Two strikes at presidential campaigning have not stopped Ottón Solís from trying again.
Solís has returned to the political battlefield, looking to succeed President Oscar Arias, who beat him by only a little more than a percentage point in 2006.
Known for his leadership in stitching together the Citizens Action Party (PAC) and for leading the movement against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Solís is no stranger in the political arena. He has a record of fighting corruption, decentralizing decisionmaking and protecting local businesses.
From humble beginnings, Solís received a scholarship to attend the University of Manchester in England, where he lived for 10 years.
He was the national economics and political planning minister in the first Arias administration (1986-1990), director of the Central Bank and, later, a Deputy in the National Assembly.
Back on the campaign trail this spring after a sabbatical spent teaching at the University of Florida in the United States, Solís faces a challenge from PAC party member Epsy Campbell, who is leading Solís in the polls in her quest to become the first female and black presidential nominee. Undeterred and confident, Solís, 54, said the competition is healthy for the party and looks forward to the primary elections on May 31, when party members will choose him, Campbell or businessman Román Macaya to carry the PAC banner into the 2010 elections.
In an interview with The Tico Times last week, Solís discussed in English his vision for the next four years, the shortfalls of Costa Rica’s educational system and what he sees as threats posed by free trade.
TT: How are the people responding to you?
OS: We think (the campaign) is going very successfully, better in some places than in others … but, in general, there is a tremendous positive response, not only to us, but to the party.
What are some things you are hearing on the campaign trail? What are people telling you?
People are very upset … about (safety issues) and about corruption. People feel that, as long as corruption continues to exist, there is not going to be enough money to look after their needs.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing Costa Rica?
The main problem is the lowering of the quality of public education.
If we want to compete internationally, we need a very productive labor force, and education has to do with that. If we want to have high social mobility, well, education is a tool. If we want to make advances in research and development and innovation, education is the root. If we want to improve health and security … all that has to with education. The more educated the populace, the more hope people have, and that goes a long way towards improving safety and bettering the country.
Current President Oscar Arias has said improving education is one of his goals. Has he fallen short?
There is some good stemming from his program, Avancemos, in which money is given to families to encourage them to keep their kids in school.
Yet, nothing has been done to reduce the size of the classroom from 50-plus (students) to what we think should be no more than 20. Nothing has been done to improve bilingual education in the schools (to the level it is in private schools), nothing to improve teacher training, nothing to force colleges and universities to better the requirements to acquire a teaching degree….
Nothing has been done to decentralize services. Today in Costa Rica, teachers have to go to San José for even (minor) tasks and procedures. Nothing has been done – and rather it has gotten worse – to eliminate party politics from a criteria for appointing teachers. And of course, if we think about improving equipment, sporting facilities … nothing has been done in that direction (either).
Our approach would be to gradually make the public education system so good that people feel magnetically attracted to it.
Where would you direct money to improve education?
Our program will take between 15 and 20 years and our objective is to make public education as good as – if not better than – private education. The program includes action items on all the topics I named (above).
Do you think the government should continue to subsidize private schools?
Of course. There are about 50,000 students (or 6 percent of the student population) enrolled in private schools. It is a very good component of our education system. Nothing should be done to undermine it. But what we must do is move the rest of the public education system towards that level, towards that quality.
Switching gears into the economic sphere, do you feel that the effects of CAFTA are beginning to play out in Costa Rica?
That is a structural change that will not have an impact in this short time and, given the economic crisis, we don’t know what negative parts of the (economy) are due to CAFTA and which are due to the economic tragedy. I have my suspicions that most have to do with the economic crisis.
In Mexico, it wasn’t until eight or nine years after the the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified that everyone realized Mexico was going downhill. The rate of growth in Mexico during the 15 years of NAFTA has been the lowest of all but three (countries) in continental Latin America.
Aside from education, what are your goals for Costa Rica? Where do you want to see the country after four years?
Our first task is to improve education …, our second is to support Costa Rican enterprises and the third is to recover and improve Costa Rica’s prestige regarding the environment.
Regarding the second task, we want to switch all the subsidies on tax exemptions and government support that go to international corporations towards small-and medium-sized Costa Rican enterprises. We want to create opportunities for young people, women and cooperatives to develop projects and to participate in the global economy.
Third, we want to make sure that … we have a reputation of being very vigorous in responding to environmental needs. Environmentally committed international corporations should decide to come to Costa Rica because we are their best advocate, so that they can tell … consumers worldwide, “Look, we are allowed to invest in Costa Rica.
It is a fussy country about environmental rules.” We want to take measures relating to water management, to forests and reforestation, to management of sea fisheries, open pit mining and garbage management.
But there are other areas we also want to address, such as security and crime, social inequality and decentralization, among others.
When you are not working to better the country, what are you doing?
I am with my kids. I have a wife and three kids. I love to be with them, talking, reading books with them, playing… I like very much walking in the jungles of Costa Rica, working on our farm and riding horses.