Costa Rica’s 7 worst political blunders in 2013
What a delicious year in Costa Rica for fans of political failure. Start with Latin America’s least popular president. Add a presidential frontrunner unable to name the price of a typical Costa Rican meal. Mix in a tardy legislature that does not always read the bills they pass. Top it all with accusations of corruption from a once-mighty party’s own top candidate. And here you have it, the top 7 political blunders of 2013:
A simple trip to attend the wedding of a vice president’s son ended with three Costa Rican officials resigning and President Laura Chinchilla appearing to have received a favor from a suspected drug dealer.
Allegations first surfaced in May, when Libertarian Movement Party lawmaker Patricia Pérez filed a complaint at the Prosecutor’s Office about an alleged conflict of interest in Chinchilla’s previously unannounced private flight to Peru to attend the wedding. The issue first concerned Chinchilla receiving a favor from Canadian-owned THX Energy, the company that allegedly owned the plane.
Facts emerged that the true owner was Colombian named Gabriel Morales, who the Colombian press had accused of drug trafficking. The plane Chinchilla and her entourage traveled in had been under investigation for drug trafficking for two years by Costa Rican authorities. Francisco Chacón, the communications minister, resigned soon after. The head of Costa Rica’s Office of Intelligence and Security, Mauricio Boraschi, also resigned, as did a presidential aide.
At the time, Chinchilla said she recognized Boraschi’s “many years of efforts against drug trafficking,” but that he “also had the responsibility to protect my physical and moral well-being.”
The scandal’s tarnish even extended to a former top Costa Rican soccer player, Rolando Fonseca, who reportedly helped coordinate the trip.
Using Facebook, Guanacaste hotel owner Alberto Rodríguez accused the president of purchasing land in Guanacaste while being involved in the wind-generation business. In retaliation, the president announced a defamation lawsuit against the businessman for his Facebook comments. Ticos took to social media to express their outrage at this apparent undermining of the Central American country’s tradition of freedom of speech. Twitter users adopted the hashtag #LauraLeaEsto (Laura Read This). Chinchilla’s announced lawsuit came two months after Costa Rica hosted the United Nation’s World Press Freedom Day, celebrating the country’s record on freedom of expression.
With a headline that could have been written by The Onion (or ElPeji), Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly nearly made history when it passed a bill governing domestic partnerships that included anti-discrimination language inserted by progressive lawmaker and current presidential candidate José María Villalta. Some of Costa Rica’s most conservative and stridently Christian lawmakers unwittingly voted for the bill, only to demand Chinchilla’s veto after discovering its contents the next morning. Chinchilla approved the bill, though stayed mum on her support of legal gay partnerships. In September, a judge rejected a gay couple’s partnership, as other language in the law said same-sex partnerships remained illegal.
Assembly members kept Costa Rica’s status as the only country in the Western Hemisphere that bans fertilizing a woman’s eggs outside the womb. The legislature failed to have a quorum – enough members present for a vote on a bill to legalize and regulate IVF – before their holiday break. The ban on the procedure meant Costa Rica fails to be in accord with a binding ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is based in – you guessed it – Costa Rica. The country faces fines of its inaction.
The Assembly failed to meet another pre-break deadline in July, when it did not pass permission for the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy to dock ships in Costa Rica, despite the urging of Public Security Minister Mario Zamora. Costa Rican law requires foreign armed vessels to get permission prior to docking. The U.S. Embassy reported that joint patrol efforts in the past 18 months had prevented the traffic of some 200 tons of cocaine and 35,000 pounds of marijuana, in addition to the apprehension of 441 suspects.
“This is not a result of the legislature being on break,” Presidency Minister Carlos Benavides said at the time. “This is a veiled attempt to impede the vote. It’s a failure of our system.”
One-time strong presidential frontrunner Johnny Araya underestimated the cost of a liter of milk and a kilogram of rice by half. Even worse for the ruling party’s banner candidate was suggesting that a casado – a typical rice, bean, and meat dish – cost only ₡1,000 ($2), less than half its average price at restaurants. This snafu fueled the perception that the long-time San José mayor was out of touch with day-to-day concerns of Costa Ricans. Araya had held margins of 10 points or more in polls before the October error, and would see his numbers drop into a virtual tie with challenger Villalta.
Students of Costa Rican political history might have looked at 2013 as a year filled with potential for the formerly dominant Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). Their major opposition for decades – the National Liberation Party (PLN) – had the least popular president in Latin America, and her presidency seemed bogged in scandal. Meanwhile, the PLN’s 2014 candidate seemed an out-of-touch, uncomfortable campaigner. Dr. Rodolfo Hernández sounded like manna from heaven for PUSC: He had an impressive résumé, he was charismatic, and he polled competitively.
But it was not to be. Hernández announced on Oct. 3 that due to party infighting he could no longer continue campaigning. Two days later, Hernández announced he would continue as PUSC’s candidate after throngs of supporters marched to his eastern San José residence.
The new campaign lasted four days; on Oct. 9, Hernández announced his permanent withdrawal from the race unless other campaign directors quit, which didn’t happen.
“They thought they could play me, that they could order me around and that my warnings were inconsequential. They were wrong!” Hernández wrote in his resignation letter.
Costa Rica’s Prosecutor’s Office began an investigation of the Libertarian Movement Party, PLN and the Citizen Action Party for alleged fraud involving campaign spending totaling $1.4 million in public funds.
José María Villalta, presidential nominee of the progressive Broad Front Party, walked back comments on removing Costa Rica from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Combating accusations of communist and anti-business sympathies, Villalta said it was not viable to exit from CAFTA.
President Laura Chinchilla’s presidency minister dismissed prestigious Vanderbilt as “some University in Tennessee” after fielding a question on Vanderbilt’s finding of slumping support for Costa Rica’s political system.
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