Rafael Calderón Fournier

Rafael Calderón Fournier (born 1949) was elected president of Costa Rica in 1990, succeeding the popular Oscar Arias Sánchez, who had spearheaded the Central American peace plan. Calderón, who served until 1994, was president at a time of widespread national concern over economic decline and drug trafficking.

Rafael Calderón Fournier, son of former Costa Rican president Rafael Calderón Guardia y Muñoz (1940-1944) was born in 1949 in Nicaragua, where his father had taken refuge following the 1948 civil war. The elder Calderón's supporters had tried to reinstall him in the presidency after an election in which the opposition charged him with fraud. The young Calderón went to school in Mexico. The family returned to Costa Rica and he was elected to the National Assembly in 1974. From 1978 to 1980 he served as foreign minister. In 1982 Calderón lost in a bid for the presidency as candidate of Unidad (Unity) Coalition. Four years later he ran against Arias, nominee of the National Liberation Party.

In the late 1980s Costa Ricans often divided sharply over the country's relationship to the United States. Arias had warned that his predecessor's policies had compromised traditional Costa Rican neutrality. Arias won the election and as president shifted Costa Rican politics toward a centrist position in Central American affairs, thus antagonizing the Ronald Reagan administration. Calderón voiced more conservative views. He became executive secretary of the Costa Rican Association for the Defense of Democracy and Liberty, a conservative organization whose members were critical of Arias' Central American peace plans. This group had ties to conservative Republican leaders in the United States and, it was charged, received much of its financing from the National Republican Institute for International Affairs.

Exploiting his close ties to Republican advisers (among them political consultant Roger Ailes, who had managed George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign), Calderón conducted a successful bid for the Costa Rican presidency in 1990, defeating the National Liberation Party candidate Carlos Manuel Castillo, 52 percent to 48 percent. Eighty percent of the electorate of 1.6 million voted. (Arias was constitutionally prohibited from succeeding himself.) Unlike the 1986 campaign, where the divisions between the candidates had been great, that of 1990 displayed surprising agreement. Both Castillo (formerly president of the central bank) and Calderón, the leader of the Christian Unity Party (PUSC), expressed similar convictions about the need to confront social problems, particularly those wrought by the growing numbers of impoverished crowding into the towns and cities of the central valley. The National Liberation Party had emerged victorious in five of the six preceding elections, however, a departure from the post-1948 trend where the two major opposition parties alternated in holding power. Despite the similarity of the political agendas of the two candidates, many voters, suspicious of the long years of National Liberation rule, apparently wanted a change.

Calderón soon discovered that his campaign pledges of income distribution, subsidies for home buyers, and more welfare benefits could not be reconciled with budget slashing. In the 1950s and 1960s Costa Rica's government distinguished itself from its poorer Central American neighbors in its social policies that benefited the emerging middle class. In the 1980s, however, that middle class began to suffer a decline in its standard of living, just as the numbers of marginal peoples intruded more noticeably on the nation's vaunted social service institutions. The combination of these pressures and the cost of a decade of war (including the liability of caring for large numbers of Nicaraguan refugees) left Costa Rica more impoverished at the end of the decade.

There was some hope that the common economic problems of the Central American countries could be mitigated when presidents of the Central American republics (excluding Belize and Panama) met in June 1990 and declared a willingness to coordinate a regional approach to economic planning. Briefly, the plan included proposals for a reduction in regional tariffs, removal of restrictions on the movement of goods and people, incentives for foreign investment and tourism, and improved human rights standards. Despite these hopeful signs, the Costa Rican economy did not improve markedly, and Calderón's popularity diminished when he imposed austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In June 1991 members of the National Liberation Party walked out of the National Assembly in solidarity with public sector workers who had struck for a pay increase and a restoration of food price controls. In response, Calderón created a labor council to look at labor and social issues. In October 1991 came further unrest by health workers and university students over anticipated budget cuts. A few weeks later the finance minister resigned, stating that the IMF would not continue its support to a financially irresponsible course.

Calderón's political troubles continued in 1992 and 1993, as the opposition hammered away at the president's austerity program and called for a genuine democratic plan to settle the country's profound social problems. Many were angered by the apparent contradiction between the president's rhetoric about free markets and the preferential treatment given to coffee and banana producers. The Colombian Government charged 14 Costa Rican companies with laundering drug money from 1990 to 1992. In November 1992 the Costa Rican Government, responding to an appeal from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for a Central American federation, declared that political unification was "inconvenient."

The announcement was a reminder of Costa Rica's ambivalence about its identity as a Central American nation. Those political and economic achievements that have historically distinguished the country from its isthmian neighbors have diminished before the depressing social and economic realities of the 1990s. But the Ticos are a proud and determined people. As Calderón entered his last year in office in January 1994, the economic crisis he inherited in 1990 had not been resolved, but there were signs that the country had discovered a way to confront its economic future by promoting tourism. In retrospect the figures show that inflation, which was at 25% in 1991 dropped to 9% in 1993. The growth of the economy was less encouraging. The 2.1% growth in 1991 and 7.7% rate in 1992 were followed by a drop to 5.4% in 1993 and 4.3% in 1994. In the long run, of course, tourism will not restore the middle-class democracy the Ticos fear they may be losing, nor will it prepare the country for entry into the modern market among the industrialized nations of North America and Europe. But tourism may permit Costa Ricans to stave off the social calamity some observers believe awaits them.

Calderón was succeeded in office by President Jose Maria Figuerres Olsen of the National Liberation Party (PLN) on May 8, 1994. Calderón continued as the leader of the PUSC.

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Further Reading on Rafael Calderón Fournier

Although Rafael Calderón is a contemporary personality, material on him in English is scarce. General information on the happenings in Costa Rica can be accessed through <http://cliffie.nose.mil:80/~NAWFB/wfb/c/costa-rica.html>(July 18, 1997).