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Rodrigo Chaves, the populist technocrat who is shaking up Costa Rica

The president who once channeled anger towards the elites during his 2022 campaign is now being criticized for dismantling the welfare state

Armando Quesada Webb
Rodrigo Chaves.
Rodrigo Chaves.Luis Grañena

In October 2019, then-President of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado surprised the entire country by announcing his new minister of finance. His pick wasn’t from his party… or any other political bloc, for that matter. Rather, he was a World Bank official, who, at the time, held a senior position in Indonesia and East Timor. The centrist Alvarado opted for the technocrat Rodrigo Chaves — a PhD in Economics with more than 30 years of experience in the field — to clean up messy public finances. But Chaves was only in the position for seven months. He left in May 2020, without having failed or triumphed. The unknown economist had, apparently, ended his brief foray into politics.

Two years later, Alvarado would be passing the symbolic presidential sash to the dark horse candidate in the 2022 elections — his former finance minister — who, immediately after leaving the Ministry of Finance, embarked on a crusade against the traditional political class and national elites. Now, in the second year of his administration, he’s facing an increase in crime, while being criticized for his erratic social policy in the health and education sectors.

When he resigned from cabinet due to a disagreement with the president over the reduction in public spending, Chaves, for months, dedicated himself to publicly denouncing the corruption he witnessed in the Ministry of Finance. This is how he began to gain followers, who praised his direct and emboldened style. On July 7, 2021, the economist formalized his candidacy for the presidency, vowing to put an end to the nation’s illness-plagued institutions and lead Costa Rica towards prosperity. He found a small party willing to adopt him as a candidate, the Social Democratic Progress Party. It had never had representation in public office.

In the 2022 campaign, the polls didn’t give Chaves much hope. Analysts claimed that the real battle was between the traditional parties. Ultimately, however, he obtained 16.7% of the votes in the first round, coming in second place. As no candidate secured 50% of the vote, he and former President José María Figueres Olsen — of the center right coalition — contested a runoff election. Chaves won with 52.82% of the vote.

Chaves likes to present himself as a man of the people — a Costa Rican like everyone else. That’s why, during the campaign, he referred to himself as “the son of Don Pepe’s bodyguard and driver.” In the 1940s and 1950s, his father worked for former President José Figueres Ferrer: one of the most important figures in Costa Rica in the 20th century, and father of the former president of the same name, whom Chaves defeated in the elections. This is how the economist marked the difference between them: his opponent was the heir to the old political class, while he, a middle-class citizen, had made his way on his own merits.

Coming from a large family that lived in a neighborhood of El Carmen — in the heart of San José, the capital — Chaves began his studies at the University of Costa Rica. But he left early, after obtaining a scholarship to go to the United States. He learned English and studied at Ohio State University, graduating with a doctorate in Economics in 1993. From academia, he went directly to the World Bank, where we worked for 27 years.

During his campaign, Chaves stressed how the Costa Rica he grew up in was one where people like him could thrive. Political scientist Gustavo Araya thinks that his fast rise has many traits in common with other populist leaders across Latin America. “Rodrigo Chaves manages to capitalize on that anger against the political class, as could be seen in Brazil with Bolsonaro, or in El Salvador with Bukele,” he explains to EL PAÍS by video call.

Chaves wasn’t impeded by the major controversy that arose during the electoral campaign, when La Nación — one of the best-known Costa Rican newspapers — reported that, in 2019, he had been sanctioned at the World Bank for sexually harassing two of his subordinates. The economist claimed that this was a declaration of war by the newspaper, dismissing the accusations from the women as being due to “cultural differences.” From then on, he coined the term “rogue press” to refer to La Nación and other outlets that repeated his offenses. These outlets — which have subsequently been critical of his administration — have continued to be subject to the same hostile treatment. His supporters repeat the term “rogue press” like a mantra.

As president, Chaves’s attacks on the press haven’t lessened. So much so that Costa Rica — a country traditionally considered a safe haven to practice journalism — dropped 15 places in the press freedom ranking put out by Reporters Without Borders. The Central American nation went from 8th place to 23rd place in a single year.

After 15 months in office, Chaves’ greatest strength is his high approval rating, which hovers around 60% — one of the highest on the continent. His aggressive speech comes out in the press conferences he gives from the Presidential House, the seat of government in San José. For political scientist Gustavo Araya, these conferences are a manifestation of his “hate speech.” “[Chaves] uses ironic language to put on a whole show every Wednesday. Like other populists in Latin America, he controls spaces so that he can broadcast the truth,” Araya says.

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