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Carlos Denton Slices, Dices Regional Views

Carlos Denton, co-founder of the San José-based polling firm CID-Gallup, has 30 years experience extracting and analyzing what’s on the minds of Central Americans.

His evocative op-ed pieces for the daily La República have tackled topics ranging from property theft and shopping mall culture in Costa Rica to Nicaraguan migration and diplomacy with Cuba.

He recently sat down with to answer questions online from staff and from readers:

What was the most recent poll you did in Costa Rica?

CD: Our last national survey in Costa Rica was conducted in late February.We are scheduled back into the field on April 18 – we do four a year.

What was the outcome for President Oscar Arias in that poll?

President Arias was very well evaluated. We have been measuring presidential performance in Costa Rica since the (Rodrigo) Carazo days (1978-1982), and Arias is now the best evaluated in the history of surveys in the country.

What topics do you cover usually in one of the national surveys?

Our main emphasis is on the concerns of citizens – the major problem of their household. Whether the money they receive makes ends meet. Have they been robbed or assaulted lately. We also measure the standard political questions.

What’s your opinion of the El Salvador president’s visit recently with the president of Costa Rica?

President Elías Antonio Saca is a lame duck now. He turns over the presidency to a successor on June 1 of next year and elections are slated for March. I think he and President Arias are doing an institutional kind of thing – bring in Saca, give him a medal, serve him dinner, give him an abrazo (hug) and send him home.

Do you believe that the Salvadoran Mara gang is in Costa Rica?

The word “Mara” is a well-known one in Los Angeles, Chicago and other U.S. cities. The Mara is also operating in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and we all need to hope that they do not extend to Costa Rica and Panama. These are gangs that are highly organized at an international level…We hope that the gangs in Costa Rica do not join the Maras … because if they do we are all in big, big trouble. The Maras have sent emissaries to Costa Rica but so far have not been able to organize locally.

Crime seems to be No. 1 on everyone’s minds these days.

Crime is the main problem facing Costa Ricans and it is growing worse as the months go by. If we all go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book, “The Nobel Savage,” he points out that men live in society, sacrificing their freedom in order to achieve security. Costa Rica’s government is no longer living up to this objective and it is something Arias must deal with.

What has your polling found about the chances of the FMLN (the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) winning in El Salvador?

We believe that the FMLN has a good chance of winning next year’s presidential election in El Salvador. ARENA will have been in power for 20 years next June, and unfortunately it has become corrupt, just like any party anywhere that has been in power too long. ARENA will bring out the old tried and true formula: “Do you want a guerrilla to run the country?” and attempt to scare people, but it might not work this time.

So what do you make of this sort of “back to the future” panorama for Central America, with Arias, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and possibly the FMLN taking power? Is this a failure of the region to reinvent itself and produce new leadership over the last 20 years?

I think it is actually part of a transition to a more effective democracy in these countries. In the case of Arias, why should he not be reelected after all these years? In the case of Ortega, a former guerrilla runs for office and wins. He is not very good at governing, but he is there and has legitimized the process for this followers. In the case of El Salvador, there is no such thing as a “one party democracy.” Sooner or later someone has to win other than ARENA. Meanwhile, we could talk about the waning influence of the USA in the region.

From your polling in recent years, are Ticos, known for their cheery “Pura Vida” outlook, becoming more or less optimistic about their patria?

Ticos are eternally optimistic about their situation, at least that is what they externalize. But increasingly, the only people that say “pura vida” in the country are the tourists and those who do not know any better.

Nonetheless, Arias and his government have breathed a bit of hope into the situation, and  who knows, if in a few more years everyone might be saying “pura vida” once again.

What can you tell us about the political situation in Panama?

Panama has elections next year and the PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party), currently in power, will make a major effort to stay on for another five  years. This party,founded by military dictator Omar Torrijos, has managed to transit to a genuinely democratic organization, but if the opposition to it unites,  there is no chance for a PRD victory. The other major party is the Panameñista one and it is holding a primary in July. The leader in voting intention currently is Juan Carlos Navarro, but he has some strong competition from Alberto Vallarino. One of these will have to face Balbina Herrera of the PRD.

