Can a New Central American Alliance Nudge Ortega?
Costa Rica’s next president will guide a pro-democracy pact with Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: A new alliance in Central America awaits the victor of Costa Rica’s presidential runoff, a Mexican figure skater charms audiences in Beijing, and a mining conflict in Peru threatens global supply chains.
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A New President and a New Bloc
Costa Rica is sometimes called the “Switzerland of Central America” due to its history of democracy, disarmament, political neutrality, and economic prosperity relative to other countries in its neighborhood.
That fourth pillar was badly shaken during the COVID-19 pandemic. With its tourism-focused economy hit hard and its debt load mounting, Costa Rica made public spending cuts that prompted rare violent protests in October 2020, and it took a $1.8 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in July 2021. Unemployment remains high, at around 14 percent.
Last Sunday’s general elections show the country’s democracy remains strong, however, as Lucas Perelló and Will Freeman wrote in Foreign Policy ahead of the contest. While dissatisfaction with incumbent President Carlos Alvarado Quesada knocked his party completely out of Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly—and his preferred successor to the bottom of the presidential results—the vote was fair, peaceful, and uncontested.
Centrist former President José María Figueres and center-right former Finance Minister Rodrigo Chaves will advance to a runoff on April 3 after having won 27.3 percent and 16.7 percent of votes, respectively. Both have suggested they would be friendly to investors while also exploring a possible renegotiation of the IMF deal to get better terms. Figueres has made more references to upping social spending than Chaves.
Since the first-round vote, Figueres has also emphasized women’s rights, drawing a contrast with Chaves, who was demoted for a documented pattern of sexual harassment while he worked at the World Bank. Chaves, meanwhile, has sought to position himself as anti-establishment.
The free and fair vote seemed like “utopia” for Nicaraguans in the country, wrote journalist Wilfredo Miranda Aburto, who is among the many Nicaraguans who have fled to Costa Rica after a crackdown on Nicaragua’s press and opposition intensified in 2018.
More than 86,000 Nicaraguans have filed for asylum in Costa Rica since 2018, and at least 350,000 currently live in Costa Rica. This month, Nicaraguan courts handed out several prison sentences in closed-door trials of opposition figures arrested ahead of presidential elections last year that were widely denounced as a sham.
One of the key questions facing Costa Rica’s next president will be how to proceed with a nascent diplomatic alliance among Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Panama—known as the Alliance for Development in Democracy—that could help advance not only the countries’ economies but also international efforts to address the situation in Nicaragua.
Founded in September 2021, this alliance is one of the latest examples of minilateralism in Latin America. The member countries aim to work together to court trade and investment from the United States, Europe, and Asia; build a joint high-tech research center and encourage educational exchanges; coordinate on migration policy; and promote democracy and human rights in international forums—especially regarding Nicaragua.
Outgoing Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodolfo Solano said at a Jan. 11 virtual event hosted by the Wilson Center that this effort will involve seeking actors who could help mediate with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, such as the Vatican. While prospects for outsiders to extract concessions from Ortega are extremely narrow, such a Hail Mary is thought to be one of the few potential steps that might influence him: Ortega is highly religious, and the papal envoy in Managua has played a role in trying to mediate Nicaragua’s political meltdown since 2018.
Dominican Foreign Minister Roberto Álvarez pitched the new bloc as an attractive option for U.S. companies that want to nearshore supply chains. If combined, the three economies would be the United States’ third-largest trade partner in Latin America, he said.
The alliance has planned its next meeting for March 21, before Costa Rica’s election runoff, so that it can involve both presidential candidates in onboarding discussions.
“One of the most robust public policies [in Costa Rica] is related to foreign policy,” Solano said, predicting that the next president would be on board with its main ideas. Chaves told the Nicaraguan weekly Confidencial that he would maintain support for Nicaragua’s return to democracy, while Figueres promised during the campaign to deepen relations with Central America, the United States, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific and reinstate an ambassador in Nicaragua, where relations would be “sensitive.” (Costa Rica suspended its ambassador to the country last June.)
The alliance was constructed in part thanks to good interpersonal relationships among the current presidents of its three member states, Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes said. It is bound to evolve with Costa Rica’s next president.
But for now, the bloc appears poised to be an innovative approach to tackling domestic and regional ills. While Central America’s autocratic backsliding of recent years may seem impossible to undo, the region has walked back from a destructive cycle before.
In the 1980s, Costa Rican mediation was decisive in ending a series of bloody conflicts in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, earning then-President Oscar Arias Sánchez a Nobel Peace Prize. Now, Costa Rica’s next leader will similarly have the opportunity to, together with his neighbors, craft creative diplomacy.
