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HomeLongformCosta Rica’s legislators, part 3: Coming off the bench

Costa Rica’s legislators, part 3: Coming off the bench

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Our four-part series, “The Lineup,” looks at the players who will dominate Costa Rica’s legislative playing field from 2022-2026: the 57 members of the Legislative Assembly. As a media organization committed to journalism from and about the country’s rural regions, we’re looking at how legislators from rural areas get elected—and what they do once they’re there. Read Part One and Part Two.

Any elected “first” has been through hard times. The people who told you it couldn’t be done, the critics near and far, the string of failures that finally leads to a breakthrough. It’s no surprise that Sonia Rojas has traveled a rocky path in order to become the first Costa Rican legislator-elect to identify as an indigenous woman.

It is surprising, however, to learn that so much of what Sonia Rojas and her family have to overcome took place within her own party—a party whose flag her family waves with undying enthusiasm despite years of struggle. Her family’s story showcases the deep and continuing loyalty towards Costa Rica’s traditional parties in rural areas, just as it demonstrates the intense frustration experienced by rural citizens who try to reach the inner circles of power.

Today, as we continue our quest to understand the relationship between rural Costa Rica and the Legislative Assembly, we bring you a tale of two women who were born into their political affiliations and grew up wearing the colors they inherited from their parents. 

We also bring you a tale of two parties. Both are traditional sources of power in Costa Rica, having governed the country throughout its two-party era. Both used legislative selection processes where the party elite, particularly the presidential candidate, had massive influence over who got onto the legislative tickets. Both were rocked by corruption scandals in the first decade of this new century—a come-to-Jesus moment that has led them to varying degrees of change today.

Palace intrigue

When asked how she became a part of the National Liberation Party (PLN), Sonia laughs.

“We were born liberacionistas, the same way we were born liguistas,” she says, equating Costa Rica’s two great rivalries—between the PLN and the Christian Social Unity Party (PUSC), and between the Saprissa and La Liga football clubs. 

She traces both her affinities to her indigenous father. (Her self-identification as Costa Rica’s first indigenous woman legislator has been questioned because the Bribri and the Cabécar territories are home to a matrilineal society, and her mother was non indigenous; Sonia maintains that regardless of how others see her, she fully identifies with her father’s culture.) 

“Dad said, ‘We’re for La Liga.’ Dad’s with Liberation, and come on, we’re all with Liberation,” says the educator and public health worker. “It’s a great love of my father’s… The Liberation Party has opened its doors to us. [Presidential candidate] José María Figueres opened doors to us. It’s a party of inclusion.”

Legislator-elect Sonia Rojas (center) and presidential candidate José María Figueres Olsen during an activity at the Golfito Tax-Free Depository on Feb. 25th. Rafael Vargas / El Colectivo 506

But like everything else related to the Legislative Assembly, nothing is that simple. Sonia’s mention of Proyecto 8, an initiative begun by her family to promote indigenous presence in political posts in the Southern Zone, leads me to a conversation with her eldest brother, Eduardo Rojas. He, in turn, describes the siblings’ long path towards presence on a Liberation ticket. 

Eduardo traces the start of this process to a decree by President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) that established Buenos Aires as Costa Rica’s “cradle of indigenous culture.” This new title contrasted sharply with the lack of attention paid to the diverse region by political parties, he says, heightening a desire for change.

“We realized that the indigenous have been used only to go and vote, and when [elected leaders] get to the municipality, they don’t even listen to us,” he says, recalling campaign events full of chicha and tamales, followed by silence. “They don’t even look back at us.”

Eduardo and his siblings started Proyecto 8, named for eight key public sector initiatives that would benefit indigenous communities across Buenos Aires, as an effort to promote the election of indigenous people at the municipal level. He recounts years and years of failure for the grassroots group. Their first major success, however, was a big one: the election of his brother Jose as the mayor of Buenos Aires in 2016. Remembering that moment, he breaks off the interview in sobs.

“Jose swept the indigenous communities. For the first time, they got on the same page,” he says. “That was the secret.”

