President Laura Chinchilla had been in Casa Presidencial no more than 10 days when a crowd swarmed through the streets of San José to protest one of her government’s first initiatives.
Her party, the National Liberation Party (PLN), had proposed a 72 percent pay raise for newly installed legislators, increasing their salaries from $4,700 to $8,000 a month.
Most of the population was incredulous and furious, and many waited outside the Legislative Assembly until late in the evening on the day of the vote, marching in circles and calling out chants and insults.
“It seems that the Chinchilla administration miscalculated the political reaction or they didn’t care (about the reaction) at the beginning,” said Agustín Castro, an independent political analyst. “Either way, it was a poor move.”
Chinchilla watched public outrage grow, and although she had already expressed support for the increase, saying it would even out the pay scale among the three branches of government, she began to back off. Then, just days after legislators’ first vote approving the increase, she said she would veto the bill.
Although Chinchilla may have salvaged her popularity, she left the 24 legislators in her party exposed to a withering barrage of criticism – and without a raise. And to make matters worse, her health minister soon after issued an eviction order for the three buildings that house the Legislative Assembly offices, citing long-standing code violations.
“The decision to shelve the issue (of pay raises for legislators) created injuries that cannot be hidden within the party,” said former Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias in an interview with the daily La República. “It was a bad start.”
Castro said the political cost of the incident is clear. Not only is there now a sticking point between Chinchilla and the members of her party in the Legislative Assembly, but the new president also showed that she is vulnerable to public opinion.
“Whatever political honeymoon the Chinchilla administration had was over right then,” Castro said.
For those who follow Casa Presidencial like a soccer aficionado does the World Cup, it’s obvious the Chinchilla administration has been pushed back on its heels.
Chinchilla, who came to power under the wing of former president and political giant Oscar Arias, has yet to make the government hers, analysts say.
Carlos Carranza, director of the public administration program at the University of Costa Rica, said she “needs to make her agenda clearer. She needs to define her development plans, not just for the first 100 days, but for the 365 days to come.”
But more than anything, pending business and leftover problems from the previous administration have kept Chinchilla from setting her own rhythm during her first 50 days in office.
The legislators’ pay raise, it’s clear, is an issue that has been simmering for years; that it was brought up as one of the first points of business in the new government was, in retrospect, an unfortunate mistake on the part of Chinchilla and her party’s leaders.
Chinchilla’s top cabinet member, Presidency Minister Marco Vargas, admitted that the government has been overly reactive, but added that Chinchilla is not at fault. Her administration, he said, has been responding to demands that have built up over time.
During a weekly press conference at Casa Presidencial, as the shouts of students clamoring for more funding for public universities were heard outside, Vargas said, “Take, for example, the fact we have a thousand students out there. This has been an issue under negotiation for nearly a year.”
The feeling in the new government is that in many areas, Chinchilla has been left to deal with the previous administration’s dirty laundry.
The closing of the is perhaps the best example of this. The popular belief is that it was rushed to be completed in time for President Oscar Arias to put his name on it. It opened ahead of schedule in late January with structural deficiencies, and Chinchilla was forced to close part of it soon after assuming power. She was also left to clean up the mess of a conflict of interest case in which the former Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno signed off on his own appointment as ambassador to the United Nations.
is perhaps the best example of this. The popular belief is that it was rushed to be completed in time for President Oscar Arias to put his name on it. It opened ahead of schedule in late January with structural deficiencies, and Chinchilla was forced to close part of it soon after assuming power. She was also left to clean up the mess of a conflict of interest case in which the former Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno signed off on his own appointment as ambassador to the United Nations.
The pending eviction of the Legislative Assembly, the stand off with the informal taxi drivers and conflicts at the Limón ports were also leftovers from the Arias administration, Chinchilla’s defenders say.
“It’s a very reactive government and it’s reactive in the worst sense,” Castro said. “Laura needs to begin to plot her own course.”
Despite the unpleasant surprises, the first 50 days were not bereft of success. In a three-minute YouTube announcement posted on the government website, Chinchilla highlighted progress in security initiatives and in the national daycare system.
She pointed to this month’s fourteen arrests of people connected to a Mexican drug cartel. “We’ve given one of the most forceful and important blows to the criminal structure in our country,” she said. And, she’s already increased the ranks of the police force, as well as boosting police presence in the streets.
In addition, her team of negotiators successfully concluded the Association Agreement with the European Union, giving Central American countries unprecedented access to European markets for their products. And while headlines reflect a highly reactive leadership, Chinchilla said much work has been done behind the scenes.
“We aren’t postponing anything. We have been working on implementing our government’s plan,” she said during a press conference on Tuesday, promising news of tax reform and additional security initiatives in the coming months.
Maybe while all eyes are turned to South Africa for the World Cup, she’ll have some time outside the spotlight to get her rightfoot out in front.
Chinchilla’s First 50 Days
• Dismantling of a Mexican drug cartel in Costa Rica
• Greater police presence in the streets
• Initiation of national daycare system
• Finalization of Association Agreement with Europe
• Quickly choosing a well-regarded cabinet
• Initiatives to create dialogue with opposing parties
• Stronger than expected economic recovery, led by exports
• Partial closure of the
•Conflict over salary raise in the Legislative
• Demonstrations by the country’s universities,
doctors and informal taxi drivers
• Bruno Stagno resignation
• Division in the ranks of the PLN
• Growing fiscal deficit