If you’re going to lose a presidential election, you might as well lose like Ottón Solís.
The founder of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) became February’s also-ran by a 1.12% margin, but only after a strong showing that gave front-runner Oscar Arias a nasty Election Night surprise and caused 30 days of nail-biting ballot recounts few expected. Solís emerged as the leader of the opposition – thanks to PAC’s 17 seats in the Legislative Assembly – and, perhaps, a force to be reckoned with, both for Arias and for presidential hopefuls in 2010.
With Arias’ second administration now under way, Citizen Action and Solís, a former legislator who also ran for President in 2000, appear to have a tricky balancing act ahead.
The economist, 52, maintains that the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), under debate in the assembly, should be renegotiated because Costa Rica ceded too much ground to its northern neighbor. However, the predominance of pro-CAFTA legislators and agreements between the leading National Liberation Party (PLN) and the third-largest legislative group, the Libertarian Movement Party, mean PAC faces an uphill battle to prevent the pact’s ratification.
PAC leaders maintain the party won’t use delay tactics to keep CAFTA from a vote and will cooperate with Arias wherever possible – though Solís is clearly prepared to publicly criticize his former rival.
Solís sat down with The Tico Times recently at his home in San Pedro, east of San José, to discuss the party’s strategy, his take on Arias’ first month in office and his future plans. Excerpts follow.
TT: Now that the new administration is under way, what’s your role with the PAC legislators?
OS: Our immediate objective as a party is to implement our campaign commitments. I have a close relationship with the assembly members, geared toward facilitating and smoothing out that process. We have to deepen the organization of the party and to get to other corners of the country with our views.
Do you think there’s a benefit to the country in having a clear opposition party?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t believe that the role of the opposition is to oppose; I’ve never seen PAC like that. We are going to oppose whatever is bad for the country according to our views, and support whatever is good. In the first meetings I held with Oscar Arias, and in every meeting we had with government officials, we have expressed support for six issues on which we agree with the government: increasing the funding for education; the ¢60,000 ($118) Arias offered for poor families; hiring 4,000 more policemen and women; and spending more on roads, science and technology, and culture.
But I haven’t seen (Arias’) interest on these issues yet (since the election), which is amazing because he promised it during the campaign.
Are you saying Arias has been slow to get off the ground?
I think so. I’m amazed. If I had won the election and were offered support for six of my campaign commitments – and those are the most important ones he made – I would jump up joyfully and send the bill. I fail to understand why that hasn’t been the case…
And concerning the fiscal situation, I have heard from government officials that they support the current (tax-reform bill), that they want modifications on it, that they want a new bill, and that they want to form a commission of outsiders. They don’t know yet what they want.
Once discussion of CAFTA begins in earnest, what will PAC’s strategy be?
We are trying to convince as many legislators as we can about the need to renegotiate CAFTA, through our legislators’ explanations and also by inviting experts to the (Foreign Affairs) Commission.
But is it possible to make a realistic call for renegotiation without the support of the President?
No, but once he realizes that CAFTA isn’t going to go through in the assembly, I’m sure he’ll be convinced that if he wants CAFTA to become a reality, it needs to be renegotiated – and then the United States is going to realize it too.
PAC’s legislative leader, Elizabeth Fonseca, has said Citizen Action will not be an obstructionist party.How will you strike a balance between cooperating with the majority and fighting CAFTA?
We believe in democracy and the right of the majority to express through a vote their desires, and we are going to respect that. No obstructionism, no filibustering.
Arias has said the trade pact should reach a vote within six months. Is that a reasonable time frame?
It’s tough to know. I don’t see CAFTA being voted on in less than a year, but that’s such an irresponsible prediction, the way our Congress works. I am surprised the commission is not working on it after nearly a month. [Editor’s note: It began discussions on the day of the interview.]
Your criticisms of CAFTA focus on how the negotiations were conducted. Now that negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the European Union are set to begin (TT,May 19), what does Costa Rica need to do differently?
First of all, not run and say, “Look, we are desperate for this deal.” Second, this country must make all the negotiation public. And if CAFTA is ratified as it is now, that will establish a minimum for Europe, so we have to be very careful about CAFTA also for that reason.
The Europeans are very good to new members of the European community, but with non-members, they are going to be tough. So we need to be tough.
When you talk about public negotiations, what are you calling for exactly?
We need to know what Europe wants from Costa Rica, which was never done with the United States, and then the government should get an early feeling of what the country thinks about what Europe is asking for.
Are there other countries that have approached free-trade agreements in a way that Costa Rica can use as a model?
Singapore and Japan – you know how they started? Intellectuals, entrepreneurs, trade unions, environmentalists, economists, professionals and government officials from both countries, exchanging views. What do you have for us, what do we have for you? How can we imagine this deal? And what came out of it was something very fair.
What did you learn from this year’s elections?
In spite of so much money, in spite of having run a campaign three times as long as mine, having practically all the media canvassing for (Arias) in a very open way, in spite of the opinion polls electing him every day, in spite of that, still (it took) many fishy things in the electoral process for us to lose. It shows this country is ready for a change.
Do you think those results will change the way other candidates run their campaigns in 2010?
I don’t think so, because that’s the type of campaign I practiced (in previous elections): cheap, and short, and with the truth.
No one took notice of that, (though) I was very successful. So I don’t think they’re going to copy it. Those people are only about money and campaigning.
You need to respect the people, and know that it’s better not to win than to win with the other methods.
Are you going to run?
I don’t want to talk about that so early in Arias’ administration.
But it’s possible.
I’m not saying yes or no, I just don’t want to talk about it.
Do you think I should?