Costa Rican Democracy on the Edge
Costa Rica got a new government on May 8, and its election showed how much the country has changed. The Third World’s most advanced democracy is now threatened by orthodox neoliberalism and an ethical crisis within its governing class. It is balancing on the blade of two knives or, perhaps instead, on the double-edged blade of the same destructive knife.
By the middle of the last decade, Costa Rica had acquired at least one common denominator with other Latin American countries: the rock-bottom credibility of its politicians and political institutions in citizens’ eyes.
A survey reveals distrustIn 1996, the UNDP did a survey in each Central American country designed to measure the citizenry’s perceptions and expectations of their institutions, among other things. The survey revealed that Costa Ricans have a high degree of distrust and skepticism towards their institutions. Surprisingly, it is even higher than people in other countries of the region express.
Some interesting comparisons can be drawn between the perceptions of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans on several issues addressed by the survey. Politics evoked negative feelings among 79% of people in both countries: distrust, distaste, indifference, irritation or boredom. But while 57% of Nicaraguans felt that politicians have few if any solutions to their country’s problems, a full 81% of Costa Ricans felt that way. While 58.3% of Nicaraguans expressed little if any confidence in political parties, that was true for 75.4% of Costa Ricans. Their respective governments scored similarly, with 58.6% of Nicaraguans and 73.5% of Costa Ricans expressing little or no confidence in their government. And the parliaments did only slightly better: 51% of Nicaraguans expressed little or no trust in theirs, compared to 71.4% of Costa Ricans. The latter have traditionally been very confident of their justice system, but by the mid-nineties, 52.2% had little or no trust in the system, compared to 61.2% of Nicaraguans, with 62.1% of Costa Ricans and 62.4% of Nicaraguans feeling that people are not equal before the law in their country.
The trend identified by this 1996 survey was confirmed by several later ones in Costa Rica, which reported even more negative evaluations. It was also obvious to any observer in the period leading up to the official start of this year’s election campaign. For example, the most recent national census was taken during that time and the government launched a campaign to encourage people to collaborate. When one citizen was asked what he saw as the importance of the census, he replied, "This way, the people who govern us will have more precise information on how many of us there are so they can rob us better." This was perhaps an extreme opinion, but it revealed the way many Costa Ricans felt before the elections.
The South’s most The attitudes of Costa Ricans towards their governing class, institutions and politics as practiced were not always like this. It is important to remember that this is the only Latin American country that has enjoyed an uninterrupted liberal democratic system from 1948 to the present. Its liberal democracy has been the most advanced—or at least, the least limited—in all of the South, with characteristics superior to that of many democracies in the developed countries. The example of this that seems to me the most significant is that Costa Rica is surely the only liberal democracy in the world where the armed forces are not a powerful pressure group capable of or with invested interest in influencing the decisions made by civilian authorities.
When I came to Costa Rica for the first time in the 1970s, from Nicaragua, I was struck by the extraordinary and sincere respect in people’s voices when they talked about their political leaders and their conviction in describing the effectiveness of the country’s institutions. I will always remember an argument I witnessed between two Costa Ricans. After they exhausted their repertoires of insults, the fight did not culminate with the typical Nicaraguan phrase, "I’m going to do you in, you son of a …!" or worse yet, with an actual shoot-out or stabbing. The angry Costa Rican brought the conflict to a climax when he yelled, "You son of a…! I’ll see you in court!" Costa Ricans held on to this respect for their political institutions until the early 1980s. What has happened in the last 20 years to bring about such a radical change in the way they feel about their public institutions and the workings of their political system?
The serpent’s egg: To understand this change, we have to begin with the government of Luis Alberto Monge (1982-86). It was a turning point in Costa Rican history and can help explain the qualitative changes that have taken place in the country’s society.
Monge broke with the traditional respect for national sovereignty that characterized Costa Rica’s ruling class when he allowed the United States to occupy the northern part of the country to wage Reagan’s war against Nicaragua. That historically important characteristic had differentiated the Costa Rican oligarchy from other Latin American oligarchies, in particular, from Nicaragua’s.
