Never before have everyday Costa Ricans been prohibited from celebrating Juan Santamaría Day, a national holiday held every year on April 11, in the Alajuela park bearing the same name.
But that changed on Thursday, and what would normally have been a day for schoolchildren to march in parades and for families to gather under the hot Alajuela sun to listen to their president speak, descended into chaos, as protesters and normal citizens confronted police blocking them from the park. (See a Tico Times tumblr photo display of the day’s protests here.)
Juan Santamaría – a young boy who died bravely fighting William Walkers’ mercenaries at the Battle of Rivas in 1856 – is a national hero. Every year, Costa Rica’s president marks the holiday with a commemorative speech, accompanied by Cabinet members and other dignitaries at the Juan Santamaría Park in Alajuela, north of the capital. Families gather for what normally is a day of celebration.
But at this year’s event, police cordoned off the park, allowing only President Laura Chinchilla’s invited guests to hear her speak.
Police set up a security perimeter to respond to protesters, who had rallied via social media networks to “turn their backs” on the president over a developing row involving a private concession granted for the renovation and expansion of the highway from San José to San Ramón, on the western edge of the Central Valley.
“Never before have we seen this at the April 11 parades. Él que nada debe, nada teme,” protester Mauricio Castro said, using a Spanish phrase that means “the innocent have nothing to fear.”
“Today, the president showed us that she is scared, and that’s why she’s taking away our liberties,” he added.
Opposition to President Chinchilla – who already has the lowest public approval ratings in the Western Hemisphere – is growing. Last month, her administration granted a $524 million concession for the San José-San Ramón highway expansion to Brazilian company OAS. The company announced that tolls would cost motorists some ₡4,000 ($8), more than the per-kilometer toll cost of any other highway in Costa Rica.
The company has promised to build more lanes to help reduce congestion, but the high cost of tolls and limited extent of the expansion has angered many Costa Ricans, who staged protests along parts of the current road to San Ramón and in various points around Juan Santamaría Park.
Later in the day, those protests turned violent as police briefly clashed with demonstrators, who then attacked the car of ruling National Liberation Party President Bernal Jiménez, smashing the windscreen as he attempted to drive away. Police intervened, and Jiménez was safely escorted from the scene. No injuries were reported.
Then, some members of the news media were allegedly manhandled by the president’s security detail, the daily La Nación reported.
Protesters want the highway concession annulled and the work performed by the Public Works and Transport Ministry.
“We want a better highway with the taxes we already pay,” demonstrators chanted.
While Chinchilla would not comment following the events Thursday, her office issued a statement saying she would seek an emergency meeting on Friday with Public Works and Transport Minister Pedro Castro and mayors from San Ramón, Palmares, Grecia, Valverde Vega, Zarcero and Alajuela to discuss the roadway concession, La Nación reported. In the statement, Chinchilla “reiterated once again her openness to dialogue and to listen to alternative proposals” regarding the highway concession.
Updated at 5:22 p.m. on Thursday. Follow updates at www.ticotimes.net.