Epsy Campbell


January 14, 2008

Epsy Campbell

President of the Acción Ciudadana Party, Costa Rica

"In the game of politics, everyone thinks that they’re the best. So if you’ve got a reason to be there, you have to keep on progressing." -Epsy Campbell

iKNOW Politics: Welcome, Epsy, and thank you for finding time to speak with iKNOW Politics. First of all, could you tell our readers a little bit about your life and your background?

I am Costa Rican and in terms of my cultural identity an African descendant. I would call myself a citizen of the world, because I have a right to do so. After all, if in the era of globalization multinational companies have the right to set up everywhere, shouldn’t we as people be able to do the same? I have worked as an economist and as a social activist, and this led me into politics.

I have primarily been involved in issues relating to women, to communities and to people of African heritage. I am currently the president of the main opposition party in Costa Rica, the Acción Ciudadana Party.

iKNOW Politics: Do you remember any story or any event that had an impact on you, something that made you get involved in politics?

I believe that politics was really my destiny, if there is such a thing. The fact is that the party came knocking at my door to ask me to run for Congress. I had always thought that I didn’t want to waste my time on a political party. I believed that I could make a contribution from society from very different places. When I was young, I was the president of the student association at the university and a leader in high school.

Everyone used to say, “Epsy, you’re going to get involved in politics,” and I would say, “That’s absurd.” I had seen that to get involved in formal politics, you had to go out and fight for a spot, using part of your energy to convince others that you wanted to work on something. I thought that could use my energy more effectively without running a personal campaign, so I had closed myself off to the possibility. When some of the national political leaders asked me to get involved, I thought, “Oh my God, what is this?” And I asked a thousand questions. Everyone said I should accept.

iKNOW Politics: So you had the support of your family and your friends?

I remember that my oldest daughter said to me, “Mommy, accept, because you’ll win. On the other hand, my partner at the time thought it was the worst thing, that it would mean my abandoning my personal life along the way. My family, I would say, supports me unconditionally. If I say I want to go to the moon, everyone will support me to get to the moon.

iKNOW Politics: Social activism and defence for women’s rights and for the rights of African-Costa Ricans have been hallmarks of your political career. From this perspective, when you decided to begin a political career, what obstacles did you encounter as a woman and as an African-Costa Rican?

I’m not the best example of someone who has encountered obstacles to get into different areas - which doesn’t mean that these obstacles don’t exist. It’s just that when you have a ton of energy, it’s like a whirlwind that sweeps forward without even realizing what’s in the way. But there are obstacles when you work to change the society you live in, such as racism against African descendants, or stereotypes about what women should and shouldn’t be doing. For example, I’ve always found it rude when certain people – and this has happened to me in the past and it still happens – stare at you, laugh and say, “Well, look at that, she’s a black woman” or “I’ve always been so surprised by how intelligent you are.” What do they mean, I wonder? And then comes the question, “Where are your daughters?” It’s as if they were saying you should be cleaning your house, and you are involved in things you shouldn’t be involved in. Women who take public office find themselves in a traditional place where we are constantly battling with people so we can do the job we have to do. But this is something you learn to live with; it’s a survival technique.

I don’t believe in trying to block out the sun with one finger, or in saying what certain people who have reached high posts say, something that seems all too easy, “I’ve never suffered discrimination as a woman.” We live on this planet and in these societies, where discrimination is expressed in different ways, be it by others not taking your beliefs seriously, or even by explicitly leaving you out of places where you should be accepted. Our societies are structured to be discriminatory, and in politics we have to work to end the discrimination which is ever present.

iKNOW Politics: As the President of the Acción Ciudadana Party, do you have any plan and/or specific project to encourage women to get involved in politics, and to support those who are already involved?

The most important issue of our party’s diverse agenda has to do with making changes to create a space for women who are facing the obstacles of structural discrimination. Making that change has to be done collectively, by using one’s relative power, together with the relative power of other people at different levels, to forge alliances and guarantee that more doors will be opened and that the people who come after you will not have to work as hard as you did. Our party works by implementing specific programs, including empowerment efforts. I love to talk with groups of women within the party and with the women from social organizations, and even with leaders of groups of black women in Latin America, about how to use the power that we actually have.