He remembers how the Citizen Action Party candidate was in the lead by 52 votes, but one voting center had yet to report—a mesa in an isolated indigenous community with no internet connection. When the representatives from that table finally reached the place where they hoped to communicate the results, the electricity had gone out.

Finally, at 11:15 pm, those last results came in and put Jose over the top as Costa Rica’s first-ever indigenous mayor, Eduardo says. 

Sonia Vargas (left) speaks with a group of women artisans in the Biolley district, Buenos Aires. Rafael Vargas / El Colectivo 506

His tales of attempts at representation in the Legislative Assembly are just as dramatic. For the 2006 election, Eduardo says he was promised a spot on the legislative ticket for Puntarenas at a local meeting by presidential candidate Oscar Arias. When the day of Liberation’s national assembly arrived, however, Eduardo learned that he’d been left out. Not allowed inside the room because he wasn’t a delegate, he borrowed a friend’s press badge, snuck inside and managed to get close enough to speak to Arias, he says. 

“Don Oscar told [his brother] Rodrigo Arias, ‘Yes, I remember now that this young man asked for a space,’” Eduardo says: he ended up in fourth place on the ticket for Puntarenas that year. Liberation didn’t get enough votes in the province for Eduardo to be elected.

He describes a similarly chaotic process when Sonia was elected. The Rojas family hoped that mayor Jose would be the candidate, but because Costa Rica now requires gender parity on legislative tickets, the first-place spot for Puntareans ended up being reserved for a woman, and Sonia entered the running. Candidate Figueres had thrown his support to one female candidate; the Arias brothers supported another; and with the party elite split, Sonia and her grassroots support, including Liberation mayors who pressured delegates in her favor, were able to break through.

“That shows you the struggles we lead from [rural] communities to achieve space in traditional parties,” he says.

Sonia Rojas eats a traditional lunch during a day of work as a teacher, as she visits the homes of young people who have dropped out of school and motivates them to return. Educational inclusion has been a priority for the legislator-elect ever since she served as principal of the Rural Indigenous High School in Cabagra de Buenos Aires. Rafael Vargas / El Colectivo 506

Former Liberation legislator Karla Prendas (2014-2018), of the city of Puntarenas, has a similar story to tell. A former municipal president in the port city, she swept her district and cantonal elections and ended up winning the provincial legislative elections by the largest margin in the country for Liberation that year, she says. 

When she arrived for the party’s national assembly and candidate Johnny Araya called her up, she assumed they’d be talking about her first-place spot on the Puntarenas ticket, she recalls.

“He called me two days before to tell me he wasn’t going to give me that spot. He was going to pass me down to third place,” says Karla, adding that she eventually talked her way back into the top spot by demonstrating to the candidate how deep and motivated her supporters were. Still, she wasn’t sure what would happen on the assembly floor, and had to decide whether she’d pay the required donation that goes with the top spot on the ticket—the amount varies, but can be as high as 3 million colones, more than $4,000, she says. The amount paid by the candidate decreases as you go down the ticket, so by paying in advance for the top spot, she was taking a risk. 

“We have to change the way legislators are elected in this country,” she says. “The election system is exhausting, it’s very exclusive, and in the end it’s one of the reasons that we say, ‘Why is there such low voter turnout?’ People really feel that they can’t elect who they really want.. It’s not really that democratic.”

A sea change

Legislator-elect María Marta Carballo, of the Social Christian Unity Party or PUSC, is quick to admit that frustration about lack of rural control over legislative tickets is very much a part of her party’s legacy, too. Rural PUSC supporters had the same experience of watching a legislative candidate work his or her way up the ranks, only to be bumped down the ticket by the presidential candidate’s choices or overruled by delegates from other provinces. However, she argues that a recent reform within the PUSC has increased rural control over party processes.

