For unpopular president, 4 months to go

January 14, 2014

Standing at the podium at Casa Presidencial Tuesday afternoon for her first press conference of 2014, Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla seemed unusually guarded and – at times – a bit off her game.

The typically animated and sometimes fiery president was subdued during the press conference, stopping to search for her words as she reflected on reporters’ questions about her legacy and the last remaining four months of her presidency.

Chinchilla was cagey about her government’s plans for her final days in office.

“I’m afraid to name them,” Chinchilla wryly told a reporter who asked her to narrow down the top three policies the administration hoped to accomplish in coming months, “because sometimes it seems people are waiting for me to say, ‘this is what I want,’ in order for them to say ‘no.’”

One specific the president offered was a $270 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration for public hospital improvements and new construction. But beyond that she spoke broadly about roughly 25 possible projects to improve transportation infrastructure and education.

Several of the president’s main legislative goals for 2013 remain in the wind. The Legislative Assembly again failed to take up a bill that would legalize in vitro fertilization, in accordance with a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Assembly also did not pass a capital control bill that would allow the Central Bank to take steps to prevent currency speculation from overheating the colón.

Bringing the national debt under control was supposed to be a pillar of Chinchilla’s administration, but borrowing has continued to balloon, and she has been unable to wrangle lawmakers, who are in recess until after the Feb. 2 presidential and legislative elections, into taking action.

While the brass ring of fiscal reform remained out of reach, Chinchilla was able to make progress in another area: “Public security will be the principle achievement of our administration,” Chinchilla said.

The country’s homicide rate has continued to dip during the last two years, and Public Security Vice Minister Celso Gamboa said during a press conference on Monday that last year’s homicide rate fell below that of 2012, although he did not provide specific numbers.

Chinchilla noted during her remarks that violence against women also had decreased during her administration, and she noted that no women were murdered during the month of December.

Thanks in part to financial support from the United States and increased domestic security spending, Costa Rica has started to seriously address the international illicit drug trade that has been using the unarmed country as a transit point between South American producers and the United States, the world’s largest cocaine market.

According to statistics provided to The Tico Times by the Public Security Ministry in late December, Costa Rica seized 21.8 tons of cocaine in 2013, more than any other Central American country. Law enforcement dismantled 116 drug trafficking operations last year.

The ministry has seized more than 50 tons of cocaine during Chinchilla’s administration.

Her government also started to take steps to address the country’s notorious reputation as a tax haven, passing tax transparency agreements with the U.S. and several Nordic countries, as part of her push to win Costa Rica’s admission into the elite Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

On July 8, 2013, the daily La Nación reported that Chinchilla had the worst approval rating in 20 years. Dissatisfaction with the government during the last year has brought Costa Ricans to the streets in record numbers in what the most recent State of the Nation report called a “prolonged period of social conflict.”

Costa Rica’s gross domestic product has remained stagnant during the last several years while inequality continues to increase, according to the State of the Nation report and figures from the World Bank.

Between national elections and an uncooperative legislature, the Chinchilla presidency could end on May 8 not with a bang – but a whimper.

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