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Costa Rica’s close elections test women’s rights


SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — He was demoted from a senior position at the World Bank because of sexual harassment. Now economist Rodrigo Chaves — who campaigned as a populist underdog in an election marked by anger against mainstream politicians — leads the polls to become Costa Rica’s next president on Sunday.

It’s an unexpected surge in a country that has played a leading role in advancing progressive politics in Central America, underscoring how the desire to punish political elites for economic stagnation eclipses most others. problems.

In 2019, Mr Chaves was reprimanded by the World Bank for what turned out to be a pattern of sexual misconduct against junior staff, although details of his behavior were only made public by a Costa newspaper. Rica only in August – details that the presidential candidate has repeatedly refuted.

Mr. Chaves’ denial and downplaying of a documented history of sexual harassment comes two years after another Costa Rican politician, former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Óscar Arias Sánchez, narrowly avoided sexual abuse charges, in a scandal that shook the country. .

Mr. Arias was accused in 2019 of sexual assault or misconduct by at least nine women, becoming one of the highest profile #MeToo cases in Latin America. However, in December 2020 charges against him by two of the women were dropped.

Human rights campaigners now say Mr Chaves’ bid for power threatens to undermine progress in Central America’s most liberal and egalitarian nation.

“The message this sends to society is that sexual abuse is something minor, not serious,” said Larissa Arroyo, a Costa Rican human rights lawyer. “This campaign normalizes and legitimizes abuse.”

Mr. Chaves and his press service did not respond to a request for an interview.

Mr. Chaves languished in obscurity until his alliance with Pilar Cisneros, a prominent Costa Rican journalist, who introduced him to Costa Rican voters as an experienced administrator who would tackle corruption.

Just a day after Ms Cisneros joined Mr Chaves’ campaign in August, local newspaper La Nación publicized the World Bank investigation which found it had demonstrated a pattern of sexual harassment against junior female employees between 2008 and 2013.

Mr. Chaves responded by downplaying the findings. “Those who kidnapped the nation are already showing their fear of Rodrigo Chaves’ candidacy,” he said in a video address posted on social media hours after the article was published.

The revelations did little harm to Mr. Chaves’ campaign. When the survey came to light, he was voting just 2%. In the first round of national elections, held in February, he obtained enough votes to qualify for the second round of the presidential election.

Ms Cisneros came to the defense of Mr Chaves, helping to shield him from the full impact of the revelations. “Do you think Pilar Cisneros would have supported a sexual harasser? she told local media in January. The following month, she won a congressional seat for Mr. Chaves’ party.

Before Sunday’s final vote, the State University of Costa Rica found Mr. Chaves narrowly ahead of his opponent: a former Costa Rican president, José María Figueres. In a poll of 1,000 voters conducted by the university from March 24-28, Mr. Chaves led by 3.4 percentage points, slightly above the survey’s margin of error of 3, 1%.

A separate poll released by the University of Costa Rica on March 1 found that only 13% of voters thought the harassment charges against Mr. Chaves were false. But 45% said the accusations would not influence their vote.

Mr. Chaves took advantage of the unpopularity of his opponent, Mr. Figueres, who was marred by corruption charges during his first term in the 1990s. Mr. Figueres, who leads the oldest and largest political party in the country, the National Liberation Party, is accused of receiving payments in the early 2000s from a French telecommunications company in return for preferential treatment while he was president.

Mr. Figueres has denied the charges and prosecutors investigating the payments, which took place after his resignation, have not filed charges.

However, in the eyes of many Costa Ricans, Mr. Figueres and his party have come to represent the venality and elitism of the country’s political system, which many believe is no longer able to solve economic problems, said Ronald Alfaro, who heads the University. of the Center for Political Studies and Investigations of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s economy, dependent on tourism, has suffered greatly from the pandemic; in 2020, its gross domestic product saw its biggest decline in four decades. While parts of the economy have rebounded, the country is struggling to contain rising food and fuel prices.

“The charges eventually cancel each other out,” Alfaro said. “Voters end up voting not for the candidate they like, but against the candidate they think has more chips than the other.”

Discouraged by the scandals surrounding the two candidates, most Costa Ricans seem to have lost interest in the election. Only a quarter of all registered voters voted for Mr Chaves or Mr Figueres in the first round of elections, which saw the lowest turnout in 70 years.

World Bank internal court and union documents show that Mr Chaves was punished in 2019 after two female employees filed harassment complaints. At the time, he was the bank’s country manager for Indonesia, a senior post overseeing billions of dollars in lending to one of the world’s largest developing economies.

The women said Mr. Chaves attempted to kiss junior employees on the mouth, made sexual comments about their appearance and repeatedly made unwelcome invitations to hotel rooms and dinner parties. The identity of the women has not been made public.

A woman, who reported to Mr Chaves, told the court he ‘commented that he liked it when she bent over, then dropped an item and asked her to pick it up for him’, a claim which she refused.

Mr Chaves was demoted and his salary was frozen, but the bank did not explicitly label his behavior as sexual harassment. He left the organization a few days later and returned to his native Costa Rica to become President Carlos Alvarado’s finance minister.

Costa Rica’s communications ministry said the current government was unaware of the harassment case and that Mr Chaves then told its members he had returned because he wanted to spend his retirement with his elderly mother.

Within six months, Mr. Chaves quit his post at the ministry and announced a presidential candidacy with a little-known political party, promising to “return power to the people” by holding referendums on important political issues.

Despite Mr Chaves’ departure from the World Bank, his accusers have appealed to the domestic court to reconsider the investigation into the bank’s misconduct.

“The facts of this case indicate that MC’s conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his conduct was unwelcome,” the court said in its June decision. A World Bank official said the bank did not dispute the facts of the case as presented in the ruling.

Even before the decision was made, in January 2021, the organization barred Mr. Chaves from its premises and imposed a ban on rehiring. The bank’s sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, said it had also restricted Mr Chaves’ access to its premises.

In the months that followed, Mr. Chaves denied or distorted the findings; instead, he said the World Bank found nothing more than an allegation against him, referring to the bank’s initial decision not to label his wrongdoing as sexual harassment.

He also said he could freely visit World Bank offices – contradicting the bank’s ban on access – and that as president he would continue to do business with the bank, which has 2.3 billion dollars of outstanding loans in Costa Rica.

Mr. Chaves also promised to “revise” the laws on in vitro fertilization and abortion, made more accessible by recent presidential decrees. Abortion is legal in Costa Rica when the pregnancy threatens the woman’s health.

These measures threaten to derail the slow but notable progress in women’s reproductive rights under recent governments, said Ms. Arroyo, the human rights lawyer. She said the proposals would also harm Costa Rica’s role in promoting social rights in a deeply socially conservative region where abortion is widely banned and violence against women goes mostly unpunished.

Costa Rica’s political stability and strong democracy have long made it an exception in a region dominated by authoritarians and organized crime, and the country has achieved one of the highest levels of social inclusion in Latin America, in areas ranging from access to education and health care to civil life. rights.

“If Costa Rica declines in its protection of women’s rights,” said Ms. Arroyo, “it is very likely that the rest of the neighboring countries will not have this example to continue moving forward.

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