In the short term, Costa Rica’s assignment in the "low intensity conflict" strategy of the United States was fabulous business. The only country in the region with a presentable reality, Costa Rica was the "showcase of democracy" to be held up against the Sandinista "totalitarian" project. In exchange, Costa Rica received extraordinarily flexible treatment from the international financial organizations and virtually all foreign investment that came to the region was concentrated here. The country also received substantial economic aid from the United States itself, amounting to US$1.43 billion. And unlike the aid Reagan granted to El Salvador and Honduras, the sums for "military aid" were an insignificant part of the total.
The ill-fated consequences The sovereignty rental business had fatal consequences over time, however. The most obvious are those directly linked to the boomerang effect caused by the presence of the Nicaraguan "contra" in Costa Rica and by the breakdown in Nicaraguan society, at least in part due to the war. Criminal armed bands appeared on the scene, especially in Costa Rica’s rural areas, and the country became a platform for international drug trafficking, some of it allegedly involving the CIA as a way to finance the contras. Furthermore, as one of the main destinations of Nicaraguan migrants in search of work, Costa Rica now faces the pressures of the Nicaraguan diaspora.
of renting sovereignty
Two mutually reinforcing and far more important consequences of Monge’s decision to traffic in sovereignty are not always associated with that decision. The first is that one condition for doing business with the Reagan Administration was agreeing to dismantle the country’s Social Democratic economic policy model, which had been producing such good results in Costa Rica.
Neoliberalism began with MongeOne key to explaining the exceptional nature of Costa Rica’s political system is that the dynamic growth of the 1960s and 1970s, when the country’s average annual GDP growth rate came to 6%, was joined by a social policy unparalleled in Latin America, except in Cuba. Monge’s government changed course by putting a neoliberal strategy into effect, although it was promoted more slowly and reluctantly than in other Latin American countries.
So far, Costa Rica’s neoliberal experience, along with Uruguay’s, has been the least orthodox in Latin America, and its effects have been relatively less brutal and traumatic than in the rest of our countries. Following a profound crisis in 1979-1983, Costa Rica achieved modest but sustained growth until 1999, with a cumulative annual per capita GDP growth rate of close to 2%, albeit marked by persistent financial imbalances, a recurrent trade deficit and limited capacity to create expanding horizontal linkages in the domestic economy. This growth reflects a strong increase in exports—nearly US$5.9 billion in 2000 with nontraditional products comprising 85% (over $5 billion) of that—accompanied by a dazzling growth in tourism. Since the late 1980s, Costa Rica has built a tourist industry that brought in earnings of $1.25 billion in 2000. The growth is also reflected by a current per-capita GDP of around $4,000, which is significant even considering the known limitations of this indicator (Nicaragua’s is approximately $480).
Less poverty and unemployment, Two characteristics of this experience so far lie outside the norm for Latin America thanks to Costa Rica’s sustained moderate growth and the heterodoxy of its neoliberal experience. First, it has not led to a significant increase in poverty. The poverty rate is currently around 23%, slightly above the 18% of the late 1970s, which gives Costa Rica one of the lowest levels in the region, along with Uruguay and Barbados. Second, there has been no significant increase in unemployment, as demonstrated by the fact that Costa Rica is able to absorb so many of Nicaragua’s unemployed.
but increasing exclusion
Nevertheless, Costa Rica’s heterodox neoliberal strategy has not prevented the asymmetries promoted by the model’s "rationale," which have brought intense exclusionary processes, a social and ethical breakdown and, in general, a profound deterioration in the quality of life for most Costa Ricans. Although the poverty rate has not significantly increased, the middle class—the political model’s historical constituency—has been made visibly poorer, with those in the lowest strata of the middle class now nearly as vulnerable as the poor.
Many gains now being rolled backIncome distribution in Costa Rica is increasingly polarized and the real buying power of the average person’s salary is lower than in the late 1970s. Because of the opening of the market and a lack of access to credit, small- and medium-scale growers of crops like corn, beans, rice and potatoes for the domestic market are in crisis or have disappeared. Social spending has fallen below 1970s levels and public health and education services have drastically deteriorated, with people encouraged to buy these services on the private market. Collective transport, once excellent, is increasingly poor, and the popular housing programs no longer exist.
