A New President & A New Chapter
Tuesday, May 8, 2018, Costa Rica swore in it’s 48th president. I watched the presidential inauguration all morning with hopeful excitement, proud of my Tica heritage and so glad to be here this day. And what a perfectly beautiful day it was for this transfer of power—deep blue sunny skies, warm and breezy. I know it’s silly, but I felt that even the sun was shining brightly for 38 year old President Carlos Alvarado, a man with ambitious plans for this small country of 5 million souls.
The only inauguration I’ve ever attended in person was at the old national stadium in 1982 for Luis Alberto Monge. That day was gorgeous too, and like today, the atmosphere was one of excitement and hope but in May of 1982, the situation was truly desperate.
Monge had inherited what would become known as “the crisis,” a period when the currency suffered ongoing devaluation, inflation was at 90%, wages were down by 40%, and the middle class was rapidly shrinking. It was a bleak time of standing in lines just to buy things like rice and beans. Yes. Really. I lived it.
The Monge administration was able to gradually turn things around, albeit with countless international concessions and unpopular austerity measures. But, the fallout left permanent consequences, and the prosperous Costa Rica I knew never made a full comeback.
FYI: until about 1970, Costa Rica had one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. The reasons for the 1978-1982 crisis are beyond the scope of this article but I provide a link at the end if you’re interested in knowing more.
Newly inaugurated President Alvarado is also facing significant challenges. Costa Rica is basically facing bankruptcy with it’s fiscal deficit and rising unemployment. When all markers are considered, Costa Rica’s cost of living is virtually the highest in Latin America, and salaries are not keeping up.
Extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc,) related to climate change are occurring more often, taking human lives, and causing devastating agricultural/ livestock losses, as well as damages to bridges, roadways, buildings, and utilities. The grossly inadequate highway infrastructure costs millions in lost time and vehicle emissions as commuters spend extended time caught in crawling traffic for hours on end.
Tourism alone accounts for around 13% of the GDP, down from a high of 16.5% in 2005. Eco-tourism is big right now, but high prices of gas, food, and lodging, infrastructure issues, personal safety concerns, and extreme weather all have detrimental effects on this critical industry.
Last, but not least, global economies around the world are undergoing tremendous transitions, and for a small country like Costa Rica, the ramifications of even slight decreases in exports or tourism can be catastrophic. Top exports include optical, technical, and medical equipment, as well as fruits and coffee, so the new US tariffs on steel are expected to impact Costa Rica significantly.
I’m not particularly knowledgeable about political science or world economics, so I’ll refrain from offering more than a few personal opinions. Of course, judging by the disasters I see in the USA, Venezuela, and even Costa Rica, the experts don’t seem to be doing so well either.
I spent a decade (1974-1984) deeply immersed in Costa Rican politics because during that time, I was married into it. I got to listen in on fascinating “off the record” discussions with many of the most important political figures of the time. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how often the party (Liberación) presented a united public face despite serious behind the scenes disagreements. I learned that good politicians could be terrible people in private, and that some of the most brilliant minds were reluctant participants or poorly suited for public office. I heard the stories about the revolution of 1948 directly from the people involved in it, and I gained an understanding of how Costa Rica developed in the following decades. It was a priceless educational experience for a young woman who had been fairly clueless about the world up until then.
That was then, and I feel I know enough now to be hopeful about this new president. You should know that I was not eligible to vote in this election. I only acquired my dual citizenship and cédula a year ago, and missed the required 365 day waiting period by a few weeks. Still, I am half Tica and I live here, so this election was vitally important to me. Everything that follows is about optimism. I’m fully aware of the perils that lie ahead, but for today, I want to focus on why I believe Carlos Alvarado deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt.
My initial hesitation about supporting this man was his age and relative lack of experience, but during the weeks between the first election in February and the runoff on April 1st, Carlos Alvarado convinced me he could do the job.
Alvarado didn’t come from a wealthy family but he is very well educated, and he didn’t start out in politics. His decision to enter politics was cemented in 2013 when he felt he could contribute to creating a better Costa Rica for his son to grow up in.
Alvarado’s involvement in politics began relatively recently, as politicians go, but his portfolio is fairly impressive nonetheless. Communications director, Party Advisor, Minister of Labor, Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion, and successful achievements in collective bargaining negotiations are just a few of the feathers in his hat. You can examine more of them in the links I provide below.
He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications, and a Master’s in Political Science, both from the University of Costa Rica, and he’s a published author of three books. He also has a Master’s degree in Developmental Studies from the University of Sussex (England). In addition to his native Spanish, he speaks English and French; skills that can come in handy as a president. His experience as a college professor gives him additional brownie points in my eyes.
He seems to be a well-rounded, down to earth, regular guy with a professional working wife, a young son, and a love of music (he’s a guitar playing rocker!). He has recognized the importance of improving work opportunities and living conditions for the rural areas, and is clearly a man with feminist and progressive philosophies. He reminds me of the “roll up your sleeves and talk to the people” persona of Robert Kennedy back in the 1960’s. I see him as someone who is serious about the difficult issues facing this country that is a mix of 1st, 2nd, and 3d world communities.
