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The Costa Rican presidencyArias had little chance of
living up to his image
by Jay Brodell --- A.M. Costa Rica
The free trade treaty ratification and the world economic crisis seem to be the defining factors in the presidency of Óscar Arias Sánchez. Both situations have hampered him in completing his agenda.
With the presidential campaign heating up, the time is ripe to consider how the history books will treat Arias. He came to the presidency as a legend who had won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was almost certain not to live up to his image.
Presidents in Costa Rica cannot serve two terms in a row. Until Arias, they could serve but one term. Arias was the person who twice appealed to the Sala IV constitutional court to allow him to run again. Detractors saw this as a sellout on the part of the court magistrates, but Arias had solid legal arguments on his side. That still did not stop the rumors especially when his friend Guido Saenz said in a book that Arias was complaining that some magistrates double crossed him in the first court vote that rejected his appeal to run again. Saenz had to say in public that he made a mistake. Saenz generated a lot of sympathy.
Arias did exactly what he said he would do if elected. His party, Liberacion Nacional, and other like-minded treaty supporters captured 38 of 57 seats in the Asamblea Legislativa, a two-thirds majority. Arias predicted that he could get the free trade treaty left by his predecessor, Abel Pacheco, ratified in two months.
The ratification took more than two years and severely divided the country. And it cost him associates. Kevin Casas, one of two vice presidents, had to quit because he coauthored a memo suggesting some Chicago-style political arm-twisting to get the treaty ratified in a national referendum.
Arias and his brother, Rodrigo, minister of the Presidencia, later fired Fernando Berrocal, the security minister, because Berrocal suggested that some politicians were in bed with the drug-smuggling terrorist group, the Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. Berrocal probably was correct, but his outspokenness threatened the fragile alliance stitched together to pass the baker's dozen of legislative requirements to bring the free trade treaty into effect.
The treaty went into effect January 1, some 32 months into the four-year term of Arias.
Just when it seemed Arias could turn to other items on his agenda, the world economy began to collapse and he had to come up with a shield plan for Costa Rica.
That meant shelving tax proposals and even ignoring a decree pushed by former vice president Laura Chinchilla to limit casinos to eight hours of daily operation from the current 24.
Faced with the probability that the casino decree would mean major job loss, the administration, without public announcement, just quietly let the decree go unenforced. Ms. Chinchilla, meanwhile, quit the administration to run for president. The Costa Rican Constitution prohibits certain office holders from seeking election.
Arias got in trouble with some when he appeared to give a backhanded endorsement of Ms. Chinchilla's candidacy. Costa Rica's unusual election code prohibits that, too.
When Berrocal was fired a year ago, Arias installed long-time supporter Janina del Vecchio as security minister. She was a math teacher without a law enforcement background. The ministry she heads, Gobernacion, Policia y Seguridad Publica, supervises a number of police agencies, including the Fuerza Publica and the Policia de Control de Drogas, as well as the immigration department.
To say she has been unlucky is an understatement. Two months into her job investigators reported that 11 police officers in Heredia were robbing drug dealers, selling the loot to other criminals and even planting the substances on those they arrested.
Ms. del Vecchio, who served as Costa Rican ambassador to Switzerland, was good at public relations, however. She showed up one evening after a massive police sweep of the notorious Hotel Del Rey in time to make the 7 p.m. television news while standing beneath a Del Rey logo. Despite the promotion, police only detained three young women who may or may not have had the right to be in Costa Rica, certainly not the examples of illegality Ms. del Vecchio expected.
Then more recently there were the 320 kilos of cocaine that vanished while being guarded by two of Ms. del Vecchio's Fuerza Publica officers and the fire that destroyed more than 20 boats at the docks of the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas in Puntarenas. That is another security ministry dependency.
Although Arias made citizen security a cornerstone of his campaign promises, most of the legal measures proposed by the administration continue to move through a lethargic legislature. The measures, drafted by a group headed by Ms. Chinchilla, seem to stress that society is the root cause of criminality.
Arias underscored that just last week by handing out pardons to 10 drug dealers and traffickers.
The administration has not been without successes. The Costanera Sur is close to completing. This is a project that has been at least 30 years in the talking stages. Also the Autopista del Sol is underway and motorists and developers will benefit with a direct route to the central Pacific.
Arias and the administration favor concessions because the country does not have the money for massive projects. A plan to let out the Caribbean docks to a concession holder is likely to generate unpleasantness among union members there.
Arias has always tried to remain above the fray. His brother does the heavy political lifting.
Still, the president finds himself under criminal investigation for authorizing the cutting of trees at the site of a proposed open pit gold mine.
His housing minister Fernando Zumbado had to quit when the public found out he misused money donated by Taiwan to give the poor housing.
Ennio Rodríguez, head of the Banco Hipotecario de la Vivienda, quit when the public learned he hosted a $1,000-plus luncheon for other officials at a fancy Escazú restaurant. Clara Zomer Resler, the new housing minister, did not quit although it was she who ordered the expensive champaign, said Rodríguez.
His environmental minister, Roberto Dobles, had to quit when it became known that his ministry had given gravel concessions to blood relatives.
The director of the national emergency commission had to quit because it appeared companies with which he was associated in the past were getting the lion's share of government emergency contracts.
All that aside, Arias, for better or for worse, will be known as the president who severed relations with democratic Taiwan in favor of Communist China. That came early in his term, and the public seems to have accepted the decision, particularly because China has imported some 300 workers to erect a new national stadium.
The author is editor of AM Costa Rica, which appears online at http://www.amcostarica.com and is updated every weekday.
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