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Costa Rica, a tourist’s paradise and a country without a military, has historically been one of Central America’s strongest democracies, but times are changing. Last year, Costa Ricans elected Rodrigo Chaves, a man fashioned in the mold of Donald Trump, as their new president. In office, Chaves has attacked his political opponents, focusing particularly on the media and universities, and he has harnessed the power of social media to push conspiracy theories and fake news. And, as of late June, Chaves had the fourth highest approval rating—71%—of any public official in the world. Chaves’s popularity is second in Latin America only to President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, another Trumpian outsider who has ruled with an iron fist under a state of exception for the past year and a half. While Bukele’s government has consolidated power and jailed tens of thousands of alleged gang members, including many innocent citizens who have been caught in the dragnet, crime has plummeted in El Salvador, Bukele’s approval rating is sky high, and his model of authoritarian governance is spreading, worryingly, to other countries in the region, from Costa Rica to Honduras. From Costa Rica, TRNN contributor and Latin-America-based journalist Michael Fox reports.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Michael Fox

Additional camera work: Rosa Fox


Costa Rica. Pristine rainforests. Gorgeous beaches. A tourist paradise. A country with no military. One of Central America’s strongest democracies. 

But…. times may be changing. 

Last year, Costa Ricans voted into office a man fashioned in the mold of Donald Trump — an outsider, who promised to set the country right, after years of failed government promises, supposed  corruption, and rising poverty and unemployment.

President Rodrigo Chaves studied economics at the Ohio State University and worked for nearly three decades at the World Bank. Ahead of his election last year, he was nearly unheard of. But, like many far-right leaders, social media helped lift him to the fore.

Rodrigo Chaves, President

“I would have not been president of my country had it not been for social media. What we need to realize is that the rules of the games within democracy are shifting. The bounds changed. And we cannot pretend that the old institutions, and so on, are going to maintain what we like.”

In office, Chaves has attacked his political opponents, focusing particularly on the media and universities. He’s pushed conspiracy theories, and fake news. 

And… as of late June, he had the fourth highest approval rating of any public official in the world. With 71 percent.

Mauricio Agüero Segura is a taxi driver in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, who voted for the president.

Mauricio Agüero Segura, Taxi Driver

“The president is trying to do his best, under the circumstances. Because for years, this country was in the hands of the other parties and they had been stealing from the economy for years.”

Rodrigo Chaves’s high approval is second in Latin America only to this man — Nayib Bukele. El Salvador’s firebrand millennial president, and social media sensation, who has also fashioned himself in the vein of Donald Trump.

Since Bukele’s election in 2019, he has consolidated unprecedented power. He’s stacked the courts in his favor, won an overwhelming majority in Congress. He’s pushing for an unconstitutional bid to run for reelection, and he’s redrawing municipalities in the hopes of amassing ever more allies and power.

He has also ruled with an iron first.

Bukele’s controversial crackdown on El Salvador’s gangs has won him tremendous support. He’s jailed almost 70,000 people under a state of exception that has lasted for the last year and a half. The country is safer than it’s ever been. But thousands of innocent people have been caught up in the dragnet. They’ve been jailed without due process and are languishing in prisons. Hundreds have died. 

Family members of the detained are calling the Bukele government a dictatorship. 

Vanessa Beatriz Alfonso, Wife of Detained

“Today, I know that there are so many innocent people in jail, because my husband is there. It’s hard to understand until you live it yourself.”

And… the Bukele model of fighting crime is being exported abroad. 

In neighboring Honduras, Xiomara Castro made history last year by becoming the first woman to be elected president, and she won running on the leftist ticket of the Liberty and Refoundation Party. But Castro has since instituted her own state of exception to battle gangs and criminality, even announcing plans to build the Western Hemisphere’s only island prison colony.

Xiomara Castro, Honduran president

“This government is declaring war on extortion. War on corruption. War on impunity. War on narcotrafficking.”

Costa Rica’s Rodrigo Chaves has also promised to fight crime with force, if necessary. 

Costa Rica has not traditionally been a violent place. The country doesn’t even have a military — it was dissolved in 1948. But levels of violent crime are on the rise. 

The number of cases rose by 40% just over the last year.

Rotsay Rosales, University of Costa Rica

“We have never had levels of violence like this in our country. And it’s because of, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many experts, the persistent unemployment.”

But unlike El Salvador’s Bukele, crime is only one area of focus for Rodrigo Chaves.

Rotsay Rosales, University of Costa Rica

“Bukele knew that the only thing that mattered to the Salvadorans was security, so that’s what he focused on. That’s not the case here in Costa Rica. There are many issues. And in a way, it’s harder for Chaves to manage that.” 

Among those “many issues”… the economy. Fighting so-called corruption. Immigration. And gutting public services.

Gustavo Fuchs, Researcher and PHD student, University of Texas

“The current president is a far right populist just like Bukele, but he’s closer to Trump in the sense that he has not made security and crime his main priority in terms of a policy agenda. He looks a lot more like Trump and it has to do a lot with his alliances. Given that Costa Rica doesn’t have an army, it’s also difficult for him to do something like Bukele. That doesn’t mean that he’s not willing to. He has openly said in interviews that he cannot guarantee that democracy would survive, if criminality or violence rises. He has said he cannot guarantee that democracy would survive the end of his term, which is very concerning. This is unprecedented. We have never had a president say that out loud in modern history.”

Rodrigo Chaves, Costa Rican president

“We have to trap, capture, detain, judge and jail the crime bosses. And this new law against organized crime is going to help a lot.

Gustavo Fuchs, Researcher and PHD student, University of Texas [IN ENGLISH]

“In terms of policy priorities, he’s closer to Trump because of his alliances. He’s allied with libertarians and evangelicals, just like Trump in the US. So a lot of the things that he’s trying to do, his policies are in the direction of defunding the welfare state, cutting education, funding for education, funding for Social Security, for health.”

In June, students and teachers marched across the capital in defense of public education. 

Rotsay Rosales, University of Costa Rica

“The universities that have historically been the critical conscience of societies are, today, being systematically attacked by an autocratic authoritarian leader like Mr. Rodrigo Chaves. And that is where one thinks, how far may he go if he still has almost 3 years left in power?”

Chaves does not have a Congressional majority. Nor does he control the courts, but he’s flexing his muscles as president, and experts are concerned. 

Gustavo Fuchs, Researcher and PHD student, University of Texas

“There is a lot of symbolic violence in this government in terms of communications. I would say that he’s copying some of the strategies that Bukele has implemented in El Salvador, for example, he’s using a lot of trolls and fake accounts on social media, at least allegedly, right? Like he’s allegedly using a lot of these technologies to intimidate people online, to intimidate his opponents.” 

The future is uncertain. But Chaves’s surprising election and his style of governing is a clear sign that the far-right wave across the globe is far from over. And it’s washed into even the most unexpected places, like Costa Rica.

For The Real News, I’m Michael Fox. 

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Michael Fox is a Latin America-based media maker and the former director of video production at teleSUR English.