Lax enforcement and inappropriate application of laws by the state are eroding public trust in Costa Rica’s government and increasing inequality, according to the Ombudsman’s Office.
“There is an enormous frustration among the citizens because of the lack of compliance,” Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada told reporters at her Barrio Mexico headquarters Tuesday. “There is a loss of belief among citizens in the justice system and in the democracy.”
This statement has its basis in the office’s Labor Report for 2005-2006, which Quesada released that morning. The report contains analysis of the more than 24,000 requests for assistance the office received last year.
The role of the Ombudsman’s Office is to act as a liaison between the government and people who feel they are being deprived of their rights.
After introducing her first annual report, Quesada criticized levels of government ranging from municipalities to the President’s Cabinet.
Citing budget shortfalls and insufficient political will as causes of a broad failure to comply with laws, she said problems with public transportation, road conditions and lack of attention to the rights of children and the environment are the most serious issues facing the nation.
Most of the problems Quesada cited are ongoing, but she appears to be approaching them differently than her predecessor, José Manuel Echandi. During his term as Ombudsman from 2001 to 2005, Echandi gained a reputation for being confrontational, a quality that made him popular with people and controversial with government functionaries.
Former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) once accused Echandi of politicizing his position (TT, June 18, 2004).
Instead of filing numerous lawsuits before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) like Echandi, who was elected as a legislator for the National Union party last February, Quesada is spending most of her energy encouraging ministries to change their ways.
“She is more interested in dialogue to convince a functionary that he or she is committing an injustice” than filing lawsuits, said Ahmed Tabash, a spokesman for the Ombudsman’s Office.
Since many ministries are already skirting existing laws, Quesada is working with the idea that persuasion will be more effective than legal action, she said.
“I work a lot with coordination,” she explained. This technique worked, she said, when her office collaborated with the Ministry of Public Health, the National Emergency Commission (CNE) and the Municipality of Tibás to speed up trash collection in the municipality, located north of San José.
Before the departments began collaborating, uncollected trash had built up last month to the point where it posed a serious health risk (TT,May 19).
The Ombudsman’s Office is also working with the Child Welfare Office (PANI) on programs to assist street children and young drug addicts.
Several departments Quesada has worked with are cited in the yearly report as not living up to their legal responsibilities. For example, budgetary limitations and bad planning have kept the Ministry of Public Health from meeting in some communities the levels of public health and sanitation set by the General Health Law, according to the report.
The Ombudsman’s Office received 274 new complaints about environmental contamination in 2005. Of these, 82 were for noise pollution, 59 were about problems with sewer systems, and 31 complained of inadequate supplies of potable water.
Health Ministry officials did not return calls from The Tico Times this week seeking comment on the matter.
Quesada also criticized the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT), which she said takes months or even years to respond to citizens’ complaints about buses and taxis. Because promised funding has not arrived from the Ministry of Finance, MOPT has also defaulted on its responsibility to maintain roads, she said.
MOPT officials began analyzing the Ombudsman’s report after receiving it Wednesday. They had not voiced conclusions by Wednesday afternoon, but they said MOPT had problems when the new administration took office in May, said Omar Segura, a MOPT spokesman.
“What (we) are looking for is a reorientation of the Public Transportation Council, to redeem the vital function of service to users,” Segura said. MOPT is “also looking for a more efficient way to respond to complaints.”
Quesada’s policy of working with MOPT has been “productive” so far, Segura said.
Despite her cooperative approach, the Ombudswoman has been the subject of criticism. When she called the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) an agreement “without heart and soul” in March, a lawyer filed a complaint calling her comments “public intimidation.” The action inspired a rally in support of Quesada (TT, April 7).
During Tuesday’s press conference, Quesada did not limit her criticisms to government ministries.
She also cited failures in the application of specific laws, including the Law for Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities and the Law to Prevent Sexual Harassment.
The rights of people with disabilities have been violated because of the incomplete enforcement of the equal-access law, she said.
Conversely, she said the Sexual Harassment law is being enforced in a way that often violates the rights of plaintiffs.
According to the report, sexual harassment cases often end with the plaintiff recanting, thereby causing a “double victimization.”
Weak or improper law enforcement also leads to inequality, Quesada said, because poor people are less likely to know their rights and less likely to have the resources to fight for them.
“A large part of the population is unprotected and is (not given) this information, and passes to the category of second-class citizens,” she said.