The new president of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Chaves, has a proven record of sexual harassment during his years as a high-ranking economist at the World Bank. He has also personally committed to rolling back on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and banning gender education.
Running as an anti-establishment outsider, Chaves won the run-off ballot on 3 April with 53% of the vote, beating former president Jose Maria Figueres on 47%. Turnout was 57%, lower than in the first round of the presidential election.
On 25 March, just days before the run-off, Chaves signed a ‘statement of intent’ proposed by ultra-conservative evangelical pastors, committing “before God” to remove ‘gender ideology’ from public education, review the current regulations on abortion and IVF fertility treatment, and resist any initiative to relax the law on abortion and euthanasia.
Chaves also promised that he will allow religious leaders to veto candidates for posts in the ministries of health, education and foreign affairs.
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“There will be no interest in protecting and recognising human rights, even in the way they are already protected in our legal framework,” Larissa Arroyo, a Costa Rican lawyer and expert in human and gender rights, told openDemocracy.
Abortion has been permitted in Costa Rica since 1971, but only if the life or health of the woman is at risk (known as a therapeutic abortion). In all other instances, including foetal abnormalities or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, it is illegal.
Between 1997 and 2017, only 80 therapeutic abortions were performed in public hospitals, according to a report by the sexual and reproductive rights organisation IPAS. It’s only since 2020, when a new protocol on abortion was approved, that public health services have had clear guidelines on how to carry out terminations.
There are no recent statistics on abortion in Costa Rica, but a 2007 study said at least 27,000 abortions were induced each year. According to official statistics, teenage girls aged 15 to 19 accounted for about 10% of births in 2020, and minors experienced 34% of the sexual violence reported in the country.
‘Documented pattern of harassment’
Chaves, a former minister of finance and a long-time World Bank official, was demoted in 2019 for sexual harassment after several female colleagues in the financial institution in Washington, DC reported him for making "sexual advances" and engaging in "a pattern of inappropriate behavior", according to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
His “advancements” included attempting to kiss junior employees on the mouth, making sexual comments about their appearance, and providing unwelcome invitations to hotel rooms.
Despite a “documented pattern of harassment, which lasted at least four years and involved six women”, Chaves was not fired but only demoted from his position. Chaves resigned from the bank soon after. The World Bank’s own labour tribunal found that the bank mishandled the sexual misconduct charges.
Chaves has always denied the accusations and during his election campaign dismissed them as “misunderstandings”. In January, he defended himself in an interview with a Costa Rican outlet, claiming: “My Latino culture was subjectively interpreted as inappropriate."
Although this sexual scandal was central to the presidential campaign, it does not seem to have carried much weight in voters’ final decision, political scientist Ana Rita Arguello told openDemocracy. “Harassment was minimised. Now we feel in danger because when these decisions are made, violence tends to escalate. [Chaves] has legitimised certain behaviours.”
He has an authoritarian tone and wants to evoke a really dangerous, traditional, masculine representation
The election of conservative Chaves, a member of the Social Democratic Progress Party, marks a step change from the progressive rhetoric of the last two presidents of this Central American country. Chaves is seen as a maverick in political circles, with similarities to other populist right-wing leaders in the Americas such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
“He has an authoritarian tone and wants to evoke a really dangerous, traditional, masculine representation,” Arroyo said. “People separate sexual violence from his supposed ‘technical capacity’ as a high-ranking economist to govern the country. The result of the election indicates that people do not think the claims are important.”
In recent years, Costa Rica has positioned itself as the most progressive country in Central America, granting gender identity rights to trans people in 2017 and introducing equal marriage in 2020. In 2018, the government created a special ombudsman for LGBTQ rights; it’s had an office for women’s rights since the 1980s. This is despite it being the only ‘confessional’ country in the region – the constitution says that Catholicism is the official state religion.
The incoming president seems to be against such progress, according to Arguello, who sees challenging times ahead. She remains defiant, however: “We women are already organising ourselves to face whatever comes next.”
Chaves, who takes office in May, will be the second Costa Rican president to be accused of sexual misconduct. Óscar Arias, first voted president in 1986 and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, was accused of rape by at least nine women in 2019.