The Miami Herald
Tue, Feb. 09, 2010

For new Costa Rican leader, a lifetime of preparation

Special to The Miami Herald

Laura Chinchilla has been called tough, intelligent, funny and honest.

Late Sunday, Costa Ricans added another description: first female president.

The 50-year-old Chinchilla -- who served as a legislator, public security minister and vice president -- handily defeated six other candidates to win the presidency.

She pledged to protect Costa Rica from increasing crime, complete outgoing President Oscar Arias' plan to produce the first carbon neutral country by 2021 and shepherd the country of 4.5 million toward being the first developed nation in Latin America.

Chinchilla's victory puts Costa Rica among the small but growing list of Latin American countries to elect woman presidents in recent years, including Argentina and Chile.

"She is 'amply' prepared for her role,'' said former professor and advisor Constantino Urcuyo, for whom Chinchilla apprenticed while she was a student at the University of Costa Rica. "Her political résumé alone has made her very prepared.''

Backed by the ruling party and seen as Arias' protégé, Chinchilla was often accused of representing a continuation of the government, which helped and hurt her campaign.

"We want change for Costa Rica,'' said Jesus López, who spent Sunday campaigning for Libertarian candidate Otto Guevara, a Harvard-educated attorney, who won 20.9 percent of the vote. "We don't want another member of the Arias regime.''

But Chinchilla moved to emphasize her independence during the campaign -- and again after her victory was announced.

"We are open to dialogue, advice and permanent consultation. But [when] the moment arrives after listening to different perspectives . . . we have to make the decision.''

To her younger brother, Rafael Chinchilla, who joined her on the campaign trail, Chinchilla is someone who is "funny, pragmatic, intelligent and very human.''

"She always finds what can be done and gets it done, but she is honest with the impossible,'' said Rafael Chinchilla, 48. "I can remember in television interviews when she first became public security minister in 1996. She said, "We have strong security problems and I am not going to fix them in two years, but here is what I can do . . . ' She is very honest with what's doable.''

Chinchilla was born the only daughter of Rafael Angel Chinchilla and Emilce Mirando Castillo in a suburb of San José. She learned politics from her father, who served as the country's comptroller between 1972 and 1987.

A young girl who loved to dance, but was a little too mechanical with musical instruments, her father remembered, Chinchilla developed an interest in politics at a young age and became involved in student groups at the university.

"She was intelligent, always in the 90th percentile, but not an academic,'' said Urcuyo, a political analyst at the think tank Center for Political Research and Training (CIAPA) and a former political science professor at the University of Costa Rica.

At 26, Chinchilla received a scholarship to pursue a master's degree in public policy at Georgetown University and later worked on judicial and security reform. Under former President José María Figueres, she began her public life as vice minister of security in 1994 becoming the country's first female public security minister in 1996.

In a moment that revealed a glimpse of home life on election night, Chinchilla said she spent the hours immediately after the polls closed ironing shirts and preparing her family for the victory party as her close friends and advisors read off the poll numbers. She shook her head, smiled and said she was just like any other mother.

Being a mother and wife -- something new to Costa Rica's Casa Presidencial -- wasn't an obstacle for Chinchilla on the campaign trail, Urcuyo said.

"In Costa Rica, [machismo] is not a problem in the political sphere,'' he said. "Maybe within families where there are often high rates of domestic crimes, but reforms have opened political spheres up to women and men have accepted it.''

Though Chinchilla promotes gender issues, promising to create a national daycare system and create new opportunities for women, her brother said, "She is no feminist.''

She lost the feminist vote on Election Day because of her right-of-center political views, some feminist groups said.

In an e-mail circulated by feminist groups months before the election, women rights leaders wrote, "We respect Laura Chinchilla, as a woman and as a citizen, but we don't share her political principles.''

Despite lack of support from feminist groups, Chinchilla praised women who blazed the trail for her during her victory speech.

She thanked "those who shepherded through the cause of equal opportunities for women . . . and opened up spaces for women in the government; those who today work double and triple shifts, dream much and sleep little, as mothers, as wives, as workers, continuing to overcome barriers and creating a grander Costa Rica.''