For the first time in Costa Rican history, a woman of African descent may seek the presidency on a major party ticket.
Epsy Campbell, an activist with Jamaican ancestry, expressed interest this week in running on the Citizen Action Party (PAC) ticket in 2010, in a challenge to party boss Ottón Solís, who founded the party more than eight years ago.
Although an estimated 110 million people of African ancestry live in Latin America, only twice have Latin Americans elected dark-skinned presidents who were viewed as black at the time, according to historian Reid Andrews. Campbell would be the third.
“I think I can serve this country from the presidency,” Campbell told The Tico Times on Wednesday. She said she would announce a final decision Monday.
Whether or not Campbell runs, her aspirations have forged a crack in the glass ceiling for minorities here, while exposing divisions within PAC, the country’s largest minority party.
When Solís ran for president in 2006, Campbell was his vice-presidential pick, and the ticket came within 3,300 votes of defeating Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias.
But in recent interviews, Campbell has distanced herself from Solís, saying that the party has pooh-poohed new ideas under his leadership.
Campbell talks frequently about change – both within PAC and on a national scale. Her profile and her language remind some observers of Barack Obama, who recently used change as a rhetorical springboard to become first black president of the United States.
“I get the impression that she considers herself the Costa Rican Obama,” said political analyst Rodolfo Cerdas.
Campbell denied this, but she said Obama inspired her on a deeply personal level.
“I promise to do my part, because many Obamas, men and women, will be needed to fight injustice,” she wrote in a blog post the day after the U.S. elections.
The Wrong Color
About 2 percent of Ticos identify themselves as Afro-Costa Rican. The vast majority of these are descendents of West Indians who came to Costa Rica in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on banana plantations and on a railroad connecting the Caribbean province of Limón to the Central Valley.
When a poor economy fueled xenophobia in the 1930s and ’40’s, lawmakers passed a series of measures that limited the immigration of blacks to Costa Rica and restricted their movement within the country, said Ron Harpelle, who teaches Latin American and Caribbean History at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada.
“They were the wrong color, went to the wrong church (Protestant) and spoke the wrong language (English),” Harpelle said, summing up the attitude toward blacks then.
Campbell’s grandparents and greatgrandparents came to Costa Rica from Jamaica at the turn of the 20th century to work on the railroad.
Her father worked at a dry cleaners through high school and college and eventually became an accountant for the government, while her mother raised their seven children.
Studying at public schools and universities, and learning saxophone at the state-run Youth Symphony Orchestra, Campbell came to value the government’s role as a provider.
“We moved from lower class to middle class not only through the efforts of my father, but also because of opportunities provided by the government,” she said.
Married at age 19, Campbell moved to Limón with her husband to raise a family. She gave birth to two girls, Tanisha and Narda, and worked in a home appliance store and then as a school teacher.
It was in Limón that Campbell became an avid community organizer. She helped start the Pro Development and Ecology Association, which sought to protect the environment and improve area schools. She also co-founded the Afro-Costa Rican Women’s Center, an association that highlights issues of race, gender and political participation.
Returning to San José a decade later, Campbell finished her college degree in economics and continued her activism. She founded and directed several regional groups that fought for the inclusion of women and blacks in Latin America.
She also worked as a consultant for the United Nations and the World Bank on projects dealing with human rights, community development, and the inclusion of women and blacks. In 2002, at the request of PAC leaders, Campbell sought and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly, where she championed measures to impose new progressive taxes and buff up state coffers.
“The theme of my life has been a search for justice,” she said.
What are the principal injustices? Environmental destruction in the name of development, the tendency to overlook Costa Rica’s cultural and ethnic diversity, and the widening gap between rich and poor, she said.
“There are multimillionaires here that never used to exist, and then there are poor people who seem like they will stay poor forever,” said Campbell.
She added that the government should listen more closely to trade unions, environmentalists and small farmers.
A Monopoly on Truth?
In merely weighing a run for president, Campbell, 45, has thrilled her allies while angering supporters of Solís, 54, who ran unopposed in the party’s 2002 and 2006 presidential primaries before losing in the general election.
“Some people have said that we have to rally around Ottón and give him a final chance,” she said. “Others say … an internal party election could weaken his position as a leader.”
The party must soon decide how to choose the presidential candidate – whether through a vote by the 80-member National Assembly, or in a primary election open to all voters. Campbell said she will run only if she thinks PAC will support an open primary, which she said would help the party attract new members.
“I will only run for a party that opens itself up and uses a primary as a pretext to grow and get people excited about politics,” she said.
An open primary also gives Campbell a clear advantage. According to a recent CIDGallup, Solís is overwhelmingly preferred by party stalwarts, while the two candidates tie among general voters.
Campbell once threw her unconditional support behind Solís, but in a recent interview, she indirectly criticized his leadership.
“I represent a completely different sensibility than don Ottón, in terms of building teams, listening and discussing, and thinking that one person does not have a monopoly on truth,” she said.
Solís, who announced his candidacy Monday, said he welcomed a challenge by Campbell.
“Everyone who creates something wants it to be bigger than himself,” he said. “The party is much more than Ottón Solís.”
Bread vs. Morals
In the eyes of two political analysts, Campbell is more left-wing and populist than Solís. While Campbell emphasizes social injustice, Solís likes to stump about the misuse of state finances.
“I would fire in two minutes (state officials) who pay for lunch with a single colón belonging to the state,” he said last weekend, after news broke that a state official put a $1,140 lunch for 13 on the government’s tab.
Political analyst Constantino Urcuyo said voters will be more attracted to Campbell’s message during tough financial times.
“A discourse that blames the crisis on class differences could be more effective,” he said. “People eat bread, not morals.”
Still, analyst Rodolfo Cerdas worries that Campbell’s fiery rhetoric could provoke workers hit hard by the economic downturn.
“Social resentment is right at the surface,” he said. “We need a much more moderate, cautious discourse. Don Ottón can offer that better than doña Epsy.”
Cerdas added that Campbell lacks the experience required to lead, and he guessed that she is positioning herself for a 2014 bid. Both Campbell and Solís spent four years in the Legislative Assembly, but Solís was also Planning minister and a Central Bank board member, and he ran a presidential campaign twice.
“This is a plane in the midst of a big storm, and we need very good pilots,” Cerdas said. “We can’t fly as if the plane were on auto-pilot.”
It was an argument that skeptics made about Obama. But after just four years in the Illinois state senate and two years in the U.S. Senate, Obama easily beat his far more experienced opponent, in last November’s presidential election, Arizona Senator John McCain, snagging majorities of the female, black and youth vote.
Campbell also hopes to attract minorities and young people to the party and, perhaps, to her campaign. But despite the parallels, Campbell insists that she is not seeking to emulate the U.S. president.
“My political life dates to long before Obama won the elections,” she said. “What Obama reflects is a wave of change in traditional politics. I am among the leaders who want change.”