San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
No Sugar, Please

Political renewal is needed – but it can't be forced

See also: “Make Costa Rica great again?”

Few arguments in Costa Rica are as contradictory as the discussion of the need for “new faces” in politics.

I have been pondering this issue ever since the strange day when Oscar Arias met with dozens of supporters who urged him to return to the presidency of Costa Rica. A group of young people begged him to enter into the presidential campaign. In his speech to them, he urged the young people to enter Costa Rican politics themselves.

It is true that political leaders were also involved that day who have accumulated 30 years or more in the National Liberation Party (PLN). To the media, however, they sought to portray the event as a youth movement invoking the name of Costa Rica’s oldest active politician – Arias is 76 years old – appealing to his experience and knowledge. This is a contradiction, but not exclusive to Liberation by any means.

We all know we are full of paradoxes when we enter political terrain, but these calls for new faces stand out, because in reality, no one wants to get rid of every familiar face. In fact, parties basically force the few new leaders to mature at warp speed, at the risk of burning them out before their time.

In our fatigue when it comes to politics – traditional politics, the only kind we have – we blame those “devils we know” and prepare speeches, sermons and slogans in favor of the “devils we don’t,” knowing that experience is an inevitable value in any political evaluation.

Some politicians know this, too, which is why José María Figueres thinks he is a viable PLN candidate. Arias knows it, while his calculations eventually led him to decide not to run. Social Christian Unity Party precandidate Rodolfo Piza knows it, and so does Otto Guevara, the political veteran I’ve heard described thus: “The good thing is that so many electoral defeats have matured him.”

José María Villalta knows it. This young man, in 2014, chose two much older running mates for his presidential ticket. They know it in the Citizen Action Party (PAC), where some members are exploring the possibility of a young minister as a presidential candidate in 2018, but accompanied by a more experienced figure, because as the saying goes in Costa Rica, “the devil knows more because he is old, than because he is the devil.”

So why do we exalt this idea of new faces? Sure, it might help attract some of the growing mass of voters who have tuned out of politics – of politicans, of familiar faces – but I fear that many of those voters are very good at detecting false, rehearsed speeches.

Costa Rica’s mature democracy should become capable of renewing itself gradually, naturally. Leadership is not transferable, nor is it automatic, and the best political organizations should propose leaders who are diverse in both age and experience. Otherwise, voters might be tempted in 2018 by outliers who crash the party.

Álvaro Murillo is an experienced journalist who specializes in political coverage and has written for La Nación, Semanario Universidad and El País. In “No Sugar, Please,” his twice-monthly column, he explores politics in its broadest terms, from the halls of government to community life. Connect with him on Twitter.

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Ken Morris

I think I agree.

Generational change as such is not necessarily better (as neither are frankly term limits). Experience is as helpful in politics as it is in every other endeavor, and younger generations routinely falsely flatter themselves by believing that they will miraculously bring about improvements simply by being young. In reality, they often make newbie mistakes only to eventually mature and repeat the same mistakes of their elders.

However, of course politics needs fresh young faces, and we should welcome them in the mix. José María Villalta is a great example. Truthfully, I felt him a little too young and brash for the presidency, and think the voters eventually decided the same thing when they switched their support from him to Solís. However, I like Villalta very much, and am glad he’s a player.

At the same time, at some point the deadwood does need to be cut away. I suspect this is the case with Arias. He was a truly heroic president during his first term, but turned into something of an arrogant free-trade fuddy duddy during his second. His time is over–we don’t need a third Arias term–and fortunately he seems to recognize this himself.

Unfortunately, Otto Guevara doesn’t seem to recognize that his time is–or should be–over. I can’t believe that people say that he has matured. What has he matured into, an an angry obstructionist? He is on the TV news almost nightly complaining about one thing or another, he’s always blocking bills, even filing court cases to stop them, yet when is the last to you ever heard of Otto introducing a bill? He has clearly forgotten both that he’s a legislator and that legislatures actually pass bills to improve things.

It’s time for Otto to step down and maybe host a talk show or be a professor or something. It’s fine for him to promote his ideas, just not good for him to use his lawmaker role to repeatedly grandstand.

So there’s a mix. Some people ought to go, others should stay, some new blood should arrive, other of it stay home. Age is neither an automatic blessing or curse. It depends, and the mix is what we want.

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