Costa Rica is an exceptional country in a number of ways. It is a small nation in a region, Central America, torn by civil wars well into the 1980s, that abolished its army over 70 years ago and has lived in peace ever since. The country has achieved exceptionally high levels of human development despite its relatively modest income level. This is in part because it has invested in health, education, and other public services resources that otherwise would have gone into military spending. Costa Rica Is also a pioneer in environmental sustainability, generating nearly 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, and more than doubling its forest cover over the past thirty-some years.
Perhaps most striking in a region plagued by political instability, Costa Rica has enjoyed a stable and robust democracy for over seven decades. But in the Presidential elections that took place in April of this year, victory went to a candidate whose discourse was peppered with attacks on the Costa Rican political system itself, including the very institutions on which the country´s longstanding democracy was founded.
In this interview, FOGGS Vice-President Yoriko Yasukawa (YY) speaks to Raquel Chanto** (RC), a Costa Rican political scientist, about what these elections tell us about the state of democracy in Costa Rica and in the world in general. Chanto, currently a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford, has also worked in public administration, in Costa Rica with the Office of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Trade, as well as internationally, as a political analyst and election observer with the Organization of American States (OAS) and as an advisor to the Secretary-General of the Ibero-American Summits Secretariat.
YY: Costa Rica has achieved some extraordinary things over the past decades, including nurturing a robust democracy in a region characterized by political instability, and exceptional advances in sustainable human development. Yet these achievements recently seem to be under threat for political as well as economic reasons. How would you describe the current state of the country?
RC: It has become something of a cliché to say that societies are fragmented whenever we observe political behavior that is hard to explain. But it is true that there are important fractures in Costa Rican society along socioeconomic, generational, geographical, and cultural lines that do not replace, but rather interact with, older cleavages.
Some of this is the consequence of the country’s persistent economic inequality, which translates into considerable differences in the expectations that people place on the government and on the political system as a whole. Put simply, it is very hard to come up with a common project for the future when one-fifth of the population lacks adequate food and shelter, while another gets up in arms over taxing subscriptions to Netflix.
Costa Ricans’ withdrawal from public services because of their low quality and the search for status and exclusivity has meant that there is very little that is shared among all citizens, certainly not the public education system, nor the public health system, nor the public transport system. What we share is often the things that frustrate us the most, such as bad public infrastructure or the fear of crime. So, the realities, demands, hopes, and expectations of the population are increasingly divorced, and we only “meet” in our dissatisfaction. Everyone feels cheated, one way or another.
Add to this a political system that has become fragmented itself, with many veto players and diminishing space for action, in terms of fiscal leverage, legal hurdles, and public approval. A system characterized by its constraints requires exceptional capacities for negotiation and strategic decision-making, and I am not sure we are in the best of mindsets for that. Instead, what we observe is a growing tendency to maximize demands on the part of different groups in society and in the political system, with agreements and concessions seen as treasonous, untrustworthy, and unfair. The lack of trust, between persons, between groups, and in institutions, is seriously affecting our ability to agree on anything, so there is just this slow deterioration of a status quo that is no one’s preferred option, but there is no consensus to move past it.
YY: Costa Rica recently held Presidential elections that resulted in the surprise victory of Rodrigo Chaves, a former World Bank official, who is almost a complete outsider to politics in Costa Rica, over former President José María Figueres. Concerns have been expressed about comments by Chaves and his allies questioning the legitimacy of the democratic institutions of the country. Some observers have warned of possible authoritarian tendencies on Chaves’s part, which might lead to actions that might undermine democracy in the country. How do you see the results of these elections and their implications for the future of the country?
RC: I think this result was a long time coming. Many political scientists and analysts had been warning for some time that conditions were set for a populist outsider. Which conditions? First, a massive political dealignment and the rapid erosion of party identification. 30 years ago, almost every Costa Rican voter identified with one of the two dominant parties at the time. Now, less than 20 percent identifies with any of the political parties that have multiplied in the last couple of decades. In other words, there is more on offer in terms of representation, but representative linkages are weaker and weaker.
We have also seen a trend of citizen disaffection and rejection of the political class, translating into growing abstentionism, but also into an electoral bonus benefitting candidates with no connection to the political establishment. Because of political fragmentation, every political party is now a minority party, which has shortened the distance that any candidate has to overcome to land in the second round. If everyone is polling below 20 percent all the time, there’s great room for contingency.
Now in this specific runoff, you had one of the most unpopular political figures of the establishment against a candidate that was able to appeal to two big groups: those who are angry at the system and just wanted someone to come to bang the table, and those who were looking for an expert to solve the country’s economic woes. The more worrisome comments Chaves made during the campaign trail, such as the attacks on the press and the casting of doubt over the electoral process, catered to the first of these groups. His technical credentials, on the other hand, assuaged the concerns he may have elicited in the second group. So, one group explicitly wanted the populist discourse, and the other did not find it concerning enough. This, combined with the strong aversion to Figueres and the misogyny of a large segment of the population that simply dismissed Chaves’ complicated record with women.
 Chaves was sanctioned by the World Bank for sexual harassment of junior women colleagues. Here is a New York Times report on the issue.
