San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

After one year as president, security still Laura Chinchilla's top concern

President Laura Chinchilla, 52, marks her first year in office on Sunday. Costa Rica’s first female president was sworn in office on May 8, 2010, a day that for some is cause for celebration. Yet for many, Sunday is a reminder of Chinchilla’s failed campaign promises.

Since her sunny Saturday morning inauguration last year at western San José’s La Sabana Park, la presidenta hasn’t slowed down, shouldering a broad gamut of national and international affairs through the prism of her National Liberation Party (PLN) ideology.

In September, Chinchilla visited Wall Street to promote direct foreign investment. In October, she traveled locally, to Costa Rica’s central Pacific town of Parrita, to highlight poverty at home and to aid flood victims.

She celebrated the 62nd anniversary of the abolition of the army in December by announcing that she would send more police to patrol the border with Nicaragua.

Responding to a public backlash in May 2010, Chinchilla rejected a salary increase for members of the Legislative Assembly (and herself). She replaced four government ministers.

A border conflict with Nicaragua was tense and exhausting, but in the end, violence was averted, though the government spent tens of thousands of dollars arguing its case before friendly European nations.

National education programs were maintained and polished, police forces were increased, unemployment was reduced, and important infrastructure projects moved forward, including efforts to develop renewable energy sources. 

According to analysts and national polls, Chinchilla’s biggest triumph during year one was her management of the conflict with Nicaragua, sparked by the territorial dispute over the Isla Calero, a marshy swampland near where the Río San Juan meets the Caribbean (TT, April 8, 4).

In March, a poll conducted by the firm Unimer asked 1,202 people, “What has been President Laura Chinchilla’s biggest accomplishment in her first year of office?” For 46 percent of respondents, Chinchilla’s top accomplishment was “good management of the Nicaragua conflict.”

But a proposed fiscal reform to reduce Costa Rica’s ballooning national deficit was harshly criticized, and it hasn’t advanced in Congress. Deemed one of the top priorities of her administration, fiscal reform could be in worse shape than when she started.

“The fiscal reform proposal is dead,” said Constantino Urcuyo, a political analyst and professor of government and public policy at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). “That doesn’t mean that it won’t get done during her administration, it just means that the proposal drafted this year is dead. If there are any hopes for a fiscal reform, it is going to have to be simple. In the past, only simple modifications to fiscal and tax policies have worked. Unfortunately, there are so many internal bureaucrats that want a big, perfect reform that pleases everyone. That is just not possible.” 

Chinchilla’s image also wasn’t helped much by lawmakers. In the first weeks after taking office in May of last year, legislators’ first priority was to approve an increase in their own salaries by a whopping 72 percent. In a 35-21 vote on May 24, lawmakers said a pay hike would allow them “to focus on key initiatives for the country.”

As the nation protested the decision, Chinchilla wisely vetoed the bill, earning her some popularity points early in her administration.

Last week, the same lawmakers – including former PLN Assembly President Luis Gerardo Villanueva, unseated this week – politically embarrassed Chinchilla during a political row over control of the legislative body. Because of the scandal, Chinchilla became the first president unable to personally deliver a State of the Nation speech to lawmakers on May 1, as is tradition. She finally did deliver that speech four days later.

Security, Security, Security

On the campaign trail, after being elected, and throughout her first year in office, Chinchilla’s primary emphasis has been improved public security. That approach will continue during her remaining three years in office.

Thursday’s speech, titled, “We are constructing a safe country,” is a reminder of Chinchilla’s efforts to adopt new national security measures.

“Today I am here to confirm the vision that is shared by everyone in the country: to make Costa Rica a more secure home for all of its residents,” she said. “To achieve that goal, we will do so by following one path: the path toward personal security. Never before has the word ‘insecurity’ defined so many of our lives.”

While it may be too early to measure those efforts, fear of crime continues to dominate the national psyche.

