Transcript and Audio: Charged Affairs’ Conversation with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, 2010–2014

Costa Rica is currently between the two rounds of its 2018 presidential elections, to be decided on Sunday, April 1. In an historic electoral cycle, the country’s traditional parties have been left out of the second round. Meanwhile, Mr. Fabricio Alvarado Munoz, a journalist and Christian music singer-turned-politician, came out ahead of the first electoral round with a platform focused almost exclusively on conservative social issues, namely in opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

Image Courtesy of the US Embassy, © 2010 • President Laura Chinchilla

On February 20, Glenn Ojeda Vega had the pleasure of sitting down with former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in San Jose. They discussed the upcoming election, China’s investment into the Central American republic, and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The conversation has been edited for clarity and was translated from the Spanish by the interviewer. The full, unedited audio is available below. 

Glenn Ojeda Vega: Madam President, do you think that the electoral contest that the country is experiencing is the Costa Rican version of the populist wave that has swept Western countries in recent years?

Laura Chinchilla: I think there are features similar to those that have been present in other electoral processes, not only in Latin America, but throughout the world. Some of these features have to do with issues of populism. It seems to me that this was, above all, reflected in the popularity of one of the candidates, who did not pass to the second round, but who was, at some point, leading the polls. His name was Juan Diego Castro, who used, fundamentally, a discourse that meets all the parameters of populist discourse. In the case of Costa Rica, populism is also punitive, which is the sort most prevalent in Latin America and is linked to the issues of crime and corruption.

It also seems to me that, not only has populism been present, but there has also been, in some way, a reaction on the part of groups that combine a series of characteristics. Groups that are more socially vulnerable than the rest of the population, groups that have not necessarily been part of the upside of the processes of globalization and insertion of Costa Rica into the world, groups that have lower levels of schooling, groups that harbor a set of religious beliefs. All of these factors combined into a kind of anti-system vote. A vote mobilized through ideas that are powerful as it relates to the protection of the traditional family, the defense of life, and so on.

So yes. Without being exactly the same photograph or scenario of the electoral phenomenon that occurred in the United States and European countries, we can say that Costa Rica, in this election, has also shown some worrisome symptoms due to the way in which the elections were conducted and by the way people decided to vote.

President Chinchilla, currently, Article 75 of the Costa Rican constitution states that: “The Catholic Roman and Apostolic religion is that of the State, which contributes to its maintenance, without impeding the free exercise in the Republic of other cults that do not oppose the universal moral nor good customs”. As a follow up, do you think that the future government of Costa Rica should review the confessional nature of the current constitution?

Yes, I think it’s important to do so. Here the key point has been the way in which the debate has been conducted, which has been very Manichean, very simplistic, very reductionist. However, it is an issue that I raised during my government. It has actually been, until now, the only government that managed to advance a little bit, in the sense that I started to work on a proposal and started conversations with representatives of the Church, because we have to talk with them. The topic was also taken to some meetings with representatives of the Vatican, but we did not manage to advance beyond those initial efforts. I think it is an important issue and that Costa Rica has to move in that direction, but I think that the debate must be conducted very calmly and patiently. It is a debate that cannot be precipitated. Fundamentally, it has been misinterpreted in the sense that it has been assimilated, on the part of some sectors, not necessarily the Catholic Church, that moving towards a non-confessional State practically supposes a denial of the values of spirituality, a denial of the importance of religion or of respect towards the practice of religion. There is great confusion among people. There is a lot of emotion around the subject. Therefore, I think that maybe it is time to pause, breathe deeply, and not overly politicize these issues in order to approach them rationally.

Madam President, it was during your tenure as Vice-President (in 2007) that Costa Rica recognized Beijing as the legitimate representative of China and established diplomatic relations at the expense of the country’s historic recognition of Taiwan. Do you think that this change in the diplomatic position of Costa Rica has increased foreign direct investment and economic development in the country?

Without a doubt. I am convinced that Costa Rica won with that decision because our economic vocation is fundamentally an export vocation. Our model has been a model that opted for insertion into the international market. Otherwise Costa Rica cannot survive. We are a market of just 5 million inhabitants and a per capita income of approximately $17 thousand dollars. Therefore, we need to look for other markets to be able to sell the services and products that we produce. And, China is a big market with a dynamic of significant economic growth. In that sense, it was a good decision and I do believe that Costa Rica gained a large set of opportunities.