The model’s "rationale" is most starkly revealed in the prevailing imposition of so-called "flexible" labor relations, which create more precarious work situations. The new generation of workers has seen the roll-back of hard-won historical rights to long-term collective bargaining agreements, social security, a pension and other benefits.
To make matters worse, these forms of social exclusion are accompanied by the promotion of a voraciously consumerist culture. Such a level of consumerism not only exceeds the economy’s real capacity, creating frustrations and criminal appetites, but also contributes to the increasing contamination of urban centers and growing rates of crime, drug addiction and social and sexual violence. Other Central American countries no longer have much reason to envy Costa Rica when it comes to security, as a private army of nearly 12,000 armed guards, managed by 130 companies, watch over malls, supermarkets, banks, companies, private universities, institutions, well-off neighborhoods and even private homes.
The ethical deterioration The second important change that began during Monge’s government and marks it as a turning point in the country’s history is that the political class began to suffer from a profound ethical deterioration during that period. Costa Rica’s political class was almost mythic in Latin America, with real anecdotes of simple, austere Presidents who walked to work and were sometimes even hit by cars. Nonetheless, if a President decides to traffic in a value such as sovereignty, so dear to the country’s political traditions, why not traffic as well in other values related to public ethics, especially if this is encouraged by an economic model that lauds mercantile profit as humanity’s greatest value?
of the political class
List of corruption scandalsA series of systematic corruption scandals began under Monge’s government that has spread like an oil spill, and the public perception is that they have been carried out in virtually complete impunity. The list of scandals over the last 20 years, since Monge’s government, is a long one. Naming but a few—those that received the most media attention—there was the National Emergency Fund, involving the fraudulent use of state funds; the Costa Rican Development Corporation, with the fraudulent bankruptcy and undervalued sale of state companies; the International Bank of Costa Rica, a case of fraud in a state financial entity; land concessions in the Gulf of Papagayo, an environmentally protected area; the Tax Payment Certificates scandal, involving money laundering and defrauding the state; the fraudulent bankruptcy of the state-owned Anglo Costarricense Bank; financial anomalies in the Civil Aviation Office; the purchase of arms from Israel, again involving fraudulent use of state funds; anomalous registrations in the National Property Registry; illegal business deals within the Social Security Fund; fraudulent use of state funds in the Social Compensation Fund; and various scandals related to drug trafficking, tax evasion and contraband.
Politicians and businesspeople associated with the two traditional parties that have governed this country—the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social Christian Union Party (PUSC)—have invariably been involved in these scandals affecting public property, most of which cost the state millions of dollars.
People have witnessed the legal system’s complete ineffectiveness in bringing the perpetrators of these corruption cases to justice. The trials last decades, but the people identified by common sense as the main ones responsible are never sentenced. When they begin to feel threatened, they just leave the country unimpeded. Recently, a journalist who had been exposing corruption was assassinated. People blamed the crime on those he had denounced, but even after the passage of several months, the authorities have failed to announce any leads in the case.
Leftist parties have disappearedThe profile of Costa Rican civil society from the 1960s and 1970s has changed considerably, with the exception of the powerful chambers of commerce and their ideological apparatus, the newspaper La Nación and its media emporium.
The once-influential leftist parties have disappeared. The old Left’s last effort to regain its political ascendancy took place through the Democratic Force party, which brought together former Socialists and Communists. In the recent elections, however, it failed to win a single seat in the Legislative Assembly, losing the two it previously held. Its failure was due to vices characteristic of organizations that have a leftist rap but reproduce oligarchic forms of power relations: hierarchical structures, a cult of individuals, networks of political patronage and favoritism, unscrupulous competition, opportunistic programs, etc. These vices led to the party’s self-destruction.
"Solidarismo" Labor unions have also disappeared. The repression of unions by private companies has reached such an extreme in recent years that in 1993 it sparked protests from unions in the United States, demanding that their government suspend aid to Costa Rica due to infringement of union freedom.
has crushed the unions
With "solidarismo," the Costa Rican bourgeoisie has achieved a success unparalleled in Latin America, spreading a model of company paternalism that undermines any initiatives by workers for autonomous organization. The last bastion of unionism can be found in public sector institutions and companies, but these are not only divided and marred by political patronage, they are also on the defensive in responding to the advance of orthodox neoliberalism.
