It was a landmark year in Costa Rica’s political history. In February, voters elected the country’s first female president, putting Costa Rica on the short list of nations that have a woman occupying the highest political office.
Laura Chinchilla, 51, is the only daughter of former Comptroller Rafael Chinchilla. She was sworn in May 8 in front of thousands of enthusiastic supporters.
Chinchilla’s popularity hasn’t waned. She beat her closest opponent by more than 20 percent of the vote, and her platform of better security and greater development resonated among voters.
“The mandate I’ve received from the people [is] to devote my best efforts to equip Costa Rica with better care for children, quality education for our youth, decent work for [the working population], respectable services for our senior citizens, but above all, security, security and more security,” Chinchilla said during her victory speech on Feb. 7.
“Based on our two greatest strengths, the intelligence of our people and our respect for the environment, we can make Costa Rica the first developed country in Latin America,” she said.
Chinchilla was no stranger to Casa Presidencial. Before launching her presidential bid in 2008, she served as President Oscar Arias’ vice president. Before that, she was elected as legislator from 2002 to 2006 and public security minister from 1996 to 1998. A graduate of the University of Costa Rica and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Chinchilla also worked as a consultant for various international organizations in Latin America and Africa.
Most political analysts expected her to follow a political agenda similar to that of her predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Arias. In the run-up to the elections, Arias hinted that Chinchilla was his personal choice to replace him, and his comments drew criticism that threatened to undermine public support of Chinchilla early in her administration.
But Chinchilla quickly worked to forge her own agenda, and she often publically clashed with her former boss in her early days in office.
Early opinion polls showed Chinchilla enjoyed strong public support. But her poll numbers began to dip when she initially backed a move by legislators to raise their own salaries by 72 percent. Only after a public outcry did she reverse her position.
“It seems that the Chinchilla administration miscalculated the political reaction, or they didn’t care at the beginning,” political analyst Agustín Castro said in June.
The forced resignation in May of Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bruno Stagno – who signed off on his own reappointment as ambassador before Arias left office – and other political hiccups like the troubles associated with the new Caldera Highway, also led to a drop in Chinchilla’s popularity.
She was also saddled with intense and conflicted negotiations over government funding for public universities, the controversial Crucitas open-pit gold mining project near the Nicaraguan border, and blowback from other countries over subsidies to Costa Rica’s rice industry.
By November, Chinchilla gained her footing, rallying support in the face of national disasters in which intense rainstorms forced thousands to flee their homes and caused nearly $330 million in damage. She also confronted a national security threat at the San Juan River, when the Nicaraguan government took control of a narrow strip of swampland in the border region along the Caribbean coast, an area that Costa Rica claims.
Because of these two national and international crises, Chinchilla’s approval rating jumped from 41 percent in October to 62 percent in November, according to a Unimer poll published in the daily La Nación.
Chinchilla’s high approval rating means she has the support she needs to pursue a number of ambitious programs in 2011, including an overhaul of the tax structure, the professionalization and reinforcement of police and security forces, and a complex and multifaceted energy plan.