The hot-spoken economist Rodrigo Chaves Robles, 60, will govern Costa Rica for the next four years by winning the ballot on Sunday with his proposal to eradicate traditional politics in one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. A million Costa Ricans, a fifth of the population, favored the presidential candidate who only 30 months ago did not exist as a political figure and who came to the election with a load of questions about the financing of his campaign, but above all with a international cover letter that shames a part of the population: the sexual harassment that marked the end of a career of almost three decades at the World Bank in 2019.
It is not publicly known why the unknown Chaves landed at the end of that year in the chair of Minister of Finance of President Carlos Alvarado, who fired him six months later and who on May 8 will deliver the presidential sash for the period 2022-2026 . However, the lack of political experience became rather a quality for the majority of voters who this Sunday chose the candidate of the debuting Social Democratic Progress Party (PPSD) to make forceful changes in the game of public and economic powers, although his triumphant speech sent conciliatory signals that are far from the fiery speech that he projected just a few hours ago.
Chaves benefited from being the contrasting new face with the veteran José María Figueres, president between 1994 and 1998 and son of three-time president José Figueres Ferrer. The result yields 52.85% of the winner against 47.15% of the former president, but with an abstention of 43.15%, higher than in the first round of February 6, which was already the highest since the middle of the century XX.
“The abstentionists are the largest party in the country,” Chaves illustrated in his victory speech marked by a calm character that he never had in the campaign, described as “a cockfight” by former president Óscar Arias. “I understand that many things are said in an electoral campaign. All change creates uncertainty, in many cases threatens privileges and affects interests, but I have committed myself and will continue to promote deep and positive changes in the way of governing Costa Rica democratically”, he said trying to extinguish the flames that fueled his electoral victory.
Chaves assumes power with the image of a connoisseur of the economy (doctorate from the University of Ohio, United States) in a country with successful social indicators that also accumulates wide lags and growing disparities, with a new offer credential (“a riskier experiment” , he called his contender in the campaign) and a strong man style. These elements allowed him to score points beyond the advantage of being the rival of the worn-out Figueres who, with the old National Liberation Party (PLN), have been accused of corruption, with accusations that have not been confirmed so far.
This man declared a convinced Catholic, who has said that “the force to govern is fed by the fear of God” and opposes euthanasia and free abortion, will take power catapulted by the force of a female figure essential for the victory of the PPSD, the former television journalist Pilar Cisneros recognized for her positions contrary to the political class. For 30 years, while Chaves traveled the world wearing a World Bank shirt without being known in Costa Rica more than his private circle, Cisneros appeared on the main television channel twice a day with harsh criticism like those embodied in the campaign by the now president elect.
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Make Costa Rica “the happiest country in the world” again
Pilar Cisneros will occupy one of the 10 legislative seats of the PPSD, 17.5% of the total seats, as of May 1 for four years, if she is not appointed to the government team that Chaves must form in the coming weeks with the promise not to include the usual politicians. The terrain is adverse to him and the vote is the lowest for a president in the century. In addition, the powers are limited for the President and the pressure is high to show in practice what he promised in the campaign, from lowering the price of rice to “making Costa Rica once again the happiest country in the world.” the motto of the trumpist mold that rounded off the accusations of populism warned by analysts.
The climate of political disenchantment and the economic needs of a broad sector of the population, plus the high economic dependence on international factors, make the path that awaits Chaves more difficult. And he, too, will test his promise to “eat the fight,” a Costa Rican neighborhood phrase to refer to facing the problems that others evade. It implies being brave and reaching for virtues associated with men in the macho culture that feminist sectors also reproach Chaves with. “It will be a disappointment if Chaves wins, proof that this society turns its back on women, a shame,” said young Mariana Víquez pessimistically on the election afternoon, wearing a T-shirt printed with Chaves’ face and the phrase “stalker”.
But Chaves refuses to be sexist or misogynist, much less a harasser, despite internal and external reports about the conduct committed at the World Bank, where he was sanctioned with demotion, salary freeze and entry restrictions without prior notice. During the campaign, he blamed these attacks on “powerful groups.” The president-elect, on the contrary, highlights that he grew up with six sisters, that he loves his two daughters, his wife, the Latvian Signe Zecate, and, above all, the memory of his mother Alicia, who died in September 2020, but which, he says, was instrumental in his decision to run for president.
Chaves assures that it was because of her and not because of the sexual harassment file at the World Bank, that he decided to return to Costa Rica, to take care of her in the final phase of an illness she was suffering from. That she blessed him when he told her about her political aspirations and that it was she who told him the phrase “eat the anger” that later became a flag in the campaign. “The anger is you,” Figueres told him in one of the debates, referring to the numerous inflammatory messages that Chaves gave in his campaign against political groups, business elites, unions and the media, especially after he surprisingly entered the ballot. .
“I ask you to become the tsunami that is going to sweep away the garbage from this country. We are a tsunami and we are going to cause destruction of corrupt structures, of The nation and Channel 7, the main newspaper and the main television station in the country,” he said at a rally, always accompanied by Cisneros, the journalist who gave him visibility among the 25 candidates that were in the first round. Some analysts maintain that the news about sexual harassment could have also helped him, which gave him visibility, since part of the population bought the version of Chaves that justified the accusations as a misinterpretation of his Latino culture.
The local press also pointed out the opacity of the financing of the campaign and then the indications of an illegal structure, questions that led to the opening of investigations by the electoral and criminal authorities whose outcomes will be known when Chaves already holds power in the Executive, with immunity for him and for his two vice presidents, the doctor Mary Munive and Steffan Brunner, an economist who serves as treasurer of the PPSD.
The questions accompanied Chaves throughout the campaign prior to the ballot. He responded by questioning the intellectual capacity of the women who criticized him, insinuating that they did not read the report because they did not know English. He has also accused journalists of “looking for garbage” in his background at the World Bank and has published false information that he withdrew after denials, including one from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). His image was perceived as shocking to a sector of the electorate, but not all: a majority of men and from agricultural areas leaned towards him. In addition, almost half of his followers did not care about his complaints of sexual harassment, indicated a survey by the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
“It is a movement for the people,” said Chaves, considered one more example of populism that has been reflected in other countries in the region, sums up the political scientist Rotsay Rosales, a researcher at the UCR. “He is a social conservative and an economic liberal. It can be said that he is from the right, but with a strong-handed speech”, he added before April 3 and the conciliatory speech with which he seems to want to pave the way for the next chapter of his political adventure, that of million-dollar president voted for him and 71% of the electoral roll that voted for his rival or preferred to abstain.
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