The end of a successful In the past, the National Liberation Party (PLN) represented the interests of the reformist bourgeoisie and the middle-class sectors, opposing the interests of the traditional oligarchy. Not for some time, however, has the PLN embraced the ideology that inspired it to promote what is perhaps the only successful experience of social democracy in the Third World.
social democratic experience
Both the PLN and the PUSC are now large party structures increasingly permeated by corruption. While the PUSC rhetoric contains more neoliberal orthodoxy than the PLN, which takes a somewhat heterodox approach, in practice both have adopted the role of representing the new hegemonic interests of the "globalizing" bourgeoisie subordinated to transnational capital and located in finance, nontraditional exports, tourism, bananas, large import businesses and the mass media.
An NGO’d civil societyIn the past decade, what some call the "new NGO’d civil society" has been growing in Costa Rica even more vigorously than in the rest of Central America, with a plethora of environmental, community women’s, and ethnic organizations, cooperatives, associations of small- and medium-scale producers, etc. They have many virtues: energy, flexibility, sector specialization and in some cases, a capacity to create alternative power structures. But they also have many limitations, including their financial and programmatic dependence on development cooperation and their lack of social proposals. In many cases, they also reproduce traditional power structures.
These groups, especially the community and environmental organizations, played a pivotal role not necessarily in initiating but certainly in guiding the movement known as the fight against "the electric combo," which took place two years ago.
Emblematic fight against The fight against the "combo" was unquestionably the most important social movement of the last 30 years in Costa Rica. It took on the qualities of a popular uprising, with huge demonstrations in the largest cities, street blockades, barricades, violent clashes with the police and civil guard. Its objective was to block the proposed privatization of the state-run Costa Rican Electricity Institute, which handles telecommunications and electricity services.
"the electric combo"
This fight began spontaneously, but once underway it was supported and partly directed by various student, community, environmental and union organizations and by the Democratic Force party. It reflected people’s disenchantment—especially that of the impoverished middle classes—with the ethical decomposition of the ruling class and the deteriorated living conditions resulting from the implementation of neoliberal policies. It was a complete success in obtaining its immediate objective, as it forced the government to suspend the privatization project promoted by the two traditional parties, and to at least temporarily halt a broader plan to privatize a set of state companies. The fight against the "combo" formed the backdrop that helps explain the behavior of the politicians involved in the recent elections.
Record-setting electionsThe results of the elections in February and April of this year are exceptional in the history of Costa Rica’s liberal democracy.
For the first time ever, a President—Abel Pacheco of the PUSC—was elected not in the first but the second round, because no one obtained the 40% plurality of the vote required by the Constitution the first time. In the second round, Pacheco defeated runner-up PLN candidate Rolando Araya with 58% vs. 42% of the valid vote.
In addition, for the first time in recent decades, a threatening third political force emerged, the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC). While established only at the start of the election campaign, the PAC quickly became a viable party that gave the two that have traditionally governed the country a run for their money. It won 26.14% of the vote in the first round, against the PLN’s 31.05% and the PUSC’s 38.5%, thus forcing the run-off round.
Also for the first time in recent decades, neither of the two traditional parties holds a simple majority in the Assembly or even comes close to it. Not even pooling their combined 36 votes gives them the qualified majority needed to pass certain legislation. Shares of power in the legislature are now distributed between four benches: the PUSC has 19 seats, the PLN 17, the PAC 14 and the Libertarian Party—which won 1.7% of the votes for President—has 6. If they so desire, any of these benches has the voting strength needed to present its own projects and block or broker those of the others. In addition, the very small Costa Rican Renovation Party, with conservative ideas, has one representative in the legislature.
The abstention rate has historically hovered around 20%, but that tendency began to change in the 1998 elections, when it rose to 30%. In the recent elections, abstention hit a record high. It was 31.6% in the first round, plus 2.5% in null votes, and increased in the second round to 39% plus 2% null votes. In fact, the 41% who abstained or accidentally or purposefully annulled their votes make up the largest bloc of the electorate, exceeding even the 34.1% who cast their votes for the winning Abel Pacheco.
