Michael O'McCarthy interviews Costa Rican Presidential Candidate Ottón Solís

30 July, 2009 — Council on Hemispheric Affairs

With a constitution lending itself to the development of a complete social democracy and with its notable lack of a standing military force, Costa Rica is unique among Latin American nations. After a very narrow victory over Ottón Solís in 2006, the country has been governed by Óscar Árias of the social-democratic Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN, or Party for National Liberation). Despite his prominence as a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1987, Árias has received much criticism as a result of several corruption scandals, the polarization of his government against the political opposition, as well as for his support of free trade, most strongly exemplified by his push for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States. The agreement was ratified by Árias’ government in October 2007, after only 51 percent of the population voted in its favor during a national referendum.

The presidential election coming up in February 2010 has thus been viewed by political parties that opposed CAFTA as an opportunity to bring the country back onto a track of greater social justice. Michael O’McCarthy, is a progressive activist, journalist, and author of Rebels in Hell, and is currently living in Costa Rica. O’McCarthy, who also serves as a COHA Research Fellow, interviewed 2010 presidential candidate Ottón Solís about his views on the way his country has been run for the past few years as well as on the nature of his campaign platform for the Partido de Acción Cuidadano (PAC, or Citizen Action Party). The discussion centered in particular on questions of free trade, corruption in Costa Rican political circles and Solís’ vision for the path toward social justice in his nation.

Ottón Solís created the PAC shortly before the 2002 Presidential election and was its presidential candidate in both 2002 and 2006. He will once again run in February 2010, after winning the internal PAC convention last month. Two other parties who are running for the 2010 Presidential elections as opponents of CAFTA are Alianza Patriótica, created by former members of the PLN, who had opposed the ratification of CAFTA, and Frente Amplio, a party that aspires to bring together members of the former left — mainly ex-communists and ex-socialists — with social leaders and activists. Frente Amplio ran in 2006 in the province of San José, and its ticket elected one congressman, José Merino. In 2010 it will run as a national party. Both parties are attempting to convince PAC to join a coalition centered on a common electoral platform.

This introduction was composed by COHA Research Associate Alexandra Deprez

The Interview

Michael O’McCarthy: How does Costa Rica fare in the face of neoliberal globalization, as exemplified by CAFTA, given Washington’s threats to retract from previously negotiated trade agreements, had Costa Rica not signed CAFTA or if it now withdraws from it?

Ottón Solís: It is unfortunate that the USA cannot recognize the achievements of Costa Rica in its own right and instead joins the chorus of local vested interests that have for 20 years tried to convince us that Costa Rica is a mistake. We have achieved more economic progress than other countries in the region due to our social development and not the other way around. CAFTA is a threat to that social, as well as economical, development. Successful countries such as the USA, Canada, Western Europe or Japan, have never applied the type of measures we are now forced to implement in Costa Rica as a result of CAFTA. It is difficult to understand how the USA could request the application of these measures for another country.

O: How will you deal with this law once you become President?

S: CAFTA has been passed and is now settled as a law, so we are going to do everything we can to renegotiate and get US Congress to change the agreement. At any rate we are going to see CAFTA as a maximum and not a minimum. We will look at the implementation agenda in order to make sure that it does not go beyond what CAFTA requires.

O: How does the stationing of the U.S. Coast Guard on Costa Rican soil affect the nation’s neutrality and sovereignty?

S: The US Coast Guard is legitimately dedicated to controlling narcotics trafficking. I am against all corruption and drug trafficking, so I think Costa Rica should cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking. This is an agreement I stand by.

O: Could you give me an example of the harm CAFTA is doing or could/may do to the average Costa Rican?

S: We have thousands of small and medium size farmers and are compelled by CAFTA to open our market to agricultural imports. It will be very difficult for our farmers to compete against the U.S.’ agribusiness sector, let alone when that sector is subsidized. Dairy farmers are already being threatened by CAFTA and its implications for Costa Rica.

O: The history of Costa Rica has been that of a growing social democracy – under your governance, how would that progress take shape? What “social guarantees” will you initiate in pursuit of this progress?

