Cablegate: Costa Rica: Pac Party Profile - Continuity or Change?
DE RUEHSJ #0714/01 2331147
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 211147Z AUG 09
FM AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1145
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
RHMFIUU/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC
UNCLAS SAN JOSE 000714
DEPT FOR WHA/CEN, INR
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PINR KDEM CS
SUBJECT: COSTA RICA: PAC PARTY PROFILE - CONTINUITY OR CHANGE?
REF: SAN JOSE 624
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Charge d'Affaires Brennan met on August 18 with
the main opposition contender for Costa Rica's presidency in the
February 2010 elections, Otton Solis. Solis, from the Citizen
Action Party (PAC), is now running for president for the third time,
after a weak turnout for the party's primary in May 2009. PAC is
Costa Rica's main opposition party, with the second most seats in
the National Assembly and a base of support among the urban lower
and middle classes. If Solis is able to pull out a victory, he
plans to increase spending on social programs and agricultural
subsidies, while curbing benefits to multinational corporations and
increasing taxes on the business sector. However, PAC and Solis are
currently far behind in the polls, and Solis could be headed for yet
another defeat. If PAC does go on to a third consecutive defeat,
the party could emerge with a new and pragmatic leadership for the
2014 elections. END SUMMARY.
"NOT LOOKING FOR A ROAD TO CARACAS"
2. (SBU) Despite a sometimes combative relationship with the
Embassy, in particular during the 2007 CAFTA debate, Solis expressed
his desire for closer ties to the U.S. at the Charge's residence on
August 19. Solis went to pains to distance himself from Hugo Chavez
and "the leftists" in Latin America. Instead, he insisted that the
PAC is a centrist party, which "is much closer in thought to the
Obama administration than the current Costa Rican government."
Solis highlighted his past interaction with Democratic members of
Congress, stating that PAC "has a clear trail to Washington, and
doesn't want a path to Caracas."
3. (SBU) Solis also said that, if elected, while he might try to
rework some portions of the CAFTA-DR agreement (on agriculture, for
instance), he was not interested in withdrawing from the treaty as
whole. Solis admitted that public security was one of Costa Rica's
major challenges, and called for more training and better pay for
police officers. He said he was open to continued security
cooperation with the U.S., as long as it did not lead to
militarization in Costa Rica. While he refused to label his party,
Solis is trying to position PAC as a social-democratic party with a
strict anti-corruption focus. However, many experts believe that
his shot at the presidency might have already passed him by.
4. (U) After over 50 years of two-party hegemony, the PAC was formed
in December 2000, reflecting the frustration of voters with
corruption in the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Christian
Social Unity Party (PUSC). PAC and its founder, Solis, burst onto
the political scene with a new style and message. Although Solis
was not a particularly charismatic figure, he embodied voter outrage
against corruption in the wake of a number of public corruption
scandals. Solis tried to emphasize public ethics and transparency
in government and promised a more efficient government.
5. (SBU) In the 2002 elections, Solis finished in third place with
26 percent of the popular vote, an impressive showing only 14 months
after PAC was founded. PAC's rise formed a different dynamic in the
Legislative Assembly, as it won 14 out of the 57 seats. In 2003,
after one year in the Assembly, six PAC legislators defected, citing
disagreement with the party's inflexible ethics code (under which
Solis requires that PAC legislators reject public funding for
official travel and prohibits them from using diplomatic passports,
hiring more than two staffers, using official license plates for
vehicles, or taking more than 15 days of annual leave). This
severely weakened the party, leaving it with only eight seats in the
6. (U) In 2006, Solis was able to increase his political influence,
in part by focusing on an anti-CAFTA message. Solis nearly won the
presidential election (losing by only 1.12 percent) against PLN
candidate Oscar Arias. Meanwhile, PAC became the second largest
party in the Assembly with 17 seats. PAC was able to attract the
votes of the "Anti-Arias" opposition from lower and middle class
urban areas. With the crumbling of PUSC (which only won 5 seats),
PAC became the major opposition party. However, in a sign that
voters were more pro-Solis (or anti-Arias) than supportive of the
party as a whole, PAC's National Assembly ticket only won 25 percent
of the vote (compared to Solis' 40 percent).
