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Opposition candidate Fabricio Alvarado from the National Restoration Party. Photo: Gustavo Fuchs

Evangelical uprising: a new political opposition in Costa Rica

Costa Rica
Democracy

This year’s presidential elections in Costa Rica have destabilized the nation’s modern history. Candidate Carlos Alvarado from the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) won against the evangelical singer Fabricio Alvarado from the National Restoration Party (PRN) by a margin of almost 20 per cent.

However, the Christian PRN did obtain 14 seats out of the 57 in Congress. The party has forged alliances with the National Integration Party (PIN), which obtained four seats, and with the Republican party, which obtained two seats.

The country’s largest parties, the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social-Christian Party (PUSC), were divided during the campaign in their support of the PRN.

The current sum of forces makes PRN the political opposition to the new government. Fabricio Alvarado, the man behind the growth of the party, will also likely become the main opposition spokesperson. With municipal elections in 2020, the evangelical movement could end up running local governments in different provinces of the country.

But what is the political project of Fabricio Alvarado and the PRN? What is their agenda? How will they shape the future of Costa Rica and the new government?

Preaching to the choir

‘It doesn’t matter what happened, for our praise should go to God. And we are calm […] our message did win the elections,’ said Fabricio Alvarado, after learning about his electoral defeat Sunday night.

Since winning the first round of runoff elections, the PRN had come under the spotlight. One of PRN’s elected lawmakers admitted she didn’t know much about the sexual education programme they oppose, and which has become a battle cry for radical religious groups. Alvarado’s vice-presidential candidate said – on air – that, if elected, their government would prioritize nominating a heterosexual cabinet.

The deep connection between PRN and the evangelical movement was reflected in its lawmakers – half of them pastors – and throughout the campaign.

Videos emerged of Fabricio Alvarado preaching against homosexuals, calling it the work of the devil, at – at least – two evangelical churches, which is illegal under the country’s electoral law. Incidentally, two of the elected lawmakers were leaders at these churches.

At the same time, Alvarado cancelled interviews and debates at a staggering rate, including interviews scheduled by this writer for New Internationalist. His campaign went to lengths to keep him secluded from public scrutiny, and prohibited the party’s newly-elected lawmakers from speaking with the press.

After the first round of voting, the public debate moved swiftly from same-sex marriage – which paved the way to Fabricio’s rise – to the economy, undermining the importance of human rights. A looming public debt crisis, which could reach 7 per cent of the GDP by the end of the year, sparked the shift in discussion.

As debate broadened, more of PRN’s proposals and law projects remained unclear. The party released a second version of its government plan, just three days before the election, plagued with plagiarism and filled with references to god.

‘Freedom does not mean excess, it constitutes the decision of exercising one’s free will and, for us, this implies the decision to live private and public life in accordance to Christian ethics’ – an excerpt from the PRN programme

‘But freedom does not mean excess, it constitutes the decision of exercising one’s free will and, for us, this implies the decision to live private and public life in accordance to Christian ethics,’ reads an excerpt from their programme.

With a fixation on the private life and a disregard for national issues, PRN made a move which opponents considered irresponsible, and left the public in the dark.

When asked by New Internationalist about his party’s priorities in this new congressional term, the opposition politician avoided pinpointing which particular bills or projects would take precedence.

‘We have presented over 30 different bill proposals… there are some related to education… so we have various projects which we will push, given the significant number of seats we gained in congress.’

One of these projects, to which Fabricio has referred to repeatedly and with pride, is a proposed law of ‘freedom of religion.’ Costa Rica, being a confessional state, currently donates thousands of dollars to the Catholic Church. The bill would ban any discrimination among religions, but would not modify the Catholic denomination of the state, paving the way for a legal challenge to tap into government funding.

Despite surrounding himself with advisers from the PLN and PUSC during the campaign, representing an openly neoliberal agenda, Fabricio told New Internationalist that the promise of a progressive tax reform, found in his original government programme, would be kept.

