First in a four-part series on Presidential Candidates’ Positions on the Issues
As Christmas trees are hauled away and lights come down from homes and storefronts throughout Costa Rica, brightly colored campaign signs and flags are taking their place.
Now, in the final stretch before the Feb. 7 presidential elections, candidates are spending their ways through their campaign budgets and lengthening their work days in hopes their efforts will make a difference in the polls.
What the candidates want for their country is very much the same: fewer people living in extreme poverty, improved health services, increased foreign investment, less crime and better education. But how they accomplish these feats is what differentiates the candidates.
In the next four issues, The Tico Times will explore four central themes that dominate this campaign season. This week focuses on social issues. Environmental proposals will be the theme on Jan. 15, the economy on Jan. 22 and security issues on Jan. 29. The full series will be available on our Web site (www.ticotimes.net) after Jan. 29.
Costa Rican Society Today
As the sun sets on the administration of President Oscar Arias, nearly 18 percent of the population lives in poverty, while unemployment is at a 20-year high (7.8 percent) and capacity in the country’s hospitals continues to shrink.
Costa Rica ranks 54th on a world human development index compiled by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), down from 48th one year prior. According to the UNDP, Costa Rica is being out-paced by other countries.
The next president will inherit a country that is still struggling to break into the clique of developed countries, yet the number of people living below the poverty line is a major factor in holding it back.
On the Feb. 7 ballot line-up, the three leading candidates will face voters with three distinct proposals for poverty alleviation.Whether it’s job creation, employment benefits or increased aid, the voters’ choice will define the next four years.
Otto Guevara, a right-leaning candidate who has surprised political pundits with his success in the polls, says the next government needs to start with job opportunity.
He said that attracting new businesses and providing people with the training to fill the jobs they bring will pump more money into the economy, improve the quality of life of hundreds of families and eventually solve other problems, such as insecurity and poverty.
“If I could do two things, it would be to work against crime and to generate more and better employment opportunities for Costa Ricans,” he said in an interview with The Tico Times. “(Creating opportunity) is a very effective and efficient manner to get rid of poverty in our country.”
Guevara said he wants to attract employment opportunities for skilled, rather than unskilled, labor.
“We are looking for quality employment and, accompanying that, we need to provide improved education,” he said. “We need technical education on the university level to ensure that Costa Rica can provide a highly qualified workforce.”
Guevara said his program would work through existing government educational institutions that are not – at present – being managed in the most effective manner. He said he would also contract with private organizations and companies to create learning institutions.
Daycare and Integral Aid
Frontrunner Laura Chinchilla also sees a solution for the workforce.
Often accused of representing the “same old” – a continuation of the current government – the candidate for the National Liberation Party powerhouse is, in reality, proposing two new social programs.
The first would address a systemic problem that surfaced in Costa Rica in the 1970s, when many women began to enter the workforce.
Without money to pay for daycare, many mothers continue to struggle with commitments to their employers and to their children, Chinchilla said, adding that these women must choose between the two, and either their children are neglected or they forfeit income from their jobs.
Chinchilla said she wants to introduce a nationalized daycare system, and she wants 100 percent of the population to have access to quality daycare by the year 2017. She hopes to extend a similar program to senior citizens.
Another of Chinchilla’s top social priorities is to integrate social services.
“In Costa Rica, there are 50,000 homes in extreme poverty. Why does poverty persist? It’s because social aid is distributed in a dispersed manner,” she said.
She said that at present financial aid goes to households in bits and pieces. She said a student could receive a scholarship from the Avancemos program, and the student’s parents might get money for food or housing. But, she said, the aid is just poking holes at the problem rather than taking a holistic approach.
“The situation is truly critical,” the 50-year-old former vice president said. “If you don’t apply all the services at the same time, it’s very hard for people to escape poverty.”
Chinchilla said her administration would reach out to 20,000 homes in four years, beginning with an estimated 5,000 in the first year. She said her goal is to work family-by family in an integrated manner – with existing programs and social services – to help the poor climb out of poverty.
Focus on the Needy
Ottón Solís, candidate for the Citizen Action Party who came within two percentage points of winning the presidency in 2006, has a more ambitious goal.
Instead of moving 20,000 people out of poverty in four years, he said his administration would help 25,000 in just two years.
“The reduction in poverty is the main aim of our government,” he said in an e-mail to The Tico Times. “Poverty affects nearly a million Costa Ricans and this is our main challenge if we want a more prosperous and united country.”
His proposal would award the minimum wage to 25,000 families in extreme poverty on the condition that they undertake volunteer initiatives to improve their communities or, in the case of drug addicts, actively participate in rehabilitation programs.
He also proposes to strengthen mechanisms of social mobility, such as education and technical training, and generate job opportunities by giving credit and other resources to small businesses.
“We believe that fighting poverty is not a battle that is fought only once,” Solís wrote. “It is an ongoing effort by society to show commitment to those most in need. What we are proposing is to significantly reduce the number of people living in poverty, which has never been done before.”
Multitasking the Poverty Problem
Social Christian Unity Party candidate Luis Fishman, a late entrant into the campaign, said he would tackle some big social issues right out of the gate if he were to win the election and step into office in May.
Not satisfied with channeling his energy into just one social program, Fishman said he would take on three of them in the very first month in office. The first, he said, would be to get officials of the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) out of their offices and into the neighborhoods “so that they truly know the reality of how many people live.”
Secondly, he said, he would put a moratorium on the Social Security System, giving officials a month to find a solution to the long wait times that have plagued the public health system for years.
Fishman said he would also encourage the National Training Institute (INA) to implement new training programs so that students could be accredited rapidly for simple jobs, such as house painting.
“There is not one thing that we need to do first,” Fishman said. “We need to start with many.”