Street Vendors in San José, Costa Rica. Inequality has increased rapidly in the country throughout the past decade. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Famously lauded as an exception to trends of overall political instability in Central America, Costa Rica has presented an enduring model of socially democratic peace for the region. The country is the area’s longest-standing democracy since it famously decided to abolish its military under the 1949 Constitution to invest in social services such as universal education and healthcare. Since then, it has come to be seen as a landmark of environmental stewardship, a beacon of prosperity to neighboring immigrants, and – with its Pura Vida (pure life) mentality - one of the happiest countries on earth. It is because of this tradition of remarkable democracy, peace, and social wellbeing that many have referred to Costa Rica as politically exceptional, especially in comparison to its neighbors’ history of civil unrest.
But the country’s recent history reveals quite the opposite. In recent years, Costa Rica has become just as prone to divisive political and economic trends as the rest of the world.
For one, income inequality has increased drastically in the last decade, due in part to the country’s semi-recent free trade policies adopted during the 1990s. While the economy continues to grow with global markets, it is not benefiting all Ticos (Costa Ricans) equally, leaving behind coastal and rural populations outside of the urban Central Valley. Now, according to The National Institute of Statistics and the Census, 20% of Ticos live in poverty, due to cheap wages for low-skilled employees. This makes Costa Rica, a country that has consistently had the lowest level of inequality in Latin America, now equivalent to the OECD regional average.
The security situation has also deteriorated. Formerly just a stop on a larger trafficking route, Costa Rica is now home to both organized crime and drug operations. The rise of drug trafficking, a byproduct of larger inequality, has also increased the rate of violence in the country. Formerly known as the safest, most peaceful country in Central America, Costa Rica now has a homicide rate of 12 per 100,000 people, surpassing that of neighboring Nicaragua. According to the director of San José’s municipal police, with 603 violent deaths last year and 146 to date in 2018, the past twelve months have been “the bloodiest in the nation’s history.” Unfortunately, these incidents have shown that the ‘Switzerland of Central America’ is equally susceptible to international crime and violence in the territory.
Lastly, Costa Rica is witnessing an impending financial crisis that could considerably shrink its famous social programs. The fiscal deficit is predicted to exceed seven percent in 2018 and public debt currently stands at 49 percent of GDP. This due in part to the country’s large bureaucracy, where twenty percent of Ticos are employed with high salaries and guaranteed annual raises. Current President Luis Guillermo Solís claims he has cut all he can in light of partisan gridlock, instead prioritizing tax revenue in February with a fast-track reform law. Yet Ticos say this isn’t enough, calling the new law a temporary fix that raises taxes without first cutting public salaries. Experts predict that if the next administration cannot address the country’s finances in the next year, this former bastion of prosperity and social equality may have to roll back the services that made it so exceptional in the first place.
Each of these three issues suggests that Costa Rica has become susceptible to globally disruptive trends; ones that stand to threaten the country’s history of a strong social democracy. But surprisingly, none of them were the focus of the past Presidential Election. The priority, instead, was same-sex marriage.
The normal election process was thrown for a loop on January 9th, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that all member nations, including Costa Rica, must legalize same-sex unions and property rights. While long spearheaded by Vice President Ana Helena Chacón Echeverría, the ruling’s acceptance received a sudden conservative backlash amidst the backdrop of the election. Leading the charge was far right National Restoration Party (PRN) presidential runner-up Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, an evangelical Christian singer who called the decision a violation of Costa Rican sovereignty and values. While he ultimately lost to the ruling Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who supported the court’s decision, Fabricio Alvarado’s discriminatory remarks signify the ever-present rise of conservative evangelism. Receiving 25% of the vote in the first round of elections, Alvarado threatened to remove the country from the IACHR’s authority if elected, referred to gender equality movements as mere “ideology,” and denounced the establishment “secular state.” It was declarations like these that catapulted him to the front of a crowded race, until he lost to Carlos Alvarado 61 to 39 percent.
While it would be easy for the next administration to breathe a sigh of relief and consider all issues decided with Alvarado’s victory, it would ignore the harsh realities of the PRN’s rise: inequality, polarization, and government disenchantment. As free trade policies continue to open Costa Rica to new markets, low-income, rural Ticos feel left behind by the ruling PAC. One need only look at this election cycle for proof; traditionally a two party race, the 2018 election is only the third time in history that Costa Rica has had to conduct a runoff election. The first rounds saw votes dispersed across thirteen parties, signaling frustration with the political system. Usually, one of the main parties easily gains the necessary 40% of votes to claim victory. But even liberal Ticos see the PAC as fiscally irresponsible due to corruption allegations and mismanagement of the debt crisis.
In contrast, Fabricio Alvarado’s PRN’s was able to unify dissenting voices to stand out as a clear contender. His brand of evangelism, similar to others’ in Latin America, provided a potentially victorious alternative for establishment conservatives while courting non-elites. Indeed, with a double-digit lead in the polls before the runoffs, he was initially predicted to win the race up until Election Day. Experts postulate that his loss was due to a narrowed race, where a majority of moderates initially opposed to the PAC ultimately voted for Carlos Alvarado in order to reject the PRN.
While this may be true, Fabricio Alvarado nonetheless bridged the gap between the conservative upper and lower classes, providing a reliable base for the Christian right while challenging the democratic deficit of the establishment left. Neither this base, nor their underlying concerns, are likely to go away. In order to truly address Costa Rica’s issues, Carlos Alvarado must recognize this bloc as legitimate political actors with whom he must engage.
Costa Rica is not alone in experiencing populism, yet another divisive global trend that has historically swept Latin America as well as the world at present. But the fact that a far-right campaign was so successful in this typically progressive democracy makes this case particularly alarming. Such inflammatory and prejudiced rhetoric stands to undermine Tico values of acceptance and equity, suggesting that Costa Rica is neither exceptional nor immune to intolerance. All the while, it also distracts the country from pressing policy problems that could determine its immediate future. Still, dissenters would argue the movement humbly upholds Costa Rica’s democratic tradition by responding to the concerns of its public, even when they contradict the establishment.
But Costa Rica’s even greater tradition is one of inclusion and equality. It cannot hope to maintain it with the PRN’s polarizing non-solutions or the PAC’s inadequate response to issues thus far. In order to address the impending fiscal crisis, inequality, polarization, and heightened security situation, Carlos Alvarado must react with inclusive and fiscally responsible policies that work for everyone. To do so, he must cut frivolous public spending while prioritizing social services. He must invest in job retraining and raise low-skilled wages without closing Costa Rica off from larger markets. He must tackle violent crime while providing economic alternatives to drug trafficking. And finally, he must talk across classes and voting blocs without compromising on equal values. It’s certainly no easy task balancing these interests. But in light of exclusionary populists and nonresponsive elites, to reunite a country under a liberal tradition in this era would be truly, well, exceptional.