Costa Rica's left-right void

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The streets were filled with colors: bold stripes of red and yellow, green and white, red and blue, or just plain red, each representing one of the plethora of Costa Rica's political parties.

But in the end it was the green and white of the incumbent centrist party that prevailed in this month's presidential elections. There would be no political shakeup, no veering to the left, or surprising turns back to the right. There were hardly even political extremes in play.

In a region where political passions run deep and where the split between left and right is often deeply entrenched, Costa Rica’s political nonchalance is something of an anomaly.

Academics have long debated why that is. What makes Costa Rica the so-called “Switzerland of Central America”? Why do Costa Ricans appear so cozy in the political center?

The answers, political scientists and election analysts say, are manifold: the lack of a military; a weak union movement; the inclusion of radical voices. In recent elections, candidates not from the mainstream parties moderated their views to compete.

Beyond Costa Rica’s borders, one needn’t look far for hard-line left-right demagoguery, and elections that contrast with Costa Rica’s recent proud, euphoric political exercise. There was mayhem just north of the border when Nicaraguans voted for their mayors in 2008. In the name of the leftist Sandinistas, gangs blocked the main streets of Managua and launched homemade bombs into the air. Intimidation and violence ruled.


Perhaps most important for Costa Rica was the abolishment of the military 60 years ago in the wake of a bloody 44-day civil war. "The fact that Costa Rica doesn’t have an army has enabled political and civilian forces to make the decisions,” said political sociologist Carlos Carranza. That hasn’t been the case for many of its neighbors, countries that have seen their share of coups, de facto regimes, dictatorships and dubious votes.

Outgoing President Oscar Arias, a free-trade advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has pressed leaders across the globe to follow Costa Rica’s example and eliminate their armies or, at the very least, slash their massive defense budgets. His pitch: Throughout Latin American history, armies have done more harm than good, wielding unfettered control over their own populations. The armed oppression breeds extremism, so the argument goes.

But enduring peace is not the only reason. Neutrality requires taking bold steps to bring radicals into the discussion, which Costa Rican leaders did decades ago. Political negotiations with communist groups in the 1940s brought about such hallmarks of Costa Rica’s social democracy as the labor code and guaranteed public health care.

On the right, the extremist anti-communist Movimiento Costa Rica Libre, which came about in the early 1960s, was permitted to publish articles in a newspaper and hold gatherings in downtown San Jose.

None of these groups garnered much of a following, said Carranza, a professor at University of Costa Rica and National University.

Why hasn’t Costa Rica joined the march of Latin America’s left-wing resurgence, with the likes of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and other nations in the U.S.-bashing Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas?

In part, it's because Costa Rican leaders are more comfortable with their relationship with the U.S. and want more of it — not less — whether they're hoping for more companies like Intel to set up shop or to promote this country as an eco-traveler's paradise. They feel this approach pays off. In the political sphere, for example, Arias jumped at the opportunity when Washington called on moderate Costa Rica to mediate the Honduran crisis.

Another explanation is the death of the labor union movement, long a bastion of the left. In 1982, the communist Vanguardia Popular led what became a very unpopular banana workers’ strike. In response, the United Fruit Company — which was controversial but a huge employer nevertheless — picked up and left, taking jobs with it. It was devastating not only to the banana growing regions but also to the union movement.

Today only public employees enjoy a degree of union affiliation. In the private sector, Ticos align themselves with each company’s individual “Solidarity Association,” which aims to uphold workers’ rights but lacks the internationalist vision shared among left-wing union organizers.

A country of roughly 4.5 million, Costa Rica traditionally has counted on a moderate bipartisan political system, with the pendulum swinging ever so slightly from center-left to center-right, and back. Both the left and right made moves to unseat that balance in recent elections, but it was the centrist National Liberation Party that emerged victorious both times.

In 2006, left-winger Otton Solis campaigned on an anti-corruption, anti-CAFTA platform and nearly unseated Arias. But the left-of-center party still fell short, and depended largely on disenchanted voters. Much of its support didn't represent an ideological leftward swing, said Carlos Denton, owner of CID-Gallup.

In February's elections, the challenge came from the right with libertarian candidate Otto Guevara. Guevara jumped to 21 percent of the vote from only 8.5 percent in 2006. But few Costa Ricans understood his platform.  “(Costa Ricans) don’t know what Libertarian is,” said Luis Haug, regional director of CID-Gallup.

Even Guevara’s campaign manager, Roger Retana, said the movement had to moderate its approach to capture votes. “Our thinking now is more flexible, more to the center, less dogmatic in ideological terms," Retana said before the elections. “Either we stay an ideological group that’s relatively small in legislative representation or we make the ideology more flexible."

Guevara ended up in third place behind Solis and winner Laura Chinchilla, who will become the country's first female president.

These days, Costa Rica’s moderation has analysts intrigued. They say there is a rise of the middle across the board, despite signs of consolidation of leftist power.

Although a conservative candidate recently unseated Chile’s longstanding left, it was Sebastian Pinera’s drift to the center that won him the most votes, said Marta Lagos, director of Chile-based Latinobarometro.

And even Chile’s “left” was very friendly to the United States with free market focus, according to Michael Schifter, vice president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “There is a leftist tradition but it looks to me like a lot of that in many countries has been moderated considerably,” he said. “I've long thought that these labels are less and less useful in really explaining what's going on in Latin America.”

Schifter said Uruguay’s recent election put a former left-wing guerrilla in office, but President-elect Jose Mujica will have a vice president with highly orthodox economic policies that could further moderate the country.

“There’s evidence that in Latin America the centrist electorate is growing,” said Lagos. “(The electorate) wants more of the state but more of the market as well.”

“It gives me the impression that democracy’s maturing,” she said.