Women watch Costa Rica's president-elect warily

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Costa Rica's former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves speaks to supporters at his headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica, after winning a presidential runoff election, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez)

SAN JOSE – As Costa Rica's future president cast his ballot at a school in the capital, a young woman stood on the sidewalk outside shouting, “Harasser!”

She was surrounded and drowned out by Rodrigo Chaves’ supporters, but stood her ground, a purple handkerchief that read, “For our right to decide” tied around her neck. Chaves ignored her if he noticed at all.

The heckling was a public display of concerns held by some Costa Rican women about the conservative economist who won Sunday's election and will take office May 8.

In socially conservative Central America, Costa Rica has shown signs of more progressive tendencies in recent years. Abortion remains illegal except in cases where the mother’s life or health is at risk, but two years ago it became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage.

Chaves has drawn women’s ire because the World Bank found that he sexually harassed various women while he was employed there. Ultimately, he was sanctioned for misconduct, demoted and pushed out. He has continually denied the allegations and misstated the actions taken against him.

That history was highlighted repeatedly by his opponent, Jose María Figueres, during a bruising two months between the first round of voting and Sunday’s runoff.

Figueres, however, was seen as the face of a disliked political establishment and was fighting allegations of corruption, leaving Costa Ricans with two unappetizing choices.

Montserrat Sagot, a feminist and sociologist at the University of Costa Rica, said she worried about the message sent by Chaves’ election despite his record of harassment.

She noted that polling indicated that Chaves’ conduct toward women was not relevant for 45% of people when they voted.

“In the experience of other countries like the United States, electing a person like Chaves or (Donald) Trump legitimizes sexual violence against women,” Sagot said.

Sagot also expressed concern that Chaves’ government could threaten progress made on women’s rights.

“It’s very concerning that Chaves has said that he’s going to review the technical standard for abortion, the standard for in-vitro fertilization,” Sagot said. “That’s worrisome because they are standards that have been imposed by the Inter-American System of Human Rights and could cause us problems before the Inter-American Court.”

In a March 29 poll conducted by the Center for Political Research and Studies at the University of Costa Rica, 34% of those who indicated they would vote for Chaves were women, while 42% of those planning to vote for Figueres were women. The intention of male voters was the inverse, with far more saying they planned to vote for Chaves. The survey of 1,019 Costa Ricans was conducted via cellphone March 24, 25 and 28. It had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

There has not been a breakdown by gender of Sunday's voting results.

Mayra Bonilla, a 33-year-old stylist exiting a supermarket Tuesday in San Jose, said it was an “embarrassment” having a president accused of harassment. “You don’t feel safe in the street because they say all kinds of vulgarities to you,” Bonilla said. “We can’t walk alone and now the harassers see that they can be president. This election made me really sad.”

Chaves would not be the first Costa Rican president to face such allegations.

Former two-term President Oscar Arias, a Nobel peace laureate, was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women in 2019. Arias denied the allegations. In 2020, two women withdrew their complaints without explaining why.

Chaves has brushed the allegations aside as cultural misunderstandings. At a news conference Monday, he said he would not discuss the cases further.

The World Bank’s administrative tribunal last year noted that an internal investigation found that from 2008 to 2013, Chaves leered at, made unwelcome comments about physical appearance, repeated sexual innuendo and made unwelcome sexual advances toward multiple bank employees. Those details were repeated by the bank’s human resources department in a letter to Chaves, but it decided to sanction him for misconduct rather than sexual harassment.

“The facts of the present case indicate that (Chaves’) conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his conduct was unwelcome,” the tribunal wrote. The tribunal also noted that in the proceedings, the bank’s current vice president for human resources said in testimony “that the undisputed facts legally amount to sexual harassment.”

Chaves has called for unity after the election and expressed a desire to address corruption and inequality. He acknowledged Monday that much of his support had come from people of few resources and he has said a top priority is lowering the cost of living, targeting electricity and gasoline. He also wants to thin government bureaucracy to promote job creation.

He cast himself as an outsider, despite having served as finance minister for six months in the outgoing government of Carlos Alvarado. His relatively new Social Democratic Progress Party had never won public office and he is fond of reminding people that he is the son of a bodyguard for former President José Figueres Ferrer, the father of the man he defeated Sunday.

So far, Chaves has struck a more conciliatory tone than the combative one he displayed during the campaign.

Political analyst Francisco Barahona said that’s necessary, noting that Chaves' party will control only 10 of the 57 seats in the new congress.

“This month he has to have success with the opposition parties and try to honor more than one campaign promise,” Barahona said. The challenge will be overcoming the rather authoritarian character he showed during the campaign to find a way to negotiate with not only the political opposition but with the technocrats he’s placing in his cabinet, Barahona added.