Keys to the first round, doubts about round two
There are several keys to understanding
the unexpected and worrying results
of the first election round in Costa Rica.
Whatever happens in the concluding round,
the country has entered a new stage:
where prejudices and anti-values
born of religious conservatism
have come forth in full force.
María Francisca Vargas Durán
In his bid for the presidency, neo-Pentecostal Congressman Fabricio Alvarado burst onto Costa Rica’s electoral scene by obtaining a majority in the first round of voting on February 4. The possibility that he could become the head of State of this country, known for many years as the Switzerland of Central America, has polarized it as never before.
What keys help us understand these developments, and what facts should we keep in mind as we calculate what may lie ahead?
Evangelicals on the rise
The growth of political parties based on neo-Pentecostal ideology was already clear in the makeup of the 2014-2018 Legislative Assembly. While previous legislatures typically had at least one or two representatives from these Evangelical denominations, it wasn’t until Luis Guillermo Solís’ now outgoing government that five representatives belonging to different minority political groups raised the standard of religious arguments to paralyze approval of laws regarding the country’s most critical issues. They became allies in promoting a common agenda that they have used both to apply pressure and to negotiate. This agenda is packed with moral issues approached from an extremely conservative viewpoint: “Yes to preserving the traditional family,” “No to abortion,” “No to equal marriage,” “No to legalizing marijuanam” “No to in vitro fertilization,” and the most ambiguous and confusing slogan “No to gender ideology.”
Fabricio Alvarado of the National Restoration Party is one of those five legislators. Although he comes from a Catholic background, he belongs to the neo-Pentecostal World Worship Center, in which he describes himself as a “psalmist,” not a pastor. With incomplete journalism studies, he has been a radio and television news announcer and is also a singer, having produced various Christian music albums. When he announced his presidential candidacy in 2017, no one was worried because they didn’t think he had a chance. Sound at all familiar?
The Left’s weakness
Despite boasting 9 of 57 congressional representatives during the last four years, the Broad Front has had a weak legislative tenure. This left-leaning Costa Rican party lacked leadership and any willingness to enter into dialogue, getting tangled in internal tensions and unable to develop a local support base among impoverished rural and urban communities.
For its part, the governing Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) could barely get its governance plan off the ground, having been stalled by a divided Legislative Assembly intent on hindering progress. Faced with this unfavorable balance of power, it abandoned the challenge of moving forward on urgently needed national fiscal reform.In its last days, the wilting flower in PAC’s lapel was the scandal known as “el Cementazo,” which blew up in mid-2017. Officials in the Solís government plus those from other parties and various public entities as well as in the court system were either formally accused of or mentioned in connection with corruption for having favored a construction magnate in his bid to import cement from China, providing unsecured bank loans and rushing through a legal decision in record time to approve the import and sale of this product. Both the magnate in question and various high-level officials from the Bank of Costa Rica—which granted him US$30 million—are currently facing preventive detention or other precautionary measures.
The governing party’s credibility took a hit from the scandal, as did PAC’s presidential candidate, Carlos Alvarado. He seemed helplessly stuck in fifth place in electoral preference polls, registering barely 6% of popular support. Meanwhile, an emerging hardliner, Juan Diego Castro from the National Integration Party and Antonio Álvarez Desanti, one of the least charismatic candidates in the history of Oscar Arias, traditional National Liberation Party (PLN) were tied for first place with around 15% of the projected vote. At the end of 2017, the scenario seemed to clearly indicate a second-round face off between Castro and Álvarez Desanti.
Consultation with the Inter-
American Court of Human Rights
On January 9, the government received its response from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding a consultation the Vice President’s office had made in 2016 about rights held by the sexual diversity population, The Court replied with Consultative Opinion OC-24 on Gender Identity and Equality and non-discrimination against same-sex couples.
In Costa Rica, international treaties regarding human rights supersede national laws thanks to developments in current jurisprudence. In this specific case there was a mandate to reform national regulations to reflect the Court’s resolution.
