A series of high-profile corruption scandals rocked Costa Rica last October, implicating three ex-presidents and forcing one of them to resign from his post of Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS).
The first scandal surfaced September 4 when investigative journalists alleged former President Rafael Ángel Calderón (1990-1994) had accepted about half a million dollars in illegal commissions from a medical supply company. A second scandal broke just two weeks later, exposing the French telecommunication company Alcatel’s payment of a $2.4 million “prize” to the government in exchange for a lucrative contract to build cellular phone lines. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002) had allegedly accepted a large piece of the prize, and José Maria Figueres (1994-1998) confessed to accepting over $900,000 in separate commissions from Alcatel.
These incidents have had a considerable impact on Costa Rica and beyond. In mid-October thousands of furious citizens marched in San José to protest the corruption, shouting angrily at current President Abel Pacheco. Pacheco has not been left unscathed by the scandals: a congressional probe is investigating alleged finance irregularities in his presidential campaign. The protesters expressed deep frustration at the widening gap in trust between elected officials and citizens in what one wire service was calling “Black October.” Public disgust over corruption eventually developed into general anti-government sentiment during the protests, indicating crumbling confidence in Costa Rica’s traditionally strong political institutions. The country’s two main political parties, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the National Liberation Party (PLN), were both badly damaged by the scandals, which have put a chink in the armor of one of Latin America’s most consolidated democracies.
The OAS is also experiencing an uncomfortable credibility crisis. After promoting the Inter-American Convention on Corruption, the organization was embarrassed by the resignation of its secretary general, Rodríguez, on corruption charges just two weeks into his term. Adjunct Secretary General Luigi Einaudi of the United States will head the organization until member nations decide on a permanent successor. A quiet battle for succession began immediately. Central American nations hope to hold onto the seat but will face stiff competition from candidates of other member nations—particularly Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay.
While visiting Peru in November, Einaudi said that a new secretary general should be chosen by the next general assembly in June 2005, or the OAS will enter a period of “uncertainty.” Traditionally, the United States has exercised overwhelming clout in the OAS, and in the past has strong-armed smaller nations to gain its favored appointment for secretary general. Rodríguez, for example, was viewed favorably by the United States for his stance on free trade and opposition to Cuba. And Rodríguez’s predecessor, César Gaviria of Colombia, was significantly aided in 1994 by the U.S. State Department, which coerced Caribbean nations into supporting his candidacy.
While some have celebrated the prosecutions as a blow against the impunity of corrupt Latin American leaders, others are more ambivalent. “There seem to be two perspectives on the whole thing,” said Néfer Muñoz, a Costa Rican journalist. “On the one hand, everybody outside of Costa Rica says how great it is that the free press is uncovering these scandals and that the ex-presidents are being held accountable. They view it as a positive sign of the changing times. But on the other hand, so many within the country find themselves in despair, feeling betrayed by the leaders. I guess that we had always thought we were more ethical than many of our neighbors—so much of our identity is placed in our solid democratic system, and now we are watching it break down. The psychological impactcan’t be underestimated.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James T. Kimer is NACLA's editorial assistant.