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Costa Rica: religious extremism in the ascendant

The April 4 runoff vote for president is likely to be won by an evangelical singer


Costa Ricans went to the voting booths on February 4 to confirm what most polls had predicted: the victory of evangelical singer Fabricio Alvarado from the religious party National Renovation (RN) with 25 per cent of the votes. His success, as expected, was down to his radical response to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ opinion on same-sex marriage.
PAC supporters. Photo: Gustavo Fuchs
But the surprise result was that of the governing party’s candidate, Carlos Alvarado from the Citizens Action Party (PAC), who obtained 21 per cent of the vote. Previous polls had given him barely 5 per cent. This was a clear sign that fear, amongst the many Costa Ricans concerned at the rise of intolerance, became a decisive factor. The country is getting ready for a runoff vote on April 4. With only two candidates left, the political landscape faces a landmark decision, this time between human rights and the economy. While homophobic attacks have spiked in the aftermath of the election, the debate has moved on to the scrabble for those votes that went to other parties in the first round and this has led both candidates to switch their focus to the growing public debt. While some see a good outcome in the continuity offered by Carlos Alvarado, others believe that an evangelical government will be malleable, and a better alternative even if it means sacrificing the human rights of the LGBTI community.
OPol poll taken on 2 March. Image: El Mundo, Costa Rica
Most polls place Fabricio as the winner of the second round. However, the latest poll carried out by the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Political Research (CIEP) have Fabricio and Carlos Alvarado (confusingly both have the same apellido, or first, patronymic surname) running neck to neck, with Fabricio ahead by just 3 per cent.

A questionable triumph

While Fabricio Alvarado’s victory came was undoubtedly down to his radical anti-gay stance, the candidate insists that he won on the basis of his government plan and raft of proposals. However, the conservative backlash has continued after the elections. A group of parents has organized protests to close primary schools and high schools as the school year begins, to oppose the introduction of sex education in the public education system. Amongst a group of protesting parents who assembled to meet with education minister Sonia Marta Mora, was Fabricio Alvarado’s education adviser, Marisela Rojas. Apparently disguised as a visually-impaired parent she was recognized by an official and ejected from the meeting.
No ambiguity here: anti-abortion poster from Restauración Nacional website
Journalists have also revealed that evangelical and Christian churches played a key role in provinces won by RN with the highest margins (coincidentally, the poorest regions in the country). Churches handed out staple goods, made repairs to houses and provided significant assistance during recent floods. In the run-up to the second round, these churches have begun to organize special events to inform their followers about the importance of ‘traditional marriage,’ while offering staple goods to those who assist their events.

End of the two-party system

The result of the election confirmed the demise of the two-party consensus between the Christian Democrats (PUSC) and the social-democratic Liberation Party (PLN), who co-governed the country almost continuously from 1949 to 2014.
‘Development Works’ -continuity as depicted by the PLN. Photo: Gustavo Fuchs
Whereas PUSC had been slowly shedding votes over the past two decades, the PLN had governed for 8 consecutive years (from 2005 to 2014). In this election, PLN candidate Antonio Alvarez obtained the worst result in the party’s history, with 18.6 per cent. Nevertheless, PLN, with 17, obtained the largest number of the 57 seats in the unicameral legislature, followed by the RN, surprisingly, with 14 seats. PUSC obtained 9 seats, while the National Integration Party (PIN) – whose candidate Juan Diego Castro, a Trump-like politician who made headlines with his wild claims – obtained just 4 seats. Meanwhile the centrist PAC obtained 10 seats and the left-wing Frente Amplio (FA), which lost 8 seats, was reduced to just one, leaving progressive parties drastically weakened. The new congress, with a decisive right-wing majority, will be dominated by the legislative alliance between PLN, PUSC and RN. With regard to the debt crisis, these parties have proposed freezing salaries and cutting public spending. Both measures, according to IMF estimates, will be insufficient to resolve the issue – the current debt stands at 3.5 per cent of the GDP while the proposed measures would save the state less than 1 per cent of GDP.

