Prison Reform in Latin America: Lessons from Costa Rica

By Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran*

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Prison overcrowding is a widespread problem in Latin America, primarily because of harsh drug-sentencing laws and inadequate budgets, but Costa Rica may be setting a useful example for dealing with it.  In most countries, guards control the perimeter, but groups of prisoners or criminal gangs organize and control life inside the prison compound.  Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are limited.  Not surprisingly, there is little political leadership for prison reform; the issue wins few points with the general public.  Even dramatic events – like prison riots in Venezuela or prison fires in which hundreds of young men die as in Honduras – don’t generate interest in prison reform.  A key component of the criminal justice system – as a deterrent, a punishment, and as a provider of rehabilitation and reintegration services that will reduce recidivism – the prisons are often neglected.

While Costa Rica faces growing drug-related problems, a multi-country analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America of persistent criminal justice and prison problems in Latin America – aimed at identifying strategic solutions – indicates that the country stands out as having undertaken at least modest reforms of its prisons to prevent them from becoming the breeding grounds for increasingly hardened criminals and gangs.  Prison conditions in Costa Rica have not been among the worst in Latin America, although the U.S. State Department said in its Human Rights Report for 2013 report that they were “harsh” and that “overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems.”  Until very recently, when new drug sentencing laws and tough anti-crime measures pushed the prison population up, the system generally did not exceed capacity.  Even today, the system is at 140 percent of capacity – far less than the 200-300 percent seen in other countries.  Prison conditions also seem less abusive than those seen in other countries.  An external oversight body was created to protect the rights of prisoners.  Moreover, the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is reaching out to local businesses to support vocational training programs for inmates.

This process has been driven by reformers inside the government and prison system, in contrast to most reforms elsewhere in the hemisphere driven by international donors.  This is a rare example of how reformers inside and outside the system worked to achieve institutional changes that increase citizen security while respecting human rights.  In this case, long-standing mid-level and senior staff of the penitentiary system, with the support of successive Ministers of Justice appointed by President Laura Chinchilla, played a key role in resisting pressures from legislators who want to toughen sentencing, which would increase prison populations.  They have advocated measures to ease overcrowding and ensure proportionality in sentencing.  At the same time, they have also used the IDB loan to both defend and expand the rehabilitation and re-insertion programs in the prison system.  Every country’s situation is unique, and Costa Rica has advantages — a relatively low crime rate, a relatively strong state structure, a relatively well-established respect for the rule of law – that others lack, but San José has shown that reform in this difficult, politically sensitive area is possible.

*Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently led a small delegation to visit Costa Rican prisons.

Will Costa Rica Seize the Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong

Embed from Getty Images

Costa Rican voters have given President-elect Luis Guillermo Solís a mandate for change, but they have also given him a Legislature and culture of political inertia that will make revitalizing the country’s democracy very difficult.  The withdrawal of opponent Johnny Araya from the presidential runoff on Sunday threatened to trigger such low voter turnout that Solís feared his legitimacy would be questioned from the start, but he received 78 percent (1.3 million) of the total votes – more than any other recent presidential victor.  Although he was deeply involved in the National Liberation Party (PLN) until nine years ago, he established himself and the Citizen Action Party (PAC) as viable alternatives to the PLN and Costa Rica’s other discredited traditional party, the PUSC.  His public persona – as a university history professor, former diplomat, a non-corrupt political neophyte, and an unglamorous campaigner – has engendered sympathy even if, as the head of a party with no record, people don’t really know what they’re getting in terms of policy.  Various business groups have signaled they can work with him and presented their wish lists – all touching on energy availability and prices – but that agenda also remains vague.

The composition of the Legislature, elected in February, poses a formidable obstacle to any agenda that Solís develops.  (Click here to see AULABLOG’s first read on this.)  His PAC won two more seats in Parliament – up to 13 out of a total of 57 – but the PLN won 18, the Broad Front (FA) won nine, and the PUSC won eight.  Outgoing President Chinchilla, of the PLN, had a broader base – 24 seats – but obstructionism from across the political spectrum made Executive-Legislative relations rough throughout her term.  The country’s premier economic newspaper, El Financiero, last week gave a generally positive review of President Chinchilla’s performance in ten crucial economic policies – poverty, unemployment, exports, fiscal deficit, and more – and even if that assessment is too generous, the Costa Rican political machines have treated her like an unmitigated failure.  With both traditional parties out of the Executive, maneuvering in the parliament is likely to intensify and be more damaging.

