Little by little, President-elect Oscar Arias, of the National Liberation Party, has been naming the men and women who will surround him in the Executive Branch when he takes office May 8.
While Arias’ selection of ministers has so far produced little surprise, he is making an important and significant change to the structure of the ministries in an effort to improve interaction between government institutions and improve efficiency.
The President-elect is creating a Production Ministry, which will encompass the Ministry of Agriculture and part of the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce (MEIC). The new ministry, which will be headed up by Alfredo Volio,will attempt to bring efficiency to the country’s productive sector and will work closely with the Foreign Trade Ministry (COMEX).
“In a company one cannot form a sales strategy without knowing how much is being produced,” future Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz told the daily La Nación, explaining the need of the ministries to communicate.
Ruiz’s placement as the head of COMEX is considered to be critical for the future of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). Not only does he say it is his top priority, he also represented the business sector during the negotiations.
Ruiz is a businessman with interests in cacao, coffee and technology, and was formerly president of the Chamber of Industries.
Ruiz’s counterpart in the Production Ministry, Volio, is also a businessman in the agricultural sector, particularly in dairy, cattle and citrus fruits.
In addition, Arias, a former President (1986-1990) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will bring an important change to the Housing Ministry by focusing his fight against poverty there.
The ministry will be expanded to oversee all government institutions that address the country’s poor, who constitute 21% of the population. Fernando Zumbado, who was Housing Minister during Arias’ first administration, will head the institution.
Political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, who left the National Liberation Party last year, said he believes Zumbado has the capacity to lead the bold task of combating poverty, but it remains to be seen whether he is given the tools.
Solís said beyond the mega-ministries of Housing and Production, the ministries that will be the most important in the Arias administration will be COMEX; Finance, which will be headed by Guillermo Zúñiga; and Public Works and Transportation, headed by Karla González, who was vice-minister of this institution for two years under the Pacheco administration. She made headlines in 2004 after she resigned following a controversy surrounding her decision to cut short her maternity leave and return to work with her baby (TT,March 26, 2004).
In addition, the ministries of Environment and Energy (MINAE), Education and Security will have fundamental roles, Solís said. Industrial engineer Roberto Dobles will head MINAE. Dobles’ background in energy – he was executive president of the Costa Rica Electricity Institute (ICE) during part of the administration of José María Figures (1994-1998) – will lend itself to Arias’ plan to make MINAE the “rector” of the country’s energy sector, according to the daily Al Día.
He will work closely with Jorge Gutiérrez, the newly named executive president of ICE, according to La Nación.
Economist and writer Leonardo Garnier has been named Education Minister. Garnier is a regular La Nación columnist, a university professor and was formerly Planning Minister under Figueres.
“Arias tried to be balanced in his selection (of Ministers),” Solís said. “He has some freetraders, who will continue with the economic model. On the other hand, he has some reformers – Garnier, Francisco Morales (future Labor Minister) – who have some social background. He acknowledged he needed to balance the Cabinet a bit.”
Early on, Arias indicated that his Minister of the Presidency and right-hand man would be his brother Rodrigo Arias.
Rodrigo has been fundamental in the formation of the Cabinet and headed the Liberation campaign.
First Vice-President Laura Chinchilla will double as Justice Minister. She is currently a legislator and has served as Minister of Public Security (1996-1998).
The Vice-President position has historically been somewhat ill defined in Costa Rica, and sometimes underused, according to Solís.
For example, President Abel Pacheco worked with only one of his two Vice-Presidents during his entire administration.
However, Chinchilla’s placement as Justice Minister suggests she may serve an important role as Vice-President. Many expected her to return to the Security Ministry, a much more critical post than Justice.
“They are reserving her for greater things,” Solís said.
Second Vice-President Kevin Casa will be Planning Minister. Casas is a relative newcomer to politics, although he has studied it extensively and has a PhD in political science from the University of Oxford.He has worked with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Morales will return to heading the Labor Ministry, a post he held twice during the 1970s. Morales was also Minister of Agriculture under former President Luis Alberto Monge (1982-1986), also from Liberation.
In addition, Bruno Stagno, current ambassador to the United Nations and son of the famous architect of the same name, will be the Minister of Foreign Relations.
Arias’ Tourism Minister will be lawyer Carlos Benavides, who is currently a legislator representing Liberation for the coastal province of Puntarenas.
Liberation loyalist Fernando Berrocal’s name has surfaced as the next Security Minister, though the Liberation press office would confirm only that he will hold a high post in the Executive Branch. The same goes for Eugenia Flores as Minister of Science and Technology.
The Health and Culture ministers have not yet been named.