When demagoguery comes to your doorstep

How Latin America’s oldest democracy is succumbing to the radical, religious right

The song opens with an funky bassline before the horn section kicks in, inviting you to dance. But this is not your typical Latin song.

I find myself in a spiritual battle
Which is hard to control
This feeling overwhelms me and I want it no more
For I know it’s not against the flesh

The song is called “Batalla Espiritual” (Spiritual Battle) and the singer is Fabricio Alvarado, a former news anchor and later Christian music star, who is currently a few hours away from becoming the next president of Costa Rica, and one of the first evangelical heads of state in Latin America. His unlikely rise from obscurity is a testament to the politicization of the evangelical movement in the region, as well as some deep social conservative undercurrents in what is otherwise one of Latin America’s most progressive countries; one which also happens to be its longest-running democracy. The Fabricio phenomenon has also shown how even countries that have not experienced the traditional Western narratives that have fed right-wing demagoguery in recent years (terrorism, immigration, and economic crisis) are not immune to it.

Costa Rican democracy and its discontents

Costa Rica has had uninterrupted democracy since 1948, after which it has consolidated itself as one of Latin America’s most prosperous and progressive societies. It voluntarily abolished its armed forces that same year and has experienced none of the internal strife that many of its neighbors suffered in the latter decades of the Cold War. It has established one of the strongest social security nets in Latin America and created one of its most educated workforces. While its Central American neighbors make garments, Costa Rica has specialized in microprocessors and high-end medical equipment. Most importantly, until the turn of the century Costa Rica was blessed with a two-party political system dominated by the PLN on the left, and the PUSC on the right. Despite their ideological inclinations, both parties pursued generally centrist economic policies, ones with a healthy mix of markets and state.

In the early noughties, a corruption scandal engulfed the PUSC and left open a political vacuum that was exploited by a collage of upstart parties from all sides of the spectrum, including libertarians, radical-left, and also a number of small evangelical parties. The country’s political polarization intensified in 2007 when a referendum was held over a proposed free trade agreement with the US (DR-CAFTA). By this time, the PLN had made an ideological swing towards economic liberalism and became the staunchest supporter of the trade deal which passed only narrowly (with 51%). Meanwhile, the anti-trade banner was picked up by newcomer to the political scene, the PAC, which a year earlier lost the presidential election to the PLN by the slimmest of margins. The PAC would lose again to the PLN in 2010 but following a disappointing term, came from behind to win the 2014 elections. Luis Guillermo Solís thus became Costa Rica’s first president not to hail from the PLN or PUSC since the 1940s.

It was perhaps wishful thinking to expect Solís to make radical changes when his party came to power with the weakest level of legislative representation of any ruling party (just 13 out of 47 seats) and with a PLN-led opposition eager to derail him at any chance. However, Solís has had nobody but himself to blame for failing to capitalize on his immense political capital at the start of his term, preferring to ignore or postpone addressing some of the country’s most pressing issues, such as a badly needed fiscal reform. A string of corruption scandals involving PAC members or cronies have also weighed heavily on his popularity, notably the recent “cementazo”. Although minor by Latin American standards, these scandals have tarnished the reputation of a party that had previously banked on its clean, ethical image.

Costa Ricans’ expectations for change may have been unrealistic, and by most objective standards the country is still doing relatively well: crime is lower than the Latin American average (though much higher than in the past), and GDP has grown at a healthy pace even despite doom-mongering over the debt. Still, it’s hard to conclude that their frustration over yet another disappointing presidency has been entirely unjustified. The “Switzerland of the Americas” as the country was once aptly nicknamed, simply does not stand out the way it did in the past.

The evangelical challenge

In December, Fabricio Alvarado and his party, Restauración Nacional (RN) were polling at just 3%, mostly among the country large and growing evangelical community. However, things changed dramatically following a January 9th ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) which demanded numerous regional countries – including Costa Rica – move to guarantee marriage rights for same-sex couples. Costa Rica, despite its many progressive policies over the years, remains quite socially conservative. It also has above average levels of evangelical adherents: just over 22% according to the latest Latinobarómetro survey. Evangelicals in Latin America have wasted little time in weaponizing their faith for political causes and Costa Rica has not been an exception. Fabricio Alvarado quickly vowed to repeal the IACHR’s ruling if he became president, thus immediately endearing himself to Costa Rica’s social conservatives – evangelical and catholic alike. Consequently, the first CIEP-UCR poll held after the ruling had Fabricio Alvarado’s support skyrocket to 17%. In just a matter of days he had become the unlikely front-runner, and same-sex marriage seemingly the country’s main concern. Hopes that his rise would merely be a temporary blip proved unfounded: on February 2nd he won the first round of the election with 24.9%.

“The rise of evangelicalism is politically worrisome. Evangelicals are fueling a new form of populism. They are supplying conservative parties with non-elite voters, which is good for democracy, but these voters tend to be intransigent on issues of sexuality, which feeds cultural polarization. Intolerant inclusion, which is the classic Latin American populist formula, is being reinvented by evangelical pastors.”
– New York Times (17/1/18)

Perhaps had the PAC not obtained the second ticked to tomorrow’s run-off vote things would be different. Though Fabricio Alvarado would continue carrying the social conservative vote, he would not have his second largest demographic so firmly in his grasp: the PAC’s discontents. Indeed, it seems that his PAC rival, Carlos Alvarado (not related), would not be doing nearly as well were he up against any other candidate; much the same way as Fabricio would be struggling against any other match-up that wasn’t the PAC. As a result, Costa Rica’s 2018 election has boiled down to the antithesis of what a truly democratic vote should be: citizens voting for the candidates they find only slightly less repulsive. This situation has lent itself to a most vicious of campaigns being waged on social media, with the ingredients that have marred so many recent elections elsewhere. The fake news. The trolling. The outrage. The knowledge that friends and family will vote for someone whose moral universe is so completely alien to their own. Compared to this, the polarization seen during the 2007 DR-CAFTA referendum looks civil in retrospect.

The damage is done

Regardless of whether Fabricio Alvarado wins, the damage to Costa Rica’s demographic fabric is probably done. Hardly anyone has serious hopes that a second PAC presidency will reverse the lethargy of the first, and that at best it will have starved off a victory for religious demagoguery – at least for the next four years. What the country has in store under Fabricio is anyone’s guess.  He has no previous experience in public service, and his party will come to power with just 14 legislative seats, also far short of a majority. That this will be too few for his more radical anti-secular proposals to come to fruition may be the best his detractors can hope for. But as the recent Brexit and Trump victories have shown, a rise in hate crimes may be unavoidable if his staunchest supporters feel morally vindicated by his victory.

At the end of “Batalla Espiritual”, Fabricio Alvarado makes a heavenly plea:

And since through You I can do it all
I declare myself victorious
In this spiritual battle

The polls show Fabricio may win. But the battle for Costa Rica’s democratic soul is far from over. If demagoguery can triumph in Latin America’s most successful democracy, then no country is truly safe.

Fun fact: The author partly grew up in Costa Rica during 1990-1995, and was the Economist Intelligence Unit’s lead analyst for the country during 2010-17.

Even more fun fact: Fabricio lost.

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