LA UNION, on the Costa Rica-Panama border – Democracy was in action last week in Central America with an opposing presidential candidate upsetting the official juggernaut in Panama and another dark horse being sworn in in Costa Rica.
In Panama, upstart Juan Carlos Varela upended President Ricardo Martinelli’s hand-picked successor, Jose Domingo Arias, getting 40 percent of the vote and assuming a five-year presidency July 1.
Across the northern border in Costa Rica, the default winner of a run-off election, history professor Luis Guillermo Solis, was sworn in at the national stadium.
Across town, tens of thousands of schoolteachers in their second week of a strike clogged the streets outside the presidential palace.
They hadn´t been paid since March.
In both cases, money didn´t talk, scream, or even whimper when the people went to the polls.
Dr. Solis’ opponent in the finals, longtime San Jose mayor Johnny Araya, suspended the campaign after outspending all 12 other candidates on the presidential ballot in the first round and getting only a little over 20 percent of the votes.
In the second round, Dr. Solis got 80 percent of the vote, the non-candidate Mr. Araya another 20 percent – and 40 percent of the voters stayed away from the polls altogether.
In Panama, there’s a saying: “The Arias of yore killed Balboa. The Arias of today kill for a Balboa.”
Indeed, it was Pedro Arias de Avila who ordered the execution of the first European to wade in the Pacific, Vasco Nunez Balboa, in 1519. The Arias name has been prominent in the oligarchy of Panama ever since.
But in this election, a lot of Balboas (Panama currency equal to one U.S. dollar) were spent in vain.
Watching Panama TV in the run-up to the election was worthy of a research paper for some journalism or public-relation grad student.
There would be an ad for Mr. Arias (who went by the name “Jose Domingo” for campaign purposes). Then an ad for either Mr. Varela or the other contender, former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro.
Another pro-Arias ad.
One against Arias, featuring a pool game with a middleman running the table, picking up the cue ball with the name “Arias” written on it and putting it in his pocket.
“No more Martinelli,” noting that Mr. Arias had picked the president’s wife as his vice president.
The ad segment then might conclude with a government-sponsored commercial extolling the great works of the current administration and concluding “Ricardo Martinelli, Presidente.”
The winner, Mr. Varela, was Mr. Martinelli´s vice president but split to the Panamista (El Pueblo Primero, the People First) Party. He promised to keep some of the ongoing public works projects going. He also promised:
• 100 percent potable drinking water in the country of 3.7 million, 24 hours a day.
• Bilingual (Spanish-English) education for all and scholarships to curtail a 38 percent high-school dropout rate. Education is free in Panama and Costa Rica, but students’ families must supply mandatory uniforms, books and other school supplies.
• A government operating as a service, not a business.
• An emergency freeze on “canasta basica” – basic foods and other household items.
In the border village of La Union, that last premise is a real head-shaker. Costa Ricans drive washboard, gravel roads to La Union and park on the smooth tarmac on the Panamanian side. They buy food for about half the price they would pay in nearby Sabalito, Costa Rica, and also stock up on cheap gas and diesel – to say nothing of the discount liquor.
La Union, Panama, also has a cockfighting arena. Cockfighting is illegal in Costa Rica, but Panama radio advertises vet supplies and metal spurs - “everything for the gallero” (owner of fighting cocks).
Across the street in La Union, Costa Rica, there’s a whorehouse, especially busy during coffee harvest. Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. Cigarettes are cheap, too.
Both countries’ winning candidates promised an end to corruption. Dr. Solis even had all cabinet member sign an ethics pledge before taking office.
Unlike in the United States, sexuality is not considered a political issue. In Costa Rica, where two-thirds of newborns arrive without benefit of parental matrimony, Dr. Solis is not married to the woman who will officially serve as first lady, Mercedes Pena, described as his “companion.”
In Panama, where 90 percent of births are out of wedlock, Mr. Varela, a liquor-store impresario, actually is married to journalist Lorena Castillo and has three kids.
Ever the sore loser, Mr. Martinelli – who originally had favored Mr. Varela as his replacement – said after the results: “I know the candidate. May God help you.”
In Panama City, fake copies of Panama’s biggest daily, La Prensa, were distributed just after midnight on election night, spoofing Mssrs. Arias and Martinelli, who in the spoof both said they would not honor the results of the election, although not charging fraud or anything.
Echoing the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger before engineering a coup in Chile in 1974, in the spoof Mr. Arias is said to have said: “I don´t see why we have to let a country go (for Varela) just because its people are irresponsible.”