Legislator-elect María Marta Carballo poses for a photograph with two men in one of Limón’s indigenous territories during her legislative campaign. Courtesy of PUSC / El Colectivo 506

Legislator-elect María Marta Carballo, of the Social Christian Unity Party or PUSC, is quick to admit that frustration about lack of rural control over legislative tickets is very much a part of her party’s legacy, too. Rural PUSC supporters had the same experience of watching a legislative candidate work his or her way up the ranks, only to be bumped down the ticket by the presidential candidate’s choices or overruled by delegates from other provinces. However, she argues that a recent reform within the PUSC has increased rural control over party processes.

Like Sonia, María Marta has been an enthusiastic supporter of her party practically since birth. As Sonia was waving green-and-white flags in Buenos Aires, María Marta was waving blue-and-red flags in central Limón. Also like Sonia, she comes to the assembly from a background in public health work. 

However, unlike Sonia, María Marta will claim her legislative seat on May 1st as someone who is already fully immersed in her party’s legislative work. She was the Administrative Director of PUSC’s legislative bloc, or fracción, until she resigned to focus on her campaign at the top of the party’s ticket for Limón.

PUSC President Randall Quirós explains that the reform in legislative candidate selection came out of the party’s darkest hour.

“In the year 2010, the PUSC was passing through a critical moment,” he says. In the 2006 elections, the party obtained only five legislators, a result that would have been unthinkable before the 2004 scandals that implicated two PUSC ex-presidents. “Many of our supporters had switched to other parties such as Citizen Action and the Libertarian Movement.”

When the party again won only five seats in the 2010 elections, party leadership was forced to face the fact that its traditional math no longer made any sense. Presidential candidates had always been allowed to choose five legislators based on pure personal preference—but while this had worked when the smallest PUSC bloc in half a century had been 19 legislators strong, it no longer worked when those five might make up the entire bloc.

The party’s executive committee decided to make a change. Today, as in Liberation, PUSC legislative candidates must win elections at the district and cantonal level. However, PUSC now finalizes its legislative ballot at the provincial level, rather than in a national assembly. 

María Marta Carballo during her campaign. Courtesy of PUSC / El Colectivo 506

Both Randall and María Marta say that the impact has been significant, both on voters’ enthusiasm and on the legislative candidates themselves. 

“It requires the precandidate to get much more involved on the local level and get to know the needs of each district,” says María Marta; no one can skip these processes, knowing that the party elite at the national assembly have already pre-selected him or her. “I’m from the central canton of Limón, but when I started the district processes, I had to go and meet people and work hand-in-hand with Guacara de Guácimo o La Florida de Siquirres.” 

By the time she was elected as a candidate, she’d been working with the base for 1.5 years, she says. Both María Marta and Randall say this has energized rural voters.

“Today there’s a catharsis: there’s real representation for the province and not a designation by the National Assembly,” says Randall, echoing María Marta’s comments that it doesn’t make sense for party delegates for Alajuela or Heredia to choose Limón’s candidates. He says he believes the change is part of the reason that PUSC has inched up to nine legislators for the 2022-2026 term.

Kattia Quirós, president of National Liberation, says that her party, too, has responded to its reduced legislative bloc by reducing the number of legislative candidates the presidential candidate can select. The number used to be four, but in December 2020, the party approved a reform that allows the candidate to choose only the first-place candidate for the province of San José.

However, she says that while a switch to provincial elections has been discussed among party leadership, it is not a change Liberation is currently considering. She argues that a party in pursuit of the presidency needs a national assembly to ensure the selection of legislative candidates that are strongly aligned with the presidential candidate.

“Lowering legislative candidate selection to the provincial level reduces the relationship on a national level… with the [presidential] candidate,” she says. “You have to have that empathy between people who will represent the party on a national level and the legislative tickets.” 

She adds that while other parties love to criticize Liberation’s processes, its district, cantonal and national delegate election procedures are robust and rigorous. In others words, Liberation isn’t the party that’s picking its candidates on a whim. 

“Unlike other political groups that [pick their candidates] a dedo, on a whim, no matter how much they try to say that the process in Liberation doesn’t work—I’m sorry, but it’s not easy to get through these processes,” she says, adding that 15,000 people around the country voted in Liberation’s most recent delegation selection process. 

