By Mauricio Vivero, Executive Director of Seattle International Foundation
I recently had the opportunity to attend the CALI conference in Costa Rica and had the pleasure of meeting President Laura Chinchilla, who gave an interesting speech about political leadership and the main issues affecting Central America. President Chinchilla said it was inspirational to meet with so many CALI fellows who are all examples of leadership in the region. She also said that finding one’s vocation and calling in life can take time, and in order to be successful in public service one must be very realistic, yet passionate. “Public service is full of obstacles, and you need passion to keep you going and move ahead,” she said. She also noted that sometimes you must make changes to the law to promote social good, such as new programs. President Chinchilla acknowledged that in other instances, the law is clear, but the political will necessary for progress is lacking.
Why does she stay in public life? “Despite the obstacles, every time we make progress on social issues it gives us great satisfaction, and we forget all the obstacles facing us.”
What skills are important to be successful in government positions? “You need different skills to be successful in public careers. Some skills from the business sector are helpful in the public sector, but the [areas of] work are very different.” She noted there is criticism from the business sector about the efficiency of government. She said it is often easier to measure impact if money is the bottom line, as is the case in the business sector, and opposed to social good or progress in the public sector. She also reminded the CALI conference participants of how much negotiation is needed in order to accomplish goals in government, noting the power and influence of labor unions in Costa Rica. She also stressed that communication is critical and that government leaders must communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, juxtaposed to business leaders. She noted that at times, good decisions lack public support when the government is not credible or fails to communicate effectively with civil society.
What are the biggest issues facing the region? President Chinchilla concluded that social inclusion, inequality, and social justice are the primary issues facing the region, and must be dealt with to move Central America forward. Second, she noted that the lack of strong institutions, especially in the area of justice, is very problematic and also merits immediate attention. Without a strong judicial system and addressing issues of impunity, Chinchilla noted that “the region will not be credible.” Finally, she referred to organized crime and drugs as “tumors” on the region, and that Central Americans lack the institutions necessary to deal with these widespread problems. She also felt that given the Mexican government’s efforts to fight the war on drugs, Central America may be the final and most important battleground to deal with issues of organized crime and the drug trade.