Asked what the next four years will be like under their first female president, many Costa Rican’s wave their hands in dismissal as if to say “más de lo mismo,” or more of the same.
The country’s first female leader, 51-year-old Laura Chinchilla, is stepping onto familiar ground at Casa Presidencial, where she served as vice president just 18 months ago. When she left, she aligned her campaign with her party’s existing priorities and pitched herself as a continuation of Oscar Arias’ regime.
But what does more of the same mean for Costa Rica? Does this mean things will remain at a standstill? And what, if any, big projects will the new president adopt in her first 100 days?
Political analyst Eduardo Ulibarri said the only sameness Costa Rica will experience in the next four years will be a continuation of the open market, pro-modernization ideology that has guided recent administrations.
“And that’s not just continuing the government of Oscar Arias,” he said. “It’s continuing a (line of) political thought that has more than 20 years in the country. There will be important changes, but not a change in fundamentals.”
Less than a week after Chinchilla took the oath of office in front of thousands in La Sabana Metropolitan Park, she is already beginning to act on her administrations’ priorities. On inauguration day she signed a decree to cease all open-pit mining in the country, she created a national anti-drug commission to reduce the consumption of illegal substances, and she began an initiative to increase day-care coverage and elderly assistance.
Ulibarri said, “My impression is that this government is starting up more quickly than that of Arias.” Arias’ term got off to a hard start due to the polarization of the country. He had just barely defeated the Citizen Action Party candidate Ottón Solís in an election so close that it required a manual recount of ballots, and some aggressively challenged the legitimacy of the results.
According to political analysts, that same confrontational environment plagued Arias throughout his tenure, which was dominated by debate over the Central America Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
After a landslide victory in February, Laura Chinchilla is starting off on a different foot. She came in 21 percentage points ahead of Solís in what was his third run for president, and 26 points ahead of Otto Guevara, the Liberation Movement Party candidate.
“Laura didn’t have the same problems as Oscar (in the election),” said Sergio Moya, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica. “Thus, she’s in a more favorable position and one she needs to take advantage of.”
From the moment the polls closed and the elections tribunal called the vote in her favor, Chinchilla has been working to build consensus.
“Our obligation during the campaign was to emphasize our differences,” Chinchilla said, during a press conference with her former opponent, Guevara. “But when the elections ended, the priority was to emphasize (points of agreement).”
She sat down with the leaders of all eight political parties in the assembly and forged an alliance with the right-leaning Libertarian Movement.
But Moya said that the left has been conveniently excluded from the pre-inauguration negotiations.
“I haven’t seen a disposition to dialogue with the opposition,” he said. “And I am not seeing a willingness to include parties like PAC.”
Chinchilla’s government is more of the same in the sense that the same people are resuming office in the new administration, Moya said.
“You aren’t finding people in there that represent different economic opinions,” he said. “The same people who were empowered in the Arias administration are the ones that are now going to have even more power. It is more of the same.”
The only major change he sees in the pipeline relates to the issue of increased security, a topic that Chinchilla has been championing since even before the campaign.
“She is an expert in the issue of security, which is a main concern of Costa Ricans,” he said. Between 81 and 90 percent of people surveyed in a NationalUniversity poll last year listed insecurity and crime-related issues as the most urgent social problems in the country (TT, Jan. 29, 2010).
Chinchilla, a former public security minister and public safety consultant, carefully wove those concerns into her campaign and promised to increase police presence and funnel more money into the nation’s security forces.
“We will work as a team to make Costa Rica more secure and more peaceful, with a bigger and better police presence, with a more refined culture of lawfulness for children and young people to enjoy, without fear, the benefits of freedom,” Chinchilla said during her inauguration speech.
Ulibarri said he expects Chinchilla to be tied up with agenda items left over from the previous administration, at least initially.
She’s making her first international appearance as president in Madrid this weekend to lobby for the Association Agreement with the European Union; the agreement has been under negotiation for more than three years. She also inherited the unfinished Limón port and the slow-to-open telecommunications market.
But Moya said it’s nearly impossible to draw any conclusions this soon in her tenure.
“It’s a very short time to pass a judgment,” he said. “But right now, I can’t say there have been any surprises.”