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Costa Rica – Indigenous leader is assassinated motivating a reaction against the government

This post was co-authored with Andrés Palma of the School of Political Science, University of Costa Rica.

The morning of March 19th, 2019 Costa Ricans woke up with the news that the indigenous leader Sergio Rojas Ortiz had been murdered. He was shot numerous times the night before in Salitre, an indigenous reserve in Buenos Aires, province of Puntarenas, located at the southeast of the country, which has been the focus of a conflict over land during many years.

The situation had a big impact on news outlets and specially on social and academic circles. The broader repercussions of the incident involved—apart from the public anguish for the incident—the government who was accused of indifference towards the conflict situation in Salitre to which has been aware of for many years, with some blaming the government—and even the President Carlos Alvarado—for Rojas Ortiz’s death. The murder of this indigenous leader takes place three years after the murder of the Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist, Berta Cáceres in the department of Intibucá, Honduras. Cáceres was general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). At the time of her murder, she was leading a movement against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River (department of Intibucá). Before her death, Cáceres reported receiving several death threats against her and members of her family, about which some argue that the Honduran State did not follow due.

In both, Costa Rica and Honduras, the indigenous leaders were beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2015, for which their respective governments had to guarantee their safety. Their lack of effectiveness or negligence is one of the reasons why in these two countries governments are being made responsible for the murders of these leaders.

The deaths of Rojas Ortiz in Costa Rica and Cáceres in Honduras remind us that societies in Latin America are multicultural, and that there are ethnic minorities that due to their culture and ancestral past, possess special rights recognized by international law. However, the State, as the comparative politics scholar Donna Lee Van Cott reminded us, in many cases does little to enforce those rights, with negative consequences for democracy: “Even where relatively free and fair multi-party elections are regularly held, governments violating the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, or failing to constrain dominant groups from oppressing and exploiting others, prevent their citizens from enjoying democratic rights and political freedoms”. Clashes between ethnic groups are common in different parts of the world and they have motivated multicultural public policies. Why is this happening in Costa Rica? In Costa Rica as in the Honduran case—as in other parts of Latin America—there is mobilization from indigenous organized groups which are associated with other national and international social movements, often linked to leftist political movements. In the reminder of this post we focus on the recent events that took place in Costa Rica.

The Salirtre’s Bribri situation  

Sergio Rojas Ortiz was broadly known for his leader role in the Bribri’s cause in Salitre—to protect and preserve their land from illegitimate foreign farmers and landholders. The Bribri are one of the eight indigenous groups that inhabit Costa Rican territory. Rojas and other Bribri have strived for the indigenous people rights, locally and in a nationwide scale. As a minority in the country, the Bribri—as other indigenous groups—have had limited access to the fulfillment of their demands.

In Costa Rica, the indigenous people represent a very small minority. In the last 2011 census, the people that identified themselves as indigenous were around the 2.5% of the population of the country. These populations live mostly in rural areas. Many believe that historically, the Costa Rican government has been in debt to this minority as their rights have not been respected entirely, albeit the Indigenous Law of 1977 protects their rights and in recent years there has been an approach from authorities to jointly satisfy their grievances.

In the Salitre’s Bribri case, the Costa Rican State might had indirectly allowed the hoarding of lands that by law are restricted to only natives. Sergio Rojas himself—and what he stood for—caused frictions among the people of Salitre. While it is true that the location is an indigenous reserve protected by law, there are non-indigenous “white” people (the Sikuas) living there, and the clashes between the Bribri and Sikuas were increasingly recurrent in recent years. The main reason for that is that the Bribri started land recovery processes against the Sikuas, in which—not a few times—violent incidents were registered, causing the need of constant vigilance of police authorities to avoid new riots and attacks from the confronted sides.

The situation of Salitre is in fact more complicated, with historic and ethnic differences being central to understand the conflict. In Salitre—one of the four indigenous reserves of the Bribri in Costa Rica—the Bribri, Sergio’s ethnic lineage, and the Brörán—another ethnic ascendancy—live in constant disagreements between them. This has also led to violent episodes, as the former have accused the latter of being allies of the Sikuas, and of not respecting their sacred land which has to be for no one but the natives. The physical violence between Brörán and Bribri  has not been  usual, but when the Sikuas are involved, the discrepancies amongst them arise. In these circumstances, the confrontations remain frequent, and the State approach about this has not been satisfactorily coherent.

