On Sunday, February 6, Costa Ricans will go to the polls to choose their next president and the 57 deputies that make up the Legislative Assembly. The electoral campaign has revolved around topics like economic reactivation, combatting corruption and government management of the pandemic.
Over 3.5 million voters are called on to cast their ballots, although 41% are still indecisive about who they’ll vote for, according to the most recent poll from the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Investigation and Political Studies. A second round on April 3rd appears imminent, if none of the candidates receives the minimum 40% needed for a first-round victory.
The electoral rolls also include 40,000 Nicaraguans who are now Costa Rican citizens and eligible to vote. In reality, the presence and weight of the Nicaraguan population in Costa Rica is much greater. At least 350,000 Nicaraguans reside in Costa Rica, making them the largest foreign population in the country. The group includes those who have emigrated over many decades, along with the tens of thousands who have applied for asylum since 2018, when the sociopolitical crisis exploded in Nicaragua.
The digital publication Notas de Coyuntura Migratoria en Costa Rica [Notes on Current Migration Affairs in Costa Rica] highlights “the absence of references to the topic of migration in the presidential debates.” The majority of the party platforms include only scant references to the topic.
In contrast to the November 7th voting process in Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo imprisoned civic and political leaders, business owners, students, farmers, journalists and activists, including seven presidential hopefuls, Costa Rica will be holding competitive elections, even though the electorate has displayed both apathy and indecision.
The Confidencial team known as Nicas Migrantes, which covers news and affairs of Nicaraguans living in other countries, questioned five of the Costa Rican candidates about their proposals for immigration and foreign policy. Specifically, they asked the five principal presidential candidates to explain their proposals regarding the Nicaraguan migrant population, and their positions on Nicaragua, the crisis there and the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
The five candidates interviewed don’t include Welmar Ramos, candidate for the outgoing Partido Acción Ciudadana [Citizen Action Party], or PAC, which seems on the cusp of losing power. Polls show Ramos well below the possible vote threshold, even taking into account the margin of error. Historically, no party has governed Costa Rica for more than two consecutive periods, as has been the case with this party that reached power in 2014.
Views of the five leading candidates:
Jose Maria Figueres
Figueres was president of Costa Rica from 1994-1998. He’s the son of President Jose “Pepe” Figueres who abolished the Army in that Central American country. Figueres is currently leading in the polls, with 15% of the population expressing an intention to vote for him. Candidate for the Partido Liberacion Nacional [National Liberation Party], Figueres said that his plan of government sees migration as “an integral theme, included in the topic of human rights and the country’s economic reactivation.”
He’s the only candidate to directly mention the Nicaraguan government. If elected president he asserts he’ll propose to them “obligatory, appropriate and necessary regulation in matters of immigration and labor, as well as the regulation of remittances to other countries. These will be similar to those that exist in Mercosur and the European Union, for example.”
Figueres proposes earmarking more resources for Costa Rica’s Immigration and Foreign Affairs Agency, which is charged with all the transactions related to migration. He assures that he’ll facilitate the legalization of migrant workers and will work to integrate them as taxpayers and in the public health system, in order to “protect their basic labor, health and other rights.” That’s the appropriate vision for the country, he states, “without xenophobia”.
In foreign policy, Figueres proposes maintaining the defense and promotion of the democratic system and of human rights, as befits the Costa Rican diplomatic tradition. “I don’t want to remain indifferent to the detentions of leaders opposed to the government [that have occurred] in Nicaragua. Costa Rica should undertake a more active diplomacy in defense of democracy. Those imprisoned must be freed, and guarantees of a free electoral process must be given,” he posted on Twitter in June 2021, in the midst of the witch-hunt of opposition leaders that the Ortega regime launched in the lead-up to the November 7th general elections. Ortega proclaimed himself the victor in these elections, held without competition or minimal democratic guarantees.
Lineth Saboriao, former vice president of Costa Rica (2002-6), is the presidential candidate for the center-right Partido Unidad Social Cristiana [United Social Christian Party]. She currently holds second place in the polls, with 14% of the electorate saying they’ll vote for her.
Saborio proposed stronger border controls to prevent drug trafficking, eliminate contraband, and stop the illegal flow of migrants.
“Appropriate and well-focused attention to the immigrant populations, with respect and without discrimination, will be an integral part of our policy,” her plan of government states. It specifies that the country will continue its “historic policy of receiving immigrants, especially those who are persecuted for political, racial or religious reasons in their countries of origin.”
