San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Candidates spar at first presidential debate in Costa Rica's 2014 campaign

In a marathon debate that lasted more than four hours, Costa Rica’s presidential candidates met face to face for the first time to convince Ticos that they are the right choice to lead the country. While frontrunner National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Johnny Araya remained aloof for much of the debate, second place contenders Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement Party (ML), and José María Villalta of the Broad Front Party (FA) drove the debate.

Experts from the National University in Heredia crafted questions for the six candidates, Johnny Araya, José Miguel Corrales (PN), Otto Guevara, Rodolfo Piza (PUSC), Luis Guillermo Solís (PAC) and José María Villalta, ranging from corruption, poverty, employment, education and the environment.

Guevara and Villalta, tied for second place in the latest poll from the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Political Studies and Investigation (CIEP), offered radically different visions for the country. Their distinct platforms and ability to wax about the debate’s topics kept viewers attention in an otherwise crowded presidential field. Compared to the moderate PLN, the next two contenders are by far the most ideologically driven candidates, albeit from different ends of the political spectrum.

On the subject of corruption, the libertarian trumpeted his slogan, “Donde hay permiso, hay chorizo,” where there is regulation, there is graft, attributing “excessive” government regulation as one of the main generators of corruption in the government. But Villalta shot back, asking why it was that only government officials were being held accountable when private businesses make up the other half of the same coin.

Araya returned to the PLN’s need to re-establish its legitimacy as the representative of the people’s interests as Liberation approaches the end of eight consecutive years at the helm of the government. Araya said “citizens need to be brought into the government,” and offered a citizen oversight board for public spending and public works projects as one way to improve transparency and accountability.

UNA debate close up

Left to right, Otto Guevara, Rodolfo Piza, and Luis Guillermo Solís. Piza started his campaign for the presidency on Oct. 12 after the Unity Party’s original candidate dropped out of the race at the beginning of the month. 

Alberto Font

Solís and Piza both said the quality of leadership was key to addressing corruption. The PAC candidate said that it was not the law that needed reforming so much as the example set by politicians and public employees.

Every other candidate agreed that citizens should be more involved in keeping the government transparent and fair, but there were few details about how such public oversight would work in practice. Guevara, Solís and Villalta echoed similar proposals.

Rising inequality and stagnant poverty rates have dogged Costa Rica in recent years. The country’s poverty rate remains at 20 percent and upwards of 40 percent for children, despite expanded spending on social programs.

Piza and Guevara both agreed that there were too many people on the government dole who didn’t need financial support, and the Libertarian candidate went so far as to suggest that the rolls of those on public assistance should be published and easily accessible online.

Villalta criticized the neoliberal trend in government as a “factory of poverty” that misplaces its trust in privatization, while Guevara and Piza said that economic growth was the greatest guarantor of human development.

Addressing poverty and inequality transitioned into fortifying public education and restarting the domestic economy. Solís pointed out that strong public education in the 19th century helped give Costa Rica a leg up on other countries in the region and that it was unacceptable that recent budget proposals would consider cutting funds for higher education.

Solís, Araya and Corrales focused on the need for an expanded role of development banks that focus on extending credit to small and medium-sized businesses.

Villalta and Solís added that there needs to be more support for poor, working mothers to be able to finish their schooling, namely through public daycare.

When Guevara said that he wanted Costa Rica’s higher education system to tailor itself to the needs of the economy as a mechanism to create jobs, other candidates bristled at the idea of interference with the autonomy of the country’s universities.

“I believe that the end of education is happiness, not money,” opined Corrales to cheers from the audience.

The environment ended up being one topic that most candidates saw eye to eye on. Every candidate acknowledged climate change as a reality and focused on moving the country away from fossil fuel consumption.

Guevara was the only candidate to mention exploring for natural gas in Costa Rica as a cleaner fuel source for public transportation vehicles during his allotted time, but Araya had previously expressed his support for the hydrocarbon.

According to the CIEP poll results, Araya leads the pack with 24.6 percent, followed by Guevara and Villalta at 9.9 and 9.7 percent, respectively, while Solís (4.2 percent) and Piza (3 percent) trail behind. Corrales was listed in the 1.3 percent of voters who supported other candidates. 

Forty-seven percent of Ticos said that they were still undecided on how they would vote in the Feb. 2, 2014 election.   

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