February 3, 2006
Voters in Costa Rica are going to choose a new president on Sunday, and the favorite to win is Oscar Arias, who served in that office from 1986 to 1990. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. His center-left National Liberation Party has dominated Costa Rican politics since the civil war of 1948, but has been tarnished in recent years by corruption scandals. Widespread suspicion of politicians have made it more difficult for the Congress to ratify the Central America Free Trade Agreement; Costa Rica is the only nation in the region that has not yet ratified CAFTA, which also includes the Dominican Republic. Arias supports CAFTA as being necessary for a country that depends so heavily on tourism and exports. Much like Europe, there is a high unemployment rate (20 percent) and a problem with illegal immigration (from Nicaragua); this paradoxical market distortion stems from the country's generous welfare state benefits. Unlike most Latin American countries, where an absolute majority of votes is required to be elected, which usually means the race goes to a second round, in Costa Rica 40 percent is sufficient to win in the first round. See Washington Post. While in Costa Rica last year, I saw some graffitti indicating deep anger with corrupt politicians. There is a private foundation honoring Arias and his efforts on behalf of peace in San José, but it happened to be closed on the day when I came across it.