Socialism comes in two barely distinguishable flavors here in Costa Rica, much as it does in the United States. Two socialist candidates for president are battling it out in the closest race in the country’s history. One is a youngish 51 and the overwhelming favorite in the only big city in the country. The other is a 65-year-old Nobel Laureate who had to win a case in the country’s constitutional court to be able to run again for president. There is a constitutional prohibition against a president serving more than one term. He was president of Cost Rica more than 15 years ago. His strength is in the countryside where he dominates in landslide proportions.
Both candidates have promised to raise taxes and end corruption. The first promise is a lock. In its attempt to allow everyone to live at everyone else’s expense this government, like socialist governments everywhere, runs a chronic deficit. The local currency depreciates against the less rapidly depreciating dollar at over 10% a year. The last three zeros on the local currency are already pointless. Higher taxes or more inflation are the only choices for Costa Rican politicians locked into a spending spiral.
The second promise is a classic that only the brain dead could believe. Oscar Arias, the Nobelista and current leader, is a successful businessman who has mumbled a few words about reforming the many government monopolies that keep citizens standing in long lines throughout the country. Arias’ suggestion that there might be too much paper being pushed earned him the undying enmity of the army of paper pushers employed by those monopolies.
The candle of innovation is well hidden under the basket of hundreds of government monopolies. One in seven Costa Ricans works for the government. They are, by and large, among the most prosperous citizens in the country. They are bellied up to a public trough brimming with benefits the private sector can only dream of.
At this writing, two days after the election and with about 90% of over a million votes counted, fewer than 3,500 votes separate the two front runners. That’s less then two tenths of a percent of the total vote cast — less than one vote at each of the over 5,000 polling places. That’s a razor thin margin in this country of 4 million souls who live in a breathtakingly beautiful, volcano studded land about the size of West Virginia.
The Costa Rican constitution requires that the winner have at least 40% of the vote to avoid a run-off. The two leaders hover around 40.5% each right now. What is most interesting to this visiting gringo, who admits a thorough ignorance of local politics, is the third runner-up. The Movimiento Libertario, the honest-to-God, right wing wacko, Libertarian Party has most of the vote that didn’t go to the two front runners.
The Libertarian party candidate, Otto Guevara, picked up over 120,000 votes out of some 1.3 million cast. If the Libertarian Party in the U.S. gleaned that much of the vote the talking heads would be choking on their lattés.
It’s hard to explain. But that won’t stop me from trying. Numerically I’m thinking 40% of the electorate is riding the gravy train benefiting from the government or government run monopolies, 40% get free medical care and education so they think they are winning when they are really pulling the train for the first group. The 10% that votes Libertarian are those who can’t get licenses to drive cabs or open fruit stands.
The election itself is a gigantic party. They even call it the voting fiesta. Trucks stuffed with drum beating, flag waving party supporters cruise the streets honking horns, chanting and hollering for their guys. And they do it more or less sober.
To mitigate the area’s historic tendencies toward coup d’etat, the sale of liquor is forbidden in the days immediately preceding and following Election Day. Though such a decision might actually precipitate a coup in the U.S., it seems to work here. Even with the election as close as it is there is little indication that anyone thinks it involves more than the usual amount of corruption. The peaceful transfer of power is likely to continue.
The Costa Rican Constitution was adopted after a disputed election in 1948 that produced the bloodiest war in the country’s history. That document tried to eliminate everything that would lead the country away from the peaceful way of life the locals favor. It eliminated the military and set election rules to try to account for every possible contingency.
There is even a rule that covers what will occur in the event of an exact tie. I was gratified to learn that should such an incredible long shot come up, the oldest candidate will be declared the winner. In this case Oscar Arias, the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Geezers everywhere can take heart. There is a beautiful, peaceful country in Central America that loves us.