SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Next year could bring a historic face-off between women aspiring to succeed Oscar Arias as Costa Rica's president.
Laura Chinchilla and Epsy Campbell are shaping up to be fierce competitors for their respective parties' nominations in the February 2010 elections. Should either win the presidency, it would mark the first time that a woman has held Costa Rica's highest office.
The election could also be historically significant in other ways. This year marks the 60th anniversary of women's suffrage here. And if Campbell's Citizen Action Party (PAC) picks her to run, she would become the country's first black candidate from one of the leading parties.
In a country where women on average are more educated than men but earn just 78 percent of what men make — and which has a history of discrimination against a marginalized black population — some Costa Ricans are already looking ahead to what could be a landmark election. The primaries are still months away: Chinchilla’s National Liberation Party (PLN) convention will take place June 7, while PAC has yet to set a date.
“The fact that there are women candidates means recognizing that the country now accepts a woman to be president,” said Nielsen Perez of the National Women’s Institute (INAMU), an independent government institution.
“And the fact that Epsy is an Afro-Costa Rican woman reflects how some minority groups, which are historically discriminated against, are also positioning themselves as political actors in history and claiming decision-making positions,” she said.
On the issue of women in politics, Costa Rica stands apart for its quota system: A 1996 electoral code reform requires parties to make sure that at least 40 percent of their candidates are women. The rule was later modified to require parties to put forward women candidates in electable seats as well.
Thanks to such measures as quotas and other advances in the women’s movement, Ticas (female Costa Ricans) enjoy a relative degree of political empowerment, according to Perez, who oversees INAMU’s citizenship, leadership and local management projects.
But there is disagreement with the percentage requirement.
“I am completely against quotas,” said Alejandro Urbina, editor in chief of La Nacion newspaper. “That does a disservice to women. When a woman gets there, she has to carry the burden (of the perception) that 'you got here only because of the quota,'” said Urbina, who before the 2006 elections wrote a column saying that female politicians should take important offices, including that of President and Legislative Assembly leader.
But there are signs that quotas may be helping Costa Rican women get a foothold in politics. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which tracks women lawmakers in 189 countries, Costa Rica ranks ninth, just ahead of Spain (10th). Among Latin American countries, this country comes third after Cuba (third worldwide) and Argentina (sixth). The United States ranks 69th.
“We’re competing,” said Perez, “but it’s a healthy competition.”
Unlike Argentina or Chile, both of which have female leaders, Costa Rica hasn't had a woman in the leading role. Opinion polls suggest Ticos (and Ticas) are ready to change that. According to a CID-Gallup poll published in La Republica newspaper in January, two out of three Costa Ricans say they are ready for a woman president.
Campbell and Chinchilla are not the first female presidential contenders here. That title goes to Norma Vargas Duarte, who ran in 1994 and 1998 on the ballot with small parties. But Campbell's and Chinchilla's affiliation with major parties is unique.
“It's not new but now it has a different connotation,” Perez said. “These are women with parties that have a better possibility of reaching the presidency, and that makes it possible for a woman to be president in Costa Rica,” she said.
That same poll put 49-year-old Chinchilla — Arias’ former vice president and widely considered his preferred successor — slightly ahead of Johnny Araya, the former mayor of San Jose, in the contest for their pro-free trade party’s nomination. In February, however, Araya forged ahead in a poll of PLN party stalwarts published in La Nacion.
“It would be a very grave (mistake) for any candidate to think that with a simple blessing from a president they are going to win the elections," Chinchilla said in an interview with El Financiero newspaper. Chinchilla stepped down from her vice president post in October to pursue her party’s candidacy. "The work ahead is arduous and intensive, it’s convincing Costa Ricans who is more able to continue directing the country, with convincing leadership and ethic."
Meanwhile, the 45-year-old — who cites U.S. President Barack Obama and civil rights activist Rosa Parks among her leading inspirations — is behind in the polls. She trails Otton Solis, the founder of her left-wing, anti-free trade party — Solis narrowly lost the presidential race to Arias in 2006. She has stirred controversy in PAC for urging the party to open up its convention to the non-member public.
Just as so many politicians before her, and like one of her inspirations in particular, Campbell focuses on a message of hope and change. During her Feb. 17 pre-candidacy announcement, Campbell appealed to her party and to would-be voters, sitting under a banner that read, “The time has come.”
“The time has come for the people, for citizens (male and female) to become the true protagonists … The time has come to participate… to dare to dream,” Campbell said.
Her mere prominence in the political scene is cause to celebrate, said one historian, saying this lifts up long-neglected communities estimated to make up about 30 percent of Latin America’s population.
“One positive element (of Campbell’s candidacy in the primaries) is the increased social visibility of people of African descent," said University of Costa Rica history professor Rina Caceres. "For years there’s been an invisibility of Afro Latin Americans."
Campbell — who is an economist, human rights activist and researcher — is the granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants.
On the possible election of Campbell, Urbina, the newspaper editor, said, "it would be a milestone."
In his May 2005 opinion article entitled Time for Women, Urbina wrote, “Perhaps, if in February there will be, for example, the option to choose between Epsy Campbell and Laura Chinchilla for president, the apathy and uncertainty to go vote expressed by electorate in the poll would disappear.”
Urbina pondered his prediction from four years ago, and said, “that might happen this time around.”
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