The conclusion of a four-part series, “The Lineup,” that 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, Two, and Three.
Walking into the Legislative Assembly building in downtown San José is a bit of a shock to the system after weeks of interviews with rural legislators—including, just the evening before, the grassroots event where our series began. The transition from folding chairs around a table in a party supporter’s backyard in Poró de Grecia, to a massive cement block in the heart of San José with an aggressively modern inner courtyard that stretches four stories below the earth, is a jarring one.
As we zip up and down the building’s elevators, notice familiar faces such as Fabricio Alvarado and Roberto Thompson in the glass hallways, and get lost in its rather strange wood-paneled hallways, it’s impossible not to think about drastic change that someone like Sonia Rojas, who’s spent most of her career as an educator and public health worker in Southern Zone indigenous communities, will experience when she’s sworn in on May 1st. It’s equally hard to imagine the experience of an outgoing legislator such as Marulin Azofeifa, who’ll leave the drab brown underground plenary hall behind and pop back out into the warm, full-color world of Guápiles, Limón.
We’ve spent three weeks exploring how citizens of rural Costa Rica get elected to these 57 seats—the varying processes used by new parties, the changes traditional parties have gradually introduced, the degree of personal influence by presidential candidates, the cost and strain of a campaign. In this final story, our question’s a little different. Once they’re here, how can the people left outside of these four infamous cement walls stay connected to the legislators meant to represent their province?
And is it worth it to try?
Making the Assembly more open
I speak with Sherman Allen, of the Assembly’s Citizen Participation Department—which was created in 2014 to make the legislature more accessible to the public, the afternoon after my Assembly visit. When I tell him this, he’s jovially disgruntled: “You came down here and you didn’t say hi?”
He urges me to do better next time, and to visit the assembly frequently—which comes naturally to him, since encouraging interaction with the institution is his job. The department’s work runs the gamut from visits by high schools and tourist groups, to actually receiving proposals for bills from citizens. That part of the department’s work belongs to the Citizen Proposals Area, the new incarnation of the Office of Popular Initiatives that opened in 1999.
“It’s open to any citizen who has an idea and a proposal,” he says. “They can present it on a slice of bread and we have to accept it… even on a napkin.” Of course, paper is traditional, and a simple form is also available on the Assembly website.
But does this really work? I ask. And how hard is it for an average citizen to develop a proposal that’s actually assembly-ready? According to Sherman, it’s the department’s job to support members of the public through the process. They have two options: presenting a bill that’s actually ready for legislative review, or presenting an idea that would need to be adopted by legislative staff. Either way, the department where he works supports the citizens who come in however they can.
A total of 29 bills proposed by citizens have been approved since the mechanism was first created in 1999. The most recent was the Law for the Sustainable Development of the Sarapiquí River Basin, approved on February 22nd of this year. The bill was presented by the Comisión Salvaguarda Río Sarapiquí. (It’s notable that this group is not just a community association that decided to stroll into the assembly with an idea: it’s a citizen group formed specifically to develop this bill and lobby for its approval.)
Don’t people propose crazy ideas? Only about 1% of the time, Sherman says: “There was a man from Upala who sent a proposal prohibiting birth control pills and condoms.”
Of course, knowing what bills are needed and which legislators might adopt them requires significant knowledge of the Assembly’s work. While the Department also offers information and trainings, one of the most accessible repositories of information can be found outside the assembly walls: the Asamblea project at Delfino.cr. Journalist Luis Manuel Madrigal explains that the project, which publishes up-to-date records of all bills as well as information about legislators—attendance, their pay, advisors’ names and salaries, gas usage, and more—has filled a void.
“The Assembly website crashes a lot, so ours has become a sort of backup for legislators, advisors and the general public,” he explains. In addition, the assembly site often has out-of-date or hidden data, and doesn’t allow bill texts to be shared as links. The Delfino.cr project takes care of all that and keeps vast amounts of assembly data up to date and available to the public.
The site also allows users to rate legislators on a five-point scale, and is developing plans to facilitate the receipt and development of citizen proposals—as well as the collection of signatures—not only for the legislature but also for the Executive Branch.
