This week, Costa Rica bid farewell to its 40th president with a three-day period of mourning, flags at half-mast and a crowded service at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San José.
Eighty-two year old Rodrigo Carazo died at 1:20 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9 of heart failure. On Nov. 26, he was admitted to the public Hospital México where he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery, but he never made it home.
“He was a man who will be remembered for his determination and strong commitment to public service,” said President Oscar Arias in his remembrance remarks. “Nobody can deny that Rodrigo Carazo loved Costa Rica and worked tirelessly for her.”
Carazo served as president between 1978 and 1982, a period characterized by sharp economic decline and social unrest. But during his tenure, Carazo established the University for Peace (UPEACE), helped topple a dictatorship in neighboring Nicaragua
and introduced important environmental legislation.
“He was a good Costa Rican, and he wanted much for his country,” said Constantino Urcuyo, a political analyst and director of theUniversityofCosta Rica’s political science department during Carazo’s presidency. “Yes, he was wrong in some things, but he didn’t have the intention of doing wrong.”
A Son Mourns
Moments after his father’s death, Mario Carazo was in the administrative offices of Hospital México responding to press questions about his father’s final weeks.
“We talked about a lot in these final says,” said Mario, a former legislator with the Social Christian Unity Party (Unity). “He preferred simple things like the phases of a moon or the life of a seed. But conversation inevitably turned to the family’s well-being and issues facingCosta Rica.
“‘How is my country?’ he’d ask. And he’d often lament the lack of leadership in the coming elections,” his son said.
In truth, the last two-week period was the first time that Carazo had ever been a patient in any hospital.
“He was impressed,” Mario said. “The care was excellent.”
Of all the things he will miss about his father, Mario mentioned his presence, saying everyone was aware when his father was in a room.
“He had an intense love of life, a profound spirituality and strong convictions,” he said.
A President Remembered
Carazo was not only the father of four, a grandfather, a great-grandfather and the husband of Estrella Zeledón (they spent 67 years together), he had also been a president of the country. And though his term was marked by a period of economic turmoil in which many citizens lost their life savings with the devaluation of the colón, he was admired for his work in conservation and diplomacy.
“I believe he didn’t make the best economic decisions, but at the same time he was limited in making good decisions because of a profound worldwide crisis,” said Urcuyo. “At the end of the day, I think the positives of his administration outweighed the negatives.”
Carazo was born in Cartago, two days after Christmas 1926, the son of Mario Carazo and Julieta Odio.
The economist entered politics as a young man, serving as head of the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU), as a member of the National Liberation Party (PLN), and later as a legislator.
He also served as director of the Central Bank and as the general manager of RECOPE, the country’s oil refinery.
But political disagreements led Carazo to clash with three-time president José Figueres Ferrer, father of the PLN, and he soon joined the ranks of the Democratic Renovation Party. In the 1970s, he aligned himself with the PLN opposition and ran for president on the Unity ticket.
As president, he promoted public works and the creation of national parks. He inaugurated the massive hydroelectric project atLakeArenaland boosted the tuna industry.
To stop the planned construction of a hotel and casino, he made Isla del Coco a national park.
“He created consensus about the need to preserve our natural resources,” Urcuyo said.
He also got his fingers dirty in the conflict in neighboring Nicaragua, looking to protect the democratic integrity of Costa Rica. He backed the growing Sandinista movement as a way to dispose of the Somoza dynasty.
During his first years in office, the conflict often spilled onto Costa Rican soil as insurgents battled Nicaragua’s armed forces. The revolution ended in 1979 when the Sandinistas took control of the Nicaraguan government.
A strong advocate of diplomacy and conflict resolution, Carazo brought the idea of a University for Peace to the floor of the United Nations, where it was promoted by U.N. advisor Robert Muller, long-time-assistant to the secretary general.
Carazo offered land on which to build the university in the hills of Ciudad Colón, west of San José. At the time, there was no electricity or running water on the grounds.
The idea met with some resistance from other members of the U.N.
“In those days,Central Americawas in pretty deep trouble, and the idea of a peace university (here) was not in great favor by some major governments. If you started talking about peace inCentral America, people thought that this was kind of leftwing thinking,” said UPEACE rector Martin Lees (TT, Oct. 2004).
But it was precisely those conflicts that led Carazo to propose the idea.
Though Carazo and Muller are often credited with founding the university, Carazo was known to say “…when there are ideas like this, nobody can say, ‘I am the father, or I am the mother.’ It was born out of the collectivity and culture of Costa Rica.”
Continuing on his mission of peace, Carazo aided President Arias, then in his first term, in building consensus for a peace agreement for a conflictedCentral America.
“Of all the former presidents consulted (during theCentral Americapeace talks in the 1980s), he was the first to give support to the peace plan with the firmness and integrity that characterized him,” Arias said. “He was a man true to his ideas, and that is his greatest legacy.”
Yet, the image of Carazo that is burned into the memories of many Costa Ricans is during his lowest moments.
In an effort to protect the country from an economic crisis that was gripping the world, Carazo ordered the Central Bank to borrow heavily to maintain the value of the local currency. He refused to accept help from the International Monetary Fund because he considered it dangerous to the country’s sovereignty.
But the colón plummeted against the dollar, falling from an exchange rate of less than nine colones to the dollar until eventually stabilizing at a rate of more than ¢44 colones to $1. The devaluation left many Costa Ricans with depleted savings and it financially ruined others.
On a Facebook.com page of the daily La Nación, some people ripped into the former president following his death, mainly for the economic losses many experienced during his tenure.
“The worst president of Costa Rica,” one man said. “Many families’ businesses were destroyed because of his administration, including mine.” Another man said, “I remember my father was without work during this time because construction was paralyzed. Our electricity was cut because we couldn’t pay it and we had to line up …to get food. I don’t know how people can defend him…”
Others were kinder: “I remember him as the last dignified president this country has had, one who maintained his convictions to hold onto a sovereign country.” And another, “He was courageous and consistent with his ideas, and I admire that he defended Costa Rica.”
After the rush of television crews and newspaper reporters left the hospital on Wednesday afternoon, Mario Carazo shared a few last words about his father.
“He wasn’t dramatic during these last few weeks,” he said. “He accepted what was happening. He knew how to savor life and he was intensely spiritual.
“He did express some concern about the future of the country, but he always seemed impressed by the intellectual qualities of younger generations.”
Sitting back in his seat as if to reflect a moment, Mario said he wants his father to be remembered for “his integrity and convictions” and his accomplishments for the country.
“He loved Costa Rica and had a unique sense of what made this country different.”
“There is no one way (for peace); there are no formulas. There are attitudes; there is study; there is comprehension… When you get an immigrant to clean your house, the first day he is a cleaner. The second day he is a person with a name. The third day he is a friend. If I continue with the image that he has a broom in a hand, I will never understand.”
–Rodrigo Carazo, Interview
with The Tico Times, Oct. 2004