Inking a new chapter in the country’s history books, judges on Monday sentenced a former Costa Rican president to five years in prison and imposed a half-million-dollar fine.
Sixty-year-old Rafael Angel Calderón, who served the country as president between 1990 and 1994, was condemned by the court on charges of embezzlement.
Though Calderón plans to appeal the decision, Monday’s ruling effectively ends his campaign for reelection.
Leaving the courtroom after the verdict was announced, Calderón – with dozens of cameras and reporters pressing in on him – said, “We lost a battle, but he will continue fighting … There’s much time before this is over.”
Monday marked another important moment in Costa Rican history. The two-party system, which has long-dominated the political scene, effectively came to an end that day, as the leader – and figurehead – of the Social Christian Unity Party (La Unidad) heard the verdict read.
The center-right party, known both for its pro-business stance as well as its social programs, is now without a viable candidate for February’s election, and it faces the difficult task of repairing its base with a tainted reputation. For Laura Chinchilla, candidate for La Unidad’s longtime rival, the National Liberation Party, the sentence opens a clear and likely unimpeded pathway to the presidency.
Trailing Calderón out of the courtroom,
party president Luis Fishman wore a slightlystunned and slightly-dazed expression.
Holding up his hands to reporters surrounding him, he said, “Give me some consideration … I am not in the best position to respond to you right now.”
Looking to explain himself further, he added, “We are very surprised. That was a big hit.”
According to those close to him, Calderón arrived at the courthouse in Goicoechea Tribunals in northeast San José on Monday with a sense of optimism.
The judges had listened to testimonies of 180 witnesses during the past 10 months, and Calderón seemed confident that none of them had presented evidence beyond what he himself had offered. In his testimony, Calderón acknowledged that he had received $520,000, deposited in offshore bank accounts, for helping to secure a contract for the Finnish medical equipment supplier Instrumentarium Medko Medical Corp., via the the Fischel Corp., the largest pharmaceutical company in Costa Rica, which served as intermediary.
For $39.5 million, Instrumentarium would provide the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) – which was founded by Calderón’s father and former president Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia – a shipment of medical equipment to help modernize the country’s hospitals with funds provided by a low-interest loan from the Finnish government.
Calderón’s involvement with a group of Fischel executives and Caja officials, who received large kickbacks for the contract, led to his arrest and eventual conviction.
Eliseo Vargas, former head of the Legislative Assembly and of the Caja, received a luxury home and a car in the deal. The Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Development, which was founded by current President Oscar Arias, received a donation of $8,000, which was promptly returned when the scandal broke.
Calderón has maintained that the money he received for his involvement in the deal was a legitimate fee for professional services.
“Like I have demonstrated, I did nothing different than that which other professionals who occupied high-level positions in public administration have done in returning to a private practice after (leaving office),” said Calderón, who returned to the private law firm he founded as a law student in 1969. “In the free exercise of my profession, I did a job for which I was hired, in this case to advise politically and legally … on how to push a bill (through the Legislative Assembly) that was ultimately approved by all the legislators.”
But for the judges, Calderón used his influence as a former public official to embezzle money. He was sentenced under Article 354 of the Penal Code.
“All of this was possible because … the leadership of a major political party of this country was organized in strategic executive positions to provide for the receipt of commissions, and this goes against the honesty which should govern civil service,” said Teresita Rodríguez, one of the three judges, in the reading of the sentence.
The Costa Rican People
Regardless of the merits of the case, some political analysts say that Calderón had to be found guilty to uphold the country’s image.
At about the same time Calderón was arrested in 2004, another former president was also accused of corruption and another was in the spotlight.
José María Figueres, of the National Liberation Party, who served as president from 1994 to 1998, was wanted for questioning for allegedly accepting payments from the French telecommunications company ALCATEL to facilitate contracts with the public Costa Rican Electricity Institute. Figueres, however, has not been formally charged and has been living outside of the country.
La Unidad’s Miguel Angel Rodríguez, was arrested on aggravated corruption and conspiracy charges for allegedly receiving bribes in the ALCATEL case. Rodríguez was handcuffed as he stepped off a plane from Washington, D.C., and driven through the streets of San José in a paddy wagon.
Both Calderón and Rodríguez spent several months in prison after their arrests.
Following the accusations and arrests five years ago, Costa Ricans formed anticorruption organizations and demonstrated in the streets. In fact, the fledgling party Citizen Action Party (PAC) based its entire platform on fighting corruption and came within two percentage points of winning the presidency in 2006.
