Rafael Angel Chinchilla’s eyes filled with tears on the day he watched his daughter accept the nomination for the presidency on behalf of the National Liberation Party, putting her in position to be the first female president of Costa Rica.
His daughter was walking in footsteps that he had marched long ago, although not just into a lifetime of public service (he served as the nation’s comptroller general for 15 years), but toward a position of far greater influence.
Standing behind her on the stage that night in June, before the tightly packed audience chanting her name, emotion swelled in his chest.
The little girl whom he watched stumble through life’s lessons – picking herself up when life took undesired turns – was taking the country’s problems into her embrace. For her father, who dedicated his career to improving the country, there is no grander task.
“I don’t think there is anything more important than public service,” said Chinchilla, sitting on the back patio of his Escazú home four months later. “A good economy, security, employment, investment … they all depend on it.”
The 76-year-old accountant, who served an unprecedented term in the often-criticized role of comptroller, said he holds the highest respect for people stepping into such a life.
“After many years working in the public sphere, I appreciate their courage and their interest. It’s not an easy job,” he said, with a hint of force in his voice to underscore his ardour.
Now his daughter, Laura, the eldest of his four children (and the only girl), is being pegged as the next president of Costa Rica, or so says nearly every poll published since the primary election.
She was tapped four years ago as a possible candidate when party members noticed her ability to build consensus and realize change. At that time, she had served as legislator, public security minister and was soon to be named vice president in the Oscar Arias administration.
“Laura has demonstrated that she is very independent, which isn’t common in politics,” said her father. “She has remained autonomous enough to be able to make the most appropriate decisions and not the decisions that others want … (those of) other influential groups or special interests. She is also very resolute, and that’s been a character trait she has demonstrated all her life.”
But Laura’s march toward the presidency doesn’t come without a hint of fear from her father. With a full understanding of the problems the country faces – he lived through similar ones 20 years ago – and knowing the players on the political scene, Chinchilla said, “Without a doubt, I am concerned.
“The quantity and complexity of the problems are very big, and it’s not possible to resolve all of them. And no one can please everyone. With every decision Laura makes, some will be in agreement and others will not … so, yes, I am worried. Obviously, I am worried … Yet, there is no better solution than Laura.”
From the time Laura entered primary school at Escuela República de Perú in San José, Chinchilla said, he noticed his daughter’s ability to befriend people and draw them towards her. “That is her mark,” he said.
Chinchilla said Laura preferred to resolve problems for herself and she “never wanted us to feel like she was a weight on us.”
A major turning point in Laura’s life came when she was 26 and she separated from her first husband, Chinchilla said. At the time, divorce wasn’t common in Costa Rica, but he said Laura she showed up at home one day “and informed us – didn’t ask us – that she was done. She didn’t want any more … and we supported her.
“For me, this decision was very important. First, it reflects on her character … to take important decisions in the opportune moment. But it was also at that moment – that she separated from her first husband – that she decided to go to GeorgetownUniversity in Washington, D.C., to obtain a master’s degree. That was a very important element in her professional development.”
Since returning to Costa Rica – over 20 years ago – Laura has honed her skills and gained experience as a consultant for various firms specializing in judicial and public security reform, as public security minister (1994-1996), as legislator for a term and, most recently, as vice president.
But, unlike Arias, who recently told The Biography Channel that he had aspired to become president since he was a boy, Laura had never had designs on the post. She just wanted a better country, Chinchilla said. It was only recently, within the past few years, that Laura’s résumé positioned her for the country’s top job.
“She knows the problems within the Legislative Assembly (as a former member), she knows the problems government agencies face (as a former minister) and she knows the problems facing the executive branch (as vice-president.) She worked within each one of those branches,” said Chinchilla, whose pride as a father shone through every word.
His daughter – the very same woman who struggled through accordion lessons as a girl (she was too mechanical, her dad remembers), who loves to dance and who shows up at her parents’ home every Sunday afternoon for large family lunches and small shots of tequila (“She likes tequila, and so do I,” he said.) – can make all the difference in Costa Rica, said Chinchilla.
With a handful of photos illustrating her life on the table before him, he added, “I have no doubt that, at this moment, Laura is the most capable person to lead the country.”