Please tell us about how Panama’s electoral campaign is going.Who are the possible presidential candidates?

There are five candidates who might be president – Juan Carlos Varela and Alberto Vallarino of the Panameñista Party, Ricardo Martinelli of a splinter group, and Balbina Herrera and Juan Carlos Navarro of the PRD.

When you go back to the public in April, what types of questions will you ask relating to public security and crime?

We will ask if the person or someone who lives in their household has been a victim in the last four months, we will ask what the respondent believes is the cause of the crime wave – lack of police, weak-kneed judges, lack of jails, and then we will ask if the Arias government is doing a satisfactory job in combating (crime).

Do you believe the rise in violence and crime in Costa Rica is a result of immigration?

No, I do not. I believe that there are three factors which are contributing to the rise in crime. One, families are disintegrating. Kids are on the street and not going to school. Two, there is a rise in the consumption of drugs and all kinds of substances. Three, there are not enough police on the beat to deter or repress the kinds of senseless crimes we see every day.

Has your polling shown any noticeable trends in women’s participation in business and politics in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is one of the countries where women have a large role in politics. Just look at the legislature and the ministries of the current government. On the other hand in business it is much harder to find women entrepreneurs or women CEOs. In some ways politics are way ahead of the States in this regard, while in business neither country is doing much.

Do you consider reelection a good thing for a country?

I believe that in these small countries immediate reelection of presidents would be a terrible mistake. On the other hand, I believe that we would be better served if (legislators) could be reelected. They might be more responsive to the voters and work harder if they were facing an election campaign after four years. Do I think reelection is good in the USA? If the U.S. starts to elect presidents by the popular vote, yes. If not, no.

Daniel Ortega has been raising some eyebrows as he buddies up to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other leftist leaders. How is the rest of Central America reacting to this?

Chávez is going to the Central American leaders bearing gifts. Through Petro-Caribe, he is offering to sell oil to the countries at a 40% discount and the other 40% is financed over 25 years at 1% interest annually. The other Central American countries have not invested in renewable energy and these offers by Chávez are very hard to refuse.

In years past, I remember you polled the tourists as they exited the country. Do you continue to do that and if so, what are their comments about Costa Rica?

We have not done this lately. I would suspect that most are happy about their experience, nonetheless.

What country in Central America do you feel will see the most increase in tourism in the coming year?

It takes many years to overcome a bad reputation. El Salvador, besides having very little tourist infrastructure, is still viewed as “dangerous” by many Americans. Nicaragua is more or less in the same boat, although nostalgic “Sandalistas” might come back to see how things are going currently. Panama could be the spot. The problem is that the beaches in front of the capital city are a toilet.

How do you think a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will affect relations with Costa Rica?

I am very disappointed in all three U.S. presidential contenders. None of them have evinced any interest in Latin America, even though McCain was born in Panama. I also think none has an answer to the economic debacle facing the United States. I would suspect that none of the three could find Costa Rica on the map.

Any thoughts on Obama’s willingness to meet with Chávez?

Obama states that he is willing to meet with anybody, if it suits the interests of the USA. He could meet with Chávez, just like Bush just met with Putin, but it does not mean that either will get on the other’s bandwagon.

What do you predict in the Dominican Republic elections?

Our latest survey shows the current president, Leonel Fernández, ahead. We do not know if he will achieve a majority in the first round, but he might. The secondplace candidate, Miguel Vargas, would have to go negative to chop Fernández down and this is not the way politics are done in this region of the world at least to the extent familiar to Americans.

What are some of the logistics of polling? How many people do you have working for you when you, say, interview 1,050 people over a three-day period? And how are people selected for questioning?

We have offices in seven countries and currently employ about 72 people full-time, and 300 part-time. People are selected at random in political surveys and beyond that I am loath to go into the details because I do not want to bore the other readers.

If you had $10,000 to invest in stocks in just one Central American country, which would you choose?

The problem with this question is that there are really very few “stocks” to be bought in any of the countries.

With your experience, wouldn’t you like to become an aide to a president of the region?

No, I would not. I really have a terrible problem with authority issues and could not stand the idea of having a boss, much less a political one.

Carlos Denton can be reached at



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