The problem even got international relevance as the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 2015 demanded that the Costa Rican government—under the administration of President Luis Guillermo Solís—to adopt all the necessary actions to respect the Bribri’s claims and rights. This was almost four years ago. Yet, machete wounds in indigenous men and women, house fires, and shootings are still common in this area. In the end, the measures were not abided by the government, as problem exists nowadays, with the death of Sergio Rojas as proof.

The presidential response

The next day after Sergio Rojas’s death, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada convened a press conference, in which he stated that “this is a tragic day for the Bribri community, the indigenous people and for all of Costa Rica… We manifest our pain and indignation to his family and all the Bribri people”, he also insisted on the trust he has on the Judiciary, to get with those responsible for the crime, and his compromise with the respect of the Human Rights, minorities and aboriginal rights. Also, the President commanded the police to give Rojas’ family protection; correspondingly he requested for dialogue and peace.

As the days go by, doubts persist about the possibility of coming to a viable solution. There is, evidently, a beforehand lack of trust from the Bribri people towards the government and the justice system. This is one of the main reasons why they try to recover their lands by their own means. The violence experienced in recent years and the murder of the leader Sergio Rojas puts even more pressure on the government to solve the conflict.  A week after the events, the government, headed by president Alvarado sent a group of vice ministers and other officials to keep track of the situation in Salitre, as pressure from national and international organizations mounts on the government to fulfill the rights of the indigenous minority.

Chile: Sebastián Piñera enters his second year in La Moneda

Piñera’s international agenda

In 2019, President Sebastián Piñera seems to have tightened his grip on the political agenda. During January and February, Piñera focused almost exclusively on the Venezuela issue. He made periodic remarks in the media on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela, condemning human right violations by the government of Nicolás Maduro.  In a reckless political gamble in February, Piñera traveled to Cúcuta in Colombia to deliver humanitarian aid for Venezuelans across the border. Once there, together with Colombia’s President Iván Duque, Piñera even took part in Venezuela Aid Live, a musical concert whose major highlight was the appearance of Juan Guaidó, acting President of Venezuela.

At home, Piñera’s anti-Maduro rhetoric and trip to Colombia took the left-of-center opposition by surprise, as only a handful of politicians raised their voice to criticize him. The reason for such a muted reaction might well be that February is a summer break for most politicians. However, their internal division and conflicting positions on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela possibly prevented them from launching a coordinated response to Piñera’s international agenda.

In addition to his Venezuela intervention, Piñera took advantage of South America’s right turn by pushing for the creation of Progress for South America (PROSUR), a regional initiative that seeks to replace the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the bloc created in 2008 by left-wing South American leaders but in decline since the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. PROSUR’s inaugural meeting was recently held in Santiago, Chile. The visit of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro captured the attention of the media and Chile’s leftist opposition. Piñera was criticized at home for being too close to right-wing populist leaders like Bolsonaro, as well as for his attempts to dismantle UNASUR.

Nevertheless, whether Piñera’s “international agenda” enhanced or weakened his popularity is an entirely different question. Piñera’s approval ratings had dropped to 38% in December, his lowest in 2018. Even though no reliable polls have yet been published in 2019, nothing indicates that Piñera’s approval has improved this year. Unemployment, probably the best indicator of Piñera’s progress in making good on his campaign promises, is still relatively high at 6.8% for the November-January trimester, topping the previous trimester and the same trimester from the previous year.

Preemptive identity control and a divided left-of-center opposition

A few days ago, La Moneda announced its intention to push for a bill to reduce the minimum age for being subject to identity checks by Carabineros, Chile’s police force and the Investigations Police (PDI) from 18 to 14. In 2016, the Michelle Bachelet administration passed the first bill allowing Carabineros and the PDI to request ID from anyone 18 years old or older, whether they were suspected of a crime or not. The left-leaning opposition has opposed Piñera’s initiative, arguing that it violates the rights of minors and would do nothing to reduce crime. Whatever the future of the bill, it helped bring some unity to a splintered political opposition. The bloc of left-of-center parties has rarely presented a united front except for its demand that the newly-appointed Minister of Culture Mauricio Rojas be fired (he resigned after 96 hours in his post), and its insistence that Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick be summoned to answer questions in Congress following the assassination in October 2018 of Camilo Catrillanca by members of police special forces.