Power isn’t something that just falls into your lap: power is something you have and something you can construct. I know many women with very high posts, and the post does not give them power. They are in fact subjected by others, even sometimes by their own secretaries or by a person below them. When a woman does not have power of her own, her post itself is merely coincidental. The first change I make through specific programs relates to the question of how to create and how to wield one’s own power to confront different obstacles. It’s always about creating networks with other women, and seeing how we can help one another. We are constantly developing training processes. We take trips to dialogue with women who live on the outskirts, outside the capital city and outside Costa Rica as well, in order to build a powerful discourse and create a support network among women who can then continue this transformation process.

iKNOW Politics: Could you tell us a bit about the precedent set in Costa Rica in terms of the law on women’s participation in politics? These changes were promoted by the government; however the lobby and the debate needed to achieve such changes did not come from the groups that would have traditionally supported such actions – that is, feminist organizations.

First of all, it is important to mention that in fact (and I don’t know whether this is the case across Latin America) for a long time feminist organizations disdained formal power. They considered it evil and didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They didn’t want to have to cut deals with the patriarchy. It was a very particular discourse. Meanwhile, women in real life, women who are not feminists, are cutting deals with men, with life, with everything, on a daily basis. It’s not about choosing whether to relate or not relate to men: it’s about choosing to live. The women from social organizations soon realized that there was a need to enter the spheres of participation.

In Costa Rica, the Workers’ Assembly (Asamblea de Trabajadores del Banco Popular) is where all the social and business sectors, unions, activists and community groups come together. It is an assembly comprised of 300 representatives who are selected from the bottom up. The law dictates that half of the assembly members must be women and half men. Luckily, I was part of the Legislative Assembly when this was decided. After Costa Rica ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1984), the First Lady initiated a process (from 1986 to 1990) of creating a law for true equality in the country.

She created a referendum process from the bottom up, which resulted in 1990 with the passage of this law. The passage of the Equality Law was due in great part to the pressure of social organizations. Once again, a group of women – within the National Women’s Institute - pressured the respective electoral institution to put this 40 percent law into effect.

iKNOW Politics: What advice would you give leaders, candidates and women interested in getting into politics? Could you tell our readers about a particular challenge that you successfully faced, and what you learned from the experience?

First, I would offer some practical advice.

Based on my own experience, I believe that a woman in politics has to ask herself is whether she is truly convinced of what she is doing. You shouldn’t get involved in politics unless you are truly convinced of the objective you are pursuing. And you have to have this conviction not only in your mind, but in your whole body. Second, I would advise that you have to have the ability to dialogue with the people you want to represent. Your proposals don’t have to be spectacular and you don’t have to make them all by yourself: they should be discussed and debated, because this gives you more reliability.

You have to be transparent in everything you do, without making any hidden deals with anyone. All pacts made in silence come out sooner or later, and then you have to offer an explanation for them. So transparency is fundamental. Third, you must have the ability to work with other people. You must be able to create work networks, because these turn into support networks to get things started.

Finally, it is important to have personal support networks, because politics is a very contradictory thing. When it’s done right, you get hit hard, sometimes unfairly, and this can make you vulnerable. I always say that the saddest times of my life in politics – or the most difficult, let’s not say sad – was when I realized that being someone in politics meant making some enemies. In my first year as a congresswoman (2003), the national media declared me the best congressperson.

I was so happy when I arrived to the Legislative Assembly because I thought my fellow legislators would congratulate me. I arrived a bit nervous, and a journalist asked me, “How does it feel to have people ranking you at the top?” I responded, “It’s a lot of responsibility.” And he said, “Do you realize what’s going to happen now? There are 57 congressmen and women in Costa Rica right now, and you now have 56 enemies.”