In a country whose rulers have traditionally received strong support from the voters, President Pacheco takes office with a fragile mandate. In addition, he will have to negotiate with four different benches in the Assembly to win approval for the bills he plans to present.
The PAC and Ottón Solís: In this unprecedented course of events, a party that did not even exist before the election campaign made a remarkably strong showing. It owes its success to a proposal for an "ethical front" and to its founder and leader, Ottón Solís, the most consistent candidate in the campaign. Solís is one of the few members of the country’s political class with a solid reputation for ethical conduct. His ideological position, associated in the past with leftist social democracy, is also coherent and convincing. While other PLN colleagues organized flourishing neoliberal think tanks, Solís has steadily maintained a line critical of the dominant economic policy model.
A new "ethical front"
Solís comes from the PLN. An economist, he served as planning minister in Oscar Arias’ administration (1986-1990) but resigned over his disagreement with the structural adjustment programs being implemented. Later, as a PLN legislative representative, he returned the Christmas gifts—invariably more than symbolic—that Assembly members regularly receive from private companies with a note saying, "Thank you, but I believe representatives should not accept gifts."
The PAC offered an ethical proposalThe top leaders of the traditional parties are permeated to the core by corruption and have neither the moral authority nor the political will to eradicate it. Elected officials ignore the interests of the people who elected them, exercising power behind their backs through patronage networks and pacts. It is vitally important to change the vision and practice of politics, with rigorous demands for public morality, from large affairs such as challenging the political-business mafias, down to small ones like eliminating special perks, trips, sumptuous business lunches and the like.
The PAC’s campaign platform was essentially an ethical proposal pledging a match between words and practice. It promised transparency and accountability along with regular civic participation in public decisions through institutionalized consultations and social dialogue, and accompanied this language with practical measures to make it credible.
To establish the party, Solís surrounded himself first with dissidents from the traditional parties, all anti-neoliberal and all with unstained reputations for public honesty. To elect candidates to the Assembly, the party banned propaganda and entry fees and called upon social, community and labor organizations to propose candidates. Nearly half of the elected representatives hail from these organizations. The party also stipulated that a full 50% of the posts be held by women. And, indeed, half of the party’s 14 elected representatives and dozens of municipal council members are women.
The PAC approved an ethical code that allows its representatives to leave the country only if three-fourths of the Assembly approves their trip. It forbids them from using state cars or fuel or consuming food or drink paid for by the state, all perks that representatives enjoy. It further forbids them from touching the special funds in the national budget used by representatives of the traditional parties to finance their patronage networks at the local level. And it obliges them to renounce any business or other kinds of activities that create a conflict of interest with their legislative duties as long as they hold their posts.
The feat of the PAC and its votersIdeologically, the PAC did not formulate and does not yet have a comprehensive social proposal, but in the context of the rhetoric that dominated the campaign, it was the only party that made any precise, meaningful proposals can be described as resisting neoliberalism. It defended the notion that the state should have the capacity to intervene and regulate the market and provide strategic leadership and social and environmental protection. It proposed that the Ministry of Planning rather than the Central Bank be in charge of regulating economic policy.
The PAC expressed its clear opposition to privatizing state property it saw as strategic to autonomous development. It justified the recourse to protectionist measures to support domestic production. And, finally, it demanded that free trade agreements not only be made public but also be discussed and signed off on by the public before being approved in the Assembly.
In the course of a few months, with virtually no resources, relying on the voluntary contributions of its sympathizers, and despite the media’s hostility, the PAC managed to become the country’s third political force, following close on the heels of the two traditional parties. This remarkable political feat made for a year no one could predict. While the rural population and the urban poor voted for the traditional parties, especially for the PUSC, the PAC won the votes of urban residents, especially middle class people with a high school or university education. It was the critical, educated choice of a middle class impoverished by the advance of the neoliberal model.
PUSC won thanks to PachecoThe campaigns of the traditional parties, the PLN and the PUSC, were short on precise program proposals, focusing instead on marketing images and the personal qualities of their candidates. With the recent fight against the "combo" lurking in the background, both parties avoided references to the proposed privatization and their candidates emphatically rejected the neoliberal label.
