MESOAMERICA

VOLUME 20, NUMBER 10, OCTOBER 2001


    COSTA RICA

 

Presidential Campaign 2002

 

The campaign for the 2002 presidential election officially began on 1 Oct.  Out of 15 political parties, 13 presidential candidates will be participating in the general elections on 3 Feb ’02, and 57 legislative representatives will be elected.  The two favored parties and their candidates are the National Liberation Party (PLN) with Rolando Araya, and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) with Abel Pacheco (see Vol. 20, No.7).

 

Among the minority parties are the Democratic Force (FD), Vladimir De la Cruz; Citizens Action Party (PAC), Ottón Solís Fallas; and Coalition Change 2000, Wálter Coto Molina.  Both Solís and Coto were previously active members and leaders in the PLN.  Disenchantment with the party and their inability to reform from within led them to create their own political parties.  Wálter Coto, a former Secretary General and legislator of the PLN, stated that he withdrew when he became convinced that the most powerful sectors of the party betrayed many of the party’s basic principles.

 

According to Coto, the PLN is in favor of an economic model where all the wealth is in the hands of a few individuals.  He also believed that the PLN failed to respond adequately to cases of corruption.

 

Otton Solis, a former legislator and cabinet member under President Oscar Arias, left the PLN because of the ethical distortion he saw within the party; and because of the ways in which the PLN ignored regulations with impunity.  He also criticized dishonesty during the campaigns and the biased decision-making tactics.         

 

The Petroleum Conflict, Round Two

 

Aside from the intensive yelling match that took place on 19 Sep, no real resolution came out of the 10-hour public hearing at Port Limón about oil exploration (see Vol. 20, No. 9).  More than 600 people gathered to listen to 214 speakers, including representatives from the Houston-based Harken Energy Corporation and Louisiana-based MKJ Xplorations.  The event became a verbal battleground between environmentalists and those who favor oil drilling.  “We either die of hunger or exploit the oil so that Limón can profit,” exclaimed one citizen of the area. 

 

The anti-oil exploration audience had better representation of the diversity of individuals who would be directly affected if oil exploration were to be approved.  Critics report that Harken had generously compensated port workers for their presence and support at the public hearing on 19 Sep; workers reportedly received approximately three days’ pay.  Environmentalists, students and local businessmen stood firm against oil exploration, because of a concern about protecting the environment from oil pollution.

 

When La República published a controversial article on 26 Sep about the “huge benefits” that would be reaped if oil exploration and exploitation were to proceed, the verbal battle generated many other news articles and editorials.  In an interview with Rick Conrad, president of MKJ, he affirmed that oil exploration would actually be good for the environment.  The article in La República stated that, according to further economic studies conducted by MKJ, oil exploitation would generate an estimated $330 million for the state and $110 million for the port city of Limón. Environmental, economic and political critics claim that this estimate is ludicrous, although one of the main arguments used against anti-petroleum activists is that they do not offer any concrete evidence to disprove this estimate. 

 

However, the article was allegedly a cruel advertisement, a story that could be very damaging to the future of the environment in Costa Rica if taken seriously.  Critics such as Rodrigo Alberto Carazo and Vilma Ibarra immediately responded to the article.  Carazo stated that if oil is found off the coast of Limón it will belong to an international oil company, and if Costa Ricans want the oil they will have to purchase it at international prices (Vol.19, No. 12).

 

Environmental groups argue that oil exploration and exploitation could have a dramatically negative impact on the environment and on the tourism industry.  Critics claim there is lack of information about Harken’s exploration procedures, but  no one has presented concrete proof about the environmental damage that could occur if oil exploitation were to proceed.

 

SETENA, the technical service department of the Ministry of Environment and Energy, is in the process of reviewing documents and giving audiences to groups and individuals who want to propose arguments for or against oil exploration.  SETENA is required to consider all information it receives from the public and various interest groups before reaching a “reasoned and justified” decision about the future of oil drilling in Costa Rica.

 

Economic Plunge

 

This year the trade deficit and public debt have been the principle economic pitfalls in Costa Rica.  In the first eight months of ’01, the trade deficit was at $978 million, or 644% higher than it was last year. The main cause of this deficit was a decrease in Intel exports, the decreasing world market price of coffee and the slow recuperation of the banana and textile industries. The Central Bank had depended on income received from foreign capital expenditures and from the tourist industry, but since the 11 Sep terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, both sectors have been negatively impacted.

 

The public debt has reached critical heights: it has gone from 33% of the national budget in ’98 to 41% in ’01, and it is estimated that the cost to service the debt will consume 42.4% of the estimated ’02 national budget.  It is expected that the U.S. will experience a growing recession, which will decrease U.S. consumer demands and further harm Costa Rica’s economy, because 50% of national exports go to the U.S.   

 

Street Children Crisis

 

An economic battle between the government and private agencies has left street children abandoned on the streets once again.  The closure of one of the nation’s largest privately administered street-children programs, because of the failure of the government to transfer designated funds, has put the lives of 150 kids at risk.  This program included services such as a daytime clinic, counseling, education, dorms and a dining room.  The dorms gave street kids a safe place to sleep at night.  Now many of them are on the street again in search of food and shelter. 

 

Delinquency on the streets is expected to increase as these children are forced to steal in order to survive.  One 16-year-old commented:  “If the program had not been closed, kids would not be stealing and taking drugs.”  Jorge Marín, a psychologist in the day-treatment center lamented: “These kids are thrown out on the street like garbage, but at least trucks come by to collect garbage; no one is going to collect these kids.”

 

The Salvation Army was contracted by the Child Welfare Office (PANI) to run this program in ’98, the same year the legislative assembly approved a law that designated 7% of the budget for child welfare programs, but these funds have never been transferred to PANI.  Instead, PANI has had to resort to distributing funds from other programs, which were stretched in order to keep the street children’s programs up and running.  Many times PANI was late in providing these funds, which forced the Salvation Army to use up all its reserves.  Eventually the funds ran dry and on 10 Sep the Salvation Army had to terminate the street-children program.  At this point PANI was $1.8 million in debt. 

 

The Salvation Army was not the only private organization in financial distress; there are a total of 56 private organizations that work with marginalized youth. Although delayed, PANI was finally able to pay off the NGOs that had funded the social programs, but since the Salvation Army was operating without a legal contract it was not reimbursed for the program and no new funds have been allocated to reopen the dormitory and treatment center.

 

On 28 Sep, a group of determined street children united at the legislative assembly to demand funding for the recently-closed Salvation Army program, “Attention to Children and Adolescents at Social Risk.”  The government has not proposed any alternative plans to date.   The lack of proposals does not make their future very promisingat least 150 children will remain on the streets until a new project has been negotiated.

 

New U.S. Ambassador

 

John Danilovich began his duties as  the new U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica on 10 Oct.  His nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 26 Sep, at which time he stated  that his main priorities are “to work diligently to advance U.S. investment and commercial interests, strengthen counter-narcotics cooperation, encourage environmental collaboration and enhance U.S.-Costa Rican relations.” 

 

Danilovich is an active leader in Republicans Abroad and has had 20 years of experience in international commerce. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Stanford University and a M.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California. 

—Silvana Arista