Costa Rican President Calls for New Constitution

President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has joined the trend in Latin America of calling for a new constitution that would expand executive powers and get rid of “unnecessary checks” on the president’s authority. Although Arias has less than 9 months left in office and can’t run for reelection, his brother and current minister of the presidency — a primer minister of sorts — has openly said he’s interested in running for president in 2014. A new constitution with expanded executive powers would fit him just fine.

Arias’ call has been received with broad skepticism. La Nación, Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, said that trying to make the government more efficient through a constitutional convention was like “killing a mouse with cannon fire.” The newspaper also said that the idea of dismantling the checks and balances on executive power sounds like an effort to create an “imperial presidency.” Maybe we should send our colleague Gene Healy to study the case.

However, the most disturbing aspect of Arias’ call was his harsh criticism of the media. Borrowing from the script of Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Arias described news outlets as “corporations interested in making a profit” that don’t necessarily pursue the “public good.” He asked the media to “tone down” its criticism of government officials, and said that journalists “should understand their role within a higher framework.” He complained that news outlets claim to represent the public interest, without any control or accountability.

That a politician with a thin skin complains about media criticism is hardly news. However, the fact that Arias did it while calling for a new constitution that would change the institutional and legal framework of Costa Rica (including the role of the media) should be interpreted as a threat to freedom of the press.

Most people outside Costa Rica see Arias as an accomplished democrat who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Central America during the 1980s. Most recently he attempted to mediate the conflict in Honduras after Manuel Zelaya was (legally) removed from office. However, many people in Costa Rica fret about what they perceive as an increasingly controlling style of governing by Arias and his brother, intimidating the media, bullying the opposition, crowding key government posts with allies and cronies, and now hoping for a dynastical succession in 2014.