It’s Christmas time, and Costa Rica’s outcast son wants to come home for the holidays.
A tearful José María “Chema” Figueres, who left Costa Rica for self-imposed exile in Europe, told Channel 7’s Ignacio Santos this week that he misses his family (see story on Page 5). He also claimed that his former political party, the ruling National Liberation Front, needs him.
Chema, who in 1994 was the youngest Central American president to be elected (he was 40), has compiled the respectful résumé one would expect from the son of modern Costa Rica’s founding father.
He currently lives in Madrid, where he helps development and pro-democracy groups obtain financing. While president, Chema helped bring Intel to the country, which boosted technology exports and transformed Costa Rica’s economy.
In September, as The Tico Times reported, Figueres was appointed to an eight-member subcommittee of Haiti’s Presidential Advisory Council for Economic Growth and Investment, where he praised the potential of foreign direct investment to help turn Haiti around. The council is co-chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Laurent Lamothe, senior adviser to Haitian President Michel Martelly. Figueres’ diplomatic credentials seem to be in order.
And he’s got name recognition. During Tuesday’s widely viewed interview with one of Tico TV’s most recognized journalists, 26 percent of Costa Rican homes tuned in to watch, according to polling firm Ibope Media. During and immediately after that interview, social media networks lit up like a tacky San José Christmas tree, with thousands of comments from well-wishers, enemies and common folk.
Singing Figueres’ praise were people like former Legislative Assembly President Mario Redondo, who tweeted that “despite not having properly cleared the Alcatel case, [Figueres] was able to improve his image. His openness to talk and sentimentalism helped him.”
Liberation President Bernal Jiménez was gushing at the prospect of a Figueres return, saying the party would welcome the former president with “open arms.”
“He’s one of the party’s leaders and we are flattered to have him come back,” Jiménez told the daily La Nación this week.
San José Mayor Johnny Araya – king of holiday surprises – also supports Figueres’ return.
All the hoopla must have two important Liberation leaders a little concerned. Doña Laura Chinchilla, who seems to be struggling lately at the Casa Presidencial, and Rodrigo Arias, who wants to be president like his brother, must be a little on edge. Figueres could be presidential material again, if it weren’t for one little problem – that $900,000 paycheck from Alcatel.
Legally, there is no evidence that Figueres did anything wrong in accepting almost a million dollars from a French telecom giant in exchange for consulting services. In Washington, D.C., we call that lobbying. But in Costa Rica, where two presidents were already facing criminal charges at the time, the political environment was toxic, and others chose a different word.
The problem with Figueres’ consulting fee fiasco is the context in which he was paid. In 2004, former President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez was arrested on suspicion that he allowed or facilitated bribes from Alcatel in exchange for granting the company telephone contracts. Last April, a Costa Rican court sentenced Rodríguez to a five-year prison term for “instigating corruption.”
Alcatel, now Alcatel-Lucent, last December agreed to pay more than $137 million to settle a case filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which had accused the French company of bribing government officials in Costa Rica, Honduras, Malaysia and Taiwan between December 2001 and June 2006.
Figueres, who turns 57 on Dec. 24, says his conscience is clean. But ultimately, it’s up to Costa Ricans to decide how history will judge Chema, and whether to welcome him home with open arms, or raised fists.