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Cablegate: Costa Rica Flexing Its Democratic Muscles


DE RUEHSJ #0003/01 0111454
R 111453Z JAN 10



E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: 09 SAN JOSE 624; 09 SAN JOSE 815; 09 SAN JOSE 714

1. (SBU) Summary: At a time when the electoral systems of some
others in the region are wrapped in controversy, Costa Rica appears
to be maintaining its status as a model of institutional democracy
in Central America as the country moves towards national elections
on February 7. The near-total demise of the corruption-wracked
Social-Christian Unity Party (PUSC) has actually shown the strength
of Costa Rica's democracy, as newer parties have stepped up to
attract voters by offering differing visions for Costa Rica's
future without reverting to Chavez-style populism. While this is
the product of a healthy democracy, the practical short-term result
of this shift will likely result in further fragmentation within
the Legislative Assembly. End Summary.

The Break-Down of Two Party Politics

2. (SBU) Costa Rica's political landscape has long been dominated
by two forces-current President Oscar Arias' center-left National
Liberation Party (PLN) and the center-right PUSC. This year has
seen the continued emaciation of PUSC, which had won back-to-back
presidential terms as recently as 1998/2002. Voters are punishing
PUSC for the rampant corruption that had become endemic within the
party over the past ten years, highlighted by the conviction of
former President (and until-then PUSC presidential candidate)
Rafael Angel Calderon on corruption charges in October 2009. PUSC's
current candidate for president is polling at around five percent,
while the party is expected to win only about five spots in the
57-seat Legislative Assembly.

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3. (SBU) The organic break-up of the traditional two-party system
has opened the door to political movements that have grown out of
the traditional parties and express voter frustration with the
status quo. Otton Solis from the Citizen Action Party (PAC) nearly
won the 2006 presidential election (Ref C), and is challenging the
PLN from the left with an anti-globalization and anti-corruption
platform. Otto Guevara from the Libertarian Movement (ML) is
making a claim for PUSC's traditional base on the right with a
tough-on-crime stance. (Note: Although the ML advocates for a
number of libertarian principles, Guevara himself has taken on more
of a center-right platform during his campaign) Though some
voters see the candidates (who both ran in 2006) as political
retreads who offer few new ideas, others view them as real
alternatives to the PLN's Laura Chinchilla (Ref B). And while
neither candidate looks likely to knock Chinchilla from her perch
as frontrunner, Guevara in particular has made gains in recent
months, and according to polls is firmly establishing himself in
second place (though he still trails Chinchilla by roughly 20

4. (SBU) The likely result of this shift from two-party dominance
will be a Legislative Assembly that is even more divided than the
one that has struggled to enact reforms over the past four years.
Both ML and PAC probably will win a block of seats, and legislators
from a number of small parties will complicate the mix . This
could negatively impact the next administration's ability to get
business done, from merely administering the economy (which
requires Assembly approval of international loans, for example), to
making much needed changes to energy policy or fiscal management.
To govern effectively, the plurality party will likely need to form
a coalition within the Assembly, which will be more difficult with
increased fragmentation.

Foreign Policy

5. (SBU) With domestic security issues currently dominating the
campaign, the candidates have not focused on foreign policy. In
discussing their plans for governing with the Charge in late 2009,
the three leading candidates seemed to have given almost no thought
to foreign affairs other than Costa Rica's relationship with the

U.S. Strikingly, when asked what his foreign policy priorities
would be, Otton Solis replied, "For example?" It is unlikely that
any of the candidates will be as active internationally as
President Arias, who brought his Nobel prize and prior presidential
experience to international relations. Additionally, it is
unlikely that any of the candidates would reverse any of the Arias
administration changes in foreign policy such as the government's
recognition of China and Cuba. Should Chinchilla win she is
expected to continue with the major foreign policy priorities of
the Arias administration. Chinchilla, who once worked as a USAID
contractor, seeks to continue improving ties with the U.S.,
specifically on security and economic issues. She has also
expressed interest in working with Secretary Clinton on women's
empowerment issues (Chinchilla's main proposals are outlined in Ref

6. (SBU) Guevara, should he mount a come-from-behind victory, would
also seek close relations with the U.S., and is staking his claim
for the presidency on addressing Costa Rica's growing crime
problem. Guevara has said publicly he would disband Costa Rica's
intelligence service-DIS-and Chinchilla has suggested she would
change it significantly. Guevara has also pledged to reduce or
remove a number of domestic and import taxes in seeking to increase
Costa Rica's level of international trade. Otton Solis has called
for a renegotiation of CAFTA-DR and threatened to abolish
free-trade zones in the country. However, Solis says he wants to
continue to build ties with the U.S.. Solis told us he would seek
to continue cooperation on security issues if elected, but has
voiced concerns about the possible "militarization" of Costa Rica.

Comment: A Bolivarian Republic It Is Not

7. (SBU) With its political party structure in flux, Costa Rica is
noteworthy for what has not developed: a neo-populist movement.
Though neo-populism has sprung up throughout the region, Costa
Rica's conservative society has proved unreceptive to "Chavismo".
Even the left-of-center Solis both publicly and privately steers
clear of any comparison with Chavez and instead portrays his party
as kin to the U.S. Democratic party. This is in part due to an
eminently democratic spirit and a significant middle class in Costa
Rica, which serves as a moderating force politically and socially.
However, it is also due to the existence of a properly functioning
democracy in which a free press uncovers, the judiciary prosecutes,
and then voters punish the worst instincts of politicians.

© Scoop Media

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