San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chinchilla mum on Arias scandal

A political storm is growing involving one of the most powerful figures in her party, but Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla has so far remained tight-lipped on how she plans to handle the row’s potential fallout.

Members of the political opposition want her to formally request highly sensitive documents from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) that could implicate National Liberation Party (PLN) stalwart Rodrigo Arias, brother of former President Oscar Arias, in financial wrongdoing. But Chinchilla has so far not responded.

Opposition lawmakers want to enter the CABEI documents as evidence before a special investigative commission in the Legislative Assembly to understand how $2 million in CABEI funds donated to the Costa Rican government were distributed during the last administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, the same government in which Chinchilla less than two years ago served as vice president (TT, Feb. 11).

In July 2008, an investigative legislative commission first questioned former Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias about which experts and consultants were hired and paid with CABEI funds. Opposition leaders say that strategy aimed to skip regulatory laws.

During his last administration, Arias declined to request the CABEI documents, which could outline the names and roles of each external consultant hired while he was in office and who were paid with CABEI funds. Only the Costa Rican head of state can officially request the documents.

If Chinchilla requests them, she could risk alienating powerful members of her party, political analysts say. Refusing could make her the target of harsh criticism from opposition lawmakers, who have already begun using terms like “institutionalized secrecy” to describe the scandal.

This week, a different legislative commission began another investigation into reports by the daily La Nación that Rodrigo Arias allegedly used his influence to avoid an investigation into how the CABEI funds were managed. According to the newspaper, Rodrigo Arias allegedly phoned Public Security Minister José María Tijerino and asked him to speak to incoming chief public prosecutor Jorge Chavarría about the inquiry. Arias has repeatedly denied the charges.

On Wednesday, the commission interviewed three La Nación reporters who broke the story. PLN lawmakers Luis Antonio Aiza and Sianny Villalobos unsuccessfully tried to prevent the La Nación reporters from testifying.

According to commission member Manrique Oviedo, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), the La Nación reporters provided phone records to verify their published accounts.

Chinchilla at a Crossroads

During her presidential campaign, Chinchilla promised to preside over a forthright and honest administration, opposition lawmakers note. Those lawmakers, who now hold a majority in the assembly, say they expect her to follow through on those promises or face a tough battle over her administration’s top legislative priorities, which include tax reform and an anti-smoking bill currently before Congress (TT, Feb. 18).

“If Chinchilla decides not to cooperate with the special investigative commission, she would be risking the appearance of being dishonest,” said Roberto Zeledón, a legislative aide to PAC legislator Claudio Monge. “It would also show that the [Chinchilla] administration is weak, and at the end of the day [Chinchilla] would be covering for former President Arias’ misdeeds.”

Zeledón believes that public pressure from social organizations and media will eventually persuade Chinchilla to request the CABEI documents.

“We are keeping an eye on this issue, and if [Chinchilla] doesn’t deliver the documents, we will then understand that there has been an important paradigm shift in her way of doing politics,” José María Villalta, a lawmaker from the leftist Broad Front Party, told The Tico Times.

“There are no legal grounds to say the information requested is not public, as the Arias brothers claimed in the past. If we don’t get what we’re asking for, we will take further measures, including filibustering,” Villalta said.

Luis Fishman, a lawmaker from the Social Christian Unity Party and former presidential candidate, foresees just one possible outcome: “[Chinchilla] must request the documents. That’s what she is required to do, period.”

Ultimately, Chinchilla’s decision on the matter could set the tone for the rest of her administration. It could also provide a glimpse into her relationship behind the scenes with one of Costa Rica’s most powerful political families, including the man – Oscar Arias – who claims to have handpicked her as his presidential successor.

Some analysts are skeptical. “It’s been at least six months since the president decidedly distanced herself from the Arias brothers,” said Constantino Urcuyo, professor of government and public policy at the University of Costa Rica.

“Rodrigo [Arias] became her rival and she has no obligation to protect him,” he said. “If at some point people believed she was some sort of a puppet, we can now say it’s not true. She will request the documents. Otherwise her legitimacy will be at risk.”

Lawmakers are expected to call both Arias brothers before the legislative commission for questioning.

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