 Such fragmentation in the left-leaning opposition may stem from their different pro and anti-establishment stances, as well as political style. However, inter-party polarization in the opposition seems to have increased over the few last months. In January, legislators from the Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front), a political bloc mostly comprised of leftist and some far-left small parties, decided to break an pact with the rest of the opposition in which it had agreed to support the Christian Democrat (DC) candidate in elections for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. The election, in which every deputy has a single vote, was held on March 19th.Taking advantage of the  left opposition’s troubles, parties of the right-wing Chile Vamos, Piñera’s political coalition, backed the nomination of Deputy Jaime Bellolio (UDI), who won the first round with 73 votes, two more than the DC candidate, Deputy Iván Flores.  Nevertheless, since neither Bellolio nor Flores secured the required majority, a second round was held. Finally, after hours of intense negotiations within the opposition alliance, Flores won the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies with 81 votes, against Bellolio’s 68. 

The risk of defeat faced by the opposition parties alarmed many on the Left. Since the return of democracy in 1990, this was the first time a second vote had been necessary. Coalitions and parties had always held enough support and abided by the pacts made to secure the presidency of the lower house. This issue illustrates the widely commented splits and divisions between the opposition parties. 

Eyes on the future

Politicians and parties are already anticipating the 2021 presidential election. Piñera and Chile Vamos, whose problems appear to be far less serious than those of the opposition, are dealing with the challenge of how to manage several aspirants to La Moneda in 2022. In fact, Piñera has been the target of mild critiques from his own coalition because of his personalistic leadership style, one that does not promote the visibility of other potential presidential candidates from within the ruling alliance.[1]

On the other hand, in the left-of-center opposition no single viable candidate has emerged. They barely secured the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies where they, at least nominally, hold a majority of seats. This is just one example of the many coordination problems they have faced in the first 12 months since PIñera’s inauguration. The 2020 local elections are the first major challenge the left of center has to face. A resounding defeat may well seal the fate of the coalition and assure the right-wing Chile Vamos’s occupancy of La Moneda for another term. If Michelle Bachelet decides to make a third bid—an unlikely scenario but not one that can be easily dismissed—we would be in a completely different political scenario.


[1] In Chile, presidents are not allowed to seek consecutive reelection.

Getting serious: “Operation successor” enters critical phase In Kazakhstan

On March 19, after almost 30 years of rule, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longest-serving head of state in the post-Soviet space, announced his immediate resignation as President of Kazakhstan. As stipulated by the constitution, in the event of early retirement of the incumbent, presidential powers pass to the Chairman of the Senate, the Upper House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament. Thus, the next day, 65-year old Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn in to serve as acting President until the next regular election scheduled for April 2020. Succeeding Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga (55) was elected the Senate’s Chairwoman in a unanimous secret ballot making her number two in Kazakhstan’s power hierarchy.

Nazarbayev’s resignation is a remarkable move, which has been in the air for some time. In contrast to his colleagues in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who left unresolved questions of succession after their deaths in office, Nazarbayev had made it clear for years that he does not intend to leave the fate of the regime he created to those who would survive him, thereby provoking the risk of violent clashes between competing factions. In contrast also to Azerbaijan’s first President Aliyev, who pushed through a dynastic solution, he claimed to be more interested in regime continuity than in securing family business. And in contrast to Russia’s Yeltsin, who was not only constitutionally prevented from running again but also severely incapacitated by the end of his second term in office, Nazarbayev is not obviously ailing, has not (yet) declared the name of a successor and seems to retain full control over the process of power transfer.

In fact, it is not so much the resignation itself that is surprising as is the impression that “Operation Successor” follows a thoroughly planned, quite effective schedule, thus creating a precedent in the post-Soviet region. So far, the whole process fits the framework Nazarbayev outlined during an interview in November 2016, where he declared that he was willing to work as president until 2020, followed by an orderly, constitutional power transition to a successor who is not his child.

By now, strategic choices for the choreography of a smooth power transition have been made in at least three directions. The first one is constitutional and legal reforms to retain control over the process.  When Nazarbayev was granted the title “Elbasy” (“Leader of the Nation”) in 2010, he was not only entitled legal immunity but also obtained the lifelong right to submit “initiatives on major issues of state construction, domestic and foreign policy and national security” as well as the right to personally address parliament, government and other bodies about “important issues.” Since then, these bodies have to coordinate their activities “in key areas of domestic and foreign policies” with Nazarbayev even in case of his retirement.

While these moves can be regarded as the climax of personalization of power, in 2017 and 2018 they were underpinned by institutional changes, effected through constitutional and legal reforms. As has been argued in an earlier post to this blog, the most important of these changes consisted of the elevation of the National Security Council from a merely ceremonial to a constitutional body by a special law from July 2018. Since then, the Security Council is responsible for securing domestic political stability, the constitutional system, and Kazakhstan’s national independence and territorial integrity. The Council’s members are the most important ministers, the Speakers of both Chambers of the Parliament, the Prime Minister and the President, all subordinate to Nazarbayev, the Council’s lifelong Chairman.

