Tight elections in Costa Rica are testing women’s rights

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — He was demoted from a senior position at the World Bank for sexual harassment. Well, the economist Rodrigo Chaves – he fought as a populist outsider in an election marred by anger at traditional politicians — leading the polls to become Costa Rica’s next president on Sunday.

It’s an unexpected rise in prominence for a country that has taken a leading role in promoting progressive politics in Central America, and underscores how a desire to punish political elites for economic stagnation overshadows most other issues.

In 2019, Mr Chaves was reprimanded by the World Bank for a pattern of sexual misconduct towards junior staff, although the details of his behavior were only released by a Costa Rican newspaper in August – details the presidential candidate has consistently refuted.

Mr. Chave’s denial and downplaying of a documented history of sexual harassment comes two years after another Costa Rican politician, former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Óscar Arias Sánchez, narrowly escaped prosecution for sex abuse in a scandal that rocked the country.

Mr. Arias was accused by at least nine women of sexual assault or misconduct in 2019 in what emerged as one of the most significant #MeToo cases in Latin America. However, in December 2020, the charges brought against him by two of the women were dropped.

Human rights activists now say that Mr. Chaves’ drive 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 small, something not serious,” said Larissa Arroyo, a human rights lawyer from Costa Rica. “This campaign normalizes and legitimizes the abuse.”

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

Mr. Chaves languished until his alliance with Pilar Cisneros, a prominent Costa Rican journalist, who introduced him to Costa Rican voters as a seasoned administrator who would crack down on corruption.

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

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

The revelations did little harm to Mr Chaves’ campaign. When the investigation was uncovered, he was polled at just 2 percent. In the first round of national elections in February, he had collected enough votes to enter the presidential runoff.

Ms Cisneros came to Mr Chaves’ defense and helped shield him from the full impact of the revelations. “Do you think Pilar Cisneros would have supported sexual harassment?” she told local media in January. The next month she won a seat in Congress for Mr. Chaves’ party.

Ahead of Sunday’s final vote, the Costa Rica State University noted that Mr Chaves is just ahead of his opponent, former Costa Rican President José María Figueres. In a poll of 1,000 voters conducted by the university March 24-28, Mr. Chaves led by 3.4 percentage points, slightly above the poll’s margin of error of 3.1 percent.

A separate poll released by the University of Costa Rica on March 1 found that just 13 percent of voters believed the harassment allegations against Mr. Chaves were false. But 45 percent said the allegations would not affect their vote.

Mr Chaves has benefited from the unpopularity of his opponent, Mr Figueres, who was marred by corruption allegations during his first term in office in the 1990s. Mr Figueres, who heads the country’s oldest and largest political party, the National Liberation Party, is accused of receiving payments from a French telecommunications company in return for preferential treatment during his presidency in the early 2000s.

Mr Figueres has denied the allegations and prosecutors investigating the payments that took place after his resignation have not pressed charges.

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

Costa Rica’s tourism-dependent economy has suffered badly from the pandemic; In 2020, gross domestic product recorded the sharpest decline in four decades. While parts of the economy are recovering, the country is struggling to contain rising food and fuel costs.

“In the end, the allegations cancel each other out,” Mr Alfaro said. “In the end, voters are not voting for the candidate they like, but against the candidate they think has more fleas than the other.”

Deterred by the scandals surrounding both candidates, most Costa Ricans appear to have lost interest in the election. Only a quarter of all registered voters cast their ballots for either Mr Chaves or Mr Figueres in the first round, which saw the lowest turnout in 70 years.

Documents from the World Bank’s internal tribunal and union show that Mr Chaves was fined in 2019 after two female employees filed complaints of harassment. At the time, he was the bank’s country head for Indonesia, a director-level position in which he oversaw billions of dollars in loans to one of the world’s largest developing countries.

The women said Mr Chaves had made attempts to kiss younger employees on the mouth, made sexual comments about their appearance and repeatedly issued unwanted invitations to hotel rooms and dinners. The identities of the women have not been released.

A woman who reported to Mr Chaves told the tribunal that he “noticed that he liked it when she leaned forward, then dropped an object and asked her to pick it up for him,” a request she had declined .

Mr. Chaves was demoted and his salary frozen, but the bank stopped explicitly describing his behavior as sexual harassment. Days later, he left the organization and returned to his native Costa Rica to become President Carlos Alvarado’s Secretary of the Treasury.

Costa Rica’s Communications Ministry said the current government was unaware of the harassment case and that Mr. Chaves told his members at the time that he had returned because he wanted to retire with his elderly mother.

Within six months, Mr Chaves resigned his ministerial position and announced a presidential bid with a little-known political party that promised to “return power to the citizens” by holding referendums on key political issues.

Despite Mr Chaves’ departure from the World Bank, his accusers appealed to the internal tribunal to review the bank’s investigation into wrongdoing.

“The facts of the present case indicate that Mr C.’s conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his behavior was undesirable,” the tribunal said in its June judgment. A World Bank official said the bank has not disputed the facts of the case as set out in the decision.

Even before the verdict was passed, the organization banned Mr. Chaves from the house in January 2021 and imposed a ban on reinstatement. The bank’s sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, said it also restricted Mr Chaves’ access to its premises.

In the months since, Mr. Chaves has denied or misrepresented the findings; Instead, he said the World Bank found little more than an allegation against him, referring to the bank’s original decision not to label his misconduct as sexual harassment.

He has also said he is free to visit the World Bank’s offices — contrary to the bank’s ban on entry — and that as president he will continue doing business with the bank, which has $2.3 billion in outstanding loans in Costa Rica.

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

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

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

“If Costa Rica refuses in protecting women’s rights,” Ms Arroyo said, “it is very likely that the rest of the neighboring countries will not have this example to move forward.” Tight elections in Costa Rica are testing women’s rights

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