“An acquittal of Calderón will generate diminution of confidence (among Costa Ricans) in the judicial system,” political analyst Eduardo Ulibarri told The Tico Times a few days before Calderón’s sentence was announced. “There was a clamor from the public to investigate these points of corruption. If proven innocent, people will start questioning the judicial system.”
Yet, in a way, a decline in confidence has already happened. Recent studies indicate a sharp drop in the level of confidence Costa Ricans have in their government institutions.
A study by the Arias Foundation showed that Costa Ricans gave the lowest confidence ratings to entities such as the Legislative Assembly, the presidency and political parties.
Transparency International, a global anticorruption organization, ranks Costa Rica 47th on its corruption perception index, behind countries like Puerto Rico (36th) and Chile and Uruguay (tied for 23rd).
Through the International Lens
But the cases didn’t just hurt Costa Rica internally, some analysts say. They also had an effect internationally.
“Costa Rica is known as a country in Latin America for having a unified and strong democracy,” said Manfredo Marroquín, regional coordinator in Central America for Transparency International. “When these former presidents were accused, it was a disappointment to discover corruption in the highest levels of Costa Rican government. It demonstrated that not even Costa Rica is free from corruption.”
At the same time, Marroquín said, judges offered Costa Rica an opportunity to repair its image with the ruling Monday.
“With this case, Costa Rica has set an example in Latin America and in the world. The country proved that democratic institutions can respond to corruption crimes,” he said. “You don’t see that every day in Latin America. Regretfully, many of the corruption cases remain in impunity.”
However, some observers argue that, from an international perspective, the activities by which Calderón was enriched and for which he was convicted don’t seem so unusual.
When former U.S. president Bill Clinton left office, he earned $92 million from speaking engagements and book contracts.
He further added to his wealth with $3.3 million in consulting contracts with InfoUSA and more than $12.6 million for his work as an advisor for Yucaipa Companies, according to The New York Times.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair makes as much as $250,000 on a single 90-minute speaking engagement and is estimated to have grossed nearly $400 million (which includes taxpayers’ money) on various consulting projects, according to The Daily Telegraph.
However, Costa Rica has chosen to draw a finer line in conflict of interest cases, looking to eliminate gray areas, said Marroquín.
“Costa Rica has done very well in drafting tough legislation. Its laws are very strict,” he said, adding that “it works as a vaccine for democracy” to protect against private gain at the public’s expense.
As Calderón’s trial is viewed as a landmark case in Costa Rica, the implications won’t be without a ripple effect in political circles, said Mariela Castro, social science professor at the University of Costa Rica. The country does have tough laws when it comes to corruption, Castro said, and “more than anything, this case showed that there aren’t different classifications for the judges … no one gets special treatment.”
She added, “Politicians will probably think more about the things they get involved in, now that they know that no one is immune.”
Along with the other six men convicted (one defendant was absolved of wrongdoing), Calderón has until the sentence is finalized before he is sent to prison. A more extensive ruling will be released Nov. 3, at which point, either side has the opportunity to appeal.
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Timeline of Caja-Fischel Trial
1990-1994: Calderón, known for his work in housing and economic reforms, serves as president of Costa Rica. His pro-business administration oversees the continued opening of the country’s markets to the outside world. Following his term in office, Calderón returns to the private law firm he founded as a law student in 1969.
Dec. 2001: The Legislative Assembly passes a bill authorizing the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) to enter into a contract with a Finnish Medical Supply company. This is accomplished in a record three days.
April 2004: Eliseo Vargas, former president of the Legislative Assembly and member of Calderón’s La Unidad party, resigns as head of the Caja.
June 2004: Walter Reiche, former executive of pharmaceutical company Fischel Corp., is arrested.
Sept. 2004: Investigators raid Calderón’s law office in search of documents that might link him to the Fischel scandal. Calderón is accused of receiving $520,000, which he promptly deposits into a special account of the state, following accusations of corruption.
Oct. 2004: Former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodríguez faces corruption charges and resigns from his post as secretary general of the Organization of American States.
Oct. 21, 2004: Calderón is arrested and sentenced to nine months in prison.
Oct. 2004: Former President José María Figueres is implicated, but not charged, in a case involving French telecommunications company Alcatel.
March 15, 2005: Rodríguez leaves jail and is put under house arrest.
March 23, 2005: Calderón leaves jail and is put under house arrest.
Nov. 2008: Caja-Fischel trial begins.
April 28, 2009: Calderón announces bid for Feb., 2010, presidential election, despite ongoing trial.
Aug. 2009: Prosecutors call for a sentence of 24 years in prison and $89 million in fines for “social damages” for Calderón.
Oct. 5, 2009: Calderón is sentenced to five years in prison and fined $520,000.