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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.