Costa Rica: Rout of the status quo

Luis Guillermo Solis.

By Elena Zeledon, San Jose, Costa Rica

April 8, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The election of Luis Guillermo Solis on April 6 as president of Costa Rica, with 77% of the votes, represents the end of an historcal period and opens the door to unprecedented opportunities for the left.

Solis, representing the Citizens Action Party (PAC), crushed the remnants of the Party of National Liberation (PLN), a party that he once served as general secretary.

One political commentator said the carnage of the PLN “this represents the end of the status quo ante for politics”. An analyst for the PAC replied: “Today, the status quo has no status.” She was correct in ways she might not suspect.

Four years ago, following the election of Laura Chinchilla, we wrote the following here at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal:

Chinchilla’s victory was made inevitable by the lack of a clear alternative to the social-liberal policies of the PLN and the lack of a campaign targeting growing frustration with official corruption, CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement]and its effects on the Costa Rican economy, and urban crimes involving the police. The pent-up frustrations with the social-liberal policies felt by many Ticos were not mobilised. (See “Costa Rican election hides complex reality”.)

Frente Amplio

Thanks to the presence of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a party of the left like Greece’s Syriza or the Left Bloc in Portugal, and an accumulated four years of disgust at the corruption, incompetence and neoliberal policies of the Chinchilla administration, the Costa Rican people were presented with a radical political alternative that totally changed the political conversation and electoral dynamic.

Frente Amplio and the left were the big winners in the election. Frente Amplio increased its representation from one to nine deputies in the National Assembly. Its presidential candidate, Jose-Maria Villalta, who was the sole deputy in the previous assembly, and who at one time led in the opinion polls for president, finished third in the first round of voting with an impressive 17%.

At one point leading up to the first round, Frente Amplio was polling 22%, but an unprecedented wave of Chavez and red baiting, plus a mediocre showing in the final national televised debates around an ill-considered “junk food tax”, caused a last-minute switch by many voters from Frente Amplio to the PAC.

Frente Amplio defines itself as feminist, ecologist, anti-imperialist and socialist. For most of the electoral period, its program and propaganda dominated and shaped the political discourse. In addition, the steady growth of the Frente in the polls, and the dramatic freefall in support for the PLN ensured a level of media coverage that it used to maximum advantage.

The central message of Frente Amplio was that Costa Rica needed a government that would reject neoliberalism. Pointing to the devastating effects that the CAFTA agreement has had on Costa Rica: high youth unemployment, privatising of public assets, destruction of the mixed farming sector, creation of low wage and precarious employment in the “zone francas” (maquilladoras), and the spectacular growth in social inequality linked with cuts in the social safety net, Frente Amplio was able to link the PLN with both neoliberal policies and political corruption.

Election campaign

Johnny Araya, PLN presidential candidate and former mayor of the capital city San Jose, was constantly on the defensive, trying both to defend the PLN’s record and at the same time trying to distance himself from the corruption scandals of the Chinchilla administration. This task was further complicated by the fact that he is himself under investigation for corrupt practices while mayor. He was probably the worst candidate that the PLN, itself torn by internal struggles between the various clans that dominate it, could have chosen.

Luis Guillermo Solis and the PAC positioned themselves as the “responsible change” that Costa Rica needed. The PAC was founded by the Solis family (Otton Solis was the former presidential candidate in the previous two elections) as a reaction to the growing corruption and overt neoliberal policies of the Oscar Arias administrations. Both are academics who have lectured at both the University of Costa Rica and in the United States. The PAC is a more populist version of the PLN, and centred its campaign against corruption and was forced to attack neoliberalism rhetorically as a result of the campaign of Frente Amplio.

The other loser, in addition to the PLN, was the openly neoliberal Libertarian Party headed by Otto Gueverra Guth, a millionaire businessman and vicious right-wing ideologue with ties to the US Republican right, who had previously finished behind the PLN and the PAC. This time he was relegated to fourth place, with only 11% of the vote. His dream of being the unifier of the right and the political expression of the national oligarchy was destroyed.

