Editor’s note: In response to this Op-Ed piece, Costa Rican lawmaker-elect Antonio Álvarez Desanti has submitted a right of reply. Read that here.
Just when one could imagine that the National Liberation Party might actually coerce enough party faithful to the polls to make their upcoming election loss more respectable, candidate Johnny Araya returns to snatch greater defeat from the jaws of lesser defeat.
For a month the PLN has kept Araya off the national stage. They have used this time to begin a new presidential campaign, calling for debates, criticizing the Citizen Action Party’s economic plan, meeting with local party officials and making phone calls to encourage Liberacionistas to vote. And to their credit they succeeded for a month to focus attention away from their campaign’s twin Achilles heels: Johnny Araya and the PLN scandals. Now, in the eleventh hour, just days before the national election, “Hereeeeee’s Johnny,” back to remind voters again exactly why more than 70 percent rejected him in February.
Voters might think this an April Fool’s joke, or a case of “déjà vu all over again” remembering President Laura Chinchilla’s scandal of last May. And while it is said that “history does repeat itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” in this case Johnny’s borrowed plane came first. However tempting it might be to see this as yet another farcical misstep in a campaign filled with the inconceivable plot twists of a Groucho Marx film, Araya’s scandal is more tragedy than farce, filled with the villainous self-interest and corrupt pettiness of a smugly insolent professional politician about to get his comeuppance.
It is true that President Chinchilla’s scandal came to public light first, but the scandal that finally nails the coffin of Araya’s campaign shut for good preceded hers and dates back to February 2013. Returning to Costa Rica following a secret getaway to a FIFA soccer match between Panama and Costa Rica, Araya was asked by the press if he had been flying on a private plane owned by MECO, and he simply answered, “No.” MECO is a construction firm that has been awarded more than $65 million dollars in government contracts in the last eight years of PLN largess, and travelling on their private jet would certainly smack of yet another quid-pro-quo scandal – something candidate Araya no doubt hoped to avoid.
UPDATE: MECO President Carlos Enrique Cerdas has written a reply that was recently published in Semanario Universidad. Read it in Spanish here.
It turns out Johnny told only part of the truth that day. He had not been traveling on MECO’s jet, but he had been travelling with MECO CEO Carlos Enrique Cerdas. In coming days we should learn about Araya’s accommodations in Panama and his seats at the soccer match, and any luxurious dinner paid for by Cerdas. Acceptance of any of these gifts from a government contractor – especially one who has become so engorged from public monies – would elevate this from the appearance of impropriety to certain illegality.
Johnny’s donated flight from another friend, Alberto Esquivel Volio, chairman of Pavas Aires S.A., already has crossed the line into seeming illegality, as Costa Rica’s Electoral Code makes it clear no private firm can make donations to a political campaign. Obviously knowing this, when he returned from Panama and was questioned about his trip, Araya chose to conceal the truth with a lie of omission.
Today his “travel-gate” scandal has caught up with him, and Araya incredulously claims that he never revealed with whom he had traveled nor how simply because, “No one asked me.” While technically true, this response reveals the slick obfuscation of a seasoned fox interviewing for the position of “Guard of the Hen House.” It is unworthy of someone seeking the highest office of the land.
Araya’s campaign manager, Antonio Álvarez Desanti, also was aboard that flight in February 2013. (UPDATE: Read Antonio Álvarez Desanti’s response to this paragraph here.) One of the chief responsibilities of a campaign manager is to make sure the campaign stays within the bounds of the law. How could a campaign manager, congressional candidate, and now a lawmaker-elect not be familiar with Article 128 of the Electoral Code? His months of silence regarding Araya’s “omissions” make it clear he has no problem misleading the press and the Costa Rican people when he believes it in his own best interest to do so. This should also disqualify him from public service.
After a month of frenzied and noble effort for a dying cause, PLN party leaders and faithful members alike must finally be reaching the conclusion that a vast majority of Costa Rican voters recognized two months ago: Johnny Araya is not fit to be the president of Costa Rica. This latest scandal only confirms it in the clearest possible way. Araya’s coziness with construction contractors grown fat from PLN-awarded contracts, his possible violation of Costa Rican law, and his willingness to purposely misrepresent the truth to try to cover up this likely legal breach make him unsuitable to serve the people of Costa Rica in any capacity other than a waiter at a self-serve buffet. Even then, I would double-check my change upon paying the bill.
Gary L. Lehring is a professor of government at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. He is on sabbatical in Costa Rica. Read more of his columns by clicking on the hashtag #Elections 2014.