I didn’t pay too much attention to him, but when I took my seat, you could have cut the air with a knife. Almost no one said hello, and it was really a terrible thing, because I was taking away from the other 56 congress people – or at least 40 of them – the place that they felt they deserved. In the game of politics, everyone thinks that they’re the best. So if you’ve got a reason to be there, you have to keep on progressing. I know other people from other parties who have tremendous political energy, and they’ve told me that many people have said, “Epsy Campbell turns the Legislative Assembly into a catwalk.” I am the exact antithesis of that, but suddenly someone totally discredits you. In this logic based on confrontation, the more well-known you are, the more is demanded of you.

At my highest point in 2005, a survey came out saying that if I ran for president, I would receive 60% of the vote, which was absolutely extraordinary. The same day I was hit by a wave of criticism in the Legislative Assembly. People were actually telling lies about me in their speeches, and I had to just sit there and not say a word. I thought to myself, “How could something this terrible be happening?” I’ll admit that I’ve cried at the Legislative Assembly, with my own work team. I never cried in public, but I knew I had a team that was backing me up. I had an assistant whom I adore, and she consoled me.

She would call me on the phone when I was listening to the speeches, “Boss, I’m calling to tell you this or that,” so that I wouldn’t have to listen to them.

iKNOW Politics: During your career, have you felt at any time that it would have been useful or practical to have an information and knowledge network such as iKNOW Politics? What would you advise young women who are thinking about getting into politics – or who may already be involved – but who don’t have access to this information?

Such a network is critical to politics. To do things the right way, you have to constantly grow, and not think that you already know it all. I believe that this is often the difference that we make in politics as women. Men generally believe that they are prepared, and in fact, they are ill-prepared – most of them, at least. So the challenge of having access to information, of sharing with others, of seeing how others address things is fundamental. I have personally learned so much from sharing experiences with others.

This network makes our lives easier because it gives us the opportunity to learn about the different experiences of women who are facing the challenge of public and political life on a daily basis. If we want to make a difference, we have to understand that we need to share all types of experiences, from how to confront challenges on our agenda in terms of funding and substance, to how to confront personal issues when we feel hurt.

iKNOW Politics: Could you say something about the historic referendum on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that just came before Costa Rican voters? What role did women’s political groups play in this process? And what are the impacts of the FTA from a gender perspective?

Women made a big difference in the referendum process. There were women who did things that no man would have dared to do, and this changed the whole presentation of the referendum. One of the most important contributions came from a group of women called Women in White (Las Mujeres de Blanco) who conducted a systematic critique of the High Electoral Court. These women went so far as to chain themselves to the courthouse to demand a response.

Women from the Patriot Committees (Comités Patrióticos) also played a major role in forming the social structure for those who supported the “no” vote. And young people were active in this process in a way they haven’t been in years here in Costa Rica. I believe that the FTA is part of a development model that heightens Neoliberalism and turns people into consumers: as if the people who don’t have the ability to be consumers aren’t people. The FTA would have many effects and the effects it would have on women are clear in terms of employment and access to public services.

We are assigned 90% of the reproductive work, but we don’t receive what the government should offer us for taking on this responsibility. I am the president of a political party that is against the FTA and that serves as the opposition party in the Legislative Assembly. The FTA is not yet a reality, not until the laws are passed that allow it to take effect in the United States. I believe that the process is just beginning. The result of the referendum (the “yes” vote won out) was a minor victory for the government, which invested at least 1,000 times more than those of us who supported the “no” vote, and had all the public resources behind it.

iKNOW Politics: To wrap things up, do you think that there is a real chance that Costa Rica will reach its 50/50 goal? And if so, what would be the impact on the region?

I am a member of a party that has gender equality built in. All of its candidate lists are 50/50, and our party understands that the 21st century is a century of gender equality, a century in which we, women, will sit at the same level, in the same chair, and use the same tools as men. I believe that it won’t be long before we have a reform of the Electoral Code that goes above the 40% that we women now have in terms of the different political party entities and candidate lists, and that we will reach the 50/50 mark.

The Commission for Electoral Affairs has already approved a motion for an extensive reform of the electoral code. I believe that our country may offer others a lesson in terms of what it means to take on the challenge of making this change. Society is made up of men and women, so both men and women have to define the present and future of each and every country.