Luis Guillermo Solís admits that he’s not the obvious choice for president. A political newcomer, Solís and his party, the Citizen Action Party (PAC), are betting that Costa Ricans are ready for an outsider to break the ruling National Liberation Party’s back-to-back terms in power.
Solís said that his administration would focus on cleaning up corruption in the government to restore voter confidence, while getting the country’s public works infrastructure back up and running. He also wants to extend micro-credit to small and medium-sized businesses to tackle the country’s 18.6 percent unemployment rate, and get Costa Rica’s socialized health care system, the Caja, back on firm financial footing in 18 months. But before he can do that he’ll have to climb the polls, where he has stalled at around 4 percent, according to the latest figures.
The PAC candidate has never held elected political office but is no stranger to the halls of power, working in several PLN administrations and serving as ambassador to Panama during the administration of José María Figueres (1994-1998), before leaving the party for the PAC.
“I was approached by PAC members who felt that I should give it a try, to become a very unusual candidate. I decided to go for it,” Solís told The Tico Times in October when he sat down to talk about his vision for Costa Rica and a PAC presidency.
“I think in many ways, strange as it may sound, it is better not to be known and to be able to post oneself as a person who wants to change things without compromising principles and values than to have lots of experience, but on the other hand, to have lots of commitments already made that [prevent] that person from grasping the responsibility of offices with enough strength and enough decision,” he added.
The following is a collection of excerpts from The Tico Time’s conversation with Solís:
TT: Why run for office now, with no previous experience in elected government?
LGS: I haven’t been a professional politician, but I have been in and out of politics for the last 25 years. I advised the first Óscar Arias administration (1986-1990) and out of office in the echelons of the PLN for many years. I was appointed mostly in the party’s foreign affairs structure.
Basically, my government experience is limited to two terms in the foreign service. … Most of my time I’ve been an observer and an analyst, and doing so, one gets the strong feeling that things could have been done better, that professional politicians might have the experience, but they also have entangling alliances that can be become problematic when it comes to implementing certain policies the country needs.
Once I came back from Panama during my last tenure as director for Central America and Haiti of the Ibero-American Secretariat, I was approached by PAC members who felt that I should give it a try, to become a very unusual candidate. I decided to go for it.
I basically think that, yes, experience in office provides a number of benefits to those who have it, but at the same time it makes them not perceptive enough of certain realities that come from a different direction. This is what I’ve been trying to do. I’m very committed to the idea of doing politics from the citizenry, from the public.
How would you and a PAC presidency restore voter confidence?
Well, the possibility [exists] to achieve things that haven’t been done. This is something I find essential, we should have to accomplish certain goals that have been forsaken simply because those in office are so tied up with these interests that build up over the years. They have no will to put an end to these kinds of attitudes.
I see what’s happening in infrastructure, the belated processes for building new roads, or maintaining the quality of roads or bridges in the country, and all of the sudden I decided to look into who’s providing money to the campaigns of National Liberation and Social Christian Unity, and it happens that the biggest contributors have been these construction companies that are also getting the contracts when the party comes to power.
It’s not that I’m against private enterprise or companies doing the jobs that the government was previously in charge of, but I do disagree with the idea that a private company has preeminence in getting the benefits of government budgets. I find that quite unfortunate and damaging from an institutional point of view.
Since we [PAC] don’t have those kinds of liaisons with private monies that can hurt the completion of certain objectives that are fundamental to governmental action, I feel that we may be able to achieve things that have not been done by others, and I feel confident that we could have the strength this requires with the force to take positions in areas that have been cumbersome.
What would your first 90 days in office look like?
I would like to make an assessment of what’s been going on in many places. For example, the Ministry of Transportation [and Public Works]. I would like to look very carefully into some of the decisions that they’ve made. Probably, you would see a government that’s very much concerned with fighting off corruption in high places during those first 100 days.
I would like to send a strong message to the country that it’s not going to be business as usual. We’re taking very seriously the idea that the Costa Rican citizen deserves a transparent government, and I would not hesitate to publicize things that have not been correctly administered, simply because I feel that the common good should be above all else.
The other thing I would like to do is freeze the salary of the highest post in the administration. The president and the ministers are earning enough. Some will say that’s populism and you’re not going to get a lot of people to work there. I think you would find people who find that government salaries are enough, because they’re not there to make money, they’re there to serve the country. So, I think if we’re going to be asking for sacrifices, we should be able to be exemplary in the way we handle ourselves, vis-à-vis our salaries.
How will you get Costa Rica into good fiscal health so it can make these large investments in infrastructure?
We [PAC] have been talking about taxes and fiscal responsibility for three campaigns, when it was not fashionable to talk about fiscal reform, and we’re going to do it again. Nowadays, everyone seems to be talking about taxes and the need to increase taxation rates to accomplish several objectives and lower the deficit, which makes them very nervous.