Statements by Costa Rican academics and opinion makers since the lackluster, non-substantive campaigning in the recent elections, suggest a concern that the country is in a funk over the quality of its democracy and democratic institutions.  The political elites are held in low regard for putting their own (often pecuniary) interests before all others.  When Solís takes office on May 8, Costa Ricans will have an opportunity to shake themselves out of that mentality, taking advantage of the new president’s outsider image and his lack of a political machine eager to attach itself as a parasite on the government and economy.  Johnny Araya’s cowardice and his failure to even pretend to have a political program worth fighting for in the second-round campaign, however, bodes poorly for whether the traditional parties are interested in revitalizing Costa Rican politics.  Being the best democracy in Central America has been important to Costa Ricans for decades; being the best it can be is the new challenge.

Costa Rica: Losing Faith in Democratic Institutions?

By Fulton Armstrong

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Costa Rica is approaching February’s presidential and legislative elections with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, if not with dread.  Most international surveys present Costa Rica as the “world’s happiest country” (the Happy Planet Index), or in the elite club of the world’s “full democracies” (ahead of Japan and Belgium in The Economist’s list), or as the 48th least-corrupt country (out of 174 reviewed by Transparency International).  The economy is expected to grow about 3 percent this year, and the country’s access to foreign direct investment is blunting the impact of the government’s fiscal deficit of about 5 percent of GDP.  Crime is on the rise, but Ticos know that their pain is small compared to that wreaked by the narcos and maras in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Reputable polls show, however, that Costa Ricans are gloomy about the state of their political institutions and specifically about their upcoming elections.  According to polls, about 32 percent of the country’s 3 million eligible voters say they plan to abstain, citing corruption, a lack of leadership, insensitivity to the average citizen, and unemployment as reasons to reject not just the candidates but also the political elite in general.  The President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Luis Antonio Sobrado, acknowledged last month that the election was taking place in the context of “citizen uneasiness … and a lot of anger with politics and politicians.”  Abstentionism was high in 2006 (35 percent) and 2010 (32 percent), but commentators sense a much deeper and darker alienation this time around.  A columnist lamented that the “multiparty” system has been replaced by “atomization,” and another said the political parties have “disconnected themselves from the national reality.”

Further reflecting the malaise, President Chinchilla’s support has nosedived – a July poll showed only 9 percent of voters said she was “good” and none said “very good” – and pundits cite her ineffectiveness as the cause of collapsed highways, dengue outbreaks, and other calamities.  The nominee of her Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), Johnny Araya, is widely thought to have an edge in February, but his 12 years as mayor of San José have coincided with a deterioration in the city’s infrastructure and security, and his personal lifestyle (including five marriages) may be a factor in popular skepticism.  The government’s recent announcement that it will contract the services of 4,125 new employees in 2014, mostly in the education sector, drew immediate criticism as yet another example of political patronage to influence the race.

The self-doubt seems at this point indicative of concerns about Chinchilla and the crop of candidates, rather than a rejection of democracy.  Costa Ricans comparing themselves with the rest of Central America still feel good about themselves, and the green image that eco-tourists reinforce is comforting.  But crumbling infrastructure – including collapsing bridges and the exorbitant cost of repeated repairs – and shocking crimes, such as the recent assassination of an environmentalist protecting turtles on a Caribbean beach, fuel the sort of doubts that only effective political and economic leadership can quell. 

U.S.-China: Competing over Central America and the Caribbean?

