Costa Rica’s runoff election on April 3 will feature a showdown between former President Jose Maria Figueres and ex-Minister of Finance Rodrigo Chaves.
Figueres and Chaves emerged from a group of 25 presidential candidates in the first round of the elections on February 6.
The next president will be tasked with carrying out Costa Rica’s environmental agenda over the next four years, along with the newly-elected Legislative Assembly.
Figueres, who represents the National Liberation Party and served as president from 1994 to 1998, received 27.3 percent of the vote. He is the son of former President Jose Figueres Ferrer and brother of Christiana Figueres, the former UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary. Figueres also served as director of the World Economic Forum, but resigned over $900,000 in undeclared consulting fees from the French communications firm Alcatel.
Chaves, the candidate of the Social Democratic Progress Party, edged out far-right evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado to finish in second with 16.7 percent. Chaves briefly served as the Minister of Finance under the current administration. Before that, he was World Bank Country Director for Indonesia and was the subject of multiple sexual harrassment accusations.
While Figueres offers a clear path forward on key environmental issues, such as decarbonization, trawling and fossil fuel exploration, Chaves’ environmental plans have been characterized by a lack of specificity. Unfortunately, neither candidate has expressed interest in ratifying the Escazu Agreement, making its approval unlikely in the coming years. Furthermore, Chaves could end the Costa Rican Petroleum Refinery’s (RECOPE) monopolistic control over the country’s oil imports.
A Rejection of the Status Quo
When voters went to the polls on February 6, they also determined the makeup of the next Legislative Assembly.
Clearly, voters were ready to move on from President Carlos Alvarado and his center-left Citizens’ Action Party, which received less than one percent of the presidential vote and failed to pick up a single seat in the Assembly. While Alvarado’s robust environmental agenda has received much acclaim in the international community, concerns about corruption, high levels of unemployment and increased costs helped lead to the party’s downfall.
Figueres’ National Liberation Party picked up 18 of the 57 seats in the Assembly, while the center-right Social Christian Unity Party won 11. Chaves’ Social Democratic Progress Party, formed after the previous election, will hold 6 seats.
The far-right New Republic Party (7 seats), center-right Liberal Progressive Party (6 seats) and democratic socialist Broad Front Party (6 seats) round out the remaining seats.
A Murky Path toward Decarbonization
The next president will carry out Costa Rica’s National Decarbonization Plan, launched under the current administration in 2019. Much of the plan is focused on eliminating emissions from the transportation sector and the construction of a light rail transit system in San José’s Greater Metropolitan Area.
In his plan, Chaves says he will continue efforts to reduce carbon emissions and notes the importance of converting Costa Rica to a net-zero economy. But he offers little detail about how his administration would get there and does not reference the current decarbonization plan.
Chaves has shown a lack of interest in drilling for oil but has been more mealy-mouthed about natural gas.
“Oil, due to technological change, is going to be less relevant and, furthermore, that requires years of exploration and by the time that happens, it will no longer be a good business,” said Chaves in an interview with La Republica.
But Chaves went on to say: “Regarding gas, it is a technical question. I do not see a contradiction between the environment and the rational management of natural resources. Norway has done it and has done it super well.”
Much of Chaves’ environmental plan is centered on green bonds and carbon credits, but even these lack specificity. Chaves notes the success of green bonds in other countries for modernizing transportation and other infrastructure projects. He also believes the global market for transferable pollution permits represents an economic opportunity for “rural social progress.”
Chaves backs the creation of a modern rail system but does not support the current government’s plan to move the train project forward.
Figueres, who previously served as president of the Carbon War Room and has been on the board of prominent environmental NGOs, is quick to highlight his green credentials. He charts a more straightforward path toward decarbonization in his plan.
Figueres has also been vocal about moving on from fossil fuels, saying the “abolition of oil as a source of energy will be the new feat of the Costa Rican people.”
He has been an advocate of the train, although he plans to review the project. His plan makes several references to the country’s decarbonization commitments and is largely aligned with the current goals.
A Bleak Outlook for Escazu
The Escazu Agreement, a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations, has emerged as an important issue in recent years. The treaty promotes public access to information, citizen participation in environmental governance and access to environmental justice. It includes the world’s first binding provision to protect the human rights of environmental defenders. While Costa Rica signed the agreement in 2018, the Assembly has failed to ratify it.
Chaves has been an outspoken critic of the treaty, claiming during the debates that it is part of the “internationalist agenda.” His attitude about the Escazu Agreement is reminiscent of the language former President Trump used in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.
Chaves also said: “It seems to me that it does not add anything to our legislation and it creates litigation problems that tangle things in a moment when production in this country needs to be ramped up.”
While Figueres has struck a softer tone on the treaty, he has indicated it is not worth the effort needed to ratify it.
“What is intended in this treaty is to take the protection of the environment to a level that Costa Rica has already surpassed and it seems to me that we should not spend much national effort on something that has been overcome when we have so many other things to pay attention to,” Figueres told La Nacion.
Chaves Toys with Trawling
Trawl fishing was a contentious issue in the last two administrations. Luis Guillermo Solis, who presided over Costa Rica from 2014 to 2018, introduced a Bill for the Development and Sustainable Exploitation of Shrimp in Costa Rica, which would have reinstated trawling licenses. Guillermo Solis eventually withdrew his proposed legislation following a massive public backlash.
Chaves was noncommittal when asked about trawling in an interview with La Republica: “We cannot say if this is a go or a no-go, because we do not have studies. It is irresponsible, as in the case of the train, to make decisions with mediocre information.”
Figueres opposes trawling, although his party was split over the recent legislation in the Assembly. His government plan highlights the need to support small- and medium-scale fisheries.
RECOPE’s Monopoly in Doubt
Another key issue is Chaves’ openness to breaking up the fuel-market monopoly of the state-owned Costa Rican Petroleum Refinery. RECOPE was nationalized in 1974 and is considered the biggest company in Central America.
Chaves, with his populist agenda, is playing on frustration over high gasoline prices and state inefficiency.
“It is not justified that to pump gasoline we have more than 1,700 employees, in addition to a leonine collective agreement,” said Chaves. “RECOPE must be made to produce as God intended, with more reasonable margins than the added value that the institution gives to society, and if that happens at the end of the day by lifting the monopoly, then it will be done.”
Figueres has proposed reforming RECOPE. “I think this institution can play a role in a new biofuels economy,” he said.
Will Populism Reign?
Chaves and his party continue to escalate their populist rhetoric, drawing from the Trump playbook to capitalize on an anti-establishment sentiment. Congresswoman-elect Pilar Cisneros, a member of the party, recently made outlandish accusations of voter fraud, something which she had to walk back.
Chaves’ bombastic personality paired with a lack of detail in his government plan are a stark contrast to Figueres’ technocratic approach.
While Figueres does not represent a major departure from the current administration on most key environmental issues, it is not at all clear if Chaves will embrace a green agenda going forward. A Chaves administration together with the right-leaning Legislative Assembly could lead Costa Rica down a very different path.
Note: La Ruta del Clima does not endorse any political party. However, it calls for the informed participation of citizens in electoral processes