Though the Caribbean province of Limón boasts the largest population of Afro-Costa Ricans in the country, the only black vicepresidential candidate in the Feb. 5
election didn’t exactly draw an outpouring of support from voters in the region.
One might think that Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator and former vice-presidential candidate Epsy Campbell – who last year organized the Third Conference of Afro- escendent Legislators of the Americas – would have drawn a large number of votes from Limón for her party. While Campbell said she did win over some black voters, the province saw a wide margin of victory for National Liberation Party candidate (PLN) Oscar Arias. Arias took 40.3% of the Limón vote, compared to 31.2% for PAC’s Ottón Solís – a much larger margin than the single percentage point by which Arias won the election nationwide.
This outcome reveals realities about the Afro-Costa Rican population, namely its lack of community and shared voice, analysts and Afro-Costa Rican leaders told The Tico Times. Furthermore, a hidden brand of Costa Rica racism may prevent the black vote from ever seating an Afro-Costa Rican in Casa Presidencial, some said.
Limón is the capital of the Afro-Costa Rican population. In the Caribbean port city, blacks make up 35-40% of the population and province-wide, around 15%. Nationwide the official number is 4%, though Ramiro Crawford, an Afro-Costa Rican leader and publisher of the magazine Limón Roots, says this number is deflated and it could be as high as 20%.
Regardless, this population lacks solidarity and organization, many black leaders agree.
“Politically, our weight is limited. Culturally it is strong,” said Delroy Barton, a community leader and consultant who was unsuccessful in his bid to be PAC’s top legislative candidate for Limón.
Costa Rica is not like the United States where groups representing black populations have power within political parties, explained PAC legislator Edwin Patterson, who is black and represents Limón.
Campbell agreed that parties, including PAC, do not propose agendas or develop messages specific to the black community.
“Besides our first member of Congress, Alex Curling, besides his strong struggle for equality, there has not been any particular uniting issue during elections,” Barton added.
Curling, who was legislator from 1953-1958, fought to eliminate a law prohibiting black people from working in banana plantations in the Pacific and to simplify the naturalization process.
Campbell says she and Patterson did gain ground over the past four years for Afro-Costa Ricans, yet last month not one black legislator was elected for the 2006-2010 term, which begins in May.
“If we had a community, it would help (a black vote), but our community has been destroyed,” Patterson added.
In recent decades, the Limón vote has gone to the ruling Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). With that party struggling this year because of corruption scandals, the province was up in the air.
“I don’t think anyone expected the National Liberation Party would win Limón… not just win, but win by the quantity of votes he did,” Crawford said. “Despite the fall of Unity, the inclination wasn’t toward the anti-Liberation Solís.”
As a relatively new party, PAC – born in 2000 – has yet to consolidate strong bases in rural areas, including Limón, explained Carlos Sojo, an analyst with Latin American Faculty of Social Studies (FLACSO). Liberation, on the other hand, has 60 years of experience and was able to provide support, such as driving voters to polling places – often a necessity in rural areas.
PAC also had problems capitalizing on votes in rural areas because it has never governed the country, “so people don’t know what they are going to get,” Sojo said.
“(Liberation) sold its product in every corner of the province, aggressively,” added black Liberation legislator Julian Watson.
The Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) – which Solís based much of his campaign on opposing – was not a major issue in Limón, according to Crawford.
“I don’t think people care if CAFTA happens or not, and if they do, they are in favor. If you are not eating, not working, and people propose CAFTA and say you will be even worse without it, well, you will support it,” he said. “Also, the people see in the ports a great opportunity for exports and, therefore, jobs.”
Furthermore, unions in Limón haven’t shown the same strong opposition to CAFTA as unions in other parts of the country, Crawford added.
Limoneses’ frustration with their reality is further evidenced in the abstention rate of 45% – one of the highest in the country.
“The rate shows a large protest. With nothing happening regarding real development activity in the province of Limón… nothing done regarding job creation… the people feel fooled,” Crawford said. If anything, black Costa Ricans have traditionally been supporters of Liberation, Crawford said.
“Remember that after the revolution of 1948, (Liberation President José) Figueres backed laws that eliminated institutionalized discrimination. Before, all blacks were considered Jamaican – even if they were born here they had to say they were nationalized,” Crawford said. “So the majority of blacks became tied to Liberation and it continued over time. Liberation was the first party to place a black legislator (Curling).”
Blacks in Politics
Campbell recognizes this reality, and says her party didn’t do enough to campaign for black voters. However, she says the fact that a black woman was part of the presidential ticket for the first time did attract black voters; how many is not known, however.
PAC arrived on the scene four years ago with two black legislative candidates, but it didn’t follow suit this year; the party had no black candidates for the next Legislative Assembly.
“This has been questioned by the black community. It was a tough blow, despite Epsy being vice-presidential candidate,” Crawford said.
Campbell agrees and blames lack of understanding on the part of PAC’s assembly, where legislative candidates were selected.
“They didn’t fully understand the importance of political inclusion,” she said.
The black community needs leaders and professionals who fight for “our ideals,” Watson said. Instead, many successful Afro-Costa Ricans isolate themselves from the black community.
“Even Epsy – she fights for a lot of things, but doesn’t necessarily fight for the black race,”Watson said.
Support for Campbell goes beyond race, with some even suggesting her as a presidential candidate.
“She is admired by Costa Ricans, regardless of their ethnicity,” Barton said. “She is a figure who breaks racial barriers, and that makes one really proud,” he said.
Barton is not the first person to suggest Campbell as a presidential candidate. In this situation, she may be more likely to attract black voters.
“It’s one thing that Epsy was vice-presidential candidate; it’s another thing for her to be the presidential candidate. It wasn’t Arias versus Epsy,” Crawford said.
Campbell won’t confirm any intention to run for President in the near future, but says Costa Rica is ready for a black candidate.
“Last century people thought it impossible. But, people don’t view it as rare anymore,” she said.
However, Patterson says it’s just a dream.
“Not in a million years will a black person be President,” he said. “This country is more racist than even the United States. Here, nobody says they are racist; they hide it. It is an invisible enemy.”
“There is a more dangerous element here – racism that is not manifested. Here, everyone says, ‘yeah, I love blacks, they’re great, but then if their daughter says she is going to marry a black man, they say oh no! Not with a black!’” he said Crawford and Patterson noted that many Costa Ricans, including the press, think Limón is crime ridden, and attribute this to the large black population.
The product of this racism, according to Patterson, are higher poverty and unemployment rates and worse infrastructure compared to the rest of the country.
“In Limón the unemployment rate is 17%, while in the country it is 7%,” he said. “Nobody talks about this. They say to me, ‘Edwin the streets in San José are also bad.
The schools are also bad.’ They won’t talk to you about these lies.”