Former President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, speaks with eM&P

On March 2, 2016, second-year CCT graduate student, Angela Hart interviewed with Laura Chinchilla, Former President of the Republic of Costa Rica (2010-2014). Chinchilla is currently a Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

In an interview with world leaders, you mentioned that Costa Rica offers a stabilizing presence in Latin America. How can other countries mimic or mirror this example?

Well, first of all, I would have to say Costa Rica has the oldest and the most stable democracy in our region and that counts in terms of explaining why Costa Rica instead of creating problems has been the kind of agent in terms of promoting peace and stability. At the same time, more than sixty years ago, we decided to abolish the army so we are a nation who will never make a war because even if we wanted to, we would not have the way to do it. And so I think that a very sound institution, a very strong democracy along with being a disarmed democracy, I think that probably has created a special condition for Costa Rica to become an agent of stability in Latin America.

Costa Rica is very environmentally aware. How can this mentality be adopted abroad?

I think the war is changing a lot of that. I think new generations are adopting this kind of mentality; they are very aware, the young people about the importance of preserving the environment along with trying to also promote – for example, the economic growth. In the case of Costa Rica, we started very long ago. I would say about forty years ago we decided to protect twenty-five percent of our territory; that meant that that portion of our land would be forever protected. I mean we will not develop any kind of economic projects on those lands. They will be just preserved for future generations. I would say that that decision was a kind of turning point on our model of development. Thanks to that decision and other policies that we adopted during the last three decades, we were able to become one of the greenest countries in the world. But, at the same time, there is something very important. We also were able to profit from the decision of being a green country. What do I mean for this? Well, today, Costa Rica has a very successful model of ecotourism; for example, and we are also able to attract investments related with great indulges and investments on clean energies.

That is fascinating because a lot of arguments tends to be, “Well, how are we going to be profitable or saving the land?”

Right, right, but I think the case of Costa Rica and the case of some other nations, for example, the northern nations in Europe are demonstrating that you can be successful protecting the environment and, at the same time, providing your people economic growth and more economical opportunities.

You are currently in this discussion group entitled, “Latin America and the Hispanic Community in the U.S. in the Context of the 2016 Presidential Campaign.” Is there anything particular you have noticed through discussion or you have come to realize about the current state of politics in the United States?

Well, concerning the political activities here, at Georgetown, and since we are in the middle of the political presidential campaign in the United States, we decided to bring a very controversial issue which has to do with the Hispanic population, issues such as the Immigration policies and so on. We have found out of interest in the economic community of Georgetown, mostly from the students, and not only Hispanic students but students from all different democratic groups in the United States. And that means that people are really very interested in what is happening with this campaign; there is a lot of very intense debate and I think that is good. It does not matter why, sometimes, probably, you have now some controversial candidates but what is important is that people are following the discussions, that people are following the debate, and I am sure that at the end of the road, the American people will be able to make the best decision for their own country; that is my hope, that is my hope.

That is very optimistic.

I am! I am! You are a very strong democracy! I like very much not necessarily the leadership but other people – if you have well connected people, if you have well informed people – at the end, believe me, the people will be able to make the best possible decision. I hope so.

I am sure the name Donald Trump came up beforehand and maybe influenced that optimism a little bit?

Well, again, he is generating controversy, of course, and I think he is profiting from some kind of frustrations that the American people have about the political system. But, let me tell you, that is not only a problem, a situation, here in the United States of America; that kind of candidate who profits from the anger of people have been very telling in Latin America and you find them now in Europe. I think the kind of global phenomenon in what is important about this kind of candidate, this kind of politician, is that people really get involved in the decision about voting, get most of the information that is needed to decide, try to participate and find out how to come up with the best possible and most well reasonable decision for them.

It is interesting that you say said that it is occurring at an international level because in a certain way he is the first candidate to really do this for the United States. With social media and all the available technology it is almost overpowering.

Right, that is true, and I will say that many other nations are following this election in the United States because everybody has access through the technology and the global media, and there is concern in other parts of the world about what is happening here.

I am sure there is quite a bit of concern when it comes to Donald Trump. I know in England they had their Parliament get together and discuss, “If he ever becomes president, how are we going to cope with this?”


What other major differences have you noticed between Costa Rica, Latin America, and the United States? Has anything stuck out to you in particular?

The United States is very popular for Latin America and Latin America is very important for the United States. We share the same geographical region. We have very strong relations in terms of trade investment. There are also important values that we share, important goals that we also try to defend and protect in the international arena so what is good about United States and Latin America is that we should try to continue forging a good relationship between the two regions, North America, United States, specifically, and Latin America. I would also like to add that if you realize the United States foreign policy towards Latin America during the last three decades, you will find a kind of different approach. The foreign policy towards Latin America has been very stable up to now. If you analyze the most important issues: immigration, security, trade, and investment, for example, you find that it does not matter if it was a Republican government or a Democrat government, the policies have been quite similar so that is why we are concerned about what is happening in this campaign because we are listening to some candidates thinking quite different from the past. Not only the Republicans on the Republican side, for example, Donald Trump’s expressions on the Hispanic population but also, for example, when you look at the background of Bernie Sanders on trade, he has been very strongly opposed to trading between the United States and Latin America. That is why I and many people are concerned about what is going to happen during the campaign; which kind of ideas are going to prevail, and how this campaign and the future president of the United States is going to be able or not to continue enhancing the political relations and the diplomatic relations between Latin America and the United States.

Is there a particular way you recommend people find this information because a lot of the time it is not at the forefront, on the social media page or in debates? Do you have any advice for people to educate themselves about the global nature of the politics?

