On May 9, 2014, Guillermo Solis became Costa Rica’s 47th president. His ascension to the office marked the end to one of the country’s most unusual election cycles in recent memory. Solis succeeds Laura Chinchilla, who departed office with the lowest presidential approval rating in the hemisphere, at one point as low as 9 percent. During Chinchilla’s four years in office (2010-2014), her administration was dogged by corruption scandals, tensions with Nicaragua and a growing deficit. How Solis will manage Costa Rica’s mounting difficulties remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Costa Ricans are ready for change.
Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s first female president, entered office with considerable popular support. Having served for two years as vice president under Oscar Arias, whose own term lasted from 2006 to 2010, Chinchilla seemed a promising successor for the historic National Liberation Party (PLN). Her ambitious agenda targeted public security, tax reform, education and the environment. But her honeymoon was short-lived; polls revealed skepticism about her leadership after her first 100 days in office.
Her successes were overshadowed by her failures to effectively manage some of Costa Rica’s most pressing problems. Chinchilla’s efforts in public security resulted in a reduction in violent crime. Costa Rica’s homicide rate is the lowest it has been in a decade, and other types of crime are on the decline as well. There were also significant increases in drug interdiction over the course of her term, though this also suggests an increase in drug trafficking in the country. During Chinchilla’s tenure, Costa Rica benefitted from economic growth averaging 4.5 percent as well as increased foreign investment. She signed numerous free trade agreements, recently initiating membership with the Pacific Alliance. But she failed to effectively tackle the growing deficit, rising inequality or the cost of living. In September 2013, Moody’s lowered Costa Rica’s outlook to “negative.” The rating agency recently threatened to further downgrade Costa Rica’s credit rating if the country doesn’t address its crisis in public debt, which reached 40 percent of GDP in 2013.
Though Chinchilla herself was never directly implicated in any corruption scandals, allegations of corruption beset her administration. More than a dozen Cabinet ministers resigned from her administration in connection with various scandals ranging from tax evasion to graft to embezzlement to failure to vet a private jet owned by drug traffickers. The scandals and allegations of corruption reinforced the public perception that Chinchilla was an ineffectual leader with poor judgment. She contributed to this by blaming her troubles on others, including the media, courts and political opponents—at home and abroad. Chinchilla became entangled in a debacle with Nicaragua over the San Juan River and Isla Calero.
The border dispute
, which Chinchilla described as an “invasion,” began in 2010 when Nicaragua’s military began dredging a canal for the river. Even her former boss, Arias, criticized her handling of the crisis. She refused to engage with Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega directly, a tactic that mirrored her dealings with the opposition at home.
Wary voters went to the polls in February to elect a new president and legislature. Though PLN candidate Johnny Araya clearly had issues of his own, Chinchilla’s record undoubtedly impacted his prospects. While he placed a close second in the first round of voting, the come-from-behind victory of the Citizen Action Party’s (PAC) Solis clearly signaled that Costa Ricans were ready for change. As neither candidate received the minimum 40 percent necessary for a first-round victory, Solis and Araya headed into a second round. Solis enjoyed a significant lead in the second-round polls, and Araya frequently found himself on the defensive with voters. One month into his second-round campaign, Araya chose to stop campaigning, handing Solis an inevitable victory. Solis won almost 78 percent of the vote, one of the largest margins of victory in any competitive election.
Solis, a former university professor, must now translate that mandate into concrete results, and soon. Above all, he must promote transparency and bolster public confidence in government. On his first day in office, Solis ordered the pruning of bushes in front of the Casa Presidencial. It was a symbolic gesture intended to signify the administration’s commitment to transparency. He also required his Cabinet members to sign a code of ethics prior to being sworn into office. But these symbolic acts must be accompanied by efficacy in dealing with some of the country’s very serious challenges, including a crumbling infrastructure, high energy costs, a deteriorating public health system—referred to as the caja—high unemployment and a teacher’s strike. The most immediate problem, however, is the fiscal deficit. Solis must succeed where Chinchilla failed, which could be difficult given the composition of the legislature. Beyond keeping Costa Rica’s credit rating at a respectable level, Solis will need to attack the deficit in order to keep his campaign promises to address inequality and extreme poverty.
Solis differs in both style and substance from his predecessor; he is, for instance, less enthusiastic about free trade agreements, including the Pacific Alliance, than Chinchilla. Nevertheless, one can expect a few areas of continuity. Most analysts agree that security was Chinchilla’s chief success, and there is every indication that Solis will continue to build upon improvements in that sector. Celso Gamboa, a former vice minister under Chinchilla, has been named to head the Public Security and Interior Ministries. Solis is also unlikely to improve Costa Rica’s relations with Nicaragua anytime soon. Solis did not visit Nicaragua on his recent tour of the region, in which he personally invited heads of state to attend his inauguration. That said, Solis must find a way to move beyond the dispute to constructively engage with the Nicaraguan government on pressing issues of mutual interest, including crime, migration, the environment and the region’s economy. In his handling of these challenges, Costa Ricans will soon find out if Solis’ administration will be as exceptional as the election that brought him to power.
Christine Wade is associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.