7. (SBU) During its second term in the Assembly (2006-2010), the PAC
faction has been trapped by the inflexibility of its ethics
principles, the rigidness of Solis' political control over the
party, and its demand for excessive oversight of government. PAC
has obstructed passage of a number of bills by presenting hundreds
of motions (essentially filibustering the bills). These factors and
PAC's continued opposition to CAFTA implementing legislation even
after a public referendum approved the agreement, have caused a
decline in general PAC popularity over the past three years.
8. (SBU) Although PAC is still the main opposition political party,
it showed continued signs of decline after its first-ever primaries
in May 2009 (Reftel). PAC held a "closed" primary, in which less
than twenty-five thousand party members voted. Solis handily won
the election with 71 percent, followed by former PAC Secretary
General Epsy Cambpell and businessman Roman Macaya. PAC failed to
properly mobilize voters in the primary, including refusing to
provide transport to the polls, a common practice in Costa Rica.
This was due, again, to PAC's strict ethics code and Solis' quest to
keep money out of politics.
9. (SBU) Solis continues to receive high marks among voters for his
honesty, though his inflexibility as a leader has recently become
more obvious. In the run-up to the primary, Campbell and Macaya
defied him by entering the race and forcing a primary for the first
time in the history of PAC.
10. (SBU) Although the primary campaign revealed weaknesses within
the party and particularly with Solis' leadership, it also might
have strengthened the party as a whole. Some political analysts
told us they saw PAC's primary as the first real step in a
transformational process that PAC was undergoing from a
one-man-movement to a new and modern political party.
COMMENT: PAC'S FUTURE - CONTINUITY OR CHANGE?
11. (SBU) Polls published in mid-August showed Solis trailing PLN
candidate Laura Chinchilla (Reftel) by almost 15 percent. In the
upcoming 2010 election PAC could further consolidate its position as
the country's second political force, particularly given PUSC's
continued low standing under party caudillo Rafael Angel Calderon.
However, pushing ahead for an out-and-out victory over PLN should
prove difficult. Though Solis is personally respected by many Costa
Ricans, the man and his message seem a bit haggard after two
presidential defeats (and another defeat in the CAFTA referendum).
Solis must find a way to reconnect with the public, but also will
need to work on basic issues such as voter mobilization, grass-roots
organization, and the fundraising required for such activities, to
have any chance of winning the presidency.
12. (SBU) If Solis can somehow scrape together a victory, there
remain numerous questions on how he would actually govern. One of
our most pressing concerns is how Solis would manage our ongoing
bilateral security programs. One of Solis' colleagues, PAC
Assemblyman Olivier Perez, has told us that a PAC-led government
would want a Costa Rican shiprider (authorized from our Bilateral
Maritime Agreement) on every U.S. vessel that might detain ships in
Costa Rican waters. This would be logistically impossible, and is
not technically required by current agreements. Regardless, we
would expect a Solis-led government to undertake a thorough review
of Costa Rica's security cooperation with the U.S. While we would
not anticipate any major changes under such a review, some aspects
of our security engagement, such as with the shiprider issue, might
13. (SBU) If, instead, Solis loses again in next year's elections,
PAC would probably be forced to move past Solis and seek new
leadership. It is in this respect that this year's primary could
serve as a useful stepping stone, as it opened up the party to the
prospect of younger leadership, including Campbell and Macaya. PAC
also might be forced to re-think the party's identity and focus, or
at least re-calibrate to better address voter priorities. The party
that Solis started has in fact come a long way in its eight years of
existence; the next challenge might be where it can go once Solis
himself has left the stage.