Harassment Case Tests Women’s Rights in Costa Rica’s Close Election

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — He was demoted from a senior position at the World Bank because of sexual harassment. Now, the economist Rodrigo Chaves — who has campaignedas 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 to prominence in a country that has taken a lead role in the advancement of progressive policies in Central America, underlining how the desire to punish political elites for what many voters see as an inadequate government response to the region’s political scandals and economic challenges is overshadowing most other issues.

In 2019, Mr. Chavez was reprimanded by the World Bank for what was shown to be a pattern of sexual misconduct against junior employees, though the details of his behavior were made public by a Costa Rica newspaper only in August — details the presidential candidate has repeatedly rebutted.

Mr. Chaves’s denial and downplaying of a documented history of sexual harassment come two years after another Costa Rican politician, the former president and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Óscar Arias Sánchez, narrowly avoided prosecution for sexual abuse, in a scandal that shook the country.

Mr. Arias was accused in 2019 of sexual assault or misconduct by at least nine women, emerging as one of the most significant #MeToo cases in Latin America. However, in December 2020, the charges brought against him by two of the women were dropped.

A protest against Óscar Arias Sánchez, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of Costa Rica, who was accused of sexual assault in 2019.Credit…Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters

Human rights activists now say that Mr. Chaves’s bid for power threatens to undermine progress in Central America’s most liberal and egalitarian nation.

“The message that 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 is normalizing and legitimizing the abuse.”

Mr. Chaves and his press office didn’t respond to an interview request.

Mr. Chaves languished in obscurity until his alliance with Pilar Cisneros, a prominent female Costa Rican journalist, who presented him to Costa Rican voters as an experienced administrator who would tackle corruption.

Just a day after Ms. Cisneros joined Mr. Chaves’s campaign in August, the local newspaper La Nación made public the World Bank’s investigation that found he demonstrated a pattern of sexual harassment against junior female employees between 2008 and 2013.

Mr. Chaves responded by downplaying the findings: “Those who have kidnapped the nation are already showing their fear of the candidacy of Rodrigo Chaves.” he said in a video address posted on social media hours after the article’s publication.

The revelations did little to damage Mr. Chaves’s campaign. When the investigation was revealed, he was polling at just 2 percent. By the first round of national elections, held in February, he had earned enough votes to move onto the presidential runoff.

Costa Rican presidential candidates during a televised debate ahead of the general election, which was held in February.Credit…Mayela Lopez/Reuters

Ms. Cisneros came to Mr. Chaves’s defense, helping to shield him from the full impact of the revelations. “Do you think that Pilar Cisneros would have supported a sexual harasser?” she told the local media in January. The next month, she won a congressional seat for Mr. Chaves’ party.

Ahead of the final vote on Sunday, the state-run University of Costa Rica found Mr. Chaves narrowly leading 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 above the survey’s margin of error of 3.1 percent.

A separate poll published by the University of Costa Rica on March 1 found that only 13 percent of voters thought that harassment accusations against Mr. Chaves were false. But 45 percent said that the accusations would not influence their vote.

Mr. Chaves has benefited from the unpopularity of his opponent, Mr. Figueres, who has been marred by accusations of corruption during his first term in office in the 1990s. Mr. Figueres, who leads 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 return for preferential treatment while he was president.

Mr. Figueres has denied the accusations, and prosecutors who investigated the payments, which occurred after he stepped down, did not press charges.

However, in the eyes of many Costa Ricans, Mr. Figueres and his party have come to represent the venality and elitism of the country’s political system, which many believe is no longer able to solve the country’s economic problems, said Ronald Alfaro, who leads the University of Costa Rica’s Center of Political Studies and Investigation.

José María Figueres, the presidential candidate for the National Liberation Party, after advancing to the Costa Rican presidential runoff in February.Credit…Arnoldo Robert/Getty Images

Costa Rica’s tourism-reliant economy suffered greatly from the pandemic — in 2020, its gross domestic product saw its greatest drop in four decades. While parts of the economy bounced back, the country is struggling to rein in rising food and fuel costs.

“The accusations end up canceling each other,” Mr. Alfaro said. “Voters end up casting their ballots not for the candidate they like but against the candidate they believe has more fleas than the other,” he said.

Turned off by the scandals around both candidates, most Costa Ricans appear to have lost interest in the election. Only a quarter of all registered voters cast their ballots for either Mr. Chaves or Mr. Figueres in the first round of elections, which had the lowest turnout in 70 years.

Documents from the World Bank’s internal tribunal and labor union show that Mr. Chaves was punished in 2019 after two female employees filed harassment complaints. At the time, he was the bank’s country head for Indonesia, a director-level position overseeing billions of dollars of lending to one of the world’s largest developing economies.

Costa Ricans heading to polling stations in San José in the general elections that took place in February.Credit…Ezequiel Becerra/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The women said Mr. Chaves made attempts to kiss junior employees on the mouth, made sexual comments about their appearances and repeatedly made unwelcome invitations to hotel rooms and dinners. The identities of the women have not been made public.

One woman, who reported to Mr. Chaves, told the tribunal that he “commented that he liked it when she bent over, then proceeded to drop an item and ask her to pick it up for him,” a request she said she refused.

Mr. Chaves was demoted and his salary was frozen, but the bank stopped short of explicitly calling his behavior sexual harassment. He left the organization days later and returned to his native Costa Rica to become the finance minister for the president, Carlos Alvarado.

The Costa Rican Communication Ministry said the current government had been unaware of the harassment case, and that Mr. Chaves told its members at the time that he returned because he wanted to spend his retirement with his elderly mother.

Within six months, Mr. Chaves left his ministry position and announced a presidential bid with a little-known political party, promising to “return power to citizens” by holding referendums on important policy topics.

Despite Mr. Chaves’s departure from the World Bank, his accusers brought an appeal to the internal tribunal to review the bank’s misconduct investigation.

Women demonstrating on International Women’s Day in San José, in March.Credit…Mayela Lopez/Reuters

“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 unwelcome,” the tribunal said in its June ruling. A World Bank official said the bank did not dispute the facts of the case as presented in the ruling.

Even before the ruling was issued, in January 2021, the organization banned Mr. Chaves from its premises and imposed a rehiring ban. The bank’s sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, said it also restricted Mr. Chaves’s access to its premises.

In the months since, Mr. Chaves has denied or misrepresented the findings; instead, he’s said that the World Bank found little more than an allegation against him, referring to the bank’s initial decision not to call his wrongdoings sexual harassment.

He has also said that he can freely visit the World Bank’s offices — contradicting the bank’s ban on his access — and that as president he will continue doing business with the bank, which has $2.3 billion in outstanding loans in Costa Rica.

Mr. Chaves has also promised to “revise” the laws on in vitro fertilization and abortion, which have been made more accessible by recent presidential decrees. Abortion is legal in Costa Rica when the pregnancy threatens a woman’s health.

These measures threaten to derail the slow but noticeable advances in women’s reproductive rights under the recent governments, said Ms. Arroyo, the human rights lawyer. She said the proposals also would damage Costa Rica’s role in the advancement of social rights in a deeply socially conservative region where abortion is largely banned and where violence against women goes mostly unpunished.

El Erizo, a low-income neighborhood, and the modern neighborhood of Ciruelas, in the province of Alajuela, Costa Rica.Credit…Luis Acosta/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 Latin America’s highest levels of social inclusion, in areas ranging from access to education and health care to civil rights.

“If Costa Rica declinesin its protection of women’s rights,” Ms. Arroyo said, “it’s most likely that the rest of the neighboring countries will not have this example to keep moving forward.”

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