When tall, mustached René Castro was a member of the center-left National Liberation Party (PLN) in college, his win as president of the student body dislodged the far left, which had dominated student government for years.
Now, as the party’s secretary general, he has a similar goal. He wants to increase Liberation’s support among young people and university students, who have again swayed farther left.
“The goal is to again attract university students so that they bring young, educated blood and so Liberation can modernize and reinvent itself,” he said. “For me, it’s like déjà vu.”
During the past 20 years, Liberation has moved toward the center while students and teachers have shifted farther left, said political analyst Constantino Urcuyo. Perhaps the most obvious expression of this trend was the referendum last month on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which was touted by Liberation but overwhelmingly opposed by the university community.
“It was like an eye opener,” Castro said. “Liberation has lost a lot of its organization among young people, and (we are) just now trying to change that.”
The party’s most visible recent effort to reorganize its young base was an international conference for social democratic youths in San José last week. Some 40 people ages 18-28 from Costa Rica and other Latin American countries attended the week-long conference, which featured workshops and speeches by Costa Rican ministers and other party leaders, including René Castro.
Castro swept into the secretary general position in June intending to help mend the estrangement. He is not the only one working on this problem. President Oscar Arias tried to rejuvenate his Cabinet in 2006 by choosing Kevin Casas, an academic in his late 30s with little political experience, to run as his Vice-President. But Castro seems to have brought these efforts up a notch.
On the one hand, Castro is trying to identify young leaders and create spaces for them to assume more responsibility within the party.
On the other, he wants to attract young people who are uninterested in party politics.
Ernesto Orlich, a 27-year-old investment banker and Master’s student at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), is working with Castro on a volunteer basis. He says that under Castro’s watch, the party is reaching out to groups of young people interested in the environment, housing, community issues and sustainable development. Liberation will help train and organize these groups and give them a meeting space in the party’s headquarters in western San José, Orlich said. At Castro’s suggestion, the party also recently adopted a new motto: “Greener and more just.”
These initiatives spring from Castro’s impression that young people are more attracted to social issues than to the daily grind of party politics.
“We are building a series of networks to give them alternatives to political participation,” Orlich said.
Alfonso Villanueva, a 29-year-old researcher at the Harvard-affiliated Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE) in La Garita, northwest of San José, is working with Castro on a different problem.
In past years, Villanueva said, “There wasn’t a consciousness that (party) leaders were growing older, and there weren’t young people to substitute them.”
Now the party is working to identify new young leaders.With Castro’s help,Villanueva at INCAE got in touch with pro-free trade experts who drilled him on CAFTA. He then toured the country in September, giving CAFTA stump speeches.When he saw young people in the audience, he talked to them, summed up their leadership potential, and sometimes invited them to meetings at Liberation headquarters.
Villanueva now has a database of about 200 young leaders, which he has made available to Casa Presidencial so that ministries can involve students in projects.
“I wanted to do it, and don René gave me the tools,” he said.
One of the young upstarts Castro singled out was Liberation legislator Fernando Sánchez, an academic standout with a doctorate from OxfordUniversity. At 33, Sánchez was president of two legislative commissions.
Castro tapped Sánchez in June to become Liberation’s secretary of international affairs. Sánchez’s appointment, together with 25-year-old Shirley Calvo’s nomination as undersecretary of international affairs, was part of Castro’s effort to give young people leadership positions within the party.
Meanwhile, the public also expected great things of Kevin Casas, another Oxford Ph.D. graduate.
But both Casas and Sánchez took a fall in September, when a memo they wrote suggesting questionable and potentially illegal tactics for the state’s CAFTA campaign was leaked to the press. The scandal, which dealt a blow to the campaign and the party, led Casas to resign and Sánchez to step down from his leadership positions in the assembly.
Castro said the gaff by Casas and Sánchez, likely a product of political inexperience, set back efforts to rejuvenate the party.
“It’s going to be difficult to put young people in such high positions any time soon,” he said. “I don’t think we should punish all young people for the learning errors” of some.
Castro’s hunt for young stars comes nearly three decades after his own glory days as president of the student federation at the UCR. During the mid-1970s, UCR’s student government was dominated by the leftist Unity to Advance Party, led by Alberto Salom, now a legislator for the Citizen Action Party (PAC). A young Liberationist, Castro tried and failed three times to win a student government post.
The young civil engineer was finally elected to student president in 1979, unseating Unity to Advance and ushering in a period of Liberation hegemony. In those years, Castro said, the party was losing touch with its young base. Castro’s university group tried to change that.
“We were the new blood,” he said. “We helped bring in more young people.”
Today Castro is waging the same battle –from the other side. Still, this time the task may be more difficult. While young voters were an important electoral base for Liberation in the 1960s and ’70s, the party began losing that support in the 1990s, according to political analyst Urcuyo.
Liberation’s one-time appeal lay in its social democratic bent and its role in building Costa Rica’s welfare system. But with structural reforms in the 1980s, Liberation “stopped being the big daddy that gives people things,” Urcuyo said, and its political base eroded among the middle class – including among professors and students.
The most visible clash between these one-time bedfellows came with CAFTA.
While Liberation touted the pact, treaty opponents dominated the student government at the country’s two main universities – the UCR in San Pedro, east of San José, and the National University (UNA) in Heredia to the north. Students played a key role in marches and get-out-the-vote efforts.
According to Castro their efforts were a wake-up call to Liberation.
“We have to listen more carefully to people,” Castro said.“Many young people are worried that the new economy is not for them. It’s good for the country, but not for me.”
Castro’s project to build a party base among the nation’s youth is largely still in the planning phase. But young people working with Castro say Liberation is already sending a different message to the next generation.
Last month, Castro met with about 50 university students to thank them for volunteering in the CAFTA campaign.
“(Before,) young people suffered. (The party) put us to work hard in politics, and at the end of the day, they didn’t even say thanks,” Villanueva said. “But this time, it’s going to be different.”
The social-democratic National Liberation Party (PLN) was founded in 1951 by the winners of the 1948 civil war led by revered leader José (Pepe) Figueres. For the next nearly six decades, the presidency switched off between Liberation and an opposition coalition, which became the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) in 1984. Liberation administrations helped build Costa Rica’s welfare state and created veteran institutions such as the Supreme Elections Tribunal, three of the four state universities, and the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) – a state body with a monopoly on telecommunications.
Source: National Liberation Party Web site, www.pln.or.cr.