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Chinchilla Banks on Continuity

As the names start rolling out for government posts, it’s becoming clear that President-elect Laura Chinchilla already is fulfilling her campaign promise to offer Costa Ricans a sense of continuity.

The appointees named thus far are no strangers to the politics of the incumbent National Liberation Party (PLN), and their appointments mean the next administration likely will be a soundtrack set on repeat.

Both the newly appointed finance and tourism ministers have served in their respective posts in the past, while the current communications minister will become minister of economy in the new administration.

“Laura Chinchilla has always been seen as the continuation of the government of Oscar Arias,” said Victor Borge, an analyst with Borge and Associates. “(These appointments) clearly represent the continuity of that government.”

And, in reality, continuity is what Costa Ricans voted for when they went to the polls on Feb. 7, Borge said. By an overwhelming margin, voters selected Chinchilla, a former vice president and public security minister, who is seen as President Oscar Arias’ handpicked replacement.

“All of these people are good people. They are the stalwarts of the National Liberation Party,” said Carlos Denton, co-founder of the San José-based polling firm CID-Gallup. “But I would expect four years of the same of what we have now.”

Complementing her prior appointments to the ministries of the presidency and of public security, on Tuesday Chinchilla named her choices to lead the finance, commerce, foreign trade, agriculture, tourism and public works and transportation ministries.

During a press conference at the Hotel Corobicí, she said, “This is a balanced team that unites dynamic and experienced people. They have held various public positions in the past and theycan guarantee honesty, hard work and commitment to the country.”

But whether they can overcome the problems that have plagued the Arias administration is another question.

These problems include wait times for the state’s medical services that often surpass a year, 18 percent of the population continuing to live below the poverty line as well as concerns over citizen security, as the homicide and drug seizure rates soar.

Borge said many of the problems are out of the hands of the ministers, adding that overcoming perceived past shortcomings is more a question of the executive branch’s ability to negotiate with the opposition parties.

“This team can guarantee that the country will be administered well, but they can’t guarantee that they can make the changes necessary for Costa Rica to become a developed country,” he said. “(Moving toward the developed world) depends more on the ability of the president to dialogue, than on the quality of the team.”

For Borge, the most surprising of Chinchilla’s appointments was her choice for the Public Works and Transportation Ministry. She chose a little-known engineer who currently heads the Atlantic Port Authority (JAPDEVA).

Francisco Jiménez will take over a ministry scarred by a November 2009 bridge collapse that resulted in the death of five people and the ensuing resignation of a generally well-respected minister, Karla González.

Jiménez also will step into the debate over the controversial traffic law, a piece of legislation that has been written and rewritten while a divided Legislative Assembly squabbles about penalties for traffic violations.

Borge was also surprised to find Gloria Abraham’s name among the list of appointments, but he called her “well prepared and very qualified.” The former advisor to the Agriculture Ministry will be the first woman to head that ministry, and Chinchilla expressed the hope that she “will give a new focus for the fight against poverty in rural zones.”

Taking these two picks alone, Constantino Urcuyo, academic director for CIAPA, a public policy think tank based in Costa Rica, said he disagrees that the lineup is “more of the same.”

“Gloria Abraham is new to politics … and Francisco Jiménez has never had executive experience in an autonomous institution,” he said. “I don’t think these are more of the same.”

Urcuyo applauded Chinchilla’s choice of Anabel González to head the Foreign Trade Ministry, saying, “She is an expert, not only for her work in Costa Rica, but also her work for the World Trade Organization. She has many contacts there who can now be used for the country.”

Communications Minister Mayi Antillón was also a good pick for the Economy Ministry, Denton said, adding that when she was head of the Chamber of Industries, “she ran it in an extraordinary way.” If anything, he said, she might be overqualified for the post.

Denton was somewhat skeptical of Fernando Herrero’s appointment as finance minister, as he “did not do well” when he served in that role under former President José María Figueres in 1994. Denton also said that the tourism minister position, which will be filled by Carlos Ricardo Benavides, is symbolic.

He said, “You have to ask: Does the institute of tourism really ever bring tourists to Costa Rica?”

Urcuyo was more optimistic about Chinchilla’s choices for finance and tourism ministries. He said that Herrero will bring two years of experience to the post and that the appointee’s tenure under President Figueres was not lacking. Benavides will step into his job with four years as tourism minister already on his resume, giving him a leg up in tackling new issues, Urcuyo said.

Chinchilla has named eight out of a total of 18 ministers thus far, and key positions such ministers of health, education and environment remain to be filled. Regardless of whom she picks for those slots, Denton said, he does not expect any revolutionary shift in Costa Rica.

“I don’t think this government is going to be a dramatic improvement,” Denton said. “It’s the same people and the same system. I think the government will continue to stumble along. Hopefully, it will stumble forward.”




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