San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Inaugural Bliss Shared By Most, Not All

Early morning sun rays played among the trees of La Sabana Park on inauguration day and a light breeze drifted through the infield scattered with arriving visitors and lined with rows of white chairs.

The U-shaped grounds were ringed with podiums around the exterior and had foldout chairs spread throughout the infield.

Oversize versions of the folkloric masks of the Gigante and the Giganta worn at civic fiestas sat atop columns separating the podiums, watching over the ceremony.

Around 9:30 a.m., the infield seats began to fill. The ceremony commenced at 9:45 a.m. with the arrival of visiting dignitaries and presidents. Most Central American presidents were greeted by applause; with the exception of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega who drew a chorus of boos and whistles. That sour reception was followed y roaring applause and animated yells for Felipe de Borbón, the wildly popular Spanish Prince of Asturias.

A few minutes past 10 a.m., the arrival of outgoing President Oscar Arias drew a raucous cheer from the crowd. Many onlookers took to shouting “Oscar! Oscar!” as he walked the perimeter of the infield. The exiting members of his cabinet joined Arias in his walk.

After Arias was seated, the country’s new president, Laura Chinchilla, was announced.

Entering from the infield’s north side, Chinchilla waved to the crowd and shook hands with hundreds of uniformed schoolchildren sitting on the perimeter scaffoldings.

The National Youth Symphony Orchestra struck up the music for Chinchilla’s promenade, while onlookers shaded themselves from the intense morning sun with the blue, red and white umbrellas given out at the event and white baseball caps that read “Traspaso de Poderes.”

“I feel much happiness, much peace,” said Gianna Carallini, 53. “The transfer of power has been a calming time.” Carallini hoped Chinchilla’s success would carve out a new path for women in Costa Rica. She and her husband, outfitted with red and blue handkerchiefs around their necks, cheered enthusiastically as Chinchilla was introduced to the crowd.

At the central podium, Chinchilla took her seat beside outgoing President Oscar rias and incoming Legislative Assembly President Luis Gerardo Villanueva. This cued an exuberant cultural presentation on the central stage that included a parade of brightly painted carts pulled by prize oxen, a loud and brassy cimarrona – the village band that accompanies every civic event, and traditional dances of the Guanacaste and Limón provinces. Displays depicting the themes of Chinchilla’s upcoming speech were then unveiled: they included a classroom, a wind turbine to convey a commitment to clean energy, and a satellite to emphasize Chinchilla’s goal of seeing the country advance in technology and space travel.

After the national anthem, Arias removed the blue, red and white sash of the Costa Rican flag from his shoulder and transferred it to the nation’s new president. Chinchilla stepped to the front of the podium, blew kisses to the crowd and then passionately kissed the sash. She turned and embraced Arias and members of her family as the first female president in the history the country.

In the opening of her speech, she commented on her country’s beauty:

“I introduce myself with open arms stretched across Costa Rica, to all its people, all its geography, all its parts and splendid diversity. We have congregated here, in the resh air and under the sun, surrounded by mountains, which wind into further ranges and prairies, all encapsulated within a distance of 119 kilometers, between the immensity of two oceans. The mountains raise us to the infinite, as they invoke transcendence, and the majesty of the oceans mark the path of universality and brotherhood.”

The tranquil crowd hung on her words and waved their flags throughout the 25-minute speech.

Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of the park, protestors engaged in another type of speech. Hundreds filled the blocked-off street, many wearing red shirts, and brandishing vivid signs to call attention to what they see as the dangers of the Crucitas openpit gold mine. Several protesters clashed with police near the León Cortés statue as the inauguration ceremonies concluded, resulting in some minor injuries and over 10 arrests. Both sides blamed the other party for instigating the scrape.

Back at the inaugural grounds, 84-year-old José Valverde said, “of all the inaugurations I’ve been to, this was the most powerful and best-organized.” Chewing on a wrinkled apple, he recounted his memories of the five previous presidential swearing-in ceremonies he’d attended. “Her priorities match the priorities of the people. She makes me hopeful for the direction of this country.”

Chinchilla’s role as a woman politician hints at new directions in Costa Rica’s social realm.

“It’s definitely a change with everything,” Venegas said. “Politically, of course. But also it represents change by having the country’s first woman president. It represents a hope.”

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