The traditional party of the right, the United Social Christian Party (PUSC), was nearly obliberated, fracturing into two evangelical (Protestant and Catholic) social-conservative organisations.

The destruction of the bi-partismo, the alternating governments of the PLN and the PUSC, represents the end of the social consensus established after the 1948 civil war, and opens a new period of political instability. Despite the overwhelming vote for Solis and the PAC, the composition of the National Assembly and the systemic crisis that is producing a string of problems that cannot be solved by the national oligarchy and its imperialist partners, mean new administration will not meet the expectations of those who placed them in office.

Behind the crisis of capitalist legitimacy

In one sense, the implosion of the PLN and the rise of political alternatives represent the culmination of a process of resistance to neoliberalism that began with the mass movement against the administration of Abel Pacheco in 2000 and his attempt to privatise the Instituto Costaricense de Electricidad (ICE), the national publicly owned electrical and telecommunications company. ICE was one of the largest employers in the country and the heart of the economic state.

This resistance continued and reached its zenith with a march of 100,000 people opposed to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an agreement that was approved by referendum by less than a 1% plurality; a referendum many opponents feel was rigged.

This resistance itself was driven by the increasing economic crisis caused by the neoliberal reforms and practices continued by successive administrations, by the global economic crisis that has dealt and continues to deal harsh blows to the Central American economies, and by the change in the class structure of Costa Rica.

The increasing dependence on the import of foreign capital, which has developed the relations of production in new sectors (biotech, telecommunications, light manufacturing, medicine) has changed the composition and strength of the working class relative to the rural rich and middle peasantry. Agricultural proprietors now represent less than 10% of the population. At the same time, large foreign investments in agriculture, especially in land for pineapple cultivation in the Valle de El General area of southern Costa Rica, is producing an increasing rural proletariat who see themselves as workers, not as farmers with an off-farm income, as they might have in the past.

Add to this a booming youth population (more than 60% of Costa Rica is under the age of 30), which is highly literate and highly tech savvy, and which provides the base of political support for Frente Amplio, and you have the recipe for a massive change in consciousness, part of which was reflected in the rejection of “the parties of the past”.

The past four years provided glimpses of the electoral changes to come. It has been marked by a continuing series of mobilisations that show no signs of ending. The appointment of a right-wing evangelical, Justo Orozco, by Chinchilla as head of the Human Rights Commission, sparked a massive protest throughout the urban areas as he openly attacked LGBT people and said they should have no human rights protection.

The continuing attack on the port workers of Limon as the government attempts to privatise port operations there, the ordering of the Organismo para Investigacion Judicial, the detective police, onto the campus of the Universidad de Costa Rica, the attacks on the wages and benefits of teachers and, especially, attempts to undermine ICE and its workforce through contracting-out and privatisation, have generated a succession of struggles; most of them still unresolved as the weak government of Chinchilla faced internal revolts and thus was not able to impose any definite solutions.

This is the scenario which, after the euphoria of the decisive defeat of the traditional ruling party of imperialism and the national bourgeoisie has died down, the new administration faces. The PAC, as a result of the close vote in the first round, a round that determined the composition of the National Assembly, will have to rely on the votes of the deputies of Frente Amplio to pass any progressive legislation.

Alternatively, which is the more likely scenario, Solis will attempt to corral a portion of the PLN deputies into a longer term stability or national salvation pact, a pact that if repudiated by Frente Amplio, would leave the left as the only voice of opposition to the neoliberal policies that Solis will be forced to continue.

In either case, the next period will be one marked by increasing political instability, more open clashes between the classes over political direction, a greater level of militancy and increasing class consciousness by ever broadening layers of workers, especially young workers not burdened by the anti-communist baggage of the past.

If the revolutionary Marxist left can begin to show the political maturity that the situation demands, and develop unity initiatives both among themselves (a process itself determined by the level of class struggle) and between it and the emerging social and workers’ vanguard represented by Frente Amplio, the task of raising the political and class consciousness of those sectors willing to struggle will reap a rich harvest where truly “the status quo will continue to have no status”.