An extremist agenda

Fabricio Alvarado’s National Renovation party, has based most of its plan for government around the concepts of family and traditional values. This has created a problem: with no identifiable team around him, Fabricio is scrambling to find enough credible figures to assemble a cabinet. What is clear, for now, is that the party will pursue an extremist agenda, hurting women and minority rights. As environmentalist and women’s rights activist Eva Carazo explains, the most troubling feature of RN’s program is the regressive threat it represents for women.
The traditional image of family: Fabricio Alvarado with his wife and daughters. Photo: RN website
‘There is a denial of gender inequality by focusing in the concept of ‘the family’, as if every family is the same…this notion cuts across all of his government plan. In some parts of his plan, he talks about a ‘gynocentric’ threat which is increasing inequality, for example’. The evangelical singer has already announced his intention to increase penalties for abortion from a current maximum of 8 years to 35 years in prison. He has promised to close the Institute for Women and create a Family Ministry. Furthermore, he has announced that one of his priorities will be to revoke a presidential decree which establishes guidelines to provide protection from abuse for LGBTI people working in the public sector. On the environment, his plan is vague and contains very few original proposals, presenting instead an anodyne list of general aims. ‘His government plan clearly shows he does not understand the conflicting interests behind environmental issues … and is oblivious to the clear threats to the environment posed by his plan, such as allowing mining projects,’ explains Carazo. Some of these projects are shared by the PLN, PIN and PUSC parties, which increases the likelihood that they will be approved in congress, where the three parties together have more than the 38 votes required for a qualified majority. But one of the most important projects which evangelical parties have tried to pass in congress is a law on ‘religious freedom’ which aims to provide state financing for churches and congregations of all denominations. The RN plan for government contains various references to state coordination with churches. As Alex Chaverri, adviser at the Institute of Mixed Social Assistance (IMAS), explains, ‘there is a danger that an RN government would try to divert funding from IMAS towards churches.’ Evidence of the churches providing funds and assistance to impoverished communities is seen as problematic by Chaverri. As he explains, churches have contributed to fuelling an ‘assistencialist’ culture, where assistance is viewed as either an unconditional gift or a reward for political collaboration. ‘Churches have preyed on the bad examples of the past, where IMAS would give people resources for a very immediate term but would not tackle the underlying issues behind poverty … they are promoting a bad cultural tendency, where people are given the fish but are not taught how to fish.’ This, added to the proposal to turn the National Institute for Women (INAMU) into the Institute of the Family has raised concerns about social funding, putting at risk the advances made in the area. ‘The current government has introduced a technical approach to social assistance, designed to determine – almost scientifically – which families need benefits and which don’t … this proposal [Institute of the Family] presupposes a fusion of the functions performed by IMAS, PANI [National Institute for Children] and INAMU, so there would potentially be no more IMAS,’ Chaverri explains. Although PANI is embedded in the Constitution, and thus cannot be eliminated, the rest of the country’s social welfare institutions could work under the direction of the proposed Institute of the Family. This would mean that years of refinement of public policy would go to waste.

Emerging alliances

The atmosphere throughout the country is one of clear division, marked by homophobic undertones. Fabricio Alvarado has made clear that he does not condone discrimination or violence against the LGBTI community. However, he himself has admitted he keeps distance from relatives in his father’s family who are homosexual, thus endorsing discriminatory attitudes. He has announced that one of his first measures as president will be to annul a presidential decree meant to protect LGBTI public servants from workplace discrimination and abuse. These divisions are present in families and society in general, with heated arguments and discussions becoming the new normal, a reflection of what is also happening to the political landscape. For now, both candidates have hastened to meet with the various smaller political parties, with unions and the private sector. Smaller parties, such as Juan Diego Castro’s National Integration party (PIN) and the New Generation party have come out in support of Fabricio Alvarado. Most recently, the neoliberal Libertarian Movement has also announced its support for the evangelical candidate. By contrast, leaders from the traditional (and largest) parties PUSC and PLN are divided. While they have been cautious about expressing support for either candidate, emerging evidence suggests that the right-wing PLN will ally itself – without an official agreement – with Fabricio Alvarado. In some parts of the country, the local PLN leaders have already confirmed their support for the evangelist. His security advisers, likely to occupy key positions in his cabinet, include Alvaro Ramos – former minister during the Oscar Arias’ (PLN) administration – and Gloria Navas – former attorney general and a lawyer who has defended drug dealers and child-molesting priests. Former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez (PUSC) fell short of openly endorsing the evangelical singer, saying he would support whichever candidate achieved a voting majority in congress. His competitor in the first round, Antonio Alvarez Desanti, candidate for the PLN,  spoke of him in friendly terms after a recent meeting. On the other side, Carlos Alvarado has gained the support of former education minister Leonardo Garnier (PLN) and former health minister Maria Luisa Avila (PLN). However, he was openly spurned by former president Laura Chinchilla (PLN). As things stand, Fabricio Alvarado’s government will likely revive the neoliberal agenda pushed forward by the PLN over the past two decades, coupled with a direct threat to women and the LGBTI community.

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