S: We want to guarantee universal access to the fishing canes, as the saying goes, by means of government interventions geared at improving the access to and the quality of education, health, telecommunications, credit opportunities and electricity. We are going to do all of this to guarantee growth, and we also want to move forward concerning cultural values. We need to eliminate discrimination against women, afro-American descendants, the LGBT community, and non-Catholics; we want to have an inclusive society in which everyone feels safe.

O: Last year a foreign company, enabled by a Zona Franca (Free-Trade Zone), closed its business in Costa Rica without giving proper notice nor offering severance compensation to its employees, departing from the country without justly compensating its employees, and thus violating Costa Rican law. Could you explain what “social guarantees” these employees currently receive? What “social guarantees” would you attempt to introduce into the law in order to provide state protection for the best interests of these people and their families?

S: Well, none. The labor legislation in Costa Rica, if properly complied with, accords full rights to the workers. If a company goes bankrupt, it must recognize workers’ rights. This company did not do that; the problem was a violation of the law more than a lack of legislation.

S: So what social guarantees do these workers have?

O: In practice, none.

S: No social security?

O: No, they are unemployed.

S: And health insurance?

O: No.

S: Not even under the new six-month plan implemented by Árias ?

O: No.

S: No re-education?

O: No.

S: No subsidy for their children?

O: No, the newly unemployed have lost everything.

O: So if they had a car, they might be living in it?

S: I don´t know the workers’ current situation.

O: What social guarantees would you try to legislate to provide the families with social protection from the government?

S: Well, I think the legislation is good, in such cases we would enforce compliance.

O: Would you introduce social guarantee measures that would ensure that if the family provider loses his job and has a hard time finding a new one, he would receive unemployment benefits in the form of some kind of food, rent, and housing subsidies?

S: Yes, there should be some kind of income guaranteed for the unemployed subjected to their acceptance of being retrained for another job.

O: Would you consider nationalizing the company, providing guidance to turn the company and its material or contractual assets over to its workers, providing the management and assisting employee selection with training, and providing an oversight manager for interim purposes and a permanent oversight audit-manager to guarantee complete transparency in the transactions?

S: No, I would not nationalize a company. When a company goes bankrupt I will not do what you are doing in the USA, pay out subsidies to save its owners’ wealth. I will spend money, but on the workers’ re-training and reemployment. If we decided to keep a company afloat with taxpayer’s money we will transfer it to a cooperative organization, never to its former owners.

O: How do you define the difference between a “social democracy” and a “democratic socialist state?”

S: A social democracy embraces a system of private property in which the state guarantees social mobility by subsidizing and/or undertaking the operation or the regulation of certain key services. Democratic Socialism is a system that rejects private initiative or at least it considers it a necessary evil.

O: In 1959 an epic social change occurred in the world: Cuba had a revolution led by Fidel Castro and declared its independence as a state based on Marxist theory. What is your view of that revolution, its effect on Latin America as a whole, and its effect –if any– on Costa Rica?

S: I think that the revolution helped us [Costa Rica] because; as a result of US fears [over the Cold War] we received funds via the Alliance for Progress. Cuba has an economic system that does not work. It has extraordinary social achievements (in education and health) which are due more to the aid given by the former Soviet Union in the past and by Chinese and Venezuelan aid today, than to its own productive capacity. For that reason those social achievements are difficult to reproduce in other countries. Mind you, many countries have received much more aid from the US [than we have] and have not improved their health and educational standards.

O: How will you change Costa Rica-Cuba relations if you become President?

S: We will recognize Cuba and vote for its unconditioned full membership in the OAS. If we were to place conditions related to its political organization we would have to review our relations with other communist states, such as China.

O: In 1999 Hugo Chávez, a self-declared socialist and anti-imperialist, became Venezuela’s president, and despite the opposition of Venezuelan conservatives and the United States, he was re-elected in 2006. What have you learned from his implementation of socialism in Venezuela and its possible application to the Costa Rican experience?

