President Chinchilla: The “Puppet” Sets Her Own Agenda

On May 8th, 2010, Laura Chinchilla was sworn into office as the first female president of Costa Rica, following the second term of fellow National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Oscar Arias. Chinchilla had been slated as a potential presidential candidate since 2008, when she resigned as Costa Rica’s vice president to begin her campaign. From the outset of her campaign, many assumed that she would simply adopt a number of Arias’ reforms and policies. During the presidential campaign, candidates made a point of portraying Chinchilla as Arias’ puppet —one commercial went so far as to make Chinchilla into a literal marionette, with strings held by Arias and other PLN members.1 The strategy used against Chinchilla is commonplace when a candidate from the incumbent party has a good chance of continuing that party’s rule, as evidenced in Dilma Rousseff’s bid to succeed Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva in Brazil. Despite these political attacks, Chinchilla won a decisive victory, garnering 47 percent of the popular vote, leaving her main opponent, Ottón Solis, with a mere 25 percent.2

Though Chinchilla was groomed to be Arias’ successor, differences between the two have emerged since she took office in May of this year. More recently, Chinchilla has illustrated that she is a leader very much in charge of her own presidency and this is outlined by her departure from Arias’. In one of the first official statements released during her campaign, Chinchilla outlined her “vision” for Costa Rica, based on the principles of “Safety, Security and Prosperity.”3 She also addressed key issues currently facing Costa Rica, including drug trafficking, the environment, and the nation’s lack of security, which is the root of many of Costa Rica’s modern-day problems.

Chinchilla’s emphasis on security reflects her political background, having served as Minister of Justice, Minister of Public Safety, and Deputy Minister of Public Security for Costa Rica before becoming president. In comparison, ex-President Arias never took an explicit approach to the rise in crime related to drug trafficking, in part because of his involvement with peacekeeping missions in Central America.

Trading Its Way into the World Market

From 2006 to 2010, Arias spent significant political capital on free trade related issues, including the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2007. Moreover, he strengthened international business ties with several countries, specifically with Singapore and China. Chinchilla has stated that she will continue to support Arias’ economic reforms, claiming that they will encourage foreign investment in Costa Rica. In May 2010, Chinchilla signed a trade agreement between Central America and the European Union (EU) that would decrease tariffs between the two, while increasing the exportation of bananas, one of Costa Rica’s main cash-crops.4 According to Chinchilla, the Legislative Assembly’s ratification of pending agreements with the EU and China would signify a big step towards much needed economic diversification in Costa Rica. Therefore, there is little to distinguish between the new president’s economic policy and that of her predecessor.

Eco-Tourism: Making Green by Being Green

Chinchilla has sought to expand upon Arias’ firm commitment to the environment, stating that the “future is tied to environmentally sustainable economies and not those that destroy their own wealth.”5 Chinchilla’s commitment to environmental sustainability was clearly exhibited in the overturning of Arias’ decision to allow new open-pit gold mining in the country.6 This decision was surprising, as she did not seem to have a vested interest in this area in the past. Additionally, she signed a waste management law in July that will implement a government-run recycling program designed to help keep Costa Rican streets clean and “guarantee waste collection in municipalities.”7 Given that tourism constitutes a majority of the country’s overall income, continuing to be environmentally conscientious will pay dividends and must remain a priority for Chinchilla. In 2007 alone, Costa Rican tourism brought in almost USD 2 billion, 8 and over 600,000 tourists visited the country in the first quarter of 2010.

The Globalizing Drug Trade

In the recent past, Costa Rican leaders have been able to avoid major national security issues, but increased globalized drug trafficking and terrorist movements have decreased overall public security. For the first time in its history, Costa Rica has been included on a U.S. Department of State list of countries with major drug trafficking problems.9 For Costa Ricans, this represents an official and external validation of the increase in crime and violence they have seen firsthand. Like most Central American countries, Costa Rica has already received extensive resources from the U.S. to combat drug trafficking.10 Such funding is likely to increase following Costa Rica’s inclusion on this list. Chinchilla has stated on numerous occasions that a strong and effective law enforcement system is key in the battle against drug trafficking. The increasing fear of drug cartels has led to a growing focus on public safety and Chinchilla is addressing the issue directly. For instance, on September 30th, she announced plans to invest approximately USD 200 million to expand Costa Rica’s prison system.11

Chinchilla is breaking new ground that Arias largely neglected during his presidency. A major change in policy will be difficult for Chinchilla to pass in the legislative assembly without outside support, as the PLN only lacks a majority in the Legislative Assembly (the party holds just 23 out of the Legislative Assembly’s 47 seats.)12 However, if she is to stand a chance of reelection in 2014, Chinchilla must produce tangible results on the issue of public security.
Chinchilla also stressed the importance of a global effort to combat drug trafficking during a speech at the United Nations last month. Speaking as a representative of both her nation and the region, she called for international cooperation on this issue: “I make an urgent call for worldwide solidarity in this chore, and for multilateral organizations to develop an agenda more integral in its strategies, more balanced on its resources and responsibilities, and better supervised through its development.”13

Catholicism in the Constitution

Another clear divergence between Chinchilla and Arias is her position on separation of church and state in Costa Rica. Currently, the constitution acknowledges Catholicism as the official religion of the country. Although the majority of the population is Catholic, the issue of the Church’s status has become a major topic of debate. Arias has stated that the state should not have an official religion, though he clarified that he did not want to remove God from the constitution. Chinchilla, in contrast, supports Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and would therefore be likely to veto any legislation that seeks to separate church and state.14 Chinchilla is also strongly opposed to the legalization of abortion as well as the “morning after pill.”15 In contrast, Arias was in favor of liberal social policies, such as legalizing same-sex unions. In fact, Arias went so far as to state that the Costa Rican Catholic Church needed to modernize its view on homosexuality.16 Unsurprisingly, given her Catholic background, Chinchilla remains opposed to the recognition of civil unions and would presumably be prepared to strike down any pieces of socially progressive legislation. Although Chinchilla is more socially conservative than Arias, it may not affect her overall approval rating given Costa Rica’s large Catholic population.

Succeeding After Arias’ Legacy Begins to Fade

The characterization of Chinchilla as Arias’ puppet is an oversimplification. While it is true that she has continued to promote his free trade and environmental agendas, it is clear that Chinchilla is forging her own path on important issues, including national security, the environment, and the role of religion within the state. In the first six months of her presidency Chinchilla has managed to remain tremendously popular. According to a Gallup survey taken in the first half of September 2010, Chinchilla’s overall approval rating stands at an impressive 76 percent.17 Increasing public safety and foreign investment will be crucial if Chinchilla is to retain this popularity. Her high approval rating suggests that her policies are in sync with the priorities of the Costa Rican people. The claim that Chinchilla is a mere political extension of Arias will likely continue to lose plausibility as she further develops her own political platform.

References for this article are available here