SAN VITO, Costa Rica – Election day in this former banana republic is like flag day – not the red, white, and blue tricolor stripes of the national emblem but the varied banners of the 13 (!) political parties with dogs, however small, in the fight.
Folks wear their party’s T-shirt and cars, pickups and farm trucks prowl the winding streets of this mountain town with flags a-flying: The green and white of the perpetual powerhouse PLN (National Liberation Party), the yellow and red of the PAC (Citizens’ Action Party), the blue and red of Social Democrats, the yellow (red lettering) of Frente Amplio (Broad Front).
Youthful enthusiasts beat drums, blow horns, chant slogans and blow kisses. The street leading down to the school polling place in San Vito, founded by Italians following World War II, is lined with brightly colored campaign tents. Volunteers offer to explain issues or candidates, or show the proper place to mark an “X.”
Vendors sell cool refreshments, food, or lottery tickets. Taxis arrive. Buses jammed with voters from distant rural areas disgorge the party faithful. All that’s lacking are jugglers and clowns dressed in party colors – which they do have in the nation’s capital, San Jose.
Costa Rica has its elections in February, one of a couple of months of dry season in a nation known for its bad roads and abundant rainfall – more than 10 feet a year. “Summer,” they call it, as streams and lakes dry up, leaves on some tree species turn brown or yellow and fall to the ground. The heat is on.
Voting is mandatory in Costa Rica. There´s a (never levied) fine, but about 30 percent of Ticos eschewed suffrage this time around. This 70 percent turnout compares to Montana’s 72 percent (of those who bothered to register) in the most recent election, and the Treasure State has a reputation for being one of the higher states in participation.
My landlord, Francisco Herrera, voted once when he was 18 but never went back. About 40 years ago, his man won and turned out to be a scoundrel, even worse than the rank-and-file Latin American politicians.
“They´re all crooks. They´re all liars!” Mr. Herrera says, echoing millions of Americans disenchanted with their imbedded two-party system.
Mr. Herrera has never been levied a fine despite decades of electoral abstinence and constantly dealing with government entities for taxes, restaurant and bar licenses, inspections and certification for his new “canopy” zip line where customers fly on a cable through the air among the treetops and over a lake that these days is more of a mud flat.
On the other side of the political spectrum is the Pittier family of San Vito. Gizelle and Pedro footed the bill for their daughters’ eight-hour bus ride from San Jose, where they attend college, to vote for the second-place candidate, Johnny Araya Monge, because “this election is so important.”
I have never been to a Costa Rican Jaycee meeting, but I imagine part of the Jaycee Creed says, “We are a nation of scofflaws, not men,” in a world of unhelmeted motorcyclists, unlicensed and uninspected taxis and restaurants, illegal hunting (all hunting is illegal), gold-mining and shark finning.
Despite a perception of corruption, bribes and chicanery throughout the spectrum of Costa Rican society, elections seem relatively clean – and tame.
A few issues are off the table. It’s hard to brand anyone a “socialist” in a country that has had universal health care for 65 years. And nobody – or everybody – is “soft on defense” when the 10,000 colones ($20) bill features a silhouette of President Jose Figueres Ferrer in 1949 symbolically taking a pickaxe to the walls of the old fort in San Jose and abolishing the military. Pre-dating Joni Mitchell´s “Woodstock” song, he actually turned the fort into a butterfly (and history) museum.
And despite all the multi-colored flags, Costa Ricans often seem to believe they are offered neither choice nor echo.
Sure, La Nacion (the country´s largest newspaper and so-called “maker of presidents”) branded the Broad Front candidate, Jose Maria Villarta, a “chavista.” comparing him to the late Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chavez.
I suspect the real threat posed by Mr. Villarta was his perpetually scruffy beard and the fact that he was the only candidate (of the top five) to appear at the televised debates … without a necktie! He got third.
And sure, some friends up north informally slung a little mud on social media regarding the National Libertarian candidate, Otto (no relation to Che) Guevara.
His family was compared to the Kennedys. The Guevaras are into everything in the far-flung province of Puntarenas, and there was a listing of the family’s thousands of hectares of prime finca, beach-front hotels, factories and other enterprises – and pointing out that Mr. Guevara has never done a lick of work in his life. He got fourth.
Even a week or so prior to the elections, some of the more obvious also-rans already were “mothering up” to the front-runners on who – and at what price — they might be supporting in the second round, where the two top vote-getters square off again on April 6.
There is no majority party in Costa Rica, so all are members of a loyal – and shifting – opposition.
The 67-member Legislative Assembly has only two parties with double-digit membership. The National Liberationists – of the pick-swinging Mr. Figueres, current president Laura Chinchilla and current hopeful and former San Jose mayor of Mr. Araya – has 18. The Citizen´s Action Party (PAC) of the top vote-getter, Jose Guillermo, Solis has 13.
So there may be some strange bedfellows in this country of 4.5 million, which promises to be carbon-neutral by 2020. Laws will be passed – and largely ignored. Taxis and restaurants will continue to operate outside the law and under the table. Hunting and cockfighting will continue to be both illegal and wildly popular. Logging with neither a government permit – nor the landowner´s permission – and gold mining in national parks and other protected areas will continue to support families, as they have for generations.
Maybe the election abstainers have a point.