talked about within PAC before, but there are also new proposals.

And, the second is the participation we have seen. When we entered politics, people were more passive. They weren’t participating. They voted, but there wasn’t much activism beyond that. Today, I think this party has more participation than any other party. The people are more proactive. They are involved, and they are more conscious of the issues. This is a fundamental element of our party. And, for us, it’s a gratifying moment.

What’s the campaign like? What response are you getting?

The reality is, it’s intense. The weekends and the nights are very busy. During the days, we have meetings with much smaller groups and interviews and phone calls. Thatends around 4 p.m., and, then at 5 p.m. we are out at events.

We’ve been taking very much of a door to- door approach in this campaign. The people who want to talk a little more have the opportunity and the people who don’t, don’t have to. Campaigning in rural locations is very different from campaigning in the city. In the city, if you go knock on a door, you hand the people the brochure and they thank you. And that’s it. In rural zones, you have to start very early and be prepared to spend a lot more time in discussion.

Another fundamental part of the campaign is the town hall meetings or encuentro ciudadanos. Ottón initiated this style of town hall meetings in 2001. At the time, he said, ‘I am not going to make a speech. I am going to invite the people to ask questions’. When we started, there weren’t many questions. People were confused. The questions they did ask were very broad, like, ‘What are you going to do with security?’ Now, they ask specifics like, ‘What are you going to do with police on such and such a highway?’ Before it was, ‘What are you going to do  with education?’ Now it’s, ‘How are you going to get computers in rural schools? What are you going to do to ensure the classrooms are in appropriate conditions?’

People have no fear in asking questions. It’s very different and very confrontational. But it’s also constructive. It’s the most convincing forum that we have. Many people who end up voting for Ottón say they were convinced in the town hall meetings.

Do you like campaigning?

I do – a lot.

How do you do it all? You’re a mother, you have a career and now this campaign?

I think women have the ability to handle many things. When you look back, it surprises you. But in the moment you are living it, you just do the things as they come at you. It’s true that it’s a very intense moment, but I think it’s also a very rewarding moment. And, of course, God has blessed us with good health. That is very important. Without that, we couldn’t continue.

You had mentioned that you had wanted to return to San Isidro de El General to raise your daughters. Do you have regrets about staying here?

We were idealists, thinking that we could be there. Ottón’s life is here with many of his professional responsibilities. Ottón wanted to work on the farm in the morning and in the office in the afternoon. But I think that when people were urging him to run for president, going to the farm didn’t seem like a reality.

Are you still practicing environmental law?

At this moment, no. When we initiate a campaign, I have to stop everything. The campaign is very intense. I don’t have time to assume other professional obligations. And, the truth is, we don’t have time even to rest.

How did you decide to become an environmental lawyer?

Part of it comes from the fact that I grew up in a rural area. An uncle turned a handful of us into a group of explorers. We’d hike mountains or take walks in the woods. I think this had a big influence on me. While I was in my third year of law school, I went to a march in San Pedro (east of San José). I offered to help. The organizers said they needed help revising forest legislation.

At the time, the most serious problem was the rate at which forests were being cut down. There weren’t many regulations protecting forests and the constitutional court had declared forest legislation unconstitutional. This was my first contact with environmental law.

I finished my studies and returned to Pérez Zeledón to work in a private practice, but only for three years. I was always thinking about environmental law. I decided to go back to school and specialize in it. When I started working in environmental law, no one was talking about it. At that time, there were very few environmental groups. Now there are many.

What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

I think my biggest accomplishment has been working with very talented environmentalists on environmental damages in Costa Rica. I refer specifically to a case involving a banana company that was cutting down many trees in the Atlantic zone.

This was an enormous case. It was in the courts for eight years. It was very difficult to obtain evidence, and the actual case was very complex. At the time, you couldn’t make someone pay for the environmental damages they caused. But this case changed that. It was the basis of many cases to come and many people make reference to it.

What are the future challenges for the country in environmental law?

They are enormous. The biggest challenge is arriving at good environmental stewardship. We have a good foundation in terms of protection – 25 percent of the country is under a certain category (of protection).

This is a lot for a country so small. But marine zones continue to be exploited (without control). We need to strengthen our marine protection.

In Costa Rica, we don’t have a marine law. It doesn’t exist. As a result, the ocean is not regulated and that presents a risk. We need to have protected areas. And the protected areas need regulations and certain uses need to be stopped.

We need to teach many coastal communities, so they are conscious of this issue. They have already experienced problems of sustainability and contamination. They need to know how to prevent those problems in the future.

Do you think you would play a role in environmental issues as first lady? I don’t see it. Traditionally, the first lady’s role is a simple one. We’ve had excellent first ladies who have attended to social issues. But they don’t have a budget or an office or a legal position. I think the most I can do is coordinate. I would like to promote environmental reforms and to make sure it’s an issue on the table. Yet, it’s not my position to interfere with management. There is an environment minister who has principal responsibilities in this field.


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