The final preparatory legal step took place on February 4, 2019, when the Constitutional Court accepted Nazarbayev’s appeal to clarify the conditions under which a president could leave office, as stipulated by paragraph 3 article 42 of the Constitution. On February 15, the Court concluded that voluntary retirement would be constitutional, even if this way of power transition was not explicitly provided for in the text itself.  

In the same vein, Nazarbayev has been preparing for power transfer through his “cadre policy,” the second strategic tier of “Operation successor.” Different from other post-Soviet autocrats, Nazarbayev has always pursued a sophisticated policy of frequent personnel rotation, thus preventing the entrenchment of people into their offices but awarding loyalty and devotion. Not only did Dariga, the President’s daughter, make her way to the highest echelons of power, but also a whole series of capable and trustworthy other people. The career of acting president Tokayev is a case in point. A Moscow-educated diplomat, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994-1999 and 2002-2007, served as Prime Minister in 1999-2002, held the position of an Under-Secretary-General, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and was the Senate’s Chairman in 2007-2011 as well as in 2013-2019.  

The third dimension of the strategy of smooth power transition concerns the choice of pace and timing. While Nazarbayev was entitled to call snap elections to put a chosen successor to popular confirmation, he declined to do so during a press conference in December 2018. Instead, he decided to quit the presidency two days before Norouz (Nauryz), the country’s springtime New Year’s holiday. This would not only get the issue quickly out of the headlines but also be interpreted as a symbolic new beginning, thus leveraging the emotional atmosphere of Kazakhstan’s greatest feast, which is celebrated for three days.

Overall, the past week showed that power transfer is far from complete. Rather, Nazarbayev started the implementation of his project of stepping down as President while staying in power. In his TV address on March 19, he said that he remains chairman for life of the National Security Council and chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party that he founded, as well as the Constitutional Council. Elbasy assured he would stay with the Kazakhstani people, because “the concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns.”

Nazarbayev seems inclined to allow for a roughly year-long interim period, before a new president will be confirmed by popular vote in April 2020. The question of who will follow him in office may indeed still be open. In fact, many observers of Kazakhstani politics doubt that Dariga Nazarbayeva’s new position as Senate spokeswoman will lead her unequivocally to the presidency. Decent chances of getting Nazarbayev’s authorization to run for president are also attributed to acting President Tokayev and new Prime Minister Askar Mamin (53).

Perhaps, competition between the candidates is already in full swing. At least, the somewhat weird urgency with which Tokayev convinced the parliament to rename Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, into Nur-Sultan could be seen as a hint. This move is a strong signal of loyalty to Nazarbayev, demonstrating the initiator’s utmost devotion as well as his intention to secure regime continuity by accepting the long shadow of the First President.

However, the renaming of Astana also provoked some protest on the streets of Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent. Radio Free Europe’s Kazakh Service reported dozens of people detained by the police on March 22, and an online petition against the renaming gathered about 45,000 signatures. These rallies were said to be organized online by the leader of the banned Democratic Choice movement (DVK), Mukhtar Ablyazov, who lives in exile in France. It remains to be seen whether Nazarbayev’s resignation from the presidency will become a focal point for gathering an effective, united opposition. However, this is a rather unlikely scenario.

Sudan’s president faces ongoing protests

Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir approaches the 30th anniversary of his rule in June with the most serious protests his regime has faced. More than three months after they began, people are still in the streets on an almost daily basis calling for the president to step down. Many people are feeling the pain of the country’s worsening economic crisis, with both price increases and shortages of bread and fuel. The scale and persistence of the demonstrations is unprecedented, despite a brutal crackdown in which dozens of protesters have been killed. What is also worrying for the regime is the fact that they have erupted in many locations across the country, not just in the capital, Khartoum. They started unexpectedly outside Khartoum in mid-December 2018, but spread quickly to the capital, where most are now held.

A further challenge for al Bashir is the fact that protestors seem to have lost their fear of his regime. Demonstrators recently gathered in front of the headquarters of the much-feared National Intelligence and Security Service, demanding the release of relatives detained there. The government says that 31 people have died during the protests, but human rights organisations say that more than 50 were killed, and Human Rights Watch has released videos showing the violence used against protestors. The use of live ammunition against them, and the targeting of medical staff, have been widely criticised. International condemnation by governments has, however, been relatively muted.

