Politic(o)s is back. After a short period of absence, the column has returned to analyze some of the recent political events in Costa Rica and abroad – and there is a lot to talk about this week!
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” cries out King Richard III while lying on the battlefield in Shakespeare’s homonymous play. In desperation, King Richard gives up exactly what he was fighting for. The events surrounding the launch of Uber in Costa Rica are worthy of a Shakespearean plot: a tragedy more than a comedy, to be precise. From the response of the government to the comments of citizens on Facebook, along with the attitudes of politicians trying to capitalize on the controversy to gain support, the episode has evinced some of the worst attitudes of Costa Ricans and some of the worst practices that have turned Costa Rican politics into a war where everyone is a loser.
Let’s start with Uber. The company is an expert fighter with current open fronts in London, Germany, Mexico, Colombia, and other countries. Uber is known for asking for forgiveness rather than asking for permission. Let’s face it: in all likelihood, the company would never have succeeded if it had tried to obtain permits and licenses before beginning operations. Moreover, the legal battles not only allow Uber to operate for a certain amount of time until the service is forbidden, but also give it exposure. The company was a trendy topic last week and, at least from what one can grasp from social networks, it won more adepts than before. Skilfully managed, the company has managed to transform the ban of the provision of a service – something that would normally build distrust of a company – into a successful marketing campaign.
This is not surprising. Uber not only sounds cool but also promises to offer better and cheaper transport services than current taxis and piratas (informal taxi drivers). Who wouldn’t like to pay less and, in addition, travel in a beautiful modern car, looking fierce? The photo of Costa Rican model Leonora Jiménez, exiting an expensive car in leather pants with perfect hair and makeup, is self-explanatory. Just contrast this picture with the idea of catching an old taxi with no air conditioning at midday for a crosstown San José trip, and the result probably wouldn’t look like Leonora’s photograph – if you even pictured that possibility.
Humor aside, the campaign and support of Uber evidences the flaws of our system of public transport. People are not happy with the tariffs, with the state of taxis, and with the quality of the service. No doubt the service is better than a couple of decades ago, and catching a taxi on the street is also relatively safe compared to other capital cities in Latin America. But the market, technology, individuals’ preferences and freedom of choice are moving us forward.
It is pointless to portray the situation as a fight between taxi drivers and Uber drivers. That would be an oversimplification. The fight of Uber against the government resembles historical confrontations. What is forbidden and what is allowed? What are the limits to liberties? This column defends the existence of a liberal democratic State – which, as every libertarian would agree, necessarily entails limitations to rights and freedoms. It requires regulations. Isaiah Berlin has summarized the tension between the freedom of one and the freedoms of others: “The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as he or they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values… That we cannot have everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth.”
Current regulations on public transport are not caprice. If we want to feel safe when we take a taxi, to be charged an amount proportionate to the service, to be in a car that won’t have a mechanical failure or pose a threat to the environment, regulations are needed. One question is whether we have the best regulations – or if they are enforced appropriately – and another is whether we need regulations at all. We do need regulations. People posting pictures on Facebook of taxis violating traffic rules are not reason enough to thoughtlessly support the operation of a company offering public transportation without any type of regulations, based only on the “will of the contracting parties.”
However, this does not mean that the government can do whatever it wants. I do not agree that the Costa Rican’s government response to the Uber situation stems from authoritarian motivations, as some politicians and citizens have suggested; the problem, however, is that the government has been unable to explain to citizens why the service that Uber offers is illegal. Even worse, it has failed to explain whether it might be possible to legalize their services in the future. The government simply closed the door to Uber and said no, in times of increasing support for the company. Furthermore, the President came across as upset and confrontational, which doesn’t improve the image of an administration already perceived as distant from citizens’ concerns – despite his election on the basis of “acción ciudadana” (citizen action).
Legality is important. It is at the core of our centenary tradition as a rule-of-law country. But politics is important, too, and here is where the government has failed: Uber will make it, just as Skype made it a few years ago. If the government wants to look powerful as rule enforcer, it is equally important to look modern and visionary. So far, it has looked repressive and old-fashioned.
This, however, does not justify the type of public and political response deployed by citizens and politicians in public statements and social networks. So much hate, so much ignorance, so much recklessness, so much irresponsibility. Vice Minister of Transport Sebastián Urbina was reported to have called on taxi drivers and citizens in general to identify and denounce Uber drivers. The Vice Minister has since clarified that he was only confirming that any citizen is free to report illegal activity to authorities – and at any rate, his comments cannot be equated to a call to violent attacks, as the Libertarian Movement and National Liberation Party have tried to make it appear in their calls for the Vice Minister’s removal. That is amateur politics. Have those parties made proposals for Uber to operate in Costa Rica? Do the legislators of the Libertarian Movement really believe, as they claim, that the service is 100 percent legal? I truly doubt it. This is destructive politics and, at least in the case of the National Liberation Party, the exercise of a political opposition tactic that they have greatly criticized when in power.
Calling for public officials to quit every time there is disagreement is easy politics. To paraphrase a friend of mine: if the Vice Minister quits, Costa Rica will end up with the same legislation on transport, with Uber still in the country operating after getting in through the back door, and with a new Vice Minister who would probably be less well-prepared than the current one, and who would have to start by figuring out where the bathrooms in the ministry are. That would be more costly for the country.
The future means nothing to Costa Rica without strong democratic institutions, educated citizens, and healthy public debate. Those are things that no app can provide. Those are things that we cannot simply download from the Internet. I do not think that the majority of Costa Ricans are desperate enough to offer their country for an app. Unfortunately, some of the attitudes and events of the recent past demonstrate the recklessness that some politicians and citizens are capable of. Let’s hope for more smart-citizens and not only for more smartphones.
Clarification: The section of this article regarding Vice Minister Sebastián Urbina’s comments, which originally described his “call” for taxi drivers to report Uber drivers, was revised after Urbina contacted The Tico Times to provide further information. Urbina stated that when taxi drivers with whom he met expressed interest in reporting Uber activity, he simply confirmed that they were free to do so, as are any citizens, but did not ask them to compile reports of Uber activity, or call on them to do so.
Read more Politic(o)s columns here.
Tomás Quesada-Alpízar is pursuing his doctoral degree in politics at the University of Oxford. In “Politic(o)s,” published at the start of every month, he explores current events and political issues in Costa Rica and around the world. He welcomes reader questions and comments at email@example.com.