Laura Chinchilla becomes Costa Rica's first female president on Saturday, taking over at a challenging time in one of Latin America's most stable democracies. Rising poverty and insecurity in the popular eco-tourism destination and a fiscal deficit worsened by the global financial crisis are key public concerns at the start of her four-year term.
The opposition has derided Laura Chinchilla as a puppet of current President Óscar Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to ending civil wars in Central America. She is expected to continue Arias' support of free trade and international business ties, but could face tough deal-making in Congress, where her National Liberation Party (PLN) lacks an absolute majority.
Her government will have to oversee free trade deals with Singapore and China (Costa Rica’s second trading partner after the United States) and take over recently stalled talks for a Central American trade pact with the European Union. The issues are highly controversial in Costa Rica.
The president-elect is a 51-year-old Georgetown University graduate who is a social conservative on issues such as abortion, and relied on her experience as public security and justice minister to convince voters that she would be tough on crime. Chinchilla was first vice-president under Arias and resigned to run for the presidency. Her father, Rafael Ángel Chinchilla, serves as the country's Comptroller for many years.
The lack of security “isn't only a hard fact but also a perception by citizens,” said analyst Juany Guzmán, from the regional social sciences body FLACSO or Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales.
Chinchilla also inherits a 5% fiscal deficit after Arias increased public spending amid the worldwide economic crisis, which was expected to put the brakes on her election promises of increases in help to the poor and elderly. “Once we're out of the crisis, we're going to have to return to a rationalization of spending or an increase of income,” Central Bank of Costa Rica President Francisco de Paula Gutiérrez warned recently.
Although Chinchilla is the first woman to reach the presidency in Costa Rica, she is not the first woman president in Latin America. Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997) was president in Nicaragua; Rosalia Areaga Serrano served in Ecuador in 1997; Mireya Moscoso led Panama from 1999 to 2004; Chile’ Michele Bachelet recently ended her four year term; and in Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been in the presidency since 2007.
President Arias (69) has said he will retire from national politics after he hands over to Chinchilla in a ceremony on Saturday, which is due to include eight presidents and numerous international delegations.