Right Rising in Costa Rica

On February 7th, 2010, Costa Ricans voted and chose a woman —Laura Chinchilla— as the new president of the country.  Chinchilla (the candidate of Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN) won the election with 47% of the vote while her most important challengers Ottón Solís (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC) got 25% and Otto Guevara (Movimiento Libertario, ML) 21%.  Taking into account that the PLN is a Center-Right party and the ML is a rightist party, the Costa Rican electorate gave the Right a resounding victory.  Such a victory has given the neoliberal wing of the Costa Rica’s political class an endorsed check to keep applying its reform of the State. Why did Costa Rica’s Left experience such a defeat?

After the end of the Civil War of 1948, the victors outlawed the Partido Vanguardia Popular (PVP) which was the name of the Costa Rican Communist Party.  Between 1948 and 1973, the constitution forbade the participation of communist parties in the electoral arena.  This was a concession to the anticommunist group that had opposed the governments of the period 1940-1948 and which had wanted to destroy the Left’s influence and its union activities.  But, in several ways, the new party, the PLN founded in 1951 by José Figueres and other revolutionaries who overthrew the government in 1948 played an important role in balancing power by serving as a Center-Left electoral option.  Indeed, the PLN declared itself to be a social-democratic party, which meant that it backed the State’s control of economics and the enactment of legislation to launch the state-initiated enterprises for national farmers, peasants, and the extension of a social security system similar to that in some European countries like France.  In that sense, the PLN continued to fortify the social legislation enacted in the 1940s, the very legislation that gave Costa Rica its high standards in health, education, life expectancy, and the economy.

Thus, although the Costa Rican communist party was not able to recuperate its pre-1948 power and then, during the 1980s, fell apart, further reducing its chance to fight electorally, the PLN offered a model of social-democracy that the Costa Rican Right was not able to defeat.  Between 1953 and 1990 the PLN won six of a total of nine elections.  However, in the 1980s the PLN began renouncing its center-left ideals and embraced the neoliberal dogma, producing a State reform that tried to mutilate the State’s hands in economics and society.  It seems that in 1984, the PLN began dividing into two wings: the neoliberal group, which raised the flag of the State’s reform, and the social-democratic group, which wanted to return to the 1960s-1970s.  Although the PLN presidential candidate José María Figueres Olsen (the son of the founder of the PLN) won the elections of 1994 by promising to get back to the PLN’s foundational principles, very soon Figueres Olsen had to renounce that plan and continued using shock therapy to apply the neoliberal reforms.  Analysts started talking about the PLUSC, an alliance between the PLN and the Partido Unidad Socialcristiana (PUSC, Center-Right party founded in 1983 and then the second electoral force), to rush the neoliberal reform.

Thanks to social mobilizations between 1986 and 2001, however, the neoliberals were not able to totally transform the Costa Rican State.  People, especially peasants and middle class urban groups, rejected the attempt to decimate the welfare State that they knew.  The biggest mobilization took place in 2001, when a heterogeneous social movement impeded President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez from passing legislation that would have allowed the breaking up of the State monopoly on telecommunications.  Rodriguez’s defeat seems to have been a lesson for neoliberals, who began planning the way to continue their reform.  Such an opportunity appeared with the negotiation of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, which finally was approved after a tough popular plebiscite in 2007.

The approbation of CAFTA took place in a polarized social environment. This polarization was already manifest in the presidential elections of 2006, when Oscar Arias competed against Ottón Solis and won the election by getting only 1% more votes than Solís.  In several ways, the Arias-vs.-Solís race was a clash between the PLN’s neoliberal and social-democratic wings. Solís abandoned the PLN in 1998 along with other PLN members, founding the PAC as a way to keep social-democracy alive.  Therefore, for many scholars and intellectuals—which does not imply that it is totally true—Solís represented the heir of the Center-Left tradition that would stop the neoliberal reform. Thus, Solís and the PAC opposed CAFTA. A year ago, this party clearly appeared as having a good chance of winning the 2010 elections.  But the PLN defeated it with no problem.

Many Costa Rican political analysts have tried to explain why the Costa Rican electorate decided to give the Right the chance to remain in power. Many assert that it was the power of money (a multimillionaire propaganda) that was the real winner in the elections.  Others say that gender played a role considering that this was the first time that a woman really had the opportunity to be president.  Some scholars argue that political clientelism among the poor was the real motive of Chinchilla’s victory.  Analysts will have time enough to think about how to explain this result.  What is clear is that the Costa Rica’s Center-Left was defeated as had not been since 1948.  And it seems that this result confirms that Latin America is moving to the Right after several years of having flirted with the Left.  Why?  That is a question that the Latin American Left will have to reply very soon.

DAVID DÍAZ-ARIAS holds a PhD in History (Indiana University Bloomington) and is professor of History at the University of Costa Rica.  He can be reached at david.diaz@ucr.ac.cr