Despite being an incumbent party whose outgoing President, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, had presided over a bland administration with little popular support, the PUSC took the lead from the very start with such a campaign style. Its key to success lay in the figure of its candidate Abel Pacheco, who, like Ottón Solís, presented himself as representing those opposed to politics as usual.
A psychiatrist by profession with a clean history of ethical conduct, Pacheco ran for his party’s nomination on an anti-corruption platform, arguing the need for internal renovation, in open opposition to former President Rafael Ángel Calderón, who controls the party machinery. Pacheco had won the battle over the candidate Calderón sought to impose, but he had to negotiate with Calderón’s people and accept almost all legislative candidates they proposed.
A man with conservative values but a clever thinker and witty speaker who uses readily graspable words, Pacheco was able to sell his image as an honest man removed from the government apparatus, simple and well intentioned but firm in his decisions. This image convinced the less educated rural and urban sectors disenchanted with traditional politics.
In his speech as President-elect, Pacheco summed up the two fundamental theses that he put forward during the campaign. "This is the time for good Costa Ricans to come together, and this should not be confused with pandering: the corrupt are going to have to deal with me. I am here because of the poor and marginalized and I will govern for them."
Punishing traditional politiciansThe electorate perceived PLN candidate Rolando Araya as a typical, inevitably disappointing representative of the traditional political class. A professional politician with reported ties to the networks people are denouncing, Araya has a sinuous ideological trajectory. He was first a leftist Social Democrat, then switched to orthodox neoliberalism in the 1990s, calling for dollarization as the country’s great solution. Now, after the fight against the "combo," he prefers to call himself anti-neoliberal. Stiff and petulant, he presented himself in the campaign as an experienced, solid politician, the "statesman" groomed to assume the presidency.
Not many were convinced. Those who voted for him did so not so much for his personal qualities as for what remains of loyalty to the PLN and its memorable past.
The Libertarian MovementThe Libertarian Movement’s candidate obtained little support on the presidential ballot (only 1.69%) but the party managed to win six representatives to the Assembly, a significant number given the fragmented nature of power there. This led the media to describe it as the second "emerging" party after the PAC, although it is radically different.
Well-financed by national and foreign economic groups, the party is directed by Otto Guevara, a legislative representative who religiously defends orthodox neoliberalism. The media has endowed him with an image of efficient performance in the Assembly. Guevara criticized the traditional parties in his speeches, and with his image as a good legislator, made some headway among the politically uneducated.
The first big question: Beyond the rhetoric, image games and few concrete proposals made in the campaign, the government’s choice of answers to two big questions pending in Costa Rica today will decide the future direction of society. It will determine whether what remains of the features that have made it a positive exception in Latin America will be strengthened or disappear entirely. The choices and the pace at which they are executed will also determine how the government relates to the main political and social actors.
Will the neoliberal agenda continue?
One of these two questions is whether to continue implementing the neoliberal agenda, which is running behind schedule in meeting the orthodox requirements. Internally, this agenda means privatizing what remains of state companies—telecommunications and electricity, the public bank, oil processing, the social security institute, aqueducts, the national liquor company—and dismantling what remains of the social democratic legacy of market regulation and social protection. Externally, it means further opening up markets and moving ahead with bilateral free trade agreements until the time comes for the main course on the global agenda, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The alternative is to resist this agenda and seek an economic policy centered nationally, one that defends the state’s capacity to play a leading strategic role in the economy and recovers its tradition of social responsibility. Such a policy would also set itself squarely against the "save yourself if you can" of the bilateral free trade agreements and the FTAA, and revive the idea of a regional bloc that focuses more on the domestic market and negotiates, as a bloc, its selective insertion into the global market.
First disappointing signsWhat can be expected of Abel Pacheco? Unfortunately, the early signs are not encouraging. The President’s economic team, for example, is made up of the cream of the neoliberal technocracy, which earned him the satisfied approval of the globalizing bureaucracy. In one of his first statements before naming his economic team, Pacheco said he is very interested in approval of a free trade agreement with Canada currently under discussion in the Assembly, provoking protests by producers for the domestic market. He also said he is very interested in seeing Costa Rica participate in the FTAA.
