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Costa Rica’s Presidential Ballot Rivals: Figueres and Chaves

Former president José María Figueres and former minister Rodrigo Chaves will define in a ballot on April 3 who will be the next president of Costa Rica for the 2022-2026 period.

Although experienced in international and academic circles, both sexagenarians are questioned. One of the two will take over a country with a solid democracy, but in a economic and social crisis. 

Heritage and History

His photograph already hangs in the Hall of Former Presidents. But that image is far from the José María Figueres who today, with less hair and without a moustache but without losing his smile, entered the fight to lead the country again, 24 years later.

“I am smiling because I am at a stage in life with a solid family life, an incredible wife and with my first grandson, Pepe, who tells me ‘Fafa [grandfather], you are winning the competition’,” the 67-year-old engineer tells AFP, sitting in the living room of his house in San José.

Pepe’ guessed right. His grandfather had 27% of votes and advanced first to the ballot.

The former president (1994-1998) is an engineer from the U.S. military academy West Point and has a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University.

He is also the son of José Figueres Ferrer, one of the most influential politicians in the country’s history and who abolished the army in 1948. 

“The surname Figueres means great passions. For many people it is very dear, for others not so much,” said the National Liberation Party candidate. 

In his previous administration he promoted investment in technology and ecotourism. This time his speech has focused on reducing unemployment (14.4% in 2021) and poverty (23%), and environmental protection, with the abolition of the hydrocarbon exploitation.

But he carries the liability of having been prosecuted for a consultancy to the French company Alcatel, for $900,000, in 2004, after it won a bidding process in the country.

He was called to testify, as he was in Switzerland working for the World Economic Forum, and did not return until 2011. The case was time-barred.

He acknowledged that it was a mistake not to return to Costa Rica when requested. 

“They are going to to be on him for not coming to account [at the time]. Also because there are five mayors of his party that were questioned for corruption. This could be cause for alarm in the opposition,” said political scientist Gina Sibaja.

“But it is the party that has governed the country the most times [9 times] and has experience and people,” she added.

Outsider Economist

Right-wing Rodrigo Chaves, of Progreso Social Democrático, presents himself as a new face in politics, but he was already finance minister for just over half a year, before leaving office after disagreements with outgoing President Carlos Alvarado.

He had 5% of the popular support, but jumped on Sunday and convinced 17% of the electorate, earning a place on the ballot.

“Whoever doesn’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen,” said this PhD in Economics, a graduate of Harvard and Ohio State University, about the possibility of taking over a country with a debt of 70% of its GDP, the fourth highest in Latin America. 

“There is going to be a lot of pressure, but I have the support, experience and courage,” expressed the 60-year-old.

“I come from a humble family, there were nine of us in a one-bathroom house. I did well in life, but because this homeland was different. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, we just need to put our house in order ,” he told AFP.

“Costa Rica is in a bad situation, but it is not a bad country (…) We can be the Singapore of Central America in per capita income, Estonia in state efficiency, Finland in public education,” he said.

Over his head weighs an investigation for sexual harassment at the World Bank, with acts that would have happened between 2008 and 2013. He was sanctioned in 2019, prohibiting him from entering the World Bank, among other measures.

He denies everything. “I have enormous inner peace about it, also before God, with my wife, my daughters and my sisters, because I know what happened.”

“If he wins, he could embolden a macho, patriarchal sector, for both men and women, who consider that gender equality is nonsense,” considered political scientist Sibaja.

by David GOLDBERG

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