S: Very little, for we do not have oil in order to get by. We do not believe in nationalizing enterprises and putting their operation in the hands of the state. His petroeconomics is not reproducible. Besides, an agenda called anti-imperialistic is not a development agenda; it is an agenda of constant argumentation and hate. He [Chávez] speaks many truths about past behavior of the United States as well as of some international financial institutions but he needs to move forward toward a friendlier and more peaceful language. He invokes the most hateful and divisive language worthy of Reagan and Bush, and so it is very difficult to appreciate his contribution to international relations. He is buying weapons, starting an arms race in South America, and he seems to love regimes in which women and other minorities are officially discriminated against. All in all it is not a model that I would imitate.

O: Would you join ALBA? (interrupts)Why would you not join ALBA?

S: No. See former answer.


O: In The History of Costa Rica, the primer written by University of Costa Rica Professors Molina and Palmer noted the significant change that occurred in the 1980s regarding the direction social democracy was taking in Costa Rica. This change was occasioned by the resurgence of right-wing conservatism which was ushered in by Ronald Reagan’s resurrection of Richard Nixon’s failed reactionary agenda. They discuss the following results:

“Tax fraud [and] corruption have been an inherent part of the neo-liberal transformation. […] they have reached unprecedented dimensions starting in the 1980s in step with Neo-liberal ideology’s attack on the welfare state and on state controls over economic activity.”

Tax fraud was especially apparent in regards to the Certificates of Tax Deferral (CAT) wherein “the state transferred one billion dollars in CATs to a variety of companies including some transnational corporations, between 1984 and 1999.”

These and other highly speculative “free market” “ventures, irregularities in loan concessions and misappropriation of funds led to the 1994 collapse of the Banco Anglo Costarricense following the discovery of losses totaling $54.5 million. The closing [of the oldest bank in the country] left over 1700 people unemployed.”

“The corruption that took shape during the 1980s was soon shown to have links to the criminal world [which] introduced arms trafficking” and “trafficking of narcotics on a vast scale.” The leading promoters of both illegal operations were U.S. personnel, with “those of the CIA in particular.”

In tandem came the Colombian cartels who used Costa Rica as a site for drug transshipment and money laundering that “achieved a deep penetration of Costa Rica’s political, business and professional communities. In 1997, 63 firms were investigated for supposedly using CATs to expedite the laundering of profits from the international drug trade [and] in 1990 a minimum of 12 tons of cocaine entered the US via Costa Rica each year; by 1997 their [US officials’] calculation was 50 tons, and by 2001 some 70 tons.”

With the attempt to intervene into the national sovereignty as well as trade between nations, the US introduced CAFTA. This is when the neo-liberals began attempts to privatize state services.

“In 2004, investigations by the media revealed a financial fraud scandal that was being led by “politicians” being “arrested and imprisoned among them ex-presidents Calderon Fournier and Rodriguez; with another ex-president who had fled the country refusing to return to testify.”

O: How high up the ladder of the current political parties and politicians has the corruption climbed?

Very high, and I think that it is still going on.

O: Would you be willing to name these politicians?

S: There are former Presidents who are on the run, and in the current administration there is a mystery about campaign funding, as well as many instances of stealing of public resources. In the past, current president Óscar Árias received contributions from several prominent narco traffickers. All this explains much of the current dangerous increase in drug storage and mobilization throughout our territory.

O: To what extent is corruption causing the failures encountered in Costa Rican society?

S: The Costa Rican population does not trust politicians. We are trapped in very slow and very complicated decision making processes and complicated bureaucratic procedures because doubts about corruption result in careful scrutiny and a lot of red tape. Corruption and abuses also reduce the funds available for education, infrastructure, health, and security.

O: Who and what do you blame for this failure to meet the needs and rights of the Costa Rican population?

S: Traditional politics. The people at the top of the political hierarchy who run this country are the ones who must account for this failure.

To what extent does the mission of controlling of corruption related to the drug trade hold sway over Costa Rica’s politicians and institutions?

S: I don’t think that all corruption is linked. I think that you cannot link everything to the corruption related to narco trafficking, but yes, some presidential candidates in this country have been financed by drug money.

O: Does that situation still characterize the PLN today?

S: I think that corruption small and big has gotten so bad, that many politicians are not even aware of their serious mistakes in this field.

