‘Don’t play with me or I’ll decapitate you’: The recordings that embittered the end of the year for Costa Rica’s president

The country’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has rejected President Rodrigo Chaves’ attempt to censor the publication of audio recordings, which reveal controversial conversations recorded by a former minister

Presidente de Costa Rica
The President of Costa Rica on Monday in San José.Jeffrey Arguedas (EFE)

The president of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Chaves, ends the year while hounded by some of the most difficult questions that have been raised during his tenure. Audios were recently released, in which he and members of his communications team discussed controversial tactics to be used against the media. Chaves — who is no fan of the free press — has seen his approval ratings erode as he enters his 20th month in power.

This is by no means the first pressing incident that the president has faced since he assumed office in May 2022. However, on this occasion, the difficulty to navigate the scandal is greater, because it concerns words that were uttered by either Chaves himself, or by his closest collaborators.

Patricia Navarro — who was dismissed from her post as minister of communications nearly a year ago — has been branded as a “traitor” and a “criminal” by the president and his entourage. She delivered the recordings to the newspaper La Nación, while unleashing a series of publications over the course of 10 days. All of this has resulted in more questions and criticism being directed at Chaves and Jorge Rodríguez, the current minister of communications. In an unsuccessful attempt to stop the recordings from being released, Rodríguez had filed a criminal complaint.

In the series of revelations, there’s information about a plan to remove state advertising from media outlets considered to be adversaries, while preventing them from interviewing ministers. There are also suggestions made by President Chaves that one of his friends be allowed to receive part of a $400,000 contract financed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). The organization — after first denying to provide any information on the subject, given its status as an international entity — eventually published part of the file regarding this contract, following the release of the audio recordings. On the tapes, there’s also at least one alleged order given by the president to agents from the Intelligence and Security Directorate (DIS) to tap the phones of ministers who had leaked information to the press.

Everything heard on the tapes is said in a blunt manner, without caution, with certain members of the cabinet referred to as “sons of bitches,” a critical journalist labeled as a “bitch,” or the president of the Journalists’ Association derided as an “idiot.” There’s also the revelation that, on the day President Chaves took power — May 8, 2022 — he presented a fake decree that lifted the Covid-19 vaccine mandate. It was just a piece of paper without content… a case that was leaked to the press, angering the president.

Pressure on the media: “Help me, I have a gun to my head”

It’s now also known how Chaves pressures leaders of public entities to obey him, in his efforts to use government resources to push his messaging. “Don’t play games with me or I’ll decapitate you,” the president once threatened, in an apparent reference to possible dismissals. This was hurled at civil servants, so that they would accept the strategy that he calls “democratizing the agenda,” which consists of removing state advertising from traditional media outlets and distributing the ad buys to new, small and regional platforms… including some that have ties to him.

In a hearing before legislators this past November, a manager of the state telecommunications company said that her boss once told her: “Help me, I have a gun to my head.” This was in reference to a presidential order to remove state advertising from Teletica, the largest television station in the country.

The contents of the recordings — which offer answers to some of the questions that have been raised by the press in recent months — mark the close of the calendar year for Chaves, who hasn’t denied the existence of the recorded conversations. He did, however, rush to file a criminal complaint against Navarro and La Nación, the newspaper that published the audios, making the argument that his right to privacy had been violated.

The San José Deputy Prosecutor’s Office ultimately rejected the request to halt the publication of the recordings, arguing that the audios contain details about money and public contracts, rather than private matters. Navarro has also delivered these recordings to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Costa Rica, which has not yet announced any criminal charges against Chaves. However, as of November, he had 33 cases pending for various reasons, such as influence-peddling.

Despite this scandal, Chaves still hasn’t shuffled his cabinet. This past week, he denied being close to a publicist named Federico Cruz, who has served the president as an unpaid advisor and now presides over a new pro-government party. Cruz was the strategist behind Chaves’ 2022 campaign, in which the former finance minister triumphed, thanks to a discourse against corruption and traditional politics. During his rise to power, Chaves also promised to destroy several media outlets, including La Nación.

At a press conference last week, Chaves barely mentioned the case. He preferred to highlight the favorable economic numbers of 2023. Over the past year, Costa Rica’s GDP has grown above the international average, inflation has been lower than most countries, the fiscal deficit has shrunk, government debt is down, exports have increased and the currency — the colón – has strengthened against the dollar. “It’s been a miraculous year,” the president boasted about the national economy. Still, in November — before the audios were released — he had an approval rating of only 51%, 29 points less than when he was sworn in.

While the economic numbers are strong, Chaves has struggled to respond to criticism for the security disaster in the country. 2023 saw the highest number of murders in any year of Costa Rican history, with almost 900 deaths. This past April, the president rejected that there was a homicide crisis, claiming that most of the killings were linked to fights between drug-trafficking groups. In recent months, his administration has reacted by implementing more surveillance in the country’s main port, but he has also blamed the legislative branch and the judicial branch for rising crime. This is part of his governing style, of clashing with institutions beyond the presidential palace.

Since the audios were released, the Legislative Assembly — which is dominated by opposition parties — has stepped up its criticism of the president. The body maintains open investigations into the financing of the 2022 elections and the management of the state’s communications contracts.

“It’s not a simple issue, it’s a modus operandi… it leads us to business,” says Representative Vanessa Castro, from the conservative Social Christian Unity Party. She has previously criticized Chaves for attacks on press freedom. “The current president has demonstrated a worrying pattern of behavior that could endanger our democracy,” she adds, in concurrence with local unions and international organizations that have observed negative signals from the incumbent government when it comes to freedom of expression, something that has managed to prevail for decades in Costa Rica.

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