Usually, the problem of a campaign is that sometimes instead of trying to otherwise very seriously a problem, an issue, some debates simplify the approach to an issue and I think that is what happens when we talk about in the middle of a campaign here in the United States, we talk about trade and investment. Usually, what people are reading is the loss of jobs and that is it. We do not think if that is true or not, first, and without adding another argument in favor of the economic relations between the nations, I think trade creates wealth. I think trade creates or promotes peace. I think for me it tiers and that it is good for everybody but, also, for Latin America trade has created more opportunities in our home nations and that means less people trying to go, legally, into the United States, for example. There are other ways to approach the issue but, unfortunately, usually, what they mean when they talk about trade is always ‘United States losing jobs as compared with the other nations’.

You won your election with forty-seven percent of the vote which is amazing. That is a very impressive amount. What techniques did you utilize to gain such momentum?

I do not know. Every campaign is quite different. In my case, first, I think I was able to – Costa Rica is a middle class society and in ideological terms, it is very much oriented to very moderate positions. We do not like extra missions to the left but neither to the right and, first, I think that we were able to elaborate on most of the policies we were proposing. We were able to understand, to interpret the Costa Rican feelings and perceptions about politics. In a campaign it is very important for you to understand what your people are feeling, what they are thinking, how they perceive you are, you have to study and analyze your constituency, the voters, the people who are supposed to vote for you. Secondly, my background was a big asset at the time because my experience comes from the security sector and at that time when I ran for the presidency in Costa Rica, the security, basically, the rise in crime was the most important concern for the Costa Rican so since I was recognized as an expert on security, people thought that I was going to be the only one able to solve their major concern. Finally, I would say that probably also, the thing that I was the first woman with a true chance to become president, people just decided that I was going to be a change in politics – something different from the past – and so they decided to vote for me. I would probably say that these were the three most important keys in winning the campaign with this kind of personal touch.

Going back to your first thought, what ends up happening in the United States at least, is at the beginning of the election, people are very dedicated to the farther most side of the campaign saying “I am a liberal” or “I am very much a conservative.” Then, when it comes time to go to the popular vote, candidates go more towards the middle. People still have the same mentality wanting the moderate not the extreme no matter where they are.

Yes, yes, I think there is always a little space for conservatism in a society but, usually, unless you are coming from a very strong crisis, usually, in normal situations people tend to be moderated about their positions.

Going back to your third point, it seems as if there are parallels to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In the case of Hillary that is the second time she is presenting her name but in my case it was the first time. I think people have had the chance to know her very well, at this point, and she is offering her experience which I think is very impressive. But what is also interesting is that you should not assume that women are going to vote for you just because you are women. We have to be able to offer something else and we have to be able to look very competitive because, usually, we have to work harder than men in many things and it is also true in a campaign. We have to be very well prepared, there is no space for some kind of accidents so working for a campaign and working a campaign for a woman is not something easy at all.

I think it is interesting that you point out the fact that you cannot just rely on being a woman, that is something that other people are now saying for Hillary Clinton.

Women were very supportive to me but, again, I had to work very hard to offer them something else; they felt offended whenever someone told them, “You have to vote for her because you are a woman,” and I think they are right. I mean they want to not only have a woman president but to have someone who can really do the job!”

What advice do you have for women in politics?

I would say that it goes back to what we were discussing before but, first, I will say that women should aspire to be in politics because politics is a very important instrument for promoting change in a society. I know that women are very sensitive about making a difference in social and environment progress but we are very strongly moved about the social issues in our society and how people feel about their situation, their quality of life, what is happening with their children, women, young people, with the elderly, and the best possible way to promote change is with politics. I respect very much the private sector, the corporate sector, the international sectors, and other sectors, but politics is a very important instrument for promoting change so I invite women to be a part of it in a very active role so that is the first. Try to get involved in politics and, secondly, try to prepare themselves because they will always be compared to, it will be harder than men and, also, that is not something very good or very reasonable, but that is the way it is so we have to work very hard – try to know what we want to achieve and try to focus on getting this goal we want to achieve. And, finally, it is very important also to have very strong convictions because it is not easy; you are going to have to fight obstacles, the most difficult obstacle has to do with the man tone, the perceptions, the kind of bias that we are going to find in this role so you have to have very strong convictions so you can be able to overcome all the obstacles you are going to have to find your ego.

Do you find it difficult to be a conservative in today’s society because it seems as if it is an uphill battle in most instances for the United States?

Well, I do not know what they call, what is means, to be a social conservative. I do not like those kinds of labels because labels in a certain way create a barrier among the people. I believe and I have defended all my life the human rights and being conservative is an example of human rights. Costa Rica, for example, is a nation that has converged with other nations. We, in Costa Rica, and in general terms, Latin America, but conservatism is natural, Costa Rica is a nation very much oriented to family values. That means that we really value family and life very strongly and so, usually, most of the head of the states in Costa Rica have protected family values in Costa Rica, to protect life. In that sense I just responded to the same kind of evolution, the same kind of values that historically have categorized my society. But, for example, when it comes to the defense of human rights, all human rights, I will mind, which is your raised demographics, your social or economical statures, which are your sexual preferences, I think that in that field everybody has the same rights. But when it comes to talking about family, promoting policies for families, or trying to protect life, yes, I was on the side of what my people were also defending.

If you had any advice for current candidates, what would you recommend for them and their campaigns?

I do not know. There are many ways to get involved, to run a campaign, but for me what is most important is to be yourself. People notice when you are nice, when you are acting, you have to be yourself. Secondly, you have to have strong principles; you should not lie because if you feel that you can solve a problem, it is okay to say that – that you have to understand that you have the chance to win and if you win, you have to respond to your promises in your campaign. Probably, those are the three most important advices: to be yourself, the principles that you be true to yourself, and, finally, to be sincere about, “What can I do?” “What I will never do,” or “I could not do.”