The Week Ahead
Monday, Feb. 14, to Thursday, Feb. 17: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visits Russia.
Tuesday, Feb. 15: Mexico’s legislature wraps up its session of debate on electricity sector reform.
Thursday, Feb. 17: Bolsonaro visits Hungary.
What We’re Following
Forest fires. The number of “heat points” in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest—which typically denote forest fires—reached their highest level for January in 10 years, prompting more than 180 academics and environmental experts from Colombia and around the world to write a letter to President Iván Duque calling for action to protect the forests, including stricter government enforcement against illegal deforestation and economic alternatives to burning trees for people in the Amazon region.
Though heat points rise and fall in seasonal patterns, an usually dry past few months and lack of oversight of illegal land-grabbers are driving the high numbers, analysts say. The smoke from current forest fires caused officials in the capital city of Bogotá, some 250 miles away from the Amazon region, to issue an alert about worsened air quality on Feb. 5.
Colombia was one of the countries that signed on to a treaty at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference to end deforestation by 2030.
JOH blacklisted. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced this week that Honduras’s former president, Juan Orlando Hernández, has been on a U.S. blacklist of corrupt actors since July 2021 due to “credible” reports of “significant corruption.” The information had been classified while Hernández was still in office. His successor, Xiomara Castro, was inaugurated on Jan. 27.
Those on the list generally have their U.S. visas revoked, suggesting that Hernández’s travel to Washington last November may have been an exception to that rule, Parker Asmann of InSight Crime points out.
Washington has a policy of not indicting sitting heads of state. Now that Hernández has left office, the Justice Department is widely expected to announce charges against him.
Blazing an icy trail. At the Beijing Winter Olympics, 22-year-old Donovan Carrillo has become the most successful Mexican figure skater in Olympic history. He advanced to the men’s free skate after scoring a personal best in the short program, performing to his father’s favorite artist, Carlos Santana, and wearing a Santana-inspired glam rock costume made by a designer from Carrillo’s hometown of Guadalajara.
Only 33 Latin American athletes are competing at the Winter Games. Carrillo says he battled sexist insults and a lack of skating infrastructure to train over the years, recently practicing at a mall ice rink. He first tested out the sport in part because he had a crush on a girl at an ice rink, who, after many years of being out of touch, messaged him on Instagram after his Olympic short program to say congratulations.
Question of the Week
Jamaica’s four-man bobsled team has qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 24 years. When was the team’s first-ever appearance at the Games, which inspired the film Cool Runnings?
In Focus: Peru’s Mine Blockades
The Chinese firm that owns Peru’s massive Las Bambas copper mine—responsible for 2 percent of the global copper supply—said it may stop the mine’s operations on Feb. 20 due to ongoing protests that have blocked roads to the mine. Mining accounts for 60 percent of Peru’s exports, but this wealth has rarely trickled down to nearby communities—a longtime complaint that has made protests and blockades common.
Activity at the mine has already started to fall sharply since the start of February, Reuters reported. Copper is a key mineral in global supply chains for renewable energy.
The upheaval at Las Bambas comes after a de-escalation deal, mediated by the government between protesters and the mining company, was reached in December 2021 and then rejected by the local communities in January. Protesters had initially agreed to back down in exchange for the company providing rural electricity and studying how to include locals in the supply chains related to the mine.
The failure to maintain a settlement at Las Bambas shows how, more than six months into Pedro Castillo’s presidency, the chaotic new administration has struggled to make durable progress on one of his main campaign promises: more fairly distributing mining profits to impoverished nearby communities.
Coming into office, Castillo ordered security agents to back down from forcefully breaking up protests around mines and promoted talks between protesters and mining firms instead. He said he would revoke permits for some mines over environmental concerns and levy new taxes on mining companies.
Mining protests have risen in number under Castillo’s presidency, and more have occurred in regions where he received the most support, according to the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America. Protests contributed to mining output falling in the country in December.
Meanwhile, there have been near-constant shake-ups in Castillo’s cabinet. A prime minister who was a key voice on mediation efforts, Mirtha Vásquez, resigned last month. The finance minister who promised new taxes on mines, Pedro Francke, soon followed. Vásquez did not mince words, complaining that Castillo was a poor communicator and was surrounded by advisors who “commit lots of errors.”
In November 2021 and January 2022, respectively, officials walked back the permit revocations and the new tax hikes the Castillo administration had promised.
The immediate prospect of a new social contract around Peruvian mining appears to be off the table, though social unrest around the issue seems bound to continue.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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