President Abel Pacheco makes no bonesabout it – he is more than ready to turn over his keys to Casa Presidencial in exchange for a pen, notebook and muse to restart his poetry.
During the past four years, Pacheco has seen his popularity drop from 81% five months after taking office to 21% last December. He has also weathered the departure of more than a dozen ministers; been frustrated by his failure to get the Permanent Fiscal Reform Package, or tax plan, passed; watched massive protests against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) paralyze the country; and seen corruption scandals that caused the decline of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), which brought him to power.
In 2002, Pacheco began his administration with limited political experience – one term in the Legislative Assembly – but a well defined national identity as the folksy psychiatrist who hosted Comentarios con el Doctor Abel Pacheco, an award-winning television show on which he told anecdotes and stories on a wide variety of subjects. The President, also a published poet, husband to Leila Rodríguez and father of six, told The Tico Times shortly after taking office that power hadn’t changed him – he was still the same boy from Matina in the Caribbean province of Limón, where he grew up on a banana farm.
Today, Pacheco, 72, openly admits he’ll be glad to step aside May 8 (when Presidentelect Oscar Arias takes office), but bills himself as a champion of working men and women, a defender of the environment and a leader of the fight against corruption. Still intact, of course, is his trademark humor, which has both entertained and foiled his questioners for four years.
Recently he sat down with The Tico Times to share his thoughts as the end of his term approaches. Excerpts follow.
TT:What are your feelings upon leaving the presidency? What are you going to miss?
AP: Nothing. I’m very content, satisfied at having done my duty and knowing that I faced a very difficult period, not only in Costa Rica but also in Latin America and the world.
What was the most difficult year of your administration?
All four. It’s been very hard, right up until the last moment.
You maintain that the country’s on the right path, but also that you view Costa Rica’s future with trepidation. How can both be true?
I’m leaving the country in good shape, but there’s a long way to go – there’s more money than ever, but it keeps getting badly distributed because of the lack of a good tax system. And if the price of petroleum keeps rising, Latin America will get poorer and poorer. Recently they asked me, whose fault is that? All of humanity, which bases its progress on petroleum.
Are you more pessimistic now than four years ago?
I’m an eternal optimist. I see Costa Rica as better off now than four years ago… I believe Costa Ricans are more optimistic, too. There are powerful media who try to depict us as a failed country, a country without dreams. They’re liars, interested in money and nothing more – which defines them as friends of Satan, the devil.
How will the people remember your presidency?
With great affection. The simple people love me – we embrace constantly. When I visit the towns, old ladies come out with blessings, all the little kids cover me with snot and give me kisses, the campesinos give me their hands. The working people love me and I love them.
Those who were making money dishonestly hate me because I stopped corruption, as much as I could, though I know that corruption persists.We have to keep fighting it.
The question of whether Costa Rica supported the war in Iraq was a big controversy during your administration. Would you change the way you handled that situation?
There’s been a lot of misinterpretation about that. Costa Rica supported the war on terrorism, not an actual war.
Has the relationship between Costa Rica and the United States deteriorated?
With much pain, I perceive that the United States has not known how to manage its politics with Latin America. I love the United States because I practiced psychiatry there and have a Gringa daughter (Yolanda Pacheco was born in Louisiana) – she is a redneck… When they were looking for support against terrorism, I was the first, (though) it made me lose some popularity. But I don’t know why they punish me, such a friend of theirs… treating me like a dog.
They left me for almost two years without an ambassador. When I asked them for four bridges, because my country was on its knees because of the hurricanes (last year), they told me no because Costa Rica has supported the Inter-American (Human Rights) Court.
In Latin America there is a growing leftist wave. So they (United States) should take better care of their friends, like the Ticos. But those who move forward, who do their homework, are punished. Their help is taken away. On the other hand, the other countries that don’t develop and don’t do their homework, they forgive their debt.
Why is Costa Rica still underdeveloped? The Third World is underdeveloped because of mental problems. They aren’t the problems economists have focused on – we have to teach people how to use Aristotelian logic. I think there are very powerful people who don’t want people to learn to think because that could put their children’s jobs in danger, but if we don’t teach our youth to think, if education continues to be Third-World and they learn a series of lessons and names but don’t learn to think, we’ll stay sunk in the Third World…
Which economic sectors are most important for Costa Rica’s future: tourism, non-traditional exports, call centers?
Costa Rica is a world power in ecology, and that brings tourism with it. It worries me when people speak of exploiting petroleum in Costa Rica and things like that, because I think we need to strengthen (environmental protections). There are big industries based on (ecology), like preservation of forests that produce a great deal of money, the sale of oxygen.
What happened to your plan to include environmental guarantees in the Constitution?
We fought until the end for them to be approved in the assembly. There are very powerful interests opposed to it – but I’m not giving up. I’m leaving the presidency, but I’ll keep fighting for environmental rights.
What was your greatest achievement and failure as President?
I’m leaving a country that’s more active economically than ever, that has social peace, thank God. Costa Rica has never had so many reserves, so much tourism; we’ve never exported so much, had so many small businesses or such a long life expectancy… We became the first Third-World country to reverse the process of deforestation.
My greatest failure is not being able to get the tax plan approved. It’s a titanic struggle against Goliath, because the most powerful people in the country are those who impede fair taxation. They don’t understand that it’s better to give someone a ring before he cuts off your hand.
