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Costa Rica: A New President for Latin America

Some weeks ago, Laura Chinchilla, political scientist, former Vice President, and Minister of Justice of the [outgoing] Oscar Arias government of Costa Rica, became the first woman elected as President of this Central American country. Both Chinchilla and Arias are representatives of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN, National Liberation Party), which has social-democratic roots, but in the last several years, has strongly sustained a neo-liberal stance.

by Gabriela De Cicco

Chinchilla is the third woman in the last four years to become president of a Latin American country, joining the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, who finished her term on 11 March 2010, and the current President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández. The region as a whole has seen nine women hold this highest position, dating back to 1974, when María Estela Martínez de Perón, after the death of her husband, took over the position of head of government in Argentina.

Perón was followed by Lidia Gueiler Tejada, who was interim President of Bolivia from 1979 to 1980, Ertha Pascal Trouillot, who governed Haiti from 1990 to 1991, and Rosalía Arteaga, who was President for only six days in Ecuador in 1997, after the impeachment of Abdalá Bucarám.

Without a doubt, women’s political participation following the return of democracy in various countries of the region has been increasing. For example, from 2000 to 2008, women’s representation in legislative assemblies increased by 35%. In various Latin American countries, the implementation of quota laws (ley de cupo), which requires the parties to have a certain percentage of women on the electoral ballots, has contributed towards this increase.

Laura Chinchilla, the President-elect, seems to reflect a style of leadership that differs from that of Arias. For example, she appeared to be more open to dialogue when the current President was branded a despot. However, according to the women’s organizations of Costa Rica, this allegedly new style of leadership does not translate into rights for women, as her record shows.

In November 2009, Chinchilla participated in the Marcha de la vida y la familia (March for Life and the Family), which aimed to highlight the viewpoint of the “Observatorio Ciudadano por la Vida y por la Familia” (Citizen’s Observatory for Life and the Family), which maintains a strong stand against the legalization of abortion. It is also against the Ley de Sociedades de Convivencia (Law of Co-existence Partnerships) which would recognize the elementary patrimonial rights to same-sex couples. The President elect, who plans to create a Ministry of the Family, has stated in many interviews: “During my government, we will not support any law that favors abortion, because taking a life is not the answer. Furthermore, the Presidential House will open its doors to all religious movements, and to do so, we need better inter-institutional coordination.”

The Archbishop of San José congratulated the President-elect, recalling the “necessary collaboration that should be maintained between the Church and the State”, to which the future leader responded, committing herself to protect “the truth and values proclaimed by the Church. I will ensure that they play a central role of my administration.”

In addition to having Chinchilla in the Executive Power, Costa Rica will now have 23 women representatives in the Legislative Assembly. Among them is the feminist activist and founder of the newspaper “Pregonera”, Carmen Muñoz, who won the seat for the Acción Ciudadana party. Activists hope to rely on her for having their voices heard in the legislative arena, but are aware of the limitations that exist due to this drastic Right turn that these elections have taken.

María José Chávez, leader of Cefemina, a feminist organization in Costa Rica, explained that this President “will not necessarily bring an improvement to women’s rights. She [Chinchilla] already said that being a woman does not mean anything, because men and women are equal. These declarations confirm to us that we cannot expect any changes in the answers to our demands.”

Costa Rican activists and women’s groups that have long advocated for various demands have again raised their voices in the wake of the election’s outcomes. Here is a press release circulated shortly before the elections:

We, feminists of Costa Rica, considering that:

1. Our country is, today, undergoing socio-political conditions of great importance towards the upcoming elections;

2. In Costa Rica, we are experiencing a restructuring of social, political and ideological forces, following the Referendum process on the Central America-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR);

3. Neoliberialism is an ideological current that could never promote equality, equity, justice and freedom of all persons. Much to the contrary, it is directly responsible for the crisis that we are going through now, and it promotes a social system based on the exploitation of the most vulnerable persons, resulting in exclusion, poverty and the deterioration of many of our rights;

4. The heart of the government agenda of Oscar Arias, Laura Chinchilla and Kevin Casas, as President and Vice Presidents of the Republic, respectively, was absolutely based on the percepts of the Free Trade Agreement; i.e. the instrument par excellence for institutionalizing the neoliberal policies as policies of the State;

5. The party in government (Liberación Nacional) and even more so, Oscar and Rodrigo Arias, have supported their administration through a doublespeak in all spheres of public life. They have betrayed the Costa Rican people, lied in full consciousness, and have weakened the fundamantal bases of democratic institutionality;

6. The official Presidential candidate, Laura Chinchilla, has provided her party with symbolic triumphs of the international and local women's and feminist movements, concealing the arduous social struggles to conquer rights and expand citizenship, which we women have been fighting for throughout history;

7. Although we women have won some spaces of political participation, in daily life, sexist practices prevail in the exercise of political power and the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN) is no exception, despite its nomination of a woman for candidate today;

8. Laura Chinchilla based her campaign for Presidential candidate of the PLN on open continuation of this government, making her political-ideological and ethical position clear.

9. We woman have historically be used as tools for hegemonious, male-dominated and discriminatory power; the situation is still in effect today.

10. During the campaign for Presidential candidate, Laura Chinchilla gave ambiguous and evasive responses to many questions related to the most diverse and transcendental issues, including, inter alia, the environment, the human rights of women and other discriminated groups, employment and the Secular State.

In light of the above, we have decided to inform public opinion on the reasons for which Laura Chinchilla does not represent us and the arguments for which we do not support her. These reasons are as follows:

1. Laura Chinchilla has publicly expressed her reservations with regard to the feminist movement and philosophy, thus denying more than 200 years in the struggle for human rights of women, which are those that have in fact created the conditions to allow her to run for the Presidency of the Republic today.

2. She represents the economic-political establishment that has driven neoliberal policies in this country in the last decades, which have caused social exclusion, inequality and the deterioration of living conditions, in particular of women.

3. In her public declarations and throughout her political career, she has never taken on a clear and firm commitment to the fight for equality between women and men, for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, or for the elimination of conditions that generate and reproduce gender oppression and that undermine the struggle for the complete emancipation of women.

4. Her close relations with the Catholic hierarchy, increasingly more visible, makes it clear that she will not assume a firm position to defend sexual and reproductive rights, the civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) population, constitutional reform to create a Secular State, and freedom of expression.

5. The political link between her and Oscar Arias can only be qualified as being of subordination.


although we work daily, each in our own space, so that all of us women, without any type of distinction whatsoever, can construct and exercise full citizenship, in conditions of equality and justice, we are not mujeristas (i.e. essentialists). In other words, we do not believe that a woman, by mere virtue of being one genetically and biologically, necessarily commits herself to the causes of equality and justice that the feminist movements have been raising for centuries.

We respect Laura Chinchilla as a woman and citizen, but do not share her ethical-political principles, her words and deeds. She does not represent us and, therefore, we cannot show satisfaction with her candidacy nor support her aspiration to become the first female President of this country.

Signatories: Roxana Arroyo Vargas, Alda Facio Montejo, Carmen Muñoz Quesada, María Gabriela Arguedas Ramírez, Montserrat Sagot Rodríguez and 78 more.

This article was written with support from Margarita Salas.


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