The President’s first decisions and the conservative values that characterize him rule out any initiative from his government to resist or seek alternatives to neoliberal economic policies. The phrase "I will govern for the poor and marginalized," apart from whatever subjective motivations it may reveal—whether good intentions or demagogy—cannot be taken very seriously.
PAC: a challenge and an opportunityThe government’s capacity to push ahead with the neoliberal agenda at the pace and scale being urged on it by the IMF and the globalizing bourgeoisie is another thing altogether. In the wake of the "combo," those international players have changed their strategies but not their goals. Given the results of these elections, however, it will be clearly harder to effectively carry out the neoliberal agenda, partly because of the President’s weak mandate, partly because the memory of the "combo" still weighs heavily on the collective consciousness, and party because of the effective, mobilizing resistance that the PAC can put up in the Assembly if the party follows through on its proposals.
The next four years will be a test of the PAC’s real potential as a force that can promote changes in society. This party has the challenge and the opportunity to demonstrate the coherence between its discourse and its practice, and to overcome the limitations stemming from its rushed, improvised origins. It must now make progress in formulating a more precise ideological program, bringing together its activists and developing grassroots organizational structures, especially among the urban and rural poor who paid little attention to it in the recent elections.
Will politics regain its credibility?The other big question related to the future direction of society has to do with what was expressed in the elections in phenomena such as the record abstention rate, the break with the historical loyalty to the two traditional parties, the PAC’s call for a new way of doing politics and the generalized demand to put a stop to the rampant corruption. All these phenomena are simply manifestations of a profound crisis of confidence in the political system as a way to channel the people’s will and society’s interests. This credibility crisis covers politicians, parties and state institutions, and restoring confidence is a fundamental challenge for both the new government and all political actors. It is the only way to recover the historical effectiveness of the liberal democratic model in Costa Rica, whose high degree of stability and governance has made it the least limited in the Third World.
The fight against corruption was the banner raised by Abel Pacheco to make himself credible as a politician and there is no reason to doubt his good intentions, since he has not been part of the perverse association of businesspeople and politicians that has taken over the political system. Nevertheless, there are doubts about the effectiveness of his fight, given his negotiations with the PUSC apparatus. He will have to reach beyond his party to pursue systematic cooperation with the PAC, the only force that is not beholden to any interests and has the will to carry out the fight against corruption.
It seems unlikely at this point that Pacheco will opt for an "ethical front" alliance with the PAC, but such an alliance is not to be ruled out. It is still too early to make definitive assertions.
A global crisisTo make a solid contribution to the recovery of credibility in politics and to its own ideological maturity, the PAC must be sufficiently clear about the fact that the crisis in politics is merely the external facet of a much deeper crisis. Ottón Solís recently hinted at this when he described what his party is seeking to build: "the basis of a new democracy, one demanded by the new millennium." Implicit in this statement is recognition of the fact that the underlying crisis is in the liberal bourgeois democratic model itself, a model that requires thorough reform.
This crisis of liberal democracy takes on particular features in Costa Rica, but it is a global crisis and has been telling us for some time now that the theory of representation has collapsed. In all countries where liberal democracy has existed, there is currently no connection between the interests of the political leaders, supposed representatives of the people, and those of the people themselves.
A mass of reforms for The ethical rejuvenation of the political class and the development of a mystique of public ethics are basic necessary premises, but are not enough. The PAC must take some of its internal experiences and turn them into social proposals, into reforms that must be made in the political system to build "the new democracy demanded by the new millennium."
a new democracy
We need reforms in the electoral system o keep it from being monopolized by party structures at the service of capital. We need reforms to internally democratize the parties, unions, associations and civic organizations. We need reforms to ensure that freedom of speech is a right enjoyed by the people and not only by companies. We need reforms so that autonomous, democratic grassroots organizations are represented and permanently able to influence the actions and decisions of all state entities. And above all, we need reforms to build a society without exclusions, in harmony with nature, without ethnic or gender discrimination, ready to fight for a world in which all people have a place.