How many times during your administration do you think you said the words, “The country needs tax reform”?
Ah, it’s incalculable. I’ve said it since I was a candidate, and I’ll die saying it. (Laughing) Within 114 years, when I die, I’ll go out saying – “We need tax reform.”
If you had it to do over again, would you use a different strategy with the Legislative Assembly?
No strategy could have changed things with the assembly we had. It was a very problematic assembly with a series of people with strange thinking, psychologically speaking, who entered into multiple conflicts and agreed on almost nothing. It seems to me that the incoming assembly will be much more operational than the one we had.
How about the way you handled CAFTA – waiting over a year to submit it to the assembly? Do you think that tactic increased polarization over the pact?
I think I sent CAFTA at the right moment. If I had sent it earlier, it would have lent itself to violence. Here in Costa Rica, one has to discuss things. If you try to force it, the country explodes, as history has shown time and again.
CAFTA is a good free-trade agreement if it’s managed in a Costa Rican way. At no time has CAFTA talked of destroying our institutions. There are very powerful groups interested in capturing those institutions, but that’s not the agreement we’ve signed, or the agreement we want to create. The way the complementary agenda is handled is the determining factor. (This week, Pacheco told reporters that “Without CAFTA, we will die of hunger.”)
Oscar Arias said last week that Costa Rica should approve CAFTA within six months after he takes office. Given the importance of the complementary legislation, does that seem like a reasonable time frame?
With the assembly I had, no, it couldn’t be done, but if the new assembly works better – I don’t know. My crystal ball is broken.
What will be the most serious problems the Arias administration will face? Well, if I say the tax plan, you’ll make fun of me – but yes, the tax plan.
What goals in his platform will Arias have the hardest time achieving?
I also was very optimistic when I began; I thought I could overhaul many more things than I was able. I think (Arias’ optimism) is something positive, but don Oscar doesn’t know this country has become so entangled in its own web, with legislation that contradicts itself, that the President’s hands are tied.
Moving ahead here is very difficult because everyone has a different opinion. The President’s decisions are questioned by the Legislative Assembly, by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), by the Ombudsman, by the Comptroller General, by the Government Attorney’s Office, and by each citizen…
Therefore, governing Costa Rica is completely an art.
You have said that it is important to redefine the various branches of government. Is this something Arias must do?
Costa Rica must call a Constitutional Assembly to define the balance of powers.
Is this possible? Many analysts say the people get very nervous about the idea of changing the Constitution.
Why wouldn’t it be possible? This is a functioning democracy. Despite being such a mess, Costa Rica continues to be a democracy that works.
We have to explain to Costa Ricans that if we continue with this mess, this country will not survive. The President must have a mandate.
If I get to my house and I want to eat dinner and the gardener says no, because we haven’t finished talking about what we are going to plant today; and the cook says no, because you haven’t (paid me); and the children say no, don’t give any food to dad because yesterday he hit us; with this, I will leave the house.
This is what is happening in Costa Rica, because there is no authority.And not only is there no authority, but also, anyone can assume it.
Who are the future leaders of Costa Rica, after Arias and (opposition leader Ottón) Solís, of the Citizen Action Party? Which young leaders have the most potential?
The country has a leadership void. I don’t see future leaders. Sure, there are various people, don Ottón, Otto Guevara (presidential candidate of the Libertarian Movement). But I don’t see them as drivers of the masses with a well-defined ideology.
However, nature doesn’t allow voids anywhere, so in the very short term new leaders will appear in Costa Rican politics.
What is the future of PUSC?
What is PUSC? It doesn’t exist anymore. As President, I don’t have a party. Leaving Casa Presidencial I don’t have a party either. This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue with the social doctrine of the church.
What will your role be in politics? Former Presidents shouldn’t dedicate themselves to playing politics; they should be facilitators of dialogue, facilitators of future governments. Despite the campaign of some media, I have maintained credibility with the people. If a government asks me to talk to a certain group… I will, in good faith. I will try to bring peace to my country.
What are your plans after leaving Casa Presidencial?
I will continue writing poetry… and disappear for a while so as not to disturb don
Have you written any poems about being President?
The presidency is the least inspiring thing, you can’t imagine. I sing of love, I sing of beautiful things, I sing of nature, women… I also write short stories about social justice, in defense of ecology. But to write a work about politics – it’s like singing a sonnet to the devil.
Don Oscar returned to the presidency; would you return as well?
Thank God, the biological clock won’t permit me. I am 72 years old; I couldn’t return for eight years, so (I’d be) 80. I would fall over.
Your son, Fabián Pacheco, is involved in environmental politics. Do you hope he or another family member arrives at the presidency?
I feel very proud that my six children are ecologists. The Blue Flag (ecological) program in schools is the product of my daughter Yolanda – she is the one who mobilized it and made it work. I am very proud my children have gotten involved in this type of politics.
But I don’t want to see them as legislators, nor in municipalities, nor in the presidency, because it is very difficult.
What is the most important thing you have learned?
That God is powerful and that prayer works. The loneliness of power is terrible… so one turns to prayer and learns that God helps because even in the worst of moments, I have seen the hand of the Lord. And sometimes I ask, Lord, how did you get me stuck in this mess?