SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — He was demoted from a senior position at the World Bank for sexual harassment. Now, the economist Rodrigo Chaves – who has campaigned – as a populist outsider in an election marked by anger at traditional politicians – leads the polls to become Costa Rica’s next president on Sunday.
It’s an unexpected rise in fame in a country that has played a leading role in promoting progressive policies in Central America, underscoring how the desire to punish political elites for economic stagnation overshadows most other problems.
In 2019, Mr Chaves was reprimanded by the World Bank for what turned out to be a pattern of sexual misconduct towards young workers, though details of his behavior were not made public until August by a Costa Rican newspaper — details the presidential candidate has repeatedly refuted.
Chaves’ denial and trivialization of a documented history of sexual harassment comes two years after another Costa Rican politician, former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Óscar Arias Sánchez narrowly escaped prosecution for sexual abuse in a scandal that shook the country. .
Mr Arias was charged with sexual assault or misconduct by at least nine women in 2019, which emerged as one of the top #MeToo cases in Latin America. However, in December 2020, the charges against him were dropped by two of the women.
Human rights activists are now saying that Chaves’ pursuit of power threatens to undermine progress in Central America’s most liberal and egalitarian country.
“The message this is sending to society is that sexual abuse is something minor, something not serious,” said Larissa Arroyo, a Costa Rican human rights lawyer. “This campaign normalizes and legitimizes the abuse.”
Mr Chaves and his news agency did not respond to an interview request.
Mr. Chaves languished in obscurity until his alliance with Pilar Cisneros, a prominent female Costa Rican journalist, who introduced him to Costa Rican voters as an experienced driver who would tackle corruption.
Just a day after Mrs. Cisneros joined Mr. Chaves’ campaign in August, local newspaper La Nación made public the World Bank’s investigation that showed he exhibited a pattern of sexual harassment against young female workers between 2008 and 2013.
Chaves responded by downplaying the findings: “Those who have kidnapped the nation are already showing their fear of Rodrigo Chaves’ candidacy.” he said in a video address posted to social media hours after the article was posted.
The revelations did little to detract from Mr Chaves’ campaign. When the survey came to light, it stood at just 2 percent. In the first round of the national elections, held in February, he had earned enough votes to advance to the presidential election.
Ms. Cisneros came to Mr Chaves’ defense and helped protect him from the full impact of the revelations. “Do you think Pilar Cisneros would have supported a sexual harassment?” she told local media in January. The following month she won a congressional seat for Mr Chaves’ party.
Ahead of Sunday’s final vote, the state-run University of Costa Rica found Chaves narrowly in the lead against his opponent: a former Costa Rican president, José María Figueres. In a poll of 1,000 voters conducted by the university on March 24-28, Mr. Chaves led by 3.4 percentage points, slightly more than the survey’s 3.1 percent margin of error.
A separate poll published March 1 by the University of Costa Rica found that just 13 percent of voters believed the harassment allegations against Chaves were false. But 45 percent said the allegations would not affect their vote.
Mr Chaves has taken advantage of the unpopularity of his opponent, Mr Figueres, who was marred by corruption charges during his first term in office in the 1990s. Figueres, leader of the country’s oldest and largest political party, the National Liberation Party, is accused of receiving payments in the early 2000s from a French telecommunications company in exchange for preferential treatment while he was president.
Figueres has denied the charges and prosecutors investigating the payments, which took place after he stepped down, have not filed charges.
However, in the eyes of many Costa Ricans, Mr. Figueres and his party have come to represent the corruptibility and elitism of the country’s political system, which many believe is no longer capable of solving the country’s economic problems. said Ronald Alfaro, who directs the Center for Political Studies and Research at the University of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard by the pandemic — in 2020, gross domestic product saw its biggest drop in four decades. As parts of the economy bounce back, the country struggles to contain rising food and fuel costs.
“The charges eventually cancel each other out,” said Mr Alfaro. “Voters don’t end up voting for the candidate they like, but against the candidate they think has more fleas than the others,” he said.
Deterred by the scandals surrounding both candidates, most Costa Ricans seem to have lost interest in the election. Only a quarter of all registered voters cast their vote for Mr Chaves or Mr Figueres in the first round of elections, which had the lowest turnout in 70 years.
Documents from the internal tribunal and the World Bank’s trade union show that Mr Chaves was punished in 2019 after two female employees filed complaints of harassment. At the time, he was the bank’s chief executive for Indonesia, a director-level position that oversaw billions of dollars in loans to one of the world’s largest emerging economies.
The women said Mr Chaves made attempts to kiss young employees on the mouth, made sexual comments about their appearance and repeatedly made unwanted invitations to hotel rooms and dinners. The identities of the women have not been released.
A woman, who reported to Mr Chaves, told the tribunal that he “observed that he liked it when she bent over, then dropped an item and asked her to pick it up for him,” a request she declined. .
Mr Chaves was demoted and his salary was frozen, but the bank stopped explicitly calling his behavior sexual harassment. He left the organization days later and returned to his native Costa Rica to become finance minister for the president, Carlos Alvarado.
The Costa Rican Ministry of Communications said the current government was not aware of the harassment case and that Mr Chaves told members at the time that he was returning because he wanted to spend his retirement with his elderly mother.
Within six months, Mr Chaves left office as minister and announced a presidential bid with a little-known political party, promising to “return power to the citizens” by holding referendums on key policy issues.
Despite Mr Chaves’ departure from the World Bank, his prosecutors have called on the internal tribunal to review the investigation into the bank’s misconduct.
“The facts of the present case indicate that Mr C’s conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his conduct was undesirable,” the tribunal said in its June ruling. A World Bank official said the bank is not contesting the facts of the case as reflected in the ruling.
Even before the ruling was issued, in January 2021, the organization banned Mr Chaves from its premises and imposed a reinstatement ban. The bank’s sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, said it also restricted Mr Chaves’ access to its premises.
In the months since, Mr. Chaves has denied or misrepresented the findings; instead, he said the World Bank found little more than an allegation against him, citing the bank’s initial decision not to call his misdeeds sexual harassment.
He has also said he will be free to visit the World Bank’s offices — in contradiction to the bank’s ban on his entry — and that as president he will continue to do business with the bank, which has $2.3 billion in outstanding loans. in Costa Rica.
Mr. Chaves has also pledged to “review” in vitro fertilization and abortion laws, which have been made more accessible by recent presidential decrees. Abortion is legal in Costa Rica when pregnancy threatens a woman’s health.
These measures threaten to derail slow but noticeable progress in women’s reproductive rights under recent governments, said Ms Arroyo, the human rights lawyer. She said the proposals would also damage Costa Rica’s role in advancing social rights in a highly socially conservative region where abortion is largely banned and violence against women largely goes unpunished.
Costa Rica’s political stability and strong democracy have long made it an outlier in a region dominated by authoritarians and organized crime, and the country has achieved one of the highest levels of social inclusion in Latin America, in areas ranging from access to education and health to civil rights.
“If Costa Rica refuses in the protection of women’s rights,” said Ms Arroyo, “it is very likely that the rest of the neighboring countries will not have this example to keep moving forward.”