Since being elected, Chaves has moderated his language and made gestures that signal a greater commitment to institutional pathways. It is hard to establish if this shift is genuine—stemming from conviction—or tactical. His starting position is quite weak, with the vote of less than a third of the electorate (and mostly based on a rejection of his rival), a legislative bench representing less than a fifth of the Assembly, and a governing team that, though they may be experts in their fields, took no part in the party platform and have no prior history working with the President-elect or among themselves. So, there is a big question mark as to how durable this moderation is. The real challenge will come with the frustrations, whenever an important initiative gets opposed in the Legislative Assembly or blocked by the Judiciary. I think we will then see Chaves’ true colors, which I certainly hope are more institutional and democratic than he led us to believe during the campaign.
YY: Declining trust in public institutions – in fact declining trust in general – seems to be a global trend, and with that, also the rise of populist leaders on the strength of a discourse that attacks existing democratic institutions as dysfunctional and corrupt. When you look at surveys like Latinobarometro, you see support for democracy uniformly going down in the region. Do you think that what is happening in Costa Rica is part of a global phenomenon? What do you think has happened in Costa Rica and globally to lead to this erosion of trust in democratic institutions?
RC: Yes, I do believe that what is happening in Costa Rica is part of a global trend. Trust is the philosopher’s stone of political systems, something you can translate into results through legitimacy, buy-in, and willingness to cooperate and engage in political agreements. There is a wealth of studies that explain the declining levels of trust around the world, with causes ranging from corruption to inequality to poor institutional performance to crime and insecurity. Overall, people trust systems they believe are fair, consistent, open, and responsive; where they feel included and heard, and their needs are addressed. This is to say that citizens trust the good government.
I think that access to information has increased considerably in the last few decades, and people are now much more aware of practices and behaviors that they consider deficient, unfair, exclusionary, or unethical. So, there is an element of awareness that is much more present. Then there are trends that have actually worsened, like within-country income inequality in much of the world. A lot of work is being done on regaining trust, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a whole laboratory devoted to it, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) just published a report on it. It is no easy task, but we are learning more and more about interventions that can help, including improvements in the quality of public services, and reforms in transparency and access to information.
YY: What do you think needs to be done to rebuild and reinforce democracy in Costa Rica and the world? You have said that citizens must engage more in politics. Yet abstention was at a record high in these last Presidential elections. How do you motivate citizens to engage?
RC: People engage or disengage with politics for very complex and diverse reasons, some because they are in practice excluded by lack of time or resources for participation, others because they perceive politics as remote and irrelevant, and others because they feel unrepresented by the candidates on the ballot, and so on. A strategy to re-engage must therefore be multifold and must begin by raising the quality of the options that are presented to the electorate.
I think it is fair to say that many political figures in the country are a huge disappointment to all of us and do not represent what we believe is the best talent we have among our population, in all ideological tents. Part of this is explained by the reluctance of political parties to renew their ranks, and part has to do with the relation between risk and reward of participating in politics: for many people, it represents a considerable pay cut in exchange for intense scrutiny and the possibility of being subject to a scandal of some form or another.
Regarding abstentionism, a study published by the Electoral Tribunal of Costa Rica a few years back dug deep into abstentionism rates and found that they mostly correlated with lower income and education levels, as well as with being employed in low-skill occupations and living in rural areas. So political engagement and disengagement are magnifying social and economic disparities in the country. It might be too high of a bar to demand that people engage electorally with a system that they feel excludes them in all other areas.
Then there is the youth. One of the most worrisome trends we are observing in Costa Rica and elsewhere is that citizen disaffection and democratic ambivalence are greater among younger people, which posits a challenge for democratic sustainability going forward. Studies have consistently shown that a good predictor of voting today is having voted before, so voting is habit-forming. I think we need to have much more aggressive outreach strategies specifically tailored to young citizens, treating them not just as objects of policy, but as subjects. Including them in decision-making, hearing them out, allowing them the space to run for office (which has demonstration effects), and in general giving visibility to their voices and concerns.
On a personal note, I have grown increasingly convinced that voting should be mandatory, the way that it is in many countries in the world. Per Costa Rica’s Constitution, voting is a duty, but there is no consequence for failing to fulfill it. Being fined for abstaining will probably prove very unpopular, but it reflects our shared responsibility in setting the course for the future of the country.
YY: Part of the mission that FOGGS has set out for itself is to promote a global narrative of hope and solidarity that can bring countries and peoples together to work for a more inclusive and sustainable world. Do you think this is possible in a world that seems to be increasingly defined by conflict and the threat of self-destruction by climate change? If so, what do you think needs to go into that narrative and how do you think we can build a collective process of storytelling and sharing that can lead to that new narrative?
RC: Yes, I think it is possible to build a narrative of optimism and possibility even in the face of catastrophic risks like climate change, not because it is easy, but because it is the only way. Rebeca Grynspan—who is my former boss and a real role model for me and many Costa Rican women—often says that pessimism is demobilizing. It ends up being reactionary. Anyone who has an interest in change must begin by using a language and adopting positions that allow for change: being open to alternatives, agreeing to negotiation, and locating every bit of common ground. We must look for inspiring examples and amplify them. Find leadership that is constructive and empower it. We are all sounding boards for the best or the worst voices around us and we bear responsibility for our share of public discourse and public action.
** Raquel Chanto is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the relationship between the expansion of the global middle class and the fight against corruption. Previously, she served as a political analyst and adviser to the President of the Republic of Costa Rica, the Secretary for Political Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB), and the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Trade. She has been a member of electoral observation missions (EOM-OAS) in Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. Raquel holds a Master’s degree in Public Affairs from Princeton University and a Law degree from the University of Costa Rica and has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship, a graduate scholarship from St Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford, and the Wallace Watson Career Scholarship.