O: To what extent does the US government continue to insert itself into the domestic and foreign policy concerns of Costa Rica?

S: I think that anyone with a measure of power will try to do what the US does; I blame the Costa Ricans for accepting it.

O: How would you counter the US intervention?

S: By talking and persuading U.S. policy makers and by being accountable to the Costa Rican population not to the U.S. government. Can you believe that President Árias justified a law he proposed to our Congress under the grounds that U.S. legislation required it?

O: What is your position on the legal and territorial difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the Rio San Juan, and can these two countries not share the fruits of the river to both their advantage?

S: This is an issue that has just been sorted out at The International Court of Justice in a manner that clarifies and protects lawful rights of both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Now both countries should agree and implement a sustainable development plan for the frontier region.

O: What is Costa Rica’s greatest cultural contribution?

Care for nature, democracy and respect for human rights.

O: What would you do to avoid the overtaking of your culture by globalization?

We must develop a healthy pride in our achievements. We must learn to respect our history, to love our country and to believe in Costa Rica. Concerning international cultural values, we have to be selective. We have to copy from developed nations certain key cultural practices, like hard work, law abidingness, punctuality, respect for the right of others, trust, nationalism.

O: In light of the fact that Costa Rica has a predominantly Catholic and patriarchal culture, what government steps can be implemented to assist women in gaining equal opportunities in the workplace and at school, provide them with better protection from domestic violence, and insure that they have control over their bodies?

We must guarantee equality at all levels, by statute. My party guarantees and practices full gender parity. We must legally punish domestic violence, including psychological violence. We must facilitate access to all contraceptives for men and women.

O: Recently I read about the negative impact of the “period of neo-liberalism” in Costa Rica during the regimes of Árias, Calderón, Rodriguez and Pacheco. Could you cite which social democratic programs have been severely damaged by this process? To what extent does the damage continue to this day, and what steps would you take as President to address them?

Education, health. We need to adequately tax the wealthiest sector of society and corporations in order to dramatically improve the quality of public education and to reduce waiting lists and lines at public hospitals.

O: We recently have witnessed a decline in the U.S. between the separation of the public and private sector. What form of government would you enforce and develop in Costa Rica, were you to become president?

S: A mixed economy in which access to education, health, research and development, credit, telecommunications, electricity, culture and sports does not depend on income but by a standard of universal access, and in which the public sector assumes important roles or becomes fully responsible for environmental protection, transport infrastructure, and other public goods.


O: The Afro-Caribbean province of Limón has been discriminated against for a very long time. Until 1948, people of color were not permitted in the nation’s capitol. To this day, the province and its population remain the target of villainous lies, racist innuendos and outright discrimination. As President, what would you do to change that?

S: We will invest about $80 million in the existing seaport and call on the private sector to build a new competitive port terminal. We will submit a tender for the best rail construction companies in the world to build a modern cargo rail line between Limón (on the Caribbean Coast) and Puntarenas (on the Pacific Coast). We will put to good use the World Bank Loan that has just been ratified by our Parliament for the improvement of public services in Limón City.

O: Recently I traveled into the mountains and was told of the utterly poor conditions in which many of the indigenous people, now referred to as “First Nation people”, are living. While the Bribri (one First Nation) seem to receive government payments, meager as they may be, in return for the losses suffered, the other First Nations like the Boruca, and the Cabecar have little infrastructure that could provide them with modern medical and educational resources, much less with electricity and telecommunications. As President, what would you do to recognize their heritage and rights and to institute a government program that would satisfy their needs?

S: We are pushing a Bill that protects the rights and culture of the indigenous peoples.

O: Many are shocked to find that there are no unions outside the government structure, even thought they are one of the most effective sources of collective power to improve their members’ lives and the lives of their families, as well as improve the society at large. What is your position on supporting private sector unionization, especially when dealing with a multi-national like Wal Mart which in the past has had an egregious record of employee mistreatment?

S: We are currently striving for the approval of legislation that guarantees the rights of unionization in the private sector.

Produced by COHA Research Fellow Michael O’McCarthy and COHA Research Associate Alexandra Deprez
July 30th, 2009
Word Count: 3500

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