Monday marks a possible end to a five-year ordeal for one of Costa Rica’s leading families – a time during which a former president served a five-month prison sentence, a major political party bordered on disintegration and a trial with 150 witnesses lasted 11 months at a San José courthouse.
On Monday, former president Rafael Angel Calderón will know whether he will be absolved of corruption charges or found guilty, facing a fine of up to $89 million and 24 years in prison.
“This is a fundamental moment in Costa Rica’s history,” said political analyst and former editor of the daily La Nación Eduardo Ulibarri. “While I don’t want to embellish its significance, it can’t be negated, either. It’s been a dramatic and polarizing case, and the judges will have to present a decision.”
Yet, the ruling goes deeper than a judgement between right and wrong. Riding on the back of the judge’s decision are a slew of political interests – all deeply invested in one side or the other of the outcome.
For Calderón supporters, the trial strayed long ago from one aimed at finding justice and has turned into a political battlefield.
“This trial has had a high level of political content and, more than looking for the real and objective truth in the Caja-Fischel case, they´ve looked to hurt Calderón, as a political figure, and his party,” said Luis Fishman, president of the Social Christian Unity Party (La Unidad), Calderón’s party (TT, July 24).
Mariela Castro, a social science professor at the University of Costa Rica, agreed that politics is the elephant in the courtroom.
“I think it started as a case to find justice,” she said. “But, for a majority of Costa Ricans, the details are no longer important. You ask people, ‘What is the problem? Why is he on trial?’ They’d respond, ‘Well, because he is corrupt.’”
If you prod further, she said, they can’t answer. Costa Ricans may strongly believe Calderón is guilty or innocent, but their premises come more from political ideology than from the facts of the case, she said. Not absent from the discussion is the knowledge that the outcome could shift the political landscape of the country.
“What interests me most is how this will play out politically,” said Castro. “Costa Ricans are a very politically divided people and have long given their allegiance to either La Unidad (PUSC) or the National Liberation Party (PLN).”
Castro explained that both parties have their roots in two major figureheads in 20th century Costa Rican history: Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, Calderón Fournier’s father, and José “Pepe” Figueres, whose son, José Maria Figueres, is also a former president who was accused of corruption in press reports at around the same time as the younger Calderón.
Following Calderón’s arrest, Unity ceased to play a dominant political role, losing 14 seats in the Legislative Assembly in the 2006 elections.
As a result, the rival PLN added to its ranks, and smaller parties found themselves becoming a much more significant part of the political scene.
“It will be interesting to see what happens in February if Calderón gets a not guilty verdict,” Castro said.
Though Castro said she doesn’t think it would be possible to restore the same political dynamics between the PUSC and the PLN, some people seem to think Calderón – who is running for president again in February 2010 – could put his party back on the playing field.
“I think he knows his party needs to return to what it was, and I think he knows that he is the person to do that,” said Castro, who also serves as an investigator with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLASCO). “He can certainly be a hero, if he is found not guilty, but I don’t think he could be elected again to the presidency … at least not this year.”
Calderón, who served as president from 1990 to 1994, was taken into custody in Oct. 2004 on charges that he was involved in a $9.2 million corruption scheme tied to a government contract with a Finnish medical equipment firm.
Prosecutors said Calderón received more than $500,000 to help the firm secure a $39.5 million contract intended to help modernize the country’s hospitals, via the Social
Security System (Caja).
Calderón, a lawyer, never denied the payment, but he insisted it was payment for consulting services.
During his testimony, Walter Reiche, former executive of the Finnish company Fischel, implicated Calderón, saying that he was identified upfront as the one who could secure the deal “no matter who won the elections.”
Not Alone on the Stand
Calderón wasn’t the first ex-president to be accused of corruption, nor was he the last.
Only weeks before charges against Calderón became public, former President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) was put in handcuffs and driven through the streets of San José in a truck that resembled one used by dog pounds, according to Castro, who called the even “a public show.”
Rodríguez had been serving as secretary general of the Organization of American States when he was accused of accepting a bribe from the French telecommunications company Alcatel in exchange for a government contract. He is currently awaiting trial.
Former President José María Figueres (1994-1998), son of the Costa Rican figurehead José “Pepe” Figueres, best known for abolishing the army in the 1940s, has been living in Geneva since accusations surfaced that he, too, received consulting fees from Alcatel. Although Figueres has been asked by prosecutors to return to answer questions about monies he received from Alcatel, he has refused, saying the payments he received were legitimate consulting fees.
Calderón is the first, and only to date, former president to confront the charges in court, a fact that will play in his favor if he is proven to be not guilty of the charges.
“I think that if Calderón is absolved, he can be seen as a hero,” said Castro. “He’ll be able to say, ‘Look, I confronted the authorities. I went before the judges and I proved I am innocent.’ There is no guarantee that he’ll be elected president, but he’ll be able to open up more seats in the legislature for his party.”
Castro said, “It will be deadly, or almost deadly, for his party, La Unidad.”.