The candidate puts emphasis on Nicaraguan immigration: “This is indispensable for certain productive sectors of the country, such as construction, agriculture and domestic services.” She promises to reduce the informal labor market and improve the system’s efficiency and the treatment of this population.
As far as foreign policy, the candidate promises to maintain the principles of the current Costa Rican foreign policy, with a focus on human rights. She wants to rekindle bilateral closeness with the countries that form part of SICA, the Central American Integration System, including Nicaragua. She didn’t have anything particular to say about the sociopolitical crisis that has persisted in Nicaragua since 2018, nor how she plans to approach the government there, which came out of a voting process that wasn’t recognized as legitimate by Costa Rica or by the majority of the Latin American and European countries.
However, Saborio has directly condemned Daniel Ortega on social media. “He’s a dictator. The results of the fraudulent process that the [Nicaraguan] regime held yesterday in our neighboring country are illegitimate. We demand the immediate liberation of the political prisoners!” She tweeted this message on November 8th, the day after the Nicaraguan elections.
Alvarado, a journalist and Protestant pastor, represents the Nueva Republica [New Republic] Party, a right-wing conservative party that arose in 2019. He ran for president in the last election under the banner of a different party, and reached the second round before losing to current president Carlos Alvarado of the PAC in a highly polarized election. Fabricio Alvarado is a vociferous opponent of marriage equality. He even proposes withdrawing Costa Rica from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to avoid having the country obligated to allow same-sex marriage.
Alvarado is currently in third place in the electorate’s stated voting preferences, with 11%. He explains in his proposal for governing that migration “should be approached with differentiated but never exclusionary responses.” In social welfare policies, Alvarado also mentions the possibility of allotting subsidies to migrating families with legal status, as a way of motivating those who are undocumented to legalize their situation.
In foreign policy, the Nueva Republica Party proposes a “Latin American strategy for the governance and strengthening of democracy.” It warns, though, that such a policy must embrace “respect for the principle of a people’s right to self-determination.”
On January 25, Alvarado tweeted: “No person with a democratic vocation can support parties that are friends of totalitarian regimes, like that of Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua. In this election, we must aim towards development, and not expose Costa Rica to the path that those countries are going down.” His message can be interpreted as an electoral strategy to attack one of his opponents, Jose Maria Villalta, whose Broad Front Party at one time maintained close relations with the FSLN.
Jose Maria Villalta
Currently a deputy from the leftist Frente Amplio [Broad Front] Party, Jose Maria Villalta is in fourth place in the polls with 8%. Villalta’s governing plan doesn’t contain a particular section on migration policies, but includes the immigrant population in its proposals for different sectors.
Among the ideas that stand out are proposals to establish the right to a pension for all those who have contributed to the pension system, including migrants. He also proposes eliminating the current policy prohibiting migrant workers in Costa Rica from serving on the directive boards of the unions that defend their labor rights. Finally, he advocates for reclassifying “certain very serious infractions to the human rights of workers – such as the exploitation of vulnerable migrants – as crimes, with the corresponding sanctions.”
In terms of foreign policy, Villalta promises: “to exercise international leadership that is consistent with the defense of human rights.”
The Frente Amplio has been criticized for its past closeness and sympathy with authoritarian regimes that call themselves leftist, like that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. However, in the last few years, Villalta has condemned Ortega’s authoritarian drift.
“Elections where the ruling government persecutes and imprisons its opponents of different ideologies, that violates freedom of expression and persecutes the NGOs, students and farmers, can’t result in a legitimate government, nor can these elections be considered valid,” he declared on November 7, when the voting was held in Nicaragua. That voting process, and the outcome in which Ortega declared himself the winner, was not recognized by the international community.
The candidate for the Partido Progreso Social Democratico [Social Democratic Progress], is a former employee of the World Bank who was later sanctioned by this body for an “undesirable pattern of inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature.” He also served as Interior Minister of the current government for six months. He’s considered in fifth place, with 6% affirming their intention to vote for him.
Although his plan of governance doesn’t include any section on migration or foreign policy, Chaves answered the questions sent by the Confidencial team.
He affirms that he’ll offer “a benefit” to the Nicaraguan immigrants who legalize their situation, but didn’t specify what that benefit might be.
As far as his opinion of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, he lamented the fact that the Nicaraguan people weren’t allowed to choose their leaders democratically and without manipulation.
If elected president, Chaves assures he’ll seek “a respectful attitude towards the people of Nicaragua, although we recognize that the governing regime was not democratically elected.” He also affirmed that he’d maintain Costa Rica’s support in international forums for Nicaragua to return to democracy.