In looking at the latest government [budget] proposal, the only new thing they have put forward is the idea of lowering spending on education. They want to freeze it at 7 percent of GDP, which I find interesting. Before we were talking about raising it to 8 percent, not reducing it. It seems that the worries of these individuals have to do more with curtailing the deficit than putting the country back to work and using the money to enhance social and government investments that could reactive the economy a little bit, or at least the job market.
We at PAC think that fiscal policy is not only necessary to increase government revenue – that’s a given – but we also believe that fiscal policy is required to redistribute wealth. That’s a major challenge and a different approach we have vis-à-vis other parties.
We don’t like the way the society has grown, we would like to change the disequilibrium that has grown and explains why Costa Rica, along with the Dominican Republic, is the only country in the Americas where inequality is growing. In order to tackle that problem, you also need more taxes.
So it’s not a question only of paying your dues or being macro-economically stable, and be able to show to the World Bank and IDB [Inter-American Development Bank] and other financial institutions a nice balance sheet at the end of the year, that’s fine, but that’s not the rationale we would like to see behind fiscal reform. We would like to see these other edges of the problem with more clarity.
How to you hope to redistribute wealth? Jobs? Social services?
The Costa Rican experience has taught us that in order to have a more equitable society you have to do three things: You have to have a very good public education system. … We have a very high rate of desertion that occurs in secondary schooling, which means that around 47 percent of our students are not finishing high school. That’s a huge proportion, that’s unacceptable.
They’re not doing it for two reasons: Poverty, because they have to leave school to help their family, or because they don’t care about learning because they don’t feel there’s any added value to the effort required.
Social services – particularly health – and pensions are key. Social security in general is the most important pillar [to] Costa Rican stability; probably the cornerstone of social peace in this country has to do with the Caja de Seguro Social [Costa Rican Social Security System, or Caja].
The third thing is credit for the entrepreneur to generate jobs. Mostly, those related to the domestic economy, which is the most important factor for the creation of jobs. Eighty-five percent of the wealth of any capitalist economy is provided by medium-sized and small entrepreneurs. In Costa Rica we have lost that because the model has been stressing direct investment and fomenting exports, which is fine but it doesn’t generate enough jobs. The only way to generate jobs in a sufficient amount is to stimulate the internal market.
I’m not only thinking of the 4.3 million Costa Ricans, but also the 45 million other Central Americans, and maybe more if we count certain countries in the Caribbean where we can be competitive.
I have no qualms with Intel, in fact, I would like to see five or six of them here, but that’s not what generates the wealth we need. The Costa Rican recipe of social policies, education and employment via credit I find is what we need at this point. This is what we’re aiming at. In order to get credit you have to have what we call “banco de desarrollo” because commercial or state banks are not going to risk capital to foment small and medium-sized entrepreneurship. … We need development banks that are fine-tuned because we’re still dealing with very primitive ways of handling development banks.
How would you save the Caja?
There have been three commissions that have made similar recommendations. All of these things do not require changes to the laws; they can all be done through the Caja administration.
They recommend centralizing the buying of medicine that can be transparent. The Caja decided to spread out the buying of medicine across the entire network and that has weakened the system’s ability to negotiate sales.
Second, digitalizing the files. That is something that would immediately reduce a lot of problems, including medicine waste [or] a doctor being able to run away from his schedule. Everyone would know where that patient’s operation standard is, where they are in the [waiting list] for operations.
Putting an end to paying extra time by opening the operation rooms in two or three shifts. Many hospitals are operating only one eight-hour shift and that is a luxury we can’t afford.
There is a rule where doctors’ salaries are tied up with those of other public-sector employees, so we can’t increase salaries anywhere else without benefiting the doctors, which just doesn’t make any sense. So we have to break that.
Is that tied to fiscal reform?
It should be tied to fiscal reform because otherwise we can’t pay for it. The amounts are astronomical. For the people who do not pay the Caja, who evade paying their dues, the law is very lenient. Individuals can simply change the [incorporation] when they get to the point of owing the Caja, I don’t know, ₡2 billion [$4 million], call themselves broke and then they change the company name and keep on working.
So there are a number of measures like these that could help balance the Caja’s financial sheet in a short time, within 18 months.
There are other things that are required: Political parties should be willing to keep the Caja out of their partisan bickering. Maybe by getting rid of the presidencias ejecutivas [executive directors] and naming a general manager, as it had been before, so decisions are more technically based and less politically motivated.
The Caja’s pensions need to earn more. Currently, the government is taking all the Caja money to buy government bonds. We should be able to get rid of that and get the Caja to earn more money, and there are ways to go about that without putting the pensions at risk.
The Caja should be able to buy new equipment instead of renting equipment, which we have done for years – which has been extremely beneficial for Clínica Bíblica, Clínica Católica, Clíncia Irazú – simply because the Caja decided not to buy the accelerators and other equipment they need to treat cancer, for example.
