San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s ruling party takes back Congress

See photos of May Day protests

From the print edition

On the day her government took back control of Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly, President Laura Chinchilla gave a State of the Nation speech that emphasized her administration’s successes since taking office in 2010. 

With the presidential sash draped over a blue-gray dress, Chinchilla spoke for an hour and 14 minutes Tuesday evening. She vaguely addressed regrets and spent little time talking about plans for her final two years in office, instead choosing to accentuate the positive. The most common word used in the president’s speech was seguridad, or public security, mentioned 28 times.

Still, Chinchilla’s address acknowledged the poor public image of her government. The president has an approval rating of only 26 percent, according to recent polls, and her administration in recent months has endured tax scandals while facing a dire need for fiscal reform.

Said Chinchilla: “Let’s admit it: Our country is not responding with efficiency and opportunity to citizens’ expectations and demands. Given this, the public chooses to move away from our statements, move away from public life and even comes to doubt democracy and the intentions of their representatives.” 

While Chinchilla admitted her share of responsibility for the current situation of the country, the president clarified that “she had acted honestly and in good faith.”

She listed many areas where the government has had a positive influence. Her administration, the president said, has lowered inflation to its lowest rates in 40 years and lowered unemployment by creating 90,000 new jobs.

The rising crime rate has been “contained,” and she believes in the next two years crime could diminish as the country boosts its police force by 14,000 officers. She touched on the war on drugs, saying Costa Rica and the rest of Central America are in a difficult situation – stuck between major drug producers and the world’s largest consumer of drugs, the United States. She wants to “strengthen the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking” and have more dialogue about controlling the problem. 

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An emotional Victor Emilio Granados, from the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE), takes the helm of Legislative Assembly president Tuesday. Ten years ago, he was in prison for fraud.

Alberto Font

In 2011, the economy grew by a little more than 4 percent “with particular vigor in the second half” Chinchilla said. She pointed to Costa Rica being the “largest exporter of technology per capita in Latin America and the fourth worldwide.” She noted the country’s record tourism numbers, with 2 million visitors in 2011, and carbon-neutral programs her administration has promoted.

The entire speech did not focus on accomplishments, but her criticisms were enigmatic. 

“I know that I have committed errors in these two first years of the administration,” Chinchilla said, without elaborating on what the errors were. “I have appreciated the critical feedback that has permitted me to mend them.”

She referenced the troubled Social Security System, which recently required emergency intervention to stave off bankruptcy, but added that the problems began with previous administrations. 

Chinchilla named a few goals for the future. She would like to see more money – $165 million – go toward education. More funds should also go toward infrastructure, she said, noting improvements at the country’s two international airports. 

The president wants the Legislative Assembly to approve a fiscal plan, and she would like to improve the public image of her government. 

Chinchilla also announced the formation of a group of “notable experts” who would make recommendations to improve the country’s stalling democratic system. More details would be disclosed at a later date, she said.

During a congressional meltdown last year, Chinchilla did not deliver her State of the Nation address (TT, May 6, 2011). Two days later, an opposition candidate was voted the head of the assembly for the first time since 1966. 

This time, the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) returned to power after striking a pact with the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE) and two evangelical lawmakers to obtain the necessary votes to take over the assembly’s directorate positions. PASE member Victor Emilio Granados is the new assembly president, winning enough votes early Tuesday morning.

‘Ex-Convict Presides’

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Rita Chaves, also from PASE, becomes first secretary.

Alberto Font

Granados’ election made international headlines due to a past indiscretion. Costa Rican media picked up on the fact that Spanish news agency EFE titled an article “Ex-convict presides over Costa Rican Congress.”

But when Granados spoke Tuesday, he tried to turn his “mistake” into a redemption story.

The new assembly president went to prison – although he did not complete his sentence – after he was found to be involved in a bank scam in 1989. 

“I bow with respect and open my heart to humbly confess that at each step I take, I get closer to the man I try to be, and I walk away from anyone I might have been,” Granados said in his first speech as legislative president.