Response to the economic crisis

The country has faced spiralling inflation and steep falls in the value of its currency over the last few years, which as in turn hit food imports. The disruption of oil exports through Sudan and the loss of direct revenue from oil production when South Sudan broke away have been factors. The economy has long been affected by US sanctions which were imposed more than 20 years ago. Washington lifted some last year, and signed a framework agreement last November to remove the remainder, which would require some democratic reforms and greater press freedom.

The president announced the government was being disbanded on 22nd February with a plan to replace ministers with technocrats. State governors were also replaced by security officials, a state of emergency was declared, and unauthorised public gatherings were banned. Parliament subsequently reduced the state of emergency from a year to six months. A new government has since been put in place with the task of dealing with the economic crisis, but in fact includes many former ministers – some of them in the same positions as before.

History of the regime

Omar al Bashir is now aged 75 and not without health problems. He came to power in a military coup in 1989, and has remained in office through elections which are usually boycotted by the main opposition parties. He previously indicated a number of times that he would not seek a further term of office, only to stand again. Elections are due again next year, and his latest reversal and move to stay in power was dealt with in a recent blog here. Power is retained by the military and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which al Bashir has been particularly adept at managing by effectively ensuring the support of key figures, with important patronage networks in place.

He is of course wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in crimes against humanity, genocide, and other attacks on civilians in the western region of Darfur. Despite being the first serving head of state to be indicted by the Court, he travels freely throughout Africa and the Arab world, and is also supported by Russia, which has invited him to the first Russia-Africa summit due to be held this October in Sochi. In the region, Khartoum helped to mediate shaky peace agreement in neighbouring South Sudan, which achieved its independence from Sudan in 2011, but has experienced civil war for most of its short history since then as a state. More than third of the population there is displaced by fighting, insecurity, ethnic cleansing, and food shortages. Importantly for Khartoum, South Sudan’s oil production has been badly hit by the war. This has had devastating consequences for the economies of both countries, since Sudan received substantial income for the use of pipelines through its territory to the Red Sea – the only possible export route for the oil.

One interesting phenomenon seen in different contexts is how demands change and evolve as protests gain momentum. The demonstrations by the jilets jaunes in France were sparked by a carbon tax which was reversed, but the protests continued while the demands broadened. Similarly in Algeria, people took to the streets and won the major concession, with President Bouteflika agreeing not to run for a fifth term in elections due this year. But the demonstrations continue, with the demand that he step down by the time his terms ends in April, as the prospect emerged that that would continue in power while the electoral process was under review. In Sudan, however, while the spark was economic hardship the demand has remained clear: for al Bashir’s regime to be replaced by an interim administration which would prepare the way for free and fair elections.

Protests are not new in Sudan, but the duration of these ones have taken many by surprise. Their persistence, despite the firm support of the army for the regime along with a brutal crackdown, has been described by some as becoming a war of attrition. This is the most serious threat al Bashir’s regime has faced. Much will depend on the ability of the traditionally divided opposition parties to unite and take advantage of the opportunity.

Blog news

This is the time of year when the Presidential Power blog typically takes a short hiatus. This time it will be a little longer than usual.

I am stepping down as the manager of the blog. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog since it began over five years ago. This includes the current list of regular contributors, previous contributors, and guest contributors. It has been a pleasure managing the blog, reading the posts, and learning about presidential politics in so many countries.

I am delighted to announce that Sophia Moestrup and Fiona Yap are planning to take over the management of the blog. They will start posting again at the beginning of February. In the meantime, Philipp Köker will continue to re-post some of the highlights of the last five years.

Thank you for visiting the blog, for reading the material, and for commenting on the posts. Do please keep returning to the site, especially when it is relaunched in February.

Robert Elgie

Holiday Quiz

Thanks to everyone for visiting the site since we started in October. It’s been a busy schedule. So, we are going to take a little time off from blogging. We will be back on Monday 6 January, 2014. However, we will be posting to the Facebook page throughout the holiday period.

Between now and then we are running a holiday quiz. At the top of this page, there are pictures of presidential residences from 14 different countries. Can you name them, starting with the top line and going from left to right?

We think this is pretty difficult. So, we are going to try to arrange a small prize if anyone can name them all. If more than one person gets all of them right, then we will have a tiebreaker.

If you want to enter the quiz, then the closing date is Friday 3 January at midnight GMT. Please feel free to post your answers as a comment here or contact me directly at robert.elgie@dcu.ie.

Good luck and, if you’re having them, then happy holidays.