To mark the first 100 days of his presidency, Oscar Arias returned to the theme that brought him international fame: peace and disarmament. Before an audience of students, politicians, journalists and foreign dignitaries, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate sliced an AK-47 assault rifle in half with an electric saw and joined two boys – both victims of stray bullets – in planting a tree of peace in San José’s National Park Wednesday.
Arias’ call for peace was interrupted during the solemn event by a small but noisy group protesting the President’s agenda.
Meanwhile, analysts, legislators and citizens used the occasion to reflect on Arias’ second run as President. While some criticized his agenda and tone, others said it is too early to comment.
“I believe it is too early to judge a government after only 100 days,” Ottón Solís, opposition leader and former presidential candidate for the Citizen Action Party (PAC), told The Tico Times. “I think a new government deserves the benefit of the doubt.”
PAC leadership in the Legislative Assembly, however, was less diplomatic.
“My impression is that (Arias’ administration) began with only one agenda,” said Elizabeth Fonseca, head of PAC in the assembly.
“Their plan is to present bills that open the national institutions to competition and lay the groundwork for the approval of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).”
Wednesday evening, in a brief, unannounced televised speech, Arias told the country “Costa Rica is progressing again,” and listed the details of his government’s accomplishments so far, including increased financial assistance to disabled and elder citizens and students, a new program to move people from slums into more adequate housing and plans for infrastructure improvements.
Additionally, he responded to recent criticisms also heard during Arias’ first presidency (1986-1990): that he focuses too much on international politics.
“Today, the national problems that we must resolve are more urgent than the international ones,” Arias said. “So my absolute priority is the national agenda.”
During his first three months in office, Arias made a two-week trip to Europe – to watch the World Cup in Germany, meet with the Pope and converse with various political leaders (TT, June 9, 16, 23) – and went to Colombia for the inauguration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Costa Rica’s head of state has also hosted various international leaders, opined on world issues and raised the possibility of becoming involved in peace talks in Colombia (TT, Aug. 11).
Getting to Work
As evidence of his commitment to Costa Rica’s problems, Arias listed concrete actions his administration has taken.
“We have begun the implementation of he Avancemos program that transfers resources from the government to the poorest families so they do not take their children out of school,” Arias said, referring to a program that gives ¢40,000-¢60,000 ($78-116) a month to poor families who keep their children in class. The pilot program includes 10,000 students, and may eventually expand to 140,000 (TT,May 12).
Arias also drew attention to his decision in early June to double the amount of funds provided as “non-contributing pensions,” government payments to people who do not pay into the Social Security System (Caja) because they are disabled or elderly.
The President also touted a recent bill his administration submitted to move nearly 20,000 families from shantytowns into better housing, using funds from a proposed tax on luxury homes. In addition, the law would allow the Housing Mortgage Bank (BAHNVI) to invest ¢10 billion ($19.6 million) to help eradicate slums (TT, June 9).
On crime and drugs – the number one issue for most Ticos, according to recent polls – Arias promised to add 800 new police officers to Costa Rica’s streets by December, the first step toward his campaign promise to add 4,000 new police to the country’s force of 10,000.
The President announced earlier this year he would create a special Tourism Police with 500 officers to increase security along tourist routes and at popular destinations, and combat sex tourism (TT, May 19). In a statement released Wednesday, Arias said his government has signed an agreement with the Public Security Ministry on the Tourism Police, in which the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) will contribute ¢21 million ($41,000) in equipment for the officers.
For infrastructure, another hot-button issue, Arias said his administration has accepted a $170 million loan from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI). The funds will go toward repairs on the Inter-American Highway, fixing potholes, improving signage across the country and beginning work on much-delayed highway projects between San José and San Ramón, a coffee town northwest of San José, and San José and Caldera, a port on the central Pacific coast.
In his speech, the President called on the country’s “political and social forces” to unite and build “a developed Costa Rica for our children.”
But in the Legislative Assembly, where Arias’ National Liberation Party is short of a simple majority and faces seven other political parties, opposition leaders say Arias’ tone has done little to encourage unity.
“What Arias has achieved has been to unite 32 opposition legislators against him because he has attacked us without cause,” said Ana Helena Chacón, legislator with the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). “He has been given all the concessions he requested before the assembly, and then he goes and says that India’s congress is more efficient with 5,000 legislators than this one with 57.”
Chacón was referring to a statement Arias made in a recent interview published in La Nación, the country’s most prestigious daily. The interview, conducted while Arias was in Colombia, reveals a hostile side of the President, who, when pressed about what changes the country should be seeing after his first 100 days, asked the reporter if he was “living on Mars.” Arias also said he is more in touch with the people of Costa Rica than the journalist.
“You are in contact with the people in the editing room. I have the real contact with the people,” Arias said.
Monday, legislator Oscar López, of the Access without Exclusion Party (PASE), sent Arias a letter signed by more than 20 legislators condemning his criticisms of the assembly.
Political analyst Carlos Carranza, who, along with economist Henry Mora conducted a study comparing Arias’ campaign promises with his first 100 days in office, used the India statement as an example of Arias’ failure to maintain open dialogue.
During a presentation yesterday at Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José, Carranza and Mora chided the Arias administration for its alleged lack of dialogue with the assembly and with civil society.
Considering existing opposition to much of the legislation Arias is hoping to push forward – CAFTA, the opening of state monopolies on telecommunications and insurance and an overhaul of the tax system – Arias needs to negotiate more, Carranza said.
“The government thinks it has the power to impose what it wants to impose without dialogue,” Mora agreed, adding that the government is making a “huge error” by moving forward with CAFTA legislation without social support for the trade pact. CAFTA legislation is currently being debated in the International Affairs Commission.
Reading the Numbers
According to a recent CID-Gallup poll, conducted for the daily La República the first week of August, support for Arias is shrinking. Results show 40% of Costa Ricans believe Arias will better the country by the end of his term, a 15% drop from May, when Arias assumed the presidency, the daily reported.
Former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), at the end of his first 100 days, received an approval rating of 60%, the highest rating of any President in the past 28 years (TT, Aug. 16, 2002). At the end of his term, however, that rating dropped to 21%, and his Presidency has been widely criticized for allowing the country to stagnate.
Arias’ current approval rating of 44% is also lower than the 48% rating he received following the first 100 days of his first presidency in 1986. Arias is the first President to be reelected in 36 years following a controversial Supreme Court decision in 2003 to allow non-consecutive reelection.
Alex Miranda, the president of the Association of Political Science and International Relations Professionals, agreed that 100 days is too early to judge an administration, but said, “there are some promising signs, there is a more clear direction than with the previous administration.” Others aren’t so sure.
“It’s my feeling that the government has been stumbling a little bit, and they haven’t been capable of giving a clear idea of where they want to take the country,” said political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís. “But it’s a government that’s just coming to power… It’s expected that they may have some missteps at the beginning.”