QCOSTARICA – Ronny Rojas, a Costa Rican journalist, who works for Noticias Telemundo and is a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Journalism, posted on the Washington Post an opinion piece on Costa Rica’s President Rodrigo Chaves, titled “Rodrigo Chaves sigue los pasos de Trump en Costa Rica” (Rodrigo Chaves follows in Trump’s footsteps in Costa Rica).
Following is a translation and adaption of the article.
The aroma of Donald Trump Costa Rica’s Casa Presidencial (Presidential House) is difficult to hide. Since President Rodrigo Chaves came to power in this small Central American country in May, his character and style of governing have been compared to that of the former US president.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity is Chaves’ public confrontation with the Costa Rican press, especially with the media that exposed him during the presidential campaign by revealing the accusations of sexual harassment that Chaves faced while working at the World Bank, which cost him to be demoted from his management position and a three-year salary freeze.
Before winning the election, Chaves already announced that, like a “tsunami”, he was going to destroy two of the main media outlets in the country: Canal 7 (Teletica television Channel 7) and the La Nación newspaper.
In Costa Rica, it is said that there is a long way from words to deeds, but that does not seem to be the case with Chaves. Barely a month after assuming the presidency, his administration ordered the closure of Parque Viva, an event center of the Grupo Nación, which brings significant income to the journalistic company.
Costa Rican journalists see in this attitude an attempt by the president to settle accounts with the media that showed his failures to the public.
He has also called the media “rats” and personally singles out journalists from the podium where he spends more than an hour every Wednesday in colorful press conferences broadcast live over the internet, a practice reminiscent of live lawsuits between Trump and the American press at the White House.
He has asked the Ticos with a smile not to believe the press, to “don’t buy the smoke”, assuring that the only thing journalists want is to cause confusion. But he also assures that his government will defend freedom of the press “at all costs” and rejects the criticism saying that there is no closed media outlet in the country.
Rodrigo Chaves does not want Costa Ricans to believe the press and it could be because in recent weeks the press has reported how the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) —one of the strongest electoral institutions on the continent— found evidence to presume that the Progress Party campaign Social Democratic Party (PPSD), which brought Chaves to power, used a “dark financing scheme.”
In June, the TSE sent an extensive report to the Public Ministry (Prosecutor’s Office), which is investigating the matter, in which it details that the campaign would have received money from companies, individuals and even foreign citizens without reporting its origin and far from public control.
Costa Rica is one of the strongest democracies in Latin America and one of the 10 countries with the greatest press freedom in the world. However, the threats and the confrontational style of Chaves have already caused the country to be seen abroad on the same populist path and with an authoritarian course as other Central American nations such as Nicaragua – where the headquarters of the newspaper La Prensa was taken over by the government of Daniel Ortega and dozens of journalists have had to go into exile— or Guatemala, where the founder of the newspaper elPeriódico, José Rubén Zamora, has been under arrest since July accused of money laundering and other charges, after the media reported the Attorney General for allegedly allying with President Alejandro Giammattei “to attack judges and lawyers involved in anti-corruption cases.”
And not to mention El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele accuses El Faro —one of his main critics— of money laundering without evidence.
The press is not the only stone that bothers Chaves. One of his first actions as president was to sign a decree to eliminate the mandatory nature of vaccines against COVID-19, contrary to medical recommendations, although it was later shown that he did not have the power to do so.
Together with his Minister of Health, he attacked the scientists of the National Vaccination Commission for refusing to remove the order to vaccinate children, adolescents, public and private employees, accusing them of “they like anomalous things”.
In early August, one of those specialists, Hugo Marín Piva, was excluded from the commission. Marín accused the government of being allied with anti-vaccine groups and pressuring the commission to comply with its orders without “the proper technical foundation.”
Very similar to when Trump threatened to impeach expert Anthony Fauci.
The problem is that, although the journalists shout to the heavens, it seems that Costa Ricans like Chaves’ confrontational style and embrace him in front of the critical press. Almost eight out of 10 Costa Ricans consider that his work has been “good or very good”, a record figure, according to a survey by the University of Costa Rica, one of the most credible.
At least until July, a majority supported the style with which Chaves has handled the media and considered him a firm president with leadership.
In this case, it could be that the effects of the pandemic on the Costa Rican economy, which registered the highest unemployment rate in Central America in 2021, or the recent corruption scandals in public works contracting, which led to the arrest of six mayors, dozens of officials and the owners of the largest construction companies in the country fed up the Ticos and fertilized the land where Chaves sowed his seed. Those were his campaign promises: “Restore hope” to unemployed people and entrepreneurs and fight corruption.
The obvious question is what will happen from now on. The president’s popularity will depend on what he can actually do to keep his promises. His party barely reached 10 seats in Congress and, like it or not, that is where any structural change is processed, so he is at the mercy of what he can negotiate with the opposition majority.
The cost of living and the economy are the main concern of the people and, despite a polarizing political campaign, the citizenry continues to strongly support the democratic system that sustains the country.
Specialists believe that Chaves’ high popularity is not a “blank check” or a “citizen mandate” for his government to disrespect democratic norms. Just as they support his president, at least for now, the Ticos also believe that he must comply with the laws.
And although the show and the confrontation with the press does not end and has complicated things for Chaves —on September 2 he dismissed his Minister of Communication without giving reasons, who later assured that the attacks on the press are a personal decision of the president and correspond to “open wounds” during the campaign—they can also generate a loyal fan base.
But it is to be expected that an authoritarian escalation on his part would not be welcome in a vain country, which likes to be recognized in the world as a “pura vida” little corner.
You can read the original, in Spanish, at Washingtonpost.com.