President Oscar Arias is creating a new ministerial post to manage public relations for his administration as a weakening economy threatens to erode his popularity.
Mayí Antillón, a National Liberation Party (PLN) lawmaker and business leader, will become communications minister in mid-January.
“2009 will be a complicated year,” she said. “The government will take measures to soften the effects of the (financial crisis), and we need to communicate those measures effectively to the press and to Costa Ricans.”
Arias, who enjoyed a honeymoon with the national press early in his presidency, has expressed frustration with negative coverage this year.
But Antillón’s appointment has become something of a PR disaster for his administration.
Early this week, she said she would resign as lawmaker, allowing Victor Láscarez, next on the party list, to take her place.
But Láscarez, a former consul to Nicaragua, was fired by Arias in April on charges he smuggled foreigners into Costa Rica in a diplomatic car last year. In an interview Tuesday with The Tico Times, Antillón seemed unconcerned by her replacement.
“(Láscarez) was popularly elected” to the assembly, she said. “The executive already did its job by firing him. This is no longer my responsibility.”
But after lawmaker Alberto Salom of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC) threatened to make public a damning government report about Láscarez, the Arias administration decided Antillón should keep her seat.
Gustavo Rivera, an adviser to Antillón, said she would devote nearly all her time to the ministerial post and attend legislative sessions only for important votes. She would likely lose most of her salary as lawmaker.
Under pressure from Salom, the Arias administration released the report on Láscarez Wednesday, nearly eight months after it was drafted.
“Láscarez blatantly violated principals of integrity and honesty,” the report concluded. “His inappropriate conduct led to a loss of confidence in public administration.”
Asked why the administration did not release the report earlier, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said, “The government had the authority to make this decision at what we considered was an appropriate time.”
Salom said the report was “of public interest,” and the Constitution demands that such documents be made public.
The Láscarez debacle was not the first time the Arias administration has clashed with the press over the release of public information. When Arias refused to disclose details on a bonds purchase by China, the daily La Nación challenged the administration before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) and won.
Arias has repeatedly accused the press of unfair coverage.
“Hiding good news or questioning it to the point of making it look like bad news is not just unethical, it is one of the worst traps the media can fall into,” he wrote in to the daily La Nación, inviting outraged responses from free-speech advocates.
As communications minister, Antillón will not rely only on the media. She said she will use the Internet and other mechanisms to convey messages directly to “target markets” who would benefit from Arias’ policies.
While Arias is the most popular president of the last 25 years, his support has plummeted thanks in part to rising crime and a souring economy.
His approval rating fell to 44 percent in October from 64 percent in January, according to the polling firm CID-Gallup. Some 29 percent of the country said in October that the Arias administration has poorly managed the economy, up from 17 percent in January.
The economy has become a liability for Arias, who has prided himself on social programs that reduced poverty and unemployment during the first half of his administration.
A global financial crisis will erode those gains in the coming months, analysts say.
Antillón has long been close to the Arias administration. She championed the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) as PLN faction head and president of the International Affairs Committee. Before her election to the Legislative Assembly in 2006, she was director of the Chamber of Industries.
The Executive Branch will now have 20 ministers, eight of them women. In a country notorious for its bureaucracy, the communications minister will join a cabinet already occupied by a minister of competitiveness and a minister of inter-institutional coordination.