Many of the citizens who have contacted the Asamblea project team with questions about the status of bills have been from rural areas, Luis Manuel says. Often, the bills they’re most interested in are hyperlocal efforts such as road construction or school infrastructure bills. These are known in the assembly by a derogatory name.
“Those bills might not have nationwide impact, but they’re important for the communities they do affect,” he says, explaining that it’s common in the assembly to compare such initiatives to a vegetable known for lacking flavor and texture. It’s a way of saying they’re insignificant. “In parliamentary slang, those bills are called ‘chayotes’ because they’re not substantial, but they do have local impact, so we never ignore them. We don’t allow them to get left out.”
By using Delfino’s Asamblea platform to stay up-to-date about a bill’s progress, rural communities—or any citizen group—can pressure legislators when inertia sets in. However, the best way to do that, even with digital tools like Asamblea at our disposal, is still an in-person visit to the building, according to Luis Manuel. Emails often get ignored, but not so groups that show up in the plenary hall’s public theater with signs.
“A legislator will show up there to find out what’s going on,” he says. “Physical presence at the Assembly is the most effective way for communities’ concerns to be addressed.”
Parting advice to legislators: get out (of the building) while you can
There are various ways that citizens can bend their legislators’ ears—but various former legislators, including Yolanda Acuña of the Citizen Action Party (PAC, 2010-2014), the real onus for maintaining a citizen connection lies with the legislators themselves.
“The legislator must go to the communities,” she says, lamenting the fact that many legislators don’t do so; she says she was profoundly disappointed and disillusioned by the extent to which special interests such as specific industries set the agenda for many legislators. “I tell you today, and I say this as a former legislator, I don’t even know the names of many of our legislators. And why? There’s been a distancing… when people get there, they disconnect from society.”
José María Villalta, an outgoing legislator from the Frente Amplio, echoes her words.
“My main advice is not to disconnect from their base, from the people. They should visit communities regularly and not lose touch with regular people,” he says. “You have to maintain that grounding cable, that foot in the communities. [Costa Rica] has had legislators who were really beloved in their communities… but they got trapped in the legislative [current]. People didn’t forgive them for that.”
“Don’t forget where you came from,” says Gustavo Viales, an outgoing PLN legislator from Ciudad Neily. “You’ll always go back to your home region, and you have to go back with your head held high.”
The second piece of advice repeated across the political spectrum? Choose your advisors well. One of the outgoing legislators who hammered home this point most vehemently was José María Guevara of the Social Chrsitian Unity Party (PUSC). He’s a former mayor of Cañas who joined the Assembly in 2020 when a legislator died, and spent his months in office hammering away at projects that would benefit his home province of Guanacaste.
To do that, he needed a team who knew the ins and outs of creating legislation and moving it through the legislative morass: “Pick good advisors who won’t let you get all tangled up.”
What’s at stake
We walk out of the Assembly building on this bright February day, wind whipping through the trees in the Plaza de la Democracia, a small protest taking place up the street as usual. It’s impossible not to lean back and take one more glance at that impossibly ugly facade.
Will legislators-elect Yonder Salas and Sonia Rojas, Priscilla Vindas and María Marta Carballo, fare in the four-year period ahead?
We end where we began, in that sunny backyard in Poró de Grecia, with party faithful arranged around a pastry-strewn table. Halfway through the introductions, when it’s her turn and Priscilla rises to her feet, she tells the group: “This seat isn’t mine. It belongs to all of us.”
It’s a beautiful statement. Even a powerful one. But is it true?
For better and certainly for worse, the answer to that question doesn’t lie in the hands of the Costa Rican people. The indirect proportional election system that reduces voter control, the vast size and heterogeneity of the provinces legislators are meant to represent, the way in which the proliferation of parties has eliminated rural participation processes that were more robust during the two-party era—all of these have eroded the population’s control over who reaches the assembly, and what they do there.
It’s truly up to each legislator to decide.
The future of Costa Rica’s relationship to its legislature, for now, rests in these 57 seats.
Read our full series, “The Lineup.”