Randall says he thinks all Costa Rican parties will eventually have to decentralize their selection processes.

“To stay alive and grow in support, a party… has to elect its legislative candidates from the provincial assembly,” he says. 

Ambition and the wallet

Regardless of these internal processes, the fact remains that running for the legislature—particularly in a larger party with a long and rigorous process—is expensive.

Karla says that the financial and personal costs of her political endeavors required major sacrifices for her family. She says that now, at 43, she’s not sure she would take on the political challenges she began in her 20s. 

“It was in the middle of children, breastfeeding, cuarentenas [the post-partum period],” she says, explaining that she had to take out a loan to cover the costs of campaigning. She describes all of this as stressful for the family, since her candidacy was a long shot.

María Marta Carballo (left) visits homes in Limón during her campaign. Courtesy of PUSC / El Colectivo 506

“You had to have lots of money, and the last names of certain family groups, and approval from the party leadership. That had always been the system”, she says. “Imagine how hard it would be if you’re a woman from an island… or an indigenous woman.”

María Marta says that while she thinks the campaigning process is an essential part of preparing a legislator to represent his or her province well, it does reduce many people’s access to the process.

“That’s a weakness of the system. The investment is made on many levels—on a personal level, in terms of time… and it’s an economic strain that you can’t ignore,” she says. “To be traveling to Guácimo, Siquirres, Barra del Colorado, I need to invest time and money, and I need to advertise. All that is up to the person who’s going through the process.

“It’s a costly process,” she admits. 

How can the doors open wider?

As we’ve seen throughout our series, the end of Costa Rica’s two-party system actually made the legislative election process less inclusive in some ways. Vanessa Beltrán from the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Political Studies and Research (CIEP) notes that because both Liberation and PUSC have much less voter support than they did just 20 years ago, the budget they receive by law for training and outreach is much smaller. That means that activities like the PUSC Youth groups that María Marta was a part of, or Liberation’s once-robust Rodrigo Facio Institute, have decreased drastically. 

The need for more training and support for rural candidates is something that is mentioned from legislators and former legislators across the political spectrum—from New Republic’s Marulin Azofeifa, featured last week, to the PLN and PUSC. Karla Prendas says that one channel for broader support for diverse candidates, regardless of party, might grow out of a gender-based approach.

“I think things can change… even though there are patriarchal interests,” she says. “I’m convinced that this has to start with women from the outer ring of the country.” She adds that while it can be hard to unite rural regions, each with their own priorities, around the idea of greater rural access to politics, momentum is growing among women’s organizations interested in supporting the development of legislative candidates from rural areas. 

These organizations include the Costa Rican Political Women’s Forum, to which Karla belongs, as well as the Legislative Women’s Network. Former PAC legislator Yolanda Acuña points to the Women’s Municipal Network, which she co-founded, as another example.

While consensus seems to be that much more outreach, networking, training, and funding is needed to make it easier for rural citizens to enter politics, a conversation with Eduardo Rojas suggests that a little training can go a long way. At the end of our talk, he remembers another event that jumpstarted Proyecto 8: a single training from the Supreme Elections Tribunal. 

“The TSE gave a workshop on the political rights of indigenous people in 2002,” he remembers. “That was where this all got started… it fired up our motivation.”

That motivation? It’s key, because politics is only for the slightly crazy, says Eduardo: “If you thought it all through carefully, you wouldn’t do it at all.”

Sonia Vargas (center) meets with a group of agricultural producers from the Colinas district, Buenos Aires, in October 2021, during her campaign.  Rafael Vargas / El Colectivo 506
Katherine Stanley Obando
Katherine Stanley Obando
Katherine (Co-Fundadora y Editora) es periodista, editora y autora con 16 años de vivir en Costa Rica. Es también la co-fundadora de JumpStart Costa Rica y Costa Rica Corps, y autora de "Love in Translation." Katherine (Co-Founder and Editor) is a journalist, editor and author living in Costa Rica for the past 16 years. She is also the co-founder of JumpStart Costa Rica and Costa Rica Corps, and author of "Love in Translation."

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