SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — Costa Rican Vice President Ana Helena Chacón on Nov. 10 said the birth of her youngest daughter with Down’s syndrome prompted her to champion human rights.
“I began a fight against discrimination against people with disabilities, especially for people with intellectual disabilities,” she told the Washington Blade after she spoke at the Civil Marriage Equality Congress in the Costa Rican capital of San José. “I then began fighting for other human rights that were being violated.”
“I was really looking for solutions for the construction of a more just society,” added Chacón.
Chacón was among those who spoke at the conference, which is the first of its kind in Latin America that focused exclusively on marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Herman Duarte of Fundación Igualitos, a Costa Rica-based group that advocates for marriage rights for same-sex couples, organized the conference alongside HduarteLex, his law firm that fights discrimination based on sexual orientation. Two Costa Rican advocacy groups — Acceder and Asociación Costarricense de Derecho International — co-hosted the gathering that took place at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in San José.
The conