Outsourcing law and order

US troops to come to Costa Rica as Laura Chinchilla, the country’s first ever female president, is f

When Laura Chinchilla won office in February, it seemed that the thorniest challenge facing Costa Rica's first-ever presidenta would be scraping together the funds for the crackdown on public security she had promised on the campaign trail. Two months later, the Costa Rican legislature voted to host up to 7,000 US marines for six months, solving Chinchilla's problem of delivering her law-and-order platform without emptying state coffers.

The controversial vote reauthorised the 1999 joint patrol between the US Coast Guard and Costa Rican police to fight narcotrafficking and provide so-called humanitarian support. Propped up by Chinchilla's centre-right PLN, the measure passed by a vote of 31-8 in spite of a walkout staged by six deputies attempting to break quorum and prevent the vote.

A week later the opposition PUSC party challenged the law's constitutionality in the Supreme Court. They argue that Costa Rica's constitution bans not just the establishment of a military, but also any occupation by foreign troops.

The US flotilla will include aircraft carriers, destroyers, fighter jets and nearly as many troops as Haiti received after the severest humanitarian crisis the region ever suffered (they will also stay in Costa Rica for longer). This year President Barack Obama signed agreements allowing US troops to occupy bases in Colombia and Panama.

The US government has not commented on Costa Rica's decision.

More perplexing than the motives behind US geopolitical posturing in the Caribbean is what Latin America's oldest, most proudly pacifist democracy hopes to gain from this partnership. Though Costa Rica remains one of the safest countries in Latin America, several recent high-profile cases of narcotrafficking have inflamed public fears that the drug violence plaguing its neighbours may prove contagious.

Last month, the Mexican authorities confirmed the identity of 14 suspects detained in Costa Rica as members of the Familia Michoacana, moving South American drugs through Costa Rica. Reports of local drug seizures fill the dailies and some residents complain of violence spreading in the underbelly of San José.

To an electorate worried about deteriorating law and order, Laura Chinchilla, Oscar Arias's vice-minister of public security from 1994, seemed like the perfect candidate. After her inauguration in May, she duly promised a crackdown on crime within her first 100 days in office, but the state's never-ending fiscal crisis ruled out investment in the inept police force.

Keen to remain a Latin American favourite of the IMF and international investors, Costa Rican politicians compete to outdo each other in their commitment to fiscal prudence, impairing the state's effectiveness. A recent World Bank report blames a lack of political consensus for the legislature's sluggishness in tackling rampant tax evasion, resulting in low tax revenue and "fiscal vulnerability". Lack of investment in infrastructure and social services threatens to undermine the country's development.

More than 60 days into Chinchilla's first 100, the Joint Patrol agreement seemed like the perfect escape from fiscal constraints. The wave of panic over drug violence that Chinchilla rode to victory two months ago has guaranteed widespread quiescence about the inflammatory decision.

"It's better to have US soldiers walking around the country than hitmen and drug traffickers," reasoned the anti-drugs commissioner Mauricio Boraschi.

The Joint Patrol gives the United States a disturbing space to pursue its geopolitical goals in Latin America. But the greater threat to Costa Rican sovereignty is a state so feeble and so preoccupied with fiscal discipline that it must continue to outsource its obligation to provide security for its citizens to its aggressive northern neighbour.

The danger of the Joint Patrol, like any drug problem, is that this political quick fix will develop into dependency.

Samantha Eyler Reid is a research associate for the North American Congress on Latin America and writes about Latin American and Hispanic American politics for nacla.org. She recently finished her MSc in comparative politics of Latin America at the London School of Economics.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital