SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — He's attacked the press and called it the enemy, downplayed the need for Covid-19 vaccines and masks, and trashed doctors and scientists from a national medical commission.
The new president of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Chaves Robles, whose confrontational news conferences attract thousands of viewers, is already being compared to leaders like former President Donald Trump and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro.
An economist and former finance minister, he won a runoff election in April and was sworn in the following month.
Chaves, 61, became president despite a scandal following reports that he had been demoted in 2019 from a managing position at the World Bank — where he had worked for 30 years — and punished with a three-year salary freeze for what the organization said was a pattern of sexual harassment against women who worked there.
During the campaign he made clear his intention to retaliate against the publications that had taken part in bringing the scandal to light.
In February, during a political rally in San José, Chaves said that if elected president he would “destroy” two of the main media outlets in the country: the newspaper La Nación and the private television station Canal 7.
“We are a tsunami and yes, we are going to cause destruction, we are going to cause the destruction of the corrupt structures of La Nación and Canal 7,” he said.
Chaves' threats in one of the most consolidated democracies in Latin America have sent shock waves across the region and point to the strain the press currently faces in other Central American countries.
A most recent case is the arrest of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora, founder and director of the newspaper El Periódico, who has been critical of President Alejandro Giammattei and the Attorney General’s Office. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has launched attacks against the widely respected digital newspaper El Faro, accusing it without evidence of money laundering.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega's persecution of the independent media — which led to the arrest of several reporters and media executives, as well as the exile of others — has received international condemnation.
On July 8, the Chaves administration ordered the closure of Parque Viva, an events center owned by Grupo Nación, owner of the newspaper La Nación, alleging that the events held there caused serious traffic problems in the streets near the complex. A day earlier, the executive director of Grupo Nación had publicly said that Parque Viva represented an important part of the cash flow that would allow the company to meet various financial commitments in the coming years.
The closure of Parque Viva was seen by Costa Rican journalists as a clear attempt by President Chaves to weaken the financial stability of the newspaper La Nación. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) condemned the action, which it described as “an act of indirect intimidation and a discrediting campaign against the outlet.”
Chaves rejected the claims and responded by saying that “the freedom of the press in Costa Rica is in good health." However, during a press conference on Aug. 3, the president again harshly attacked the country’s media, classifying them as “rats.”
The president's office did not respond to questions from Noticias Telemundo about Chaves’ comments.
'Intimidation' not seen before
Ironically, Chaves came to power driven largely by the popularity of journalist Pilar Cisneros Gallo, a member of his party and currently head of the ruling faction in Congress. Cisneros Gallo had been for years the face of the Channel 7 newscast and held a very critical position of the political class.
Days ago, Cisneros described President Chaves’ relationship with the Costa Rican press as “troubled” and attributed it to the “personality” of the president, dismissing the idea that the freedom of the press is in any danger.
In early August, radio host and journalist Vilma Ibarra denounced the head of Chaves' ministry of communication, Patricia Navarro, had ordered all government officials not to give her interviews and also suspended state advertising in various media.
“That is a constitutional violation of the right of public officials to be accountable," Ibarra told Noticias Telemundo. "These are guarantees that have been very solid and highly respected in Costa Rica and that made us a powerhouse when it comes to freedom of the press."
“In Costa Rica, something like this had never happened," Ibarra said. "Never, under any party had we suffered intimidation in circumstances that are not just subtle, but already quite evident."
In a matter of days, several former presidents of Costa Rica from different parties expressed their concern about Chaves’ actions against the Costa Rican press.
“We are not defending a particular media, but our exceptional freedom of expression that has not been the product of chance, but of the permanent exercise of tolerance by its rulers,” former President Laura Chinchilla wrote on Twitter.
Fear of what comes next
Costa Rican journalist Yanancy Noguera, a professor and former director of La Nación, fears that the direct insults to the media and personal remarks by President Chaves could lead to physical attacks against journalists by his followers.
“Looking at what has happened in other countries, including the Central American ones, if people continue to be beaten up, those people can react with violence when they meet a group of journalists,” Noguera said.
“It is not at all flattering to think that the country that has always distinguished itself not only in Central America, but also in Latin America for its respect for institutions, is currently going through one of its greatest crises of respect for the institutions that the press represents,” she said.
Beyond the attacks on the press, President Chaves has begun his term with other controversial moves. At the beginning of August, Chaves and his minister of health attacked the scientists of the National Vaccination Commission, which has refused to repeal the compulsory nature of the Covid-19 vaccine for some groups, saying that several of its members had expired appointments and accusing them of liking "abnormal things.”
The president also launched accusations, without evidence, of alleged anomalies in the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines through confidential contracts the country signed with companies such as Pfizer, saying that “it smells bad.” “Such an absolute level of secrecy hides the need to keep things in the dark,” he said in a news conference, referring to the confidential contract signed with Pfizer.
In 2020, the Costa Rican government paid Pfizer-BioNTech $36 million for 3 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19. The purchase was made by the National Emergency Commission through a contract whose details have been kept secret, as has happened in the negotiations of several pharmaceutical companies with other countries.
Consulted by Noticias Telemundo, Pfizer rejected the accusations of President Chaves. “We regret those statements. Pfizer’s priority is to collaborate with the government of President Chaves to ensure the health and well-being of all Costa Ricans, during and after this pandemic,” said Sharon Castillo, the company’s spokeswoman from New York.
“In Costa Rica, as in all the markets where it operates, Pfizer acts with integrity and ethics in conducting business and complies with all laws and requirements required in each market,” she said.
During his first days in office, Chaves also attacked the Costa Rican Judiciary and criticized the “deficiencies of the system” and the little progress made in ongoing corruption cases. He also asked the magistrates and the Attorney General’s Office not to lend themselves to processing “absurd lawsuits” from “rogue” interests, as he calls the press.
“This distinguished institution that you represent must not allow malicious individuals and groups to continue using the Attorney General’s Office or the judicial system as an obscene cannon to launch their bullets of hate and their rogue interests,” Chaves told the magistrates.
Both the Costa Rican judges and the president of the country’s judiciary, Fernando Cruz, reacted to Chaves’ insinuations, considering them an interference with the principle of the separation of powers. “Civic illiteracy is terrible, people don’t understand much about the division of powers,” Cruz said.
In June, it emerged that both the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Costa Rica are investigating whether Chaves’ party used a parallel financing structure — far from public scrutiny — to pay expenses during the presidential campaign.
The journalist Vilma Ibarra believes that Chaves’ demeanor and actions are not ideological, but rather hewing to an “effective script” to move his followers. She said she's confident in the capacity of Costa Rican institutions to confront a polarizing president whose message she considers a “real threat” to the freedom of the press.
“I have deep confidence in the system of checks and balances of Costa Rican democracy," she said, "that we are going to solve this. It does not mean that there will not be greater polarization, because in the script that he is following there will be more societal confrontation. But I think we're going to respond and it's time to take a step forward, not to the side, or backward."