Costa Rica Flirts with Chavismo

By Federico Delgado

"Where there is a Costa Rican, wherever it is, there is liberty."

That's how President Barack Obama framed his closing remarks at a May 3, 2013, press conference alongside Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla during his visit to San Jose. Julio María Sanguinetti, the former president of Uruguay so instrumental in his country's transition to democracy from military dictatorship, in fact coined the phrase almost thirty years ago during a visit to Costa Rica. On both occasions it proved a winning statement with the local audience.

There was more to it than just a calculation by two deft politicians ingratiating themselves, however. When President Sanguinetti spoke the line there was an implicit appreciation, and therefore acknowledgment, that Costa Rica managed to buck the trend of undemocratic and unstable governments throughout Latin America. In doing so it proved to other nations in the region that a better way was possible. It was a fact made especially stark with a view toward the rest of its Central American counterparts, which, in the mid-1980s, were just barely coming out of decades-long conflicts and authoritarian rule.

By the time President Obama echoed the line last year, democratic elections in Central America and the rest of the region had long become the norm, and the reality of guerillas, strongmen and Cold War theaters was receding ever further into the past. Nevertheless, although no longer as remarkable, the openness and stability of Costa Rica's democracy remained as essential an example as ever -- especially as a rebuke against the temptations of the Chavista populist tide that has ensnared many Latin American nations.

As it happens, a few months prior to President Obama's visit to Costa Rica, the fallout from Nicolas Maduro's ascension in Venezuela seemed to signal the beginning of the end for Chavismo, as its boosters were no longer able to leverage much influence across Latin America. Its adherents, without the guise of a surging 'Bolivarian' alliance, were turning increasingly inward. Most important, the model appeared exhausted and incapable of inspiring anyone any longer.

So Costa Rica appeared on track to successfully defy yet another chapter of tumultuous Latin American madness; one more marker for other countries to consider. But that hopeful expectation became upended just a few months ago, however, by a surging political force in the country's upcoming presidential and congressional elections set for Sunday, February 2.

Led by Jose Maria Villalta, the party Frente Amplio is running strong in every poll ahead of election day. They will in all likelihood be one of the strongest factions in Congress. They might not win the presidency outright, but there is a strong possibility they would in an eventual run-off election next month, if neither they nor their rivals clinch it by reaching 40 percent of the vote in the first go-round.

With such a strong showing, Frente Ampilio will be positioned to push its brand of Chavismo 2.0, or Villaltismo, in Costa Rica.

Their policy agenda is a locally-spiced mix of communism and statism -- with a bit of socialism thrown in to mask those strong flavors. They're less jingoistic than Chavez's original endeavor, but much more emphatic when it comes to political bribery and constitutional abuse.

The party's electoral strategy is predictable -- exploit public discontent with Costa Rican politics -- but their tactic is richly cynical: goading the Costa Rican electorate into proving our nation's democratic mettle by voting for them. You can sum up their pitch easily enough: if you're really tired of the established political parties then you shouldn't be afraid to vote us into office -- unless, that is, we actually aren't free to make that choice. Simple but brutally effective.

I suspect you will soon begin to hear variations of that rhetoric throughout elections in Latin America, and Central America in particular. If they win the presidency those arguments will become deafening in a few years time. It'll be 1999 all over again, with Costa Rica subbing in for Venezuela.

In their words, presidents Sanguinetti and Obama demonstrated a great deal of faith with that line about liberty and Costa Ricans. The quote resonated deeply with Costa Ricans on both occasions, as it is a fundamental source of pride in the national character. However, if Costa Ricans choose poorly on Sunday, we may soon find, regardless of where one of us may be, that the noble sentiment those presidents expressed will no longer hold true.

As our country takes a turn for madness we may simply find ourselves, wherever that may be, without much to show for it.

Federico Delgado has worked on democratic governance and political development projects with the UN Development Program throughout Latin America. He is a graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

(AP Photo)

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