Costa Rica President Fires Aides Over Mystery Jet Flight

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla dismissed two more aides, including the head of the country’s counter-narcotics efforts, after questions arose about her use of a private jet to fly to Peru this month.

In a televised address to the nation last night, Chinchilla said deputy Minister to the President and anti-narcotics chief Mauricio Boraschi resigned and will be replaced by deputy Security Minister Celso Gamboa. A personal aide, Irene Pacheco, was also dismissed.

Communications Minister Francisco Chacon became the 15th minister to resign in three years when he quit May 15 after arranging the trip. Chacon said that while he booked the flight through someone named Gabriel O’Falan who purported to work for a unit of a Colombian energy company, both the name and the company association are now thought to be false.

The use of the plane “was handled in a careless manner, without the procedures and controls necessary to guarantee integrity and security,” Chinchilla said from her desk at the presidential office in San Jose. “The omissions were especially grave in regards to national security and the protection of the president.”

Chinchilla, who took office in May 2010, is struggling to sustain her agenda in her final year in office. The leader of the main opposition party called the latest incident “the cherry on top” of a disappointing administration and asked the ethics committee of the public prosecutor’s office to start an investigation.

‘Weak Country’

“This exposes us in front of the world as a weak country in terms of security,” said Carmen Munoz, head of the opposition Citizen Action Party, in a phone interview from San Jose yesterday. “It also demonstrates a weakness in the responses of the government as they attempted to cover up their mistakes when facing crisis. This government is failing to learn from its mistakes.”

Under Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s economy expanded 4.3 percent in March from a year earlier, faster than than 3.5 percent and 3.9 percent growth recorded in January and February, respectively.

The negative attention generated by the removal of aides should not affect Costa Rica’s economic growth or further investments, Heather Berkman, political risk analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group Ltd., said in a telephone interview.

‘Good Reputation’

“This raises more questions about Chinchilla herself than Costa Rica overall,” Berkman said. “Costa Rica has generally had a good reputation in terms of security, stability and democracy, and I don’t think this situation will erode any of that.”

Nevertheless, Chinchilla started the year with 12 percent public support, the lowest of any leader in the Americas, according to surveys by San Jose-based newspaper La Nacion and Mexican polling company Consulta Mitofsky. The La Nacion poll, taken Jan. 24 - Feb. 4, had a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

“This is sort of a dismal ending to a dismal presidency,” Berkman said. “I can’t envision her administration accomplishing much of anything during her final year in office. She is essentially a lame duck.”

Finance Minister Fernando Herrero resigned last year after an investigation by newspaper La Nacion said he underpaid taxes for 12 years, a charge he rejected. Transportation Minister Francisco Jimenez was removed from office in May 2012 for alleged corruption regarding funding for the construction of a road along the border with Nicaragua. He denied the accusations.

Meeting, Wedding

Earlier in the week, Chacon defended the trip to Peru and acceptance of the private flight as a “collaboration between the state and a businessman.” Chinchilla, 54, said on May 15 that the trip to Peru, to meet President Ollanta Humala and attend a wedding, had followed the same parameters as other presidential visits abroad. Costa Rica’s government does not have a private presidential plane.

“He presented me with a business card of false representation with the clear and express purpose of tricking me,” Chacon said of his May 8 meeting with O’Falan. “I realize that I did not request sufficient enough verification into the background of the representatives of the company.”

Attempts to contact O’Falan via an e-mail account that appeared on a business card with his name weren’t successful.

“I reiterate that we have not violated any ethical or legal parameters” in the use of private planes, Chinchilla said.

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