The other thing is what to do with [the local public clinics] EBAIS. EBAIS is the first link in the chain of medical services, and they’re fundamental. They’re being privatized in many cases and underfunded in others, which is another way of fomenting privation.
Considering the government’s tight budgets, how do you feel about concessions to advance infrastructure projects?
We have no problem with concessions. PAC has always supported concessions for certain kinds of projects, like infrastructure. If it’s a huge airport, like the one planed for Orotina that will probably cost $2 or $3 billion, [then] that could be handled through concessions. But I do object to projects that [do not require concessions] like the road to San Ramón, for example, or roads in and around San José.
How will you overcome the political gridlock that seems to strangle the Legislative Assembly?
We need a way to overcome it, but we need a political agreement, and we’ve neglected to do so because we’ve been burned by corruption and underhanded agreements before. It’s demonized the idea of making agreements.
People have become uneasy about politicians making deals, but politics is dealing! Dealing with transparency and with good purpose, but you need to talk to each other.
Sometimes, the best way to end gridlock is not to reform the Legislative Assembly, which seems to be the favorite recipe, but to simply do a good transaction with the opposition, or several parties of the opposition.
Costa Rica’s legislature is going to become more fragmented, not less so in the next few years. We may end up with nine [political parties], including taxi drivers. Unless we make agreements, quality, national ones, we’re not going to be able to break that gridlock.
Are the complaints against President Laura Chinchilla merited?
Probably not, I don’t think she’s been that bad. But that’s not the issue. The [approval] rates are what the people perceive the government to be, and the perception is horrible.
I think she has been unlucky; certain presidents are lucky, she has been unlucky. Look at the weather: She has endured some of the worst weather in the last 25 years, in terms of hurricanes, rains, storms; she is the first president to experience an invasion from Nicaragua in 50 years; she’s the first president to have experienced the desertion of its parliamentary group following Rodrigo Arias’ bid, not a fortnight after inauguration.
On the other hand, she is the president. She’s the one who appointed the Cabinet, and she’s the one to be held accountable for the actions of her ministers, and some of her ministers have been awful.
Will Chinchilla’s low favorability rating translate into voter apathy for the ruling National Liberation Party?
If it doesn’t, this will be a very strange country to live in. The PLN – and I come from National Liberation – has always had a statistical floor [for presidential support] of 30 percent. It’s under 30 percent right now.
PLN has always had candidates with very distinguished service records. This is the first time that someone hasn’t had that, besides serving as the mayor of San José for 22 years, with a questionable record of what he was able to accomplish.
On top of that, you have a very unpopular government. It will be very strange if this doesn’t show in the polls. I think it’s going to show a very strong message to [PLN candidate] Johnny Araya in the next few months.
People are fed up with him and what he’s been saying. And they ask, ‘Where were you during the last eight years? What was it that you accomplished in the last 22? And why is it that you haven’t been able to influence your legislative group? Where was your leadership?’ It’s almost inconceivable.
What’s your strategy to win?
I have to convince that 63 percent of people who say they don’t have a [political] party that I’m the one. According to Semanario Universidad, it’s 44 [percent], but that doesn’t matter; 44, 54, 64, it’s almost everyone. I have to get to that group. My political strategy is aimed towards those who think professional politicians are no good.
Talk about the inability to form alliances [with other opposition candidates]. Will it split the vote?
Probably, but I don’t know how much because what I’m seeing is Frente Amplio [the Broad Front Party], which is pretty strong, PAC is going to be up there. PAC has already joined with Alianza Patriótica and it’s likely that we’ll see other alliances coming up soon.
The system has been very perverse in facilitating the creation of coalitions. When you look at electoral law, which was created during a bipartisan period, the possibility of forming coalitions was not what they wanted. They wanted to preserve the bipartisan mechanism, so it’s difficult to form a coalition. This is the base, but there are other issues.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Probably being able to achieve this point in my life, coming from a family where my grandfather was a laborer in a banana plantation. It’s not an accomplishment I can claim single-handedly because it took a lot of effort by my parents. It took an effort from the country. The model I’m trying to protect right now is what represents what I am.
My grandfather, Luis, was a coffee peasant in Tres Ríos who ended up an orphan forced to work in the banana plantations in the Caribbean. He got yellow fever and had to come back, and he was taught by his brothers-in-law to make shoes. He did that for over 20 years. My father didn’t go to school either, but through support from the government they were able to turn their shop into a small industry.
Now all their children and grandchildren are professionals, including my own children who are so different from my grandparents. In fact, on my mother’s side, my [great] grandmother came from Jamaica, she was a black Chinese who came to Costa Rica in the 1900s with eight children, one of which was my grandmother, who had to sell food and didn’t speak Spanish. She always had a strong accent. They called her ‘Ms. Jenny’ in the neighborhood.
So being here, having reached this point as part of that family tradition is the greatest accomplishment I can think of.
It’s a very Costa Rican story and it will not be [for others] if we keep going down this road.