Now, having said that, I believe that we have not yet been able, even though we have a new opportunity right there, to take full advantage of what the Chinese market offers. We have had some difficulties in moving the country’s productive sector to take an interest in the Chinese market. We also have to recognize that the Chinese market is very different from the other markets where, until now, the national producers have marketed their products. It is a very different market, with a different set of rules. However, I would say that yes, it was a good decision from the point of view of opportunities, but those opportunities have not yet been fully exploited.

President Chinchilla, in recent years, Costa Rica has shown an interest in joining the recently created Pacific Alliance trade bloc, which brings together Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, in order to better integrate these economies with the Asia Pacific region. Do you think that China will become, in the near future, Costa Rica’s main trading partner?

I wish that would be the case; I’m not scared of that. Because here, what is important, is that we maintain a policy of market diversification. You see, during the last global crisis in 2007, 2008, 2009, we suffered deeply. We had a significant drop in our trade flows because we had a very large dependence on the US market. Therefore, diversifying towards Europe, diversifying towards China, and towards other markets is good for a market like Costa Rica so that we do not depend on a single market and, hopefully, it will soon be like that. Because, if that is the case, it means that we would be taking advantage of that great opportunity. Without that necessarily meaning that we neglect our other business partners such as the United States.

Madam President, you have been one of the leading figures in denouncing the ongoing democratic breakdown in Venezuela. Do you think that president Nicolás Maduro should negotiate a peaceful political transition and live the rest of his days in exile?

That would be the rational next step. A rational person, an intelligent person, a person, like a ruler, whose fundamental concern has to be his people, a long time ago, would have stepped aside in recognition that he is no longer capable of generating agreements, of building alliances, and of influencing positively, through his decisions, the Venezuelan people. When a conscious and rational ruler who loves his people looks at what is happening in Venezuela, it should not even be a question, he should simply recognize that he has to step aside. He has to anticipate elections or comply with electoral calendars in order to guarantee fair and competitive “rules of the game” so that citizens can then decide, and he should accept the result. I am sure that, if [Nicolás Maduro] had done it that way, any country in the world would have welcomed him and could be living a golden exile.

However, that will never come. That has already been tried in multiple ways and the regime is clinging to power in a sick way. They have lost the perspective of what the notion of governing really means, which is to procure the common good. I believe that these people will not leave if it is not for an internal revolt or an aggravation of the conditions to a point where the people themselves expel them from power. In the same way that it happened in some Arab countries and in Eastern European countries. I do not see another way. Because the other way that some people have suggested is through an international intervention and I do not see the international community intervening in a scenario like the one Venezuela currently has. So unfortunately, even when a peaceful exit is what should be imposed [upon Maduro], I am afraid that will never happen. By his own will, Maduro will never leave power.

President Chinchilla, the Venezuelan opposition has for years been criticized as being too divided and incapable of forming a governing coalition. Do you think that the political opposition in Venezuela currently has the level of cohesion necessary to lead a new national government?

I believe that Venezuela has very good people, very capable people, and a large part of those people are in the opposition. Therefore, I do not have the slightest doubt that they are going to find people capable of managing, at least, the country’s most sensitive areas. One of these areas is the economy, perhaps the most important, because without a viable economy, no society is viable. And I’m sure that they will be able to identify these people.

They [the political opposition] will face a major challenge, obviously, finding a way to coordinate among themselves, how to share the decision-making process, how to define their leader, that is, the person who would stand in front of a government. Probably, the structure will have to force some alliances that maybe are not there yet. Thus, to decide on that, perhaps the right formula would be to create a kind of national unity government in the style of what Nicaragua did after Somoza left power as a result of the Sandinista revolution. There is simply a kind of central commission, right, a sort of collegiate body made up of the different forces that were part of the revolutionary front and from there decisions were made. Even Costa Rica, at a time of institutional breakdown, more than 60 years ago, had to convene the founding convention of the second republic and in the framework of these processes had to define the rules of the game: how to choose the representative, who would put forth their names, and how to move towards an electoral process, etcetera. I have no doubt that, presented with the possibility of reconstructing Venezuela, wisdom will prevail amongst the Venezuelan opposition.

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