Granados defeated opposition candidate Marielos Alfaro, of the Libertarian Movement Party, by a vote of 30 to 27 at 9:23 a.m. Tuesday.

Granados, 46, co-founded PASE with the party’s president, Óscar López, in 2005. Two other PASE, members, Martín Monestel and Rita Chaves, were elected as the assembly’s vice president and secretary, respectively.

López defended Granados, saying he has “reinvented himself after committing a grave error 23 years ago.”

Xinia Espinoza of PLN was voted the second secretary. Evangelical lawmakers Carlos Avendaño (National Restoration Party) and Justo Orozco (Costa Rican Renovation Party) received the first pro-secretary and second pro-secretary positions.

The evangelical party members are both preachers, and the two policymakers gave speeches that underscored God’s role in Costa Rica.

“Costa Rica requires a national restoration,” Avendaño said. “I declare that Jesus Christ is the Lord of Costa Rica.”

He said while his party has a role in the assembly, there will not be any bill supporting abortion rights or in vitro fertilization. Costa Rica remains the only country in the Americas to prohibit in vitro fertilization, and the country faces an upcoming lawsuit in the Inter-American Court for Human Rights for rights violations due to the ban.

The evangelicals stated similar points, saying they are in the assembly to defend policies close to the Christian spirit and values shared by many Costa Ricans, including the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and the rights of the “unborn.”

Orozco sermonized throughout his speech. 

“All fame, all wealth, is like the grass of the field. The word of God abides,” Orozco said. “All glory of man is like the flower of the field. The word of God abides forever. … This member is committed first to God.”

‘Dark Ages’

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Justo Orozco, left, an evangelical pastor and member of the Costa Rican Renovation Party, delivered a speech to lawmakers that was part sermon, part political discourse. Orozco and fellow evangelical lawmaker Carlos Avendaño, of the National Restoration Party (not pictured), helped the ruling National Liberation Party regain control of Congress.

Alberto Font

Opposition party members for the Citizen Action Party, Libertarian Movement Party, Social Christian Unity and Broad Front Party were given time on the dais. They offered no congratulations to their rivals, and seemed furious with corruption and the decision to put “cronies of the previous administration” and two evangelicals in prominent government roles. 

José María Villalta, of the Broad Front Party, gave the most memorable speech. His fiery talk accused the current government of being nothing more than an extension of the Oscar Arias presidency – referring to Chinchilla’s predecessor and political mentor. 

He said the country favored aiding banks instead of improving inequality and poverty. He compared the situation to the U.S., where people in positions of power are not paying their fair share of taxes. 

He also lambasted the “outdated” opinions of lawmakers who do not respect IVF or gender rights.

“We have fallen into the Dark Ages,” Villalta said. “And that is extremely dangerous.”

The lawmaker said voters must defeat neoliberalism in the government “if we want to break the abuse of power in our country.”

Libertarian Carlos Góngora addressed  Chinchilla’s call a few days earlier for a “truce” from opposition members. 

He asked Chinchilla how she could expect compromise when her government has been involved in corruption scandals and has demonstrated incompetence in regards to policymaking. 

“A truce to inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the [Social Security System]? No,” Góngora declared. “You ask for a truce, but against dishonesty there can be no truce.”

Like other countries, May 1 is a national holiday in Costa Rica. It is a festive event, with the country’s workers taking the day off to commemorate labor’s past achievements and current struggles.

A scattering of protesters waited outside the Legislative Assembly Tuesday, attempting to have their own voices heard. Rally members shouted down government corruption.

Some cheered for gay rights. Others demonstrated against neo-Nazi tenets (a cop professing neo-Nazi beliefs and displaying “White Power” and swastika tattoos recently was kicked out of the police force). Self-proclaimed “anarchists” threw rocks and bottles at the building. 

The situations never grew especially tense. With serenity, Chinchilla concluded her speech and a long day by promising a better future for Costa Rican citizens.  

The president said: “In this solemn act, I renew my loyalty and affection to the generous people who placed their hopes in me, I reiterate my determination and dedication to achieve them.”

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