Democracy Is at Risk. The Former Costa Rican President Has Suggestions

March 6, 2019

At Duke University on Feb. 27, Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera spoke about issues facing Central America and the world, including global and regional politics, government corruption and migration.


Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera (left), former President of Costa Rica, spoke about issues facing Central America in a discussion with Patrick Duddy (right), director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, at the Nasher Museum of Art on Feb. 27.

Credit: Catherine Angst / Duke University

-By Amanda Solliday

Solís spent little time with details from his own biography, and the popular Costa Rican leader began with a commentary on the fragility and value of democracy.

“We often think that our democracies will be there forever, that there’s some magic that will preserve them. That’s not the case,” Solís said. “It’s our job to take care of them.”

It’s becoming more common to see how they can fail, he added.

About 200 people attended the conversation between Solís and Patrick Duddy, the director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Solís was Costa Rica’s president from 2014 to 2018, and he is now a visiting scholar at Florida International University. It was his first visit to Duke’s campus.

The discussion about “Central American Realities,” held at the Nasher Museum of Art, ended with a half-hour of questions from the audience. Several of those in attendance also shared their individual connections to Costa Rica, including heritage, study experiences and in the case of one audience member, his migration to Costa Rica to escape violence in Poland during World War II.

Powerful Changes in Global Relationships

During the conversation, Duddy noted that Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948, and the country relies on diplomacy to support its international relationships. He asked Solís about his view on multilateral organizations and multilateralism, or collaborations and agreements among multiple countries that address a shared goal.

“In many ways, what we’ve seen is a detour from those original ideas of multilateralism being fundamental,” Solís said.

He noted that since 1990s, the world has seen an increase in the strength of nation-states and an increase in autocracies, pointing specifically to Russia and countries in Central Europe. It’s a trend towards “zero-sum international politics,” which Solís find disturbing. He’s concerned this will lead to “a more aggressive, violent, war-like scenario.” Solís added that democracy is already threatened by violence from paramilitary groups in some Central American countries, such Venezuela and Nicaragua.

We are also seeing a backing away from agreements of the past, said Solís. Multilateral institutions are not perfect, he said, and require patience. He listed several of their flaws – they’re expensive and bureaucratic; it’s difficult to create consensus; and some organizations have “no teeth” and cannot enforce rules. But despite the imperfections, Solís still supports multilateralism.

“Well, what would we do without it?” Solís added. “We cannot do away with it without paying a high price.”

People on the Move

Mass migration is happening everywhere, Solís noted, and these movements are caused by political crises, natural disasters and structural problems within countries, such as stagnant economies and the absence of jobs.

“We are living in an age of human flows,” Solís said. “It’s not going to go away. So, it doesn’t matter if you want or don’t want them to come. They will continue to come. You can build walls – which can be effective or less effective – but people who want to go to a certain place because it is better than where they live, they will get there.”

He added that borders are porous – all of them – to people and (sometimes illegal) goods. Everyone can’t come in, he noted, and governments have an obligation to pass laws to create orderly borders. Many of the existing laws are outdated and don’t address these current population changes, Solís said.

However, criminalizing migrants is unethical, insisted Solís, and this plays on “fears that are unsettled.” Migrants also contribute to the economy and strengthen population growth, he noted.

He called for compassion and a willingness to try to understand the migrant perspective.

“It’s not necessary to rip children away from their parents as if you were punishing people,” Solís said.

The solution will require new laws that address the current landscape of global migration, he suggested. And in the countries of origin, people need a better quality of life that includes education, health care and security. In Latin America, he noted, corruption renders economic systems inefficient, contaminates public policy and undermines democratic values.

Lessons from Costa Rica’s History

Costa Rica has enjoyed stability, a high standard of living, low crime rates and a thriving national park system, noted Duddy, and the quality of life in Costa Rica is envy of the subregion.

“How did you do this?” Duddy asked.

This is the result of many decisions dating back to the 1940s, said Solís. He mentioned that, at the time, the country carried out major social reforms that abolished the army. In the 1960s, there was a big push in Costa Rica for renewable energy. The country has also created a strong public education system. These reforms were easier to implement because the country is small, said Solís, without the complexities of a larger country such as Mexico, for example.

The country was also incorporated into the global economy early, through coffee exports.

“So, we were never a banana republic,” Solís said. “Also, we were never invaded by the United States…so our relationship with the United States has always been very happy, cordial and constructive, although we have differed many times.”

But Costa Rica also faces challenges with the quality of its democracy, environmental sustainability and budget deficits, says Solís. And in the future, he would like to see the country focus on growth in research and technology, much like the Raleigh-Durham area.

“We’re at the verge of [ceasing to just] produce things, and to begin imagining things,” Solís said.

This event was organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies with the support of the Duke Center for International and Global Studies, Office of Global Affairs and the Hanscom Endowment.


Latin America and the Caribbean