‘Yes of course, we want the rich to pay as rich and the poor to pay less. We need to discuss this in the new congress, to generate a path forward, the legal reforms needed,’ he said.

His reassurance, however, seemed dubious at best; progressive tax reform was never mentioned during his public appearances or during press conferences. Neither has it been mentioned by PRN candidates.

Yet some of his policies have maintained consistency, and are likely to be pushed by his lawmakers. As he confirmed to NI, open-pit mining would not be discarded, despite a de facto ban which was last defied by former president Oscar Arias (PLN), who illegally authorized a mega-mining project in Crucitas that was met with protests and condemnation.

‘We will take action to protect the environment but also provide employment for people, without entering into a social conflict, as it happened in the past,’ Alvarado said, without explaining how his party would achieve this.

Alvarado also made clear the commitment to implement stronger immigration controls. In a Trumpean fashion, he suggests that the surge in homicide rates is linked to the migrant population.

As he told NI, ‘the disorganized system we currently have has an impact on the security situation the country is facing […] by declaring a migratory amnesty of one or two years, we will be able to find out who is here with criminal intentions.”

Building Alliances

PRN’s elusive policy agenda and its lack of a proposed cabinet allowed Fabricio Alvarado to easily become an attractive option before the election for members of other parties eyeing government positions.

He quickly gained support from Mario Redondo and Sergio Mena, both lightweights in national politics who had obtained no seats at the new legislature. With their parties on the verge of extinction, Alvarado provided a lifeline.

More disturbingly, his team of advisers has been slowly populated by members of the right-wing National Liberation party (PLN). From campaign teams, to former ministers and local leaders, the lines between PRN and PLN have become blurry.

The proximity between both parties was nothing new. Since 2007 the minority evangelical parties have played a key role in advancing PLN’s agenda, integrating the directory of the Legislative Assembly.

Alvarado’s economic team was made up of bankers, including former IMF adviser and finance minister Edgar Ayales, who served under Laura Chinchilla’s government (PLN, 2010-2014) which reached record levels of unemployment and inequality.

Also on his economic team were Alfredo Volio, who appeared in the Panama Papers for attempting to open an account with the now infamous enabler of tax evasion Mossack Fonseca and who led the campaign in support of CAFTA during the 2007 referendum, and economist Luis Mesalles, an influential neoliberal who writes for the conservative daily La Nacion.

Over 70 members of the PLN also confirmed their support for the evangelical singer.

His security adviser, Alvaro Ramos, was a former minister during the 1980s, notorious for imprisoning gay people to ‘stop the spread of HIV.’ Most recently, Ramos was Juan Diego Castro’s – the so-called Tropical Trump – top adviser, taking a hardline stance against crime. It is no wonder that Castro’s PIN party (which obtained four seats) endorsed Alvarado.

Although these alliances were forged at a time when all polls showed a clear victory for PRN, most are likely to stand in the new congress. Essentially, the campaign was marked by a conservative narrative during the first round, and has set a common agenda between PIN, the Republican party, PRN and PLN.

This agenda will revolve around attempting to use their seats to impose limits on same-sex marriage, sexual education, therapeutic abortion (legal in Costa Rica but so far not implemented), in-vitro fertilization, gender and sexual diversity.

However, the already visible alliance between the PLN and PRN is only partial, but will likely extend to congress in regards to the economy, where the PLN’s agenda would provide grounds for negotiations and agreements with PRN.

The evangelical movement becomes the party

Until these elections, atomized minority evangelical parties had occupied a maximum of four seats in parliament. However, after the first round result, most of these parties have now joined forces under PRN’s flag. It is yet to be tested if these alliances are permanent or not.

The issue was being discussed as early as October 2016, when Fabricio Alvarado – then lawmaker – denounced what he considered a persecution against ‘Christians’ and announced all minority evangelical parties were in talks to unite for the 2018 elections.