I was impressed that even while preparing for a close runoff against a polar opposite evangelical conservative, he did not waver or soften his liberal positions to please undecided voters. He firmly stood his philosophical ground and emphasized why he was the better candidate by showing us the kind of president he intended to be. He focused on his campaign and the plans he’d developed for the country. He spoke of acceptance and diversity, and refused to be distracted from his goals.
Alvarado has been careful to distance himself from the political scandals of those around him, especially those within his own party. Despite belonging to the party of his predecessor where he gained valuable political experience, he is nothing like outgoing President Solis.
Carlos Alvarado represents an important generational shift.
Born in 1980, he is unlike any Costa Rican president who has come before. He has no family ties to the “old guard” that has basically run Costa Rica for generations—a rare bird in this country. Alvarado’s is a new face with fresh ideas and an eagerness to learn innovative approaches.
Creating a coalition team, he has chosen his cabinet and advisors from various parties with apparent care, matching his vision and needs with the individual strengths of those he’s chosen. He’s definitely broken with tradition, making some of his choices more than slightly controversial. Time will reveal his wisdom or folly.
This historically young president has surrounded himself with a kaleidoscope of people, openly embracing the belief that diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social/political philosophy, will make for a stronger modern country that can set an awesome example on the world stage. We now have the first black female vice president in Latin America. More than half of his cabinet is made up of women. It’s a multi-party cabinet. He’s walking his talk.
With no commitments to outdated mindsets and stale policies, he’s ready to move the country forward by blazing uncharted trails, convinced that a brighter future requires some difficult changes, open-minded brainstorming, cutting edge technology, and a dedication to improving life for all Costa Ricans for decades to come.
He’s heavily into environmental sustainability, and has educated himself on carbon neutrality. He’s made it clear that the country’s accomplishment in producing sustainable energy is only part of the solution; continued use of fossil fuels for transportation is not acceptable. If all he does in his administration is reduce fossil fuel dependency while minimizing traffic problems in the Central Valley, he’ll be a hero to most of us.
The inauguration was just amazing in and of itself. If this is any indication of what is to come, we’ve elected a very special person to the presidency.
Escorted by dozens of cyclists on their bicycles, Carlos Alvarado, and members of his entourage rode a new hydrogen bus, walked, or biked through the streets of San José to the inauguration–the first carbon neutral inauguration in Costa Rica, he proudly proclaimed–proof of his commitment of working towards carbon neutrality, and recognition of Costa Rica born Nasa astronaut Franklin Chang’s Hydrogen Ecosystem project. Alvarado and his wife waved and interacted with the people in the street during the entire ride, even posting some of it on FaceBook. Sure beat watching a somber closed window limousine procession!
Alvarado chose to hold an open air inauguration downtown, in the historically significant Plaza de la Democracia. As people cheered his arrival, he repeatedly touched his heart and gestured with extended arms to everyone present, thanking them for putting him there.
With his left hand on the Constitution of Costa Rica*, and his right hand raised, this political newcomer became President Alvarado in front of the old fortress where the military was officially abolished by Jose Figueres Ferrer in 1948. He swore in his cabinet as they all stood along the top of the fortress, which is now a museum.
The new president’s inaugural address was powerfully to the point. He acknowledged the challenges, and spoke of what he hoped to achieve. He appealed to the legislators and citizens to come together for the good of the country. He assured the people that he would work tirelessly on their behalf, while warning that changes would not happen overnight. He promised his best and asked the citizens to become active participants of something amazing.
He ended his speech with crowd-rousing shouts of Que Viva Costa Rica!
The new president and his administration received over 100 foreign dignitaries in the beautiful historic National Theatre. While tastefully elegant, the reception consisted of cocktails with just six varieties of typical Costa Rican appetizers, underlining the intent of this president to model austerity from the get go.
There were no lavish balls or dinners. Instead, there was an open air concert on the same stage where the inauguration was held earlier. The new president and first lady could be seen moving through the crowds, having walked five blocks down Central Avenue amid throngs of well wishers, posing for countless selfies as the music played. They must have been exhausted but they seemed to be enjoying their Fiesta Democrática (Festival of Democracy). At long last, this tradition-breaking new president, his wife, and cabinet stepped onto the stage and with a dance, closed the day in what is called here “un broche de oro,” a golden clasp. Waving to the crowd, he confirmed the awesome, he managed to make the day more about the pride of being Costa Rican than about himself; an auspicious start to a new chapter.
My primary impression has been that Carlos Alvarado genuinely ran for office to build a better Costa Rica for his people. There wasn’t a hint of ego during the campaign, and inaugural day was no different.
This is the most “for the people” president I’ve ever seen.
He has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish in the next four years, he is willing to seek the knowledge to make it happen, and it’s quite possible he possesses the youthful energy and leadership necessary to follow through on a significant portion of it all.
My greatest hope is that the people will stand solidly behind him and give him the chance to work some much needed magic. I wish him the absolute best.
Que Viva Costa Rica!
*Costa Rica does not require swearing on a bible.