What did the Court actually say? Based on the fact that the definition of “family” does not refer exclusively to those formed by heterosexual couples, the Court’s judgment recalls that family bonds arising from a same-sex couple’s relationship are protected by the American Convention on Human Rights. The Consultative Opinion then expands on this argument: “States must ensure access to all existing constructs found in national legal systems, to ensure protection of the rights of all families formed by same-sex couples, without discrimination regarding those formed by heterosexual couples. To this effect, it may be necessary for States to modify their existing legal concepts, through legislative, legal or administrative measures, to expand those concepts to include couples formed by persons of the same sex.”
An historic and controversial decision
The Court’s opinion not only recognizes the right to marriage equality, but also calls on Costa Rica and all countries on the American continent to recognize the same rights for both homosexual and heterosexual couples. It also mentions full respect for the identity of transgender people.
This historic groundbreaking decision was at the same time deeply controversial for the country’s most conservative sectors, heavily influenced for years by theological and moral messages preached by neo-Pentecostal denominations. When Vice President Ana Helena Chacón announced the Court’s Consultative Opinion with great fanfare, it thus unleashed a crisis and rejection by significant portions of society.
The Evangelical candidate reaped the most benefit. Alvarado appeared in media outlets promising that if he were elected President, he would withdraw Costa Rica from the Inter-American Court so no one could ever again violate national sovereignty or attack family values.
A “spiritual battle”
Neither his embarrassing sermons, based on profound ignorance but delivered with passion, nor the videos posted by his “prophetess” wife who claims the gift of speaking in tongues, slowed the candidate’s meteoric rise.
A large majority of the country’s neo-Pentecostal denominations organized their followers to vote for Alvarado in a “spiritual battle” in defense of the “family created by God.”
The Court’s communiqué regarding religious-based resistance to fulfilling the Consultative Opinion was equally ineffective in this battle: “In democratic societies, peaceful mutual co-existence must prevail between the secular and the religious….From the principle of human dignity derives the full autonomy of each person to choose with whom to maintain a permanent marital bond, whether natural (common-law) or formal (matrimony).... Insofar as there is will to relate to one another on a permanent basis and to form a family, there exists a bond that merits equal rights and protection without regard to the sexual orientation of the intending spouses.”
The big surprise of the first round
In the final run-up to the elections, polling went crazy and in less than three weeks Alvarado held first place in voter intentions, dethroning Juan Diego Castro and Antonio Álvarez Desanti, the two figures who up to that point had led the polls and who generated in much of the electorate a kind of resigned certainty that one of them would eventually don the presidential sash.
In tandem with psalmist Alvarado’s precipitous advance, Carlos Alvarado, the ruling-party candidate, also moved ahead, though more moderately. Nonetheless, few expected a second round where the two Alvarados would face off for the presidency.
The week ahead of elections was heart-stopping given growing Evangelical support and speculation about who would in fact come in second. The huge surprise in that first round on February 4 was that second place went to Carlos Alvarado with 21.66%, beaten out for first by Fabricio Alvarado with 24.91%. Since 40% is the minimum needed to win in the first round, a second round was called for Easter Sunday (April 1), an important religious celebration. Whoever pulls the most votes in that round wins, with no minimum percentage necessary.
A country polarized by religion
Over the last months Costa Rica has gone through an unprecedented polarization. Fabricio Alvarado is backed by most Evangelical, Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal denominations with a faithful and unwavering vote.
These groups boast discreetly-managed alliances with the Catholic hierarchy, which is also staunchly opposed not only to marriage equality, but also to the “Human affection and sexuality guidelines” that will be used in public education centers throughout the country starting in 2018. That public policy passed thanks to the brave and decisive work of Public Education Minister Sonia Marta Mora, one of the most important figures in the outgoing PAC government.
In February the Constitutional Chamber ratified the implementation of this educational proposal, reiterating that the Costa Rican State is obligated to implement sex education policies for minors and that the “Education for holistic human affection and sexuality” program developed by the Public Education Ministry addresses precisely this legal obligation. In this manner the Chamber settled the appeal for constitutional protection presented against the guidelines, which was based on arguments along the lines that they “promote gender ideology” and “pervert and incite voyeurism and pornography.”
Who else is with Fabricio?
The common ground found by Catholic and Evangelical leaders in the “battle” against the guidelines is creating a connection highly favorable to psalmist Fabricio, given the undeniably widespread lack of knowledge and misrepresentation of the sex education proposal’s contents. The stridency of those who attack the guidelines coupled with the emboldening of those who manage these religious groups is contributing to the increasing polarization.