Undoubtedly, Alvarado has now become the leading figure for these parties, being able to gain support from Carlos Avendaño’s former political leader Justo Orozco, with whom he broke to form PRN.

Alvarado belongs to neo-Pentecostalism, a particular strain of evangelism based on belief in a blend between the bible’s Old Testament and the apocalypse. He has openly referred to pastor Rony Chaves as his ‘spiritual father’. Chaves, who preaches a radical brand of evangelism calling followers to take over government to impose the ‘law of god’, became the center of attention due to his belief that the ‘Negrita’ virgin (a national religious symbol) is a satanic figure. On Tuesday he wrote on this Facebook page that ‘There is a clear need for a national purification of values and behaviors’ and that ‘The 14 lawmakers of PRN will be loyal defenders of life and family.’

During a speech delivered when he was a lawmaker, Fabricio makes reference to the ‘theory of the seven mounts,’ a call to political action by evangelical author Johnny Enlow, which echoes Chaves’ belief, urging evangelicals to become the government.

When asked by NI about a future role of Chaves within PRN, Alvarado ruled the possibility out: ‘He is not interested in getting involved, and it is not in our plans,’ he said. However, Avendaño – who is arguably closest to Chaves – is set to become the leader of PRN’s bench in congress.

Concerns about the future relationship between PRN and evangelical churches has increased, after last week an audio of a secret meeting, obtained by the University of Costa Rica’s radio station, featured Fabricio Alvarado and his closest collaborators addressing a gathering of evangelical pastors, requesting votes and resources for election day.

‘What we need on Sunday is that you bring someone a meal [clapping, inaudible] and invite these people to go and vote,’ says a man speaking to the gathering.

‘We need blessings to come. We need blessings for food, blessings for transportation, blessings for many other necessary items [laughter],’ Mario Redondo (mentioned above) tells the crowd, in what the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has interpreted as shadow financing.

Challenging democracy

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal repeatedly warned Fabricio Alvarado and his party not to use religion as part of his campaign. There are currently over 900 complaints filed against PRN for doing so.

Alvarado has reacted by re-framing his violation of the country’s constitution and electoral law as an attack on religious people. ‘The Electoral Tribunal is trying to put a gag on us,’ he said, during the secret meeting.

The headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, in San Jose.
The headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, in San Jose.

‘We need the current and future lawmakers to support this bill… to put the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in its place,’ says pastor Reinaldo Salazar during the meeting. He refers to a project being drafted by the Evangelical Alliance – made up of leaders of non-Catholic cults – which aims to scrap the prohibition of using religion for electoral purposes.

Avendaño, the party founder, has paid thousands of dollars to his son, who is being investigated for money laundering. Alvarado has also destined funds from the campaign to his wife

As historian Ivan Molina explains, the last time that elections were marked by religion was in 1894, more than 100 years ago.

Today protestant denominations are growing at an unprecedented rate: currently 25 per cent of the population defines themselves as protestant.

PRN campaign expenses have further revealed economic interests within the party. The documents showed that the party leaders have funneled campaign money back to their families’ pockets: Avendaño, the party founder, has paid thousands of dollars to his son, who is being investigated for money laundering. Alvarado has also destined funds from the campaign to his wife Laura Moscoa, and he has paid himself thousands of dollars for the lease of a vehicle.

The financial motivation fits with the preaching of Rony Chaves, who promotes the ‘theology of prosperity,’ or the belief that god will reward believers with as much as they donate to the church.

Protestant churches have flourished in the poorest regions of the country, both in the capital city of San Jose (in some of the most populous neighborhoods) as well as Puntarenas and Limon – the two coastal provinces.

Of course, the hardline evangelical vote was not enough to win the presidency. However, in elections where only 35 per cent of the eligible voters exercise their right to vote, the municipal elections will provide the perfect opportunity for PRN to test its national alliances at a local level, potentially opening up the door to local governments.

All photos: Gustavo Fuchs

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