In March, Chinchilla sent 153 newly trained police officers to four towns along the borders with Panama and Nicaragua. A U.S.-funded Coast Guard dock was completed in late March in the Pacific port of Caldera to improve security in the area. Costa Rica’s police academy got a facelift, and personnel from Mexico and Colombia trained police here in tactics to fight organized crime and drug trafficking.

“People continue to criticize security, but they have to understand that these issues aren’t going to be resolved in the course of a day,” Urcuyo said. “People want a solution immediately and that just isn’t realistic. It will take years.”

If it’s patience that Chinchilla needs from voters, it doesn’t appear that voters are responding. At the 100-day mark of her administration on Aug. 19, Chinchilla had a 40 percent approval rating, down from 76 percent in September and worse than her mentor and former President Oscar Arias (1986-1990 and 2006-2010) and former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006).

Her ratings are better than former presidents Rafael Ángel Calderón (1990-1994) and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002).

More of the Same?

Looking ahead, Chinchilla said her administration will focus on developing renewable energy sources, attracting foreign direct investment, increasing tourism, passing tax reform, reducing unemployment, maintaining strong educational and health programs, and above all, increasing public security – all promises of candidate Chinchilla a year ago.

In the 24-page State of the Nation speech, the words “security” and “insecurity” were used on 36 occasions.

“The insecurity of our citizens is the biggest worry among Costa Ricans. Little by little we are beginning to feel that our heritage, our integrity and our lives are in danger due to the growth of crime,” she said. “Our goal is to establish legal, community-based and police efforts to attack not only the principal sources of crime in the country, but also the factors associated with them. To do so, we intend to implement three strategic objectives: the strengthening of the national police and prison system, the strengthening of the fight against drug-trafficking and organized crime, and the reinforcement of a pacific existence rooted in prevention.”

The Highlights from Chinchilla’s First Year as ‘Presidenta’

May 8, 2010: Sworn in as first female president in Costa Rican history

May 10, 2010: Signs executive decree establishing a moratorium on future open-pit metal mining projects, leading to cancellation of the Crucitas mining project, in northern Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border

May 25, 2010: Vetoes bill to give members of Legislative Assembly a 72 percent pay raise

July 19, 2010: President’s husband, José María Rico, from Spain, is airlifted to San José’s CIMA Hospital after he fractured his hip on the day of the World Cup final. Spain defeated the Netherlands to win the 2010 World Cup

July 23, 2010: Signs “Integral Waste Management Law” to improve national waste collection

Aug. 19, 2010: Unveils 4-year plan for government on 100th day in office

Sept. 21, 2010: Rings bell at New York Stock Exchange and promotes foreign direct investment. Sets goal of $9 billion FDI during 4-year term

Sept. 23, 2010: Gives speech at United Nations General Assembly expressing concern over drug-trafficking

Sept. 23, 2010: Approval rating at 76 percent, according to CID-Gallup poll

Oct. 18, 2010: Sets national goal of 100 percent of high school students to master English by 2017

Dec. 1, 2010: Celebrates 62nd anniversary of abolition of the national army; announces plans to deploy more police to border

Dec. 4, 2010: Deems Nicaragua an “enemy” in an interview at Ibero-American Summit in Argentina

Jan. 17, 2011: “Solidarity” tax reform presented, resulting in months of scrutiny

Feb 21, 2011: Writes editorial in The Miami Herald titled “Nicaraguan Invasion of Costa Rica”

Mar. 3, 2011: Signs decree to implement new regulatory measures to protect marine resources around Cocos Island and Marina National Park

March 7, 2011: Asks nation to dress in white to support peace during ruling at International Court of Justice in The Hague

March 8, 2011: Celebrates national victory in world court as Nicaraguan troops leave Isla Calero

Apr. 4, 2011: Approval rating falls to 37 percent, according to Unimer poll

May 1, 2011: Does not present State of Nation address due to botched election of Legislative Assembly president

Chinchilla 1st Year Poll

Which of the these issues deserves the most attention?

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