These groups are joined by sectors of the Costa Rican population that are not Evangelical but do oppose respecting the LGBTIQ+ population’s human rights. They are also disenchanted with the PAC government and totally resistant to traditional political parties, so by process of elimination they have decided to vote for the Evangelical upstart.
The damage has been done
Whatever the result of the second round, the damage has been done: Evangelicals who think like Fabricio have already gained 14 legislative seats. Most of the new legislators are pastors or psalmists, thanks to the huge backing they received in impoverished rural zones.
The Broad Front tanked in the Assembly, going from 9 representatives to just 1. The PAC saw its presence reduced as well, going from 14 legislators to 10. The National Liberation Party (PLN) continues to lead with 17 seats, the result of holding political power for many years, during which time it built a machine and kept it well oiled. The PLN achieved in the congressional race what its far-from-perfect presidential candidate couldn’t. These gains further allow the PLN to disguise the failure of its trajectory: that of a party evolving from a social democratic-identified style into one that is blatantly neoliberal.
Alvarado vs. Alvarado
So Fabricio Alvarado is facing off against PAC candidate Carlos Alvarado. The latter has a strong academic background and three years of ministerial experience in two posts. He represents the PAC’s youth wing and middle class and is well informed. Having openly recognized the incumbent PAC government’s errors, he has a positive plan for governing. The chance to avoid consolidation of the neo-Pentecostal world vision as well as the opportunity to give the country a broadly more discerning government team now depends on him.
The scenario is worrying. If Costa Rican society decides not to give PAC a second chance, we will be thrust into a highly complex stage of stark reversals. Will the fear of backpedaling and heightening social polarization be enough to avert Fabricio Alvarado’s elevation as President?
One of Fabricio’s thousands of supporters coined the slogan “The Bible instead of laws!” which has become popular on social networks. Meanwhile one gay man publicly charged that men in the street have shouted at him: “F**king fag, when Fabricio wins you’ll be the first to be killed!”
Teenage pregnancy is a palpable reality in the country and urgently requires ongoing sex education. But religious groups insist that what the Public Education Ministry really wants is to make children gay. They constantly repeat the slogan “Don’t mess with my family.”
The uncertainty is enormous. According to the latest poll by the Center for Political Research and Studies of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), 45% will vote for Fabricio and 42% for the PAC candidate, signaling a virtual tie.
On the other hand, the OPol polling firm published a new projection showing Fabricio winning the contest by a wide margin: 56.1% to 43.9%. Some suspect that the interests of groups with political and economic power are behind these data. Days before, the National University’s Institute for Social Population Studies (IDESPO) had noted a massive advantage for Carlos Alvarado: 52% to 29%; but these numbers are not reliable either, having been severely questioned based on the poll’s methodology.
The conflicting polls have increased the doubts and tensions. With just one month to go before the second round, a separate UCR poll again showed a virtual tie but with more respondents (20%) undecided. In that poll, Carlos Alvarado got 41% and Fabricio Alvarado 39%. The former has more support from other parties’ voters, and the latter from those who didn’t vote in the first round.
A new responsibility surfaces
In this intense political moment, various groups have emerged to try to stop the National Restoration candidate’s momentum. One of them calls itself “Costa Rica Coalition” and seeks to unite people beyond their political affiliations but motivated to bar from power a religious party that stands against any hope of living in an inclusive, democratic country.
Many local citizens’ initiatives have also sprung up, trying to attract undecided voters or those who declare their intention to abstain. While these groups face an uphill battle, they are providing an important arena for large numbers of citizens to work together out of a strong sense of shared responsibility.
Whatever happens in the end, let’s hope that these efforts chart a course that will help Costa Rica not only declare itself a non-confessional State, but truly become one, since it is still one of the few constitutionally confessional Catholic States left in Latin America. Let’s hope as well that the tensions of this difficult time banish religious collectives from public policy decisions, whether they be Catholic clergy, Protestant pastors, psalmists or others of similar ilk.
What will carry more weight?
Both forces are clear and are pushing toward opposite extremes.
What will carry more weight: the control politically active Evangelical leaders wield over the 15% of the electorate who listens to them daily and duly follows them?
The apathy and disenchantment of those who believe the PAC has done so much wrong that it’s no longer an option?
The traditional, homophobic Catholic conservatism that resists sex education?
Or negotiations and pacts among the traditional parties and their smaller counterparts who will try to take advantage of an alliance with the Evangelical candidate, in which the Evangelicals get their “values” and the politicians get fiscal policy?
Is it possible for the critical forces, those on the left, informed youth, moderates from other parties, those who were indifferent but are now terrified by the possibility of a government represented by Fabricio to turn out to vote in sufficient numbers to reverse the forecasts of widespread abstentionism, which would clearly favor Fabricio?
The sad showing of national political actors in the cultural war that has been unleashed has shined a spotlight on the growing inequities that exist in today’s Costa Rica. We’ve seen a population tired of not having opportunities, fed up with the corruption and abandonment by the political class, and we ‘ve come to know an opportunistic party that cleverly capitalizes on these grievances, presenting itself as the catalyst for a “poor people’s revolution.”
PAC is running a
The strategy of PAC and its followers to play up their candidate’s knowledge and professional capabilities is a double-edged sword. Painting the Evangelical candidate as ignorant and backward has angered his electoral flock even more, resulting in this commonly repeated sentiment found on social media; “He’s one of us who will get into government, it doesn’t matter if he’s not highly educated, as long as he knows us and has been with the people.”
This is the ambiguity of a campaign focused on highlighting the Evangelical candidate’s incapacity. On the one hand it could mobilize the undecided vote and abstentionist intensions, those frightened by the lack of criteria shown by a future leader. On the other, these very arguments make common people very uncomfortable, leaving them feeling they’ve been directly offended. It is causing some to swear they’ll vote for Fabricio just because he’s “one of us.”
is raising concerns
Fabricio’s strategy for winning the presidency is also raising a lot of concerns. But after meeting with former Presidents (Calderón, Pacheco. Chinchilla and Arias) he has begun to moderate his speech. He now says, for example, that it won’t be necessary to pull Costa Rica out of the Inter-American Human Rights Court; that he’ll opt for diplomacy instead.
In addition, the Evangelical candidate has begun to cancel interviews, debates and public appearances after finding himself scandalously exposed for his lack of knowledge and for specific proposals on central issues facing the country during the debate organized by business sector representatives in contrast to his calm, secure opponent who gave solid answers.
Despite all that, his staunch followers defend Fabricio. They say they prefer that he not appear in “rigged settings” that favor the PAC, preferring instead that he spend his time visiting communities.
The rights of the
sexual diversity community
The battlefield of Costa Rica’s cultural war also portends grave concerns for the human rights of members of the LGBTIQ+ community. In February organizations dedicated to defending these rights sounded an alarm regarding some 30 aggression cases regarding the victims’ sexual orientation that could be traced to the upsurge in discriminatory rhetoric, legitimating and strengthening those who reject sexual diversity. This seems to be fueling increased insecurity by those who make up this community.
On February 26, Francisco Prendas, the National Restoration Party’s candidate for the slot of second Vice President, stated in a radio program hosted by the two largest media outlet directors in the country (Telenoticias and La Nación) that, if his party were to win, it would not nominate to government positions people who do not share “its heterosexual morality.” This goes against the whole body of labor regulations currently on the books in Costa Rica.
Fabricio Alvarado immediately offered a public apology for his running mate’s statements.
A homophobic country
will affect tourism
At the same time, La Nación recalled the Evangelical candidate’s sermon given in November in the International Church of the Great Flock, which is directed by the parents of Ivonne Acuña, his candidate for the first vice presidency. In it Fabricio said, “When the enemy manages to sexually confuse someone and deviate his sexual identify, what he is doing is destroying his identity in God.” In other sermons he had already rejected same-sex marriage and proposed that those who want to leave homosexuality must be given a space for treatment and “restoration.” There’s a reason his party is called National Restoration.
When this incident took place, the National Tourism Board met with the candidate to remind him that 10% of Costa Rica’s tourism is made up of members of the LGBTIQ+ community, who come to enjoy the freedom and peace they feel in the country.
The Board declared that the Evangelical party’s positions have spread around the world, exposing Costa Rica as a homophobic country, opposed to sexually diverse people’s rights, and that this could affect tourism since visitors prioritize destinations that guarantee their safety. Following this meeting, Fabricio told La Nación that he is in favor of this community and has no hatred toward its members.
And the migrant vote?
Costa Rica has 61,668 foreign-born naturalized citizens who can now vote, the majority of them Nicaraguan. An even more significant number comes from children born to migrants in Costa Rica, who can also vote.
Although there are no reliable data on migrants’ connection to neo-Pentecostal groups, the experience of social organizations that accompany migrants leads us to believe that it is fairly significant for two reasons. First is the poor reception shown to migrants in Catholic parishes. There are, for example, cases of priests who refuse to baptize babies because their parents lacked up-to-date immigration documentation.
The second relates to evidence of Evangelical churches’ growing presence in the most impoverished urban and rural communities, using intensive strategies to increase their congregations and becoming spaces for “solidarity and hospitality” among migrants. In the case of La Carpio in San José, there are at least 80 Evangelical groups for a population of no more than 25,000, nearly half of whom are foreign-born.
The issue of immigration
in the candidates’ plans
In the challenge represented by crafting government plans, Carlos Alvarado’s proposals are far and away the most consistent, not only with regards to human rights, but also to showing information and solid knowledge about Costa Rica’s migratory dynamics, actions currently underway and the migrant population’s most urgent demands.
The Evangelical candidate’s government plan dedicates no more than 150 words to the migration issue. The PAC’s proposals include nearly quadruple that number of words on the topic.
Fabricio’s plan is not only short but also rather worrying. It proposes, for example, to “drastically strengthen migratory police and make ‘migration’ a country-wide issue, therefore worthy of a consistent and serious national policy that ends illegal migration and allows us to better fight against transnational crime.”
It also mentions the need to “promote a policy of migratory amnesty—for one year—and after that to harden the deportation policy for foreigners who have not wanted to legalize themselves, so that those who demonstrate stability and have set down roots can become legalized, stopping the massive influx of illegal immigrants that is collapsing our national social security system: health, welfare assistance, housing and education.”
Although the amnesty proposal always sounds like something hopeful to a lot of people, it is neither easy to implement nor dependent on the will of migrants.
Many people would like to enter into a simplified process for regularizing their migratory status, but it turns out to be materially impossible for them to do so. For this reason, instead of focusing on the promise of amnesty, we must pay attention to this negative preconception that the country is facing a “massive influx of illegal immigrants” associated with criminality who are collapsing public services. This prejudice has been discredited several times over by academics and activists in Costa Rica.
Both candidates have addressed the issue of migration timidly in fear of reservations and rejection by large sectors of Costa Rican society. A
review of both government plans makes this timidity clear and hints at the contradictions.
We must recognize that there will probably be no lack of Costa Rican citizens, from migrant backgrounds or with family members still in that condition, who under the guidance of their pastors, will give their vote to the candidate who approaches the challenge of migration in the worst way.
The Costa Rica
no one wants to see
The electoral climate we’ve been experiencing since the beginning of this year has drawn a portrait of Costa Rica no one wants to see; the forgotten country of urban settlements where migrants and nationals barely scrape by, of coastal areas where the poorest families live, of rural cantons left out of the policy flashes cooked up in the greater metropolitan area.
It is in these places beyond the paved streets where you can find a temple for Evangelical services every twenty steps, where the pastor has become the only authority figure to lay out the path to follow. It is in these places with no opportunities for a decent life that the neo-Pentecostal vision of the world has taken over.
These pastors, self-proclaimed prophets, who a month ago would never have dreamed they could possibly become legislators, have now stepped into just that role. “The people have elected them,” said Fabricio, when questioned on disgraceful statements made by a representative from his party elected from Limón province that revealed her ignorance of the problems facing the province and the country. She was worried primarily about “gender ideology,” which she described as “a very broad topic,” and was anxious to halt sex education guidelines. which she characterized as “filling a child’s head with a ton of garbage.”
Like it or not, it’s indeed true that these legislators have been elected by the people, by Costa Ricans left to their fate by both the political class and
the Catholic hierarchy, and supported by religious people who don’t preach Jesus of Nazareth’s inclusive ethics, focusing instead on a theology and moral code that only led to fear, guilt and resignation.
María Francisca Vargas Durán is the envío correspondent in Costa Rica.