Advocates in Costa Rica report this year’s presidential elections have led to a surge in hate crimes against LGBTQ people in the Latin American country.
At least 30 queer and transgender individuals have come forward to report violence or harassment in the past month, according to Michelle Jones with the Front for Equal Rights. Jones tells INTO that a majority of the attacks were verbal assaults, someone having an anti-LGBTQ slur shouted at them as they walked down the street.
Around two-thirds of the incidents19were alleged to be crimes of this nature.
The remainder were more insidious. Four people reportedly received death threats or had someone directly intend to harm them, like driving a car to hit them and then swerving at the last minute. Seven individuals claim to have been physically attacked.
Jones says, however, that the number of hate crimes reported by members of the LGBTQ community “changes every day.”
Members of the local LGBTQ community attribute the phenomenon to the rise of Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, an evangelical singer who shocked the nation by winning the first round of Costa Rica’s presidential elections. Once considered a fringe candidate, Alvarado won 24.8 percent of the vote on Feb. 4, beating 12 other contenders in the process.
The candidate believed to be his biggest threat, leftist author Carlos Alvarado Quesada, claimed 21.7 percent of ballots cast in the preliminary contest. The two men will face off in next month’s April 1 runoff.
Alvarado’s surprising popularity has been fueled by a campaign which has centered on opposition to a January ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights legalizing same-sex marriage in more than 20 South and Latin American countries. The court claimed member nations must treat LGBTQ couples “without discrimination.”
The ultra-conservative candidate referred to the decision as a threat to “traditional family” values in the Catholic nation.
“We are not ready for a LGBTQ agenda,” Alvarado claimed during a presidential debate between the candidates, urging voters to use the election as a “referendum on the marriage between men and women.”
Although the previous administration was widely supportive of LGBTQ rights, Costa Rica is particularly vulnerable to the populist, religiously motivated appeals which have marked his campaign. Sixty-one percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center in a 2014 survey that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry.
A more recent poll from the University of Costa Rica found that 70 percent of the population identifies as conservative.
Alvarado was able to successfully exploit the widespread right-wing sentiment among the country’s coastal and rural populations to boost his political ambitions, sources say. Prior to the IACHR ruling, he was a long-shot, earning less than five percent of the vote in many polls. His support has increased sixfold in less than two months.
Margarita Salas, president of Costa Rica’s Vamos political party, claims Alvarado’s connection to the spike in hate crimes has been extremely explicit. Many attackers have expressed support for the candidate during the incidents.
“Now that this guy is going to be president, you’re all going to see,” she cites as an example of what LGBTQ hear. “You’re all going to get what you deserve.”
“We’re mirroring a phenomenon that happened in the first few days of the Trump administration,” says Salas, one of the few openly LGBTQ representatives in the Legislative Assembly. “When you have such a high profile person validating hate speech, it empowers people who are against LGBTQ rights or want to exercise violence to start doing it.”
“It’s like people were given permission,” she adds. “The fine line of what’s politically correct has gotten blurry.
Sources say these attacks have had a deleterious impact on Costa Rica’s queer and trans population. Psychologists claim requests for support have skyrocketed, and LGBTQ couples are afraid to hold hands or show affection in public.
“People are worried,” Jones says. “The past four years have been very safe. The government has helped us gain rights, but then suddenly we’re being thrown into something unknown. Suddenly we’re thinking, ‘If Alvarado is elected, how are we going to protect ourselves? How are we going to make sure our rights aren’t taken away?’”
In addition to his opposition to same-sex marriage, Alvarado has hinted at an agenda which would oppose virtually all forms of LGBTQ rights.
Salas, who has spoken with Alvarado and his vice presidential pick about their platform, claims they pledged not to appoint LGBTQ people to head governmental departments. She claims the politicians have also offered their support for conversion therapy, telling Salas there should be “places to restore gay people to heterosexuality.”
His presidency is also a major threat to Costa Rica’s transgender population. Incumbent President Luis Guillermo Solis’ government has backed progressive sex ed which teaches an inclusive view of gender, including framing gender identity as a construction.
Parents at a school in northern Costa Rica protested the curriculum in February by literally padlocking its gates to prevent students from entering.
“If [conservatives] have a problem with same-sex marriage, they have an even bigger problem with transgender people,” Salas says. “They consider transgender people to be in direct defiance of God’s plans. What they believe is that if God made you a woman, this is what you have to be.”
Advocates hope documenting assaults against queer and trans people shines a light on the threat of Alvarado’s anti-LGBTQ agenda but caution that the hate crime epidemic shouldn’t be viewed as entirely unprecedented. Costa Rica doesn’t include hate crimes as a category in its criminal codes, meaning these incidents aren’t tracked. They may not be reported at all.
“We’ve always faced discrimination in different spaces,” Salas claims. “We’ve always faced hate crimes in many places, but they’re not always documented as such.”
But even in the face of extraordinary challenges, LGBTQ advocates will keep fighting.
“Despite these cases, there are still thousands and thousands of us who are getting up and going to work every day,” Jones says. “We’re not staying silent. We’re not going to sit here and let our rights be stepped on. They can’t just be taken away.”
Photo via Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images