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Scandals Blot Costa Rica’s Sunny Image

Times Staff Writer

His face may be on a newly printed postage stamp, but national hero status could not prevent former President Miguel Angel Rodriguez from being arrested last week for alleged corruption.

Rodriguez was arrested after he was recently forced to resign as secretary-general of the Organization of American States after only two weeks on the job.

His resignation and arrest were the latest blows to this country’s reputation as an island of clean politics and low crime in Latin America. Another former president, Rafael Angel Calderon, was named last month by the nation’s top prosecutor as a target in a corruption investigation involving kickbacks from Finnish lenders.

Before that, a legislative panel had begun looking into allegations that current President Abel Pacheco used millions of dollars in illegal campaign funds to get elected in 2002. Pacheco was vocal in calling for Rodriguez’s resignation as OAS chief, saying he had brought shame on the country.

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“Of course I am suffering,” Pacheco said during a news conference Tuesday, when asked about the various scandals. “How am I not going to suffer? But I feel very proud that Costa Rica is a democracy that functions. Costa Rica is an example for the world.”

Costa Rica’s once-enviable record as a relatively crime-free country has also been threatened by a recent wave of carjackings, homicides, bank robberies and street assaults.

“Crime is now our No. 1 concern,” said political scientist Luis Guillermo Solis, adding that he believes recent violence has been caused largely by the crumbling of Costa Rica’s welfare state over the last decade.

Whereas relatively high per-capita income and good healthcare and education once made Costa Rica one of Latin America’s most stable and affluent countries, free market changes have brought social upheaval, Solis said.

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Rodriguez’s swearing-in as OAS chief for a 10-year term in late September was a boon to the region. He was the first Central American to hold the prestigious post.

The event created jubilation in Costa Rica and stirred hopes among Central Americans who have long felt neglected by the 35-nation OAS, a body that promotes the rule of law, human rights and conflict resolution in the hemisphere.

He resigned from the OAS, effective Friday, after news reports cited secret testimony that alleged he received at least $2 million in bribes and kickbacks during his four-year presidency, which ended in 2002.

The payoffs allegedly came from a French telecommunications firm in exchange for cellphone licenses.

Also on Friday, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for Rodriguez. The 64-year-old former president was led away in handcuffs after arriving here on a commercial flight from Washington.

Rodriguez remains under house arrest while government prosecutors prepare their case against him. He has proclaimed his innocence and vowed to fight the charges. The presiding judge said he placed the former president under house arrest -- instead of jail -- because the case against him lacked key evidence and was based on inconsistent testimony.

Meanwhile, the OAS has begun the search for Rodriguez’s replacement. Sources say that to avoid another scandal, the group might tap someone from within its current or former ranks.

Front-runners for the job include Jorge Taiana, a former executive secretary of the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who is currently deputy foreign minister of Argentina. Other possible candidates include Jose Miguel Insulza, the Chilean interior minister, and Francisco Flores, a former president of El Salvador.

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Just before the Rodriguez scandal broke in September, Costa Ricans were rocked by news that ex-president Calderon, who served from 1990 to 1994, was prohibited from leaving the country because the chief prosecutor’s office was investigating allegations that he had received an illegal commission in the course of obtaining Finnish loans used to purchase medical supplies.

“There have always been little scandals but never at this high level of Costa Rican politics,” said political scientist Antonio Barrio Oviedo. “The country will have to do a lot of work to clean this up, to recuperate its international image.”

The corruption allegations involving Rodriguez and Calderon followed a tumultuous summer for Pacheco. Nearly half of his Cabinet quit in September over his handling of a strike by public service workers.

Pacheco also denied accepting illegal campaign funds, saying that he supports the investigation into his election.

Solis said the scandals had a bright side. They demonstrated, he said, the independence of Costa Rica’s media, among the strongest and most unbridled in the hemisphere.

San Jose’s La Nacion newspaper and Channel 7 television station revealed most of the recent corruption allegations. Solis said the media took advantage of recent anti-terrorism laws that make it easier to access public records.

As for the thousands of postage stamps printed to commemorate Rodriguez’s ascension to the OAS post, the government has so far withheld their release to the public.

Pacheco joked at his news conference that Rodriguez’s resignation had made the stamps into collectors’ items too valuable to destroy.

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