Reflections on Democracy in Costa Rica

By Tom McEnery  Editorial submission

 (Costa Rican President Oscar Arias invitee San Jose, California Mayor Tom McEnery to lead a small delegation from Silicon Valley to observe last week’s presidential elections in San Jose, Costa Rica. The following reflections on democracy in Costa Rica and President Arias may be of interest to your readers. Should you have any questions, please call Dean Munro, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff at (408) 277-4237.)


I saw the past recently inn a tiny square with a turreted church and a rectangular school. It was call San Joaquin de Flores. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds hovering over the central highlands in this suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica. A sitting president walked the dusty street to the school opposite the church, where he would soon cast his vote for a successor. Affection washed over him, his wife and two children in waves of kisses and “abrazos.” Mothers held up their babies for a sight or a touch.

The cameras of the local and foreign press were there to record what has been called a “celebration of democracy” in this Central American oasis of peace and the rule of law. In Costa Rica, the president is limited to a single four-year term. Prior to each election, the actual control of the police (there is no army, it having been abolished in 1948) is handed over to the Tribunal of Elections, an omnipotent 4th branch of government, to dissuade any temptation for electoral manipulation. It is a time-honored formula. The results have been an unblemished string of peaceful elections and transitions during the last four decades.

There was a great deal of intensity in the election process: grandiose speeches, large rallies, signs, flags for each party and even an annoying car honk linked to each candidate’s name. However, the intensity never remotely approached hostility by the opposing factions or even their party leaders. It was a unique campaign, leading to the exhilarating event that morning … another chapter in the amazing history of this Central American republic.

I saw the past that morning in the person of Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias. He has hopes for the children of his nation of nearly 3 million people; he has hopes for the troubled Central American countries neighboring Costa Rica. He even has hope for the teeming population north and south in the rest of Latin America.

“Liberty performs miracles,” Arias has said. “To free men, everything is possible.” Much of this inspiration was received as a young student in Boston watching the dawn of a seemingly new era epitomized by a new young American president. Arias preaches that Costa Rica may be a catalyst for peace, and democracy may be the foundation for economic progress. This is the torch he is passing, the world he is trying to create: a place where presidents walk unguarded among the people, the eradication of slums is a top priority, personal computers are a panacea, and mothers do not bury young soldiers before they stop growing.

The ideals of the “other” president, John F. Kennedy, still hold an amazing power here. Strolling down the street at San Joaquin de Flores was evocative of a time long gone in America.

By the time we reached the polling place at the school, thousands were packed into a very confined area as we attempted to squeeze through the entrance. In other situations, such a milling, churning crowd would cause great anxiety, even panic. Yet the geniality was pervasive, and the camaraderie of the people palpable. The object of their affection, a man who quotes both Irish wit, Oscar Wilde, and Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, seemed to emanate a calmness that was reflected by others. As he cast his ballot and held up his ink-stained thumb, the voter’s badge of honor, the people applauded. Not to be left out, the children in the audience who had just completed their ritual of voting at the youth polling booth, applauded as well.

It is possible to feel strongly about new friends and be enamored by cordial hosts in a foreign land, but what I saw was not alien at all … it was so very familiar.

A line of Wilde’s nonce said that each of us should be a little improbable. In a place with crime and savagery to the south in Panama and irrationality and violence to the north in Nicaragua and El Salvador, it seems improbable to speak of peace, of a nation strengthened by its number of PhD’s, not tanks. It is this very improbability that the Nobel Committee once recognized in 1987, when it awarded Arias the peace prize. On an election day morning, thousands of miles from home, I thought of other times and other leaders. I thought of the power of ideals and how brightly a transferred flame could burn when even the original fires have long since banked. With the sun now out from behind the clouds, I think I recognize the sight. In a little square named St. John of the Flowers, I saw the past, and it still works. I hope it was a glimpse of the future as well.

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