San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chinchilla forges own political path

At times, Laura Chinchilla feels like she has the sword of Damocles over her head. As the first female president of a country that has until now been led by men, the pressure is on for her to not only lead Costa Rica, but advance the status of women in a traditionally male-dominated society. If she succeeds, it might open more doors for women in Latin America. If she fails, critics might judge her more harshly than they would a man.

It’s a pressure she is familiar with, having been the vice minister of security, and later the country’s first female public security minister. Rumblings in the street during the 2009-2010 presidential campaign seemed to indicate that some people were both intrigued by the idea of a woman president and still doubtful she could succeed at the highest political level.

“The biggest strength during my presidential campaign was my faith in my people, in Costa Rica. It is to me an exceptional country among nations,” she told The Tico Times, speaking across a small but fancy table in her well-appointed presidential offices. The ease and elegance of her manner belies the kind of pressure she is under, as she deftly handles discussions with representatives from the most powerful sectors of Costa Rican economy on a regular basis.

Nearing the end of her first year as president, Chinchilla is facing a serious border skirmish with Nicaragua, and the lingering effects of a worldwide financial crisis.

Born in San José in 1959, Laura Chinchilla, 53, is the oldest daughter of a former comptroller of Costa Rica, Rafael Ángel Chinchilla Fallas, and the only female among four siblings.

“My brothers say I was bossy, that’s the word they used,” Chinchilla said. “But the fact that my mother never made a distinction between me and my brothers is what made the difference for me.”

The makings of a political life came early for a young Chinchilla. During high school and college, she campaigned for classmates during school elections and she organized cultural events. As Chinchilla grew older, she began to refine her political ideas.

“During my time at the university I became an agitator in my group… I pushed for alliances with mainly left-wing groups,” she said. Still, from an early age Chinchilla had admired the strength of the “Iron Lady,” as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known, though she did not agree with all of her conservative political viewpoints.

Chinchilla’s affinity for politics became stronger during her college years, as several civil wars and innumerable political upsets roared throughout Central America, including the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua, and civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

“I lived with great intensity the Central American wars during those times, especially the war against the Somoza dictatorship,” she said. Chinchilla and her like-minded friends helped refugees fleeing from political unrest find shelter and legal aid.

“During college, Central American politics was what marked my generation,” she said.

Twenty years have passed since she first sought government office. Security matters appeal to her most, thanks to “an intellectual orientation” from her husband José María Rico, a penal code expert from Spain. She attracted criticism early on and was called “alarmist” for predicting the rise of organized crime in Costa Rica amid general fears that her pronouncements would scare off international investors.

“Look what happened twenty years later,” she said.

When she began her presidential term last May, critics labeled her “la marioneta de Oscar Arias,” or a puppet successor to the previous Nobel Prize-winning president. They doubted she would bring new ideas to the job.

And here, perhaps, is one of the times that Chinchilla admits to one of the realities of being the female leader of a still-patriarchal country – the refusal of many to believe she can lead on her own because of her gender.

“This is a discussion that has seen no end. If people see me too close to [Arias], then I am taking orders from him. If they notice me distant, then we are fighting,” she said. “I do want to tell you, of course, that it is possible that the fact that I am a woman has to do with it. During my campaign, the principal attack from my opponents was to call me, ‘the Marionette of Oscar Arias.’ They would have never said that if [the candidate] had been a man; but they said it to me.”

Coming to terms with a female in power is something the entire country is going to have to do at some point, she said. Projections of weakness would “not [be] convenient” for the country. Thus, she tries to walk a middle line, one where she adheres to the conservative dress code on one hand, but on the other, continues to attend concerts and special events that project a down-to-earth image.

“It seems to me that it’s about time the country gets used to and understands how we women are,” she said.

But there are other things Chinchilla knows she needs to concentrate on, including the need to reduce crime in communities, partially a result of an economy that has suffered from ongoing financial crises at home and abroad.

A lifelong member of the National Liberation Party (PLN) – a group that Chinchilla said understands the need for convergence of the market and the state – her left-of-center approach is to unite ideologies along the goals of common good, social justice and integrity. Analysis of public policies and their social effects is vital, she said.

“It’s not just the topic of economic efficiency and competitiveness, but also its impact on society,” she said.

It’s still too early to tell just what the social impacts will be of some of the public policies she has set in motion, like a tax reform plan meant to address Costa Rica’s $2.3 billion fiscal deficit but which detractors, both in and out of the PLN, have said is unfair and a burden on Costa Ricans (TT, Jan. 21). The “solidarity” tax reform, presented to lawmakers Jan. 17, has yet to overcome many bureaucratic hurdles.

The solidarity behind this and future ideas are bound to be tested rigorously, as President Chinchilla moves into the second year of her four-year term. In politics, she said, political ideologies need to be relativistic.

“From the second we consider that a rigid frame has to orient our actions, we lose the possibility to enrich ourselves with all the good ideas that come from all currents of thought,” she said.

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