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Presidential Hopeful: Profound Change Needed

COSTA Rica appears to be cleaninghouse, seeking to punish corruption in thehighest reaches of government, but forAntonio Álvarez Desanti this is notenough – the house itself must be demolishedand rebuilt.Álvarez Desanti, head of the newlyfounded Union for Change (UPC) and2006 presidential hopeful, has packeddiverse political experiences into his 46years, presiding over various governmentministries and the Legislative Assembly.He says the time has come for traditionalparties to disband and allow for profoundchange fueled by those who havenever held office.“Now that we have seen one ex-President come out of a plane in handcuffsand another put in jail as well, we willnever have the same Costa Rica again,” hetold The Tico Times in a recent interview,referring to Miguel Ángel Rodríguez(1998-2002) and Rafael Ángel Calderón(1990-1994), who are both being held inpreventive detention while they are investigatedon charges of illicit enrichment.“Things will be different from here onout,” he predicted.ÁLVAREZ Desanti was a presidentialhopeful with the National Liberation Party(PLN) until he withdrew from the party onOct. 19, saying its leadership is paralyzedby corruption and he planned to start hisown political party.In early November, he announced thefounding of the Union for Change in astatement that said Costa Rica hasreached “the end of an era” and called forthe retirement of “an entire generation ofleaders and political activists.”Both of Costa Rica’s major parties, thePLN and the Social Christian Unity Party(PUSC), are reeling from corruption allegationsagainst some of their most prominentmembers (TT, Oct. 29, Nov. 5).Former President Calderón (1990-1994) is often credited with foundingPUSC, and Rodríguez (1998-2002) was amember of the same party. PLN membersunder suspicion include ex-President JoséMaría Figueres (1994-1998), whose fatherfounded that party.ÁLVAREZ Desanti was among theleaders of the younger Figueres’ presidentialcampaign, and he held governmentposts under both Figueres and formerPresident Oscar Arias (1986-1990), anotherPLN member.Arias, who has announced he will runfor President in 2006 (TT, March 19), isconsidered one of Álvarez Desanti’s primaryopponents in the race.Some PLN leaders have criticizedÁlvarez Desanti’s withdrawal from theparty as a politically opportunistic movedesigned to avoid competing for theparty’s nomination against Arias, againstwhom he fared poorly in preliminary districtvoting, according to the daily LaNación. Álvarez Desanti denies this.HIS career in public service beganwith his election as president of theUniversity of Costa Rica StudentFederation (FEUCR) in 1980 and continuedwith a series of positions includingpresident of the National ProductionBoard, Minister of Agriculture and Cattle,Minister of Public Security, and memberof the Legislative Assembly.He was elected president of the assemblyin 1995 and was a pre-candidate for the2002 national elections, but was defeatedby Rolando Araya for the PLN nomination.Last month, Álvarez Desanti spoke toThe Tico Times in his new office in SanPedro, east of San José, where the soundsof drills and hammers proclaimed thatwork was well under way to convert theformer home into the UPC headquarters.Excerpts:TT: What does the Union forChange (UPC) seek to achieve?AD: We’re going to construct a newCosta Rica, and we can’t do that with thetraditional political parties. NationalLiberation and the Unity Party have runtheir course; both parties have sufferedstructural damage that justifies their demolition.We need new faces and differentoptions. What we are trying to do with theUPC and with my departure from the PLNis open a path for new generations – forpeople who may have been involved inpolitical parties before but not in the frontlines – so that we can transform the nationalleadership.What other reforms must take placeto prevent corruption?We need much more transparency.As the UPC’s eventual presidentialcandidate, I am making a public statementof my assets. This is the cure: good communicationwith the public. Everyoneneeds to make a living, but public figuresneed to make it clear what their sourcesare.Second, we need honorable observersfor all contract negotiations, not to obstructthe proceedings but to give them moretransparency.What are the UPC’s other goals?For decades, Costa Rica has notadvanced. We believe we must leavebehind the economic policy (of the past)that made economic stability the primarygoal.We advocate a country that fights forits modernization with strong economicgrowth, but with equitable distribution ofwealth.How do you plan to improve distribution?We need a tax system in which groupswith great earnings pay taxes to benefit therest of society. The current fiscal planshould be scrapped. It is completely backwards.It lowers taxes on large businessesand raises taxes on small ones.The government must also create programsto support small and medium businessesand invest in public education,because if young people have access tocomputers, for example, they will be ableto find better jobs and better salaries.You mentioned the Permanent FiscalReform Package, the ambitious tax planthat has spent almost three years underdebate. Why has the process been soslow?The current administration is incapableof reaching consensus and agreementbetween parties. It also uses an old-fashionedapproach to governing, which isbelieving that President Abel Pacheco cansit down with Oscar Arias and they’llresolve all the problems. That might haveworked 20 years ago, but not today.How do you respond to criticismfrom PLN leaders such as Luis Ramírez,party leader for the LegislativeAssembly, who said you left PLN topostpone a runoff against Arias?He wasn’t thinking too clearly aboutthat statement, because no matter what, Iam going to face Arias in the national elections.You list Arias among the formerPresidents linked to alleged corruption,although the Arias Foundation for Peaceand Human Progress maintains thedonation it received from Taiwan isabove suspicion. Does Arias need tooffer further explanations?I don’t think it’s a question of offeringexplanations. Every Costa Rican mustmake his or her own judgment. It doesseem strange, though, that it’s the sameprocess they used in Panama, in the case ofRodríguez, for example – giving funds tofoundations or to the personal accounts ofex-Presidents.Should former President Figueres(currently in Switzerland) return toCosta Rica?Of course. There’s an accusationagainst him, and public figures should notwait until it reaches the courts. He has amoral obligation to return.Aside from you, who are the leadersof the UPC?The (Oct. 28) meeting to found theparty was attended by young people; asidefrom me, no one there has been on thefront lines of politics. The executive committeeis made up of young professionals.What are the next steps for theparty?In the coming months, we will establish500 district councils, organize cantonal andprovincial assemblies, and finally hold anational assembly in March or April 2005so that we are prepared to register a presidential candidate in August 2005.


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