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

The recent visits to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama (and Vice President Biden to Trinidad and Tobago) suggest a handoff from Washington to Beijing of the role as the region’s sugar-daddy, but not a strategic shift in influence.  The presidents’ visits were similar in their innocuous itineraries.  Both got pompous welcomes; met with “real” citizens (Xi ate empanaditas de chiverre with a coffee farmer); and praised the bilateral relationships.  Both held sub-regional summits – Obama in San José and Xi in Port of Spain.  Both repackaged ongoing or recently negotiated projects as new “accords.”  Obama pledged another $150 million a year for funding the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), part of the strategy started under President Bush to counter the drug trade and related threats.  Xi got headlines in Costa Rica for providing more than $1.5 billion for refinery and road projects and to purchase replacement taxis and buses from Chinese manufacturers.  Significantly, China is also building Costa Rica’s new National Police Academy – the sort of project Washington used to thrive on.

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Despite the similarities, the visits had different orientations and feel.  Xi’s principal task appeared to be to open his checkbook, while Obama’s main deliverable was a policy shift – the welcome word that Washington was pulling back from making its top regional priority the interdiction of narcotics produced in South America and transiting the isthmus on their way to consumers in the United States.  According to press reports, despite the continued CARSI funding, Obama had absorbed Costa Rican President Chinchilla’s complaint last year at a summit with Biden that it was unfair that Central Americans were dying in efforts to stop narcotics that Americans use.  The media tried to give the two presidents equal coverage, but the disparity became obvious.  The Chinese distributed copies of the China Daily (in English) even into the San José suburbs, whereas Obama didn’t need to do his own publicity.  Despite whiffs of resentment about airport and street closures, the papers covered all of Obama’s events with affectionate quotes from government and common folk alike – and showed people, including a kid dressed as Spider-Man, waving to his motorcade.  La Nación, on the other hand, reported that school children cheering a Chinese speaker couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

The goodies each president brought created little excitement – and no small amount of skepticism.  Important details about China’s offer to help repair the Costa Rican gasoline refinery remain unknown, and Chinese cars already have a bad reputation.  China’s handouts aren’t going to be turned down, of course, and Xi’s pledge to buy more Costa Rican coffee (now about 5 percent of what Japan buys) and to encourage Chinese tourists to travel to the country (now a micro-percentage of visitors) are welcome.  Obama’s CARSI funding looks like bureaucracy on autopilot.  Few Central Americans can cite concrete benefits from the seven-year-old Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States either, and the general impression – reinforced by Secretary Kerry’s recent reference to the region as the U.S. “backyard” – is that Washington is yielding the playing field to China.  But the natural ties and strategic mutual interests between Central America and the United States remain strong and give the United States, should it wish to fill it, ample space to play a positive role in the region’s future beyond programs on autopilot.

Obama’s Second Trip to Central America

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

The White House has cast President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Central America on May 2-4 as “an opportunity for the President to demonstrate his leadership in the international community in a really important way.”  The spokesman emphasized the “important people-to-people ties” between the United States and Central America because “there are a lot of immigrants” from the region.  The Administration’s press releases stress that the summit in San José, with the presidents of the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic under the rubric of the Central American Integration System (SICA), will focus on collective efforts to promote economic growth and development in the region and on “our ongoing collaboration on citizen security.”

Regional reaction to the visit and summit has been positive – Obama’s interest is clearly welcome – but leaders are already managing expectations.  Costa Rican Foreign Minister Castillo last weekend cautioned that the United States is not able to provide significant new assistance for either economic or security programs.  Commentators note that the visit has not been preceded by the sort of diplomatic activity that would indicate the rollout of significant new policies or programs.

At a summit in Guatemala with Vice President Biden one year ago, Costa Rican President Chinchilla crystalized regional criticism of the U.S. counternarcotics strategy when she said that Central America “is sacrificing the lives, making its enormous sacrifice” and, in a clear reference to Washington, called on the “international community [to] take greater co-responsibility in this struggle.”  Hosting the SICA summit with Obama suggests she is prepared to put such criticism aside, perhaps in hopes that talks focus on the economic and immigration issues.  The White House spokesman’s reference to immigrants – at a time that Obama is pushing ahead with related legislation – may indicate that immigration will be a primary concern for him also.  The last time Obama went to Latin America, for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, he seemed ill-prepared for criticism of U.S. policies, including its counternarcotics strategy, even from Washington’s closest friends.  With perhaps the exception of Nicaraguan President Ortega, the participants in this Central American get-together seem less likely to deliver a similar grilling, making what diplomats call a “successful meeting” very likely.

Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.