The Figueres model merging inclusion with liberal rights and laws was enshrined in the country’s Constitution in 1949. It was a rejection of the two models that would become popular in Latin America thereafter. One was social inclusion by state fiat, even if that meant violating rights, a model made famous by Fidel Castro in Cuba and more recently Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The other is business rights even if that meant violating social inclusion, a model made famous by military juntas and today by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
The Figueres model transformed Costa Rica into one of the most prosperous democracies in Latin America today. It has now made Costa Rica a gay rights champion.
Sadly, the Solís decision produced a populist backlash and the model is now being challenged. In the 2018 presidential election, the front-runner was a conservative evangelical singer, Fabricio Alvarado, who promised to please majorities by opposing same-sex marriage, even if that meant defying the courts. He faced a young social democrat, Carlos Alvarado (no relation), who defended the model of social inclusion by rule of law, even if that meant going against the majority’s taste.
This was one of the most polarizing elections in Costa Rica. In the end, voters elected Carlos Alvarado, effectively reaffirming the model of inclusion via legality. But the battle did not end there. As the May 26 deadline approached, conservative legislators presented a motion in Congress to postpone the implementation date, on the grounds that the coronavirus had prevented them from creating a specific law on equal marriage. In a remarkable example of Congress standing for L.G.B.T. rights, the motion was defeated, and same-sex marriage was implemented on schedule.
Most countries in the Americas, including the United States, have used courts, rather than majority votes, to enact same-sex marriage. This is understandable, but problematic because rulings seem to lack majority endorsement. Costa Rica followed this approach, but with important twists. Although a plebiscite was avoided, a presidential election reaffirmed the system of inclusion by way of legal rights. And while same-sex marriage did not come through a bill from Congress, legislators blocked a populist assault.
It may seem like a miracle that a conservative little country adopted same sex-marriage in the midst of a pandemic. This was not a miracle, but a liberal democratic process in action. When a model of democracy prioritizing social inclusion by way of the law is allowed to take its course, and is reaffirmed by majorities, minorities often win.
Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College, is the author, most recently, of “Fixing Democracy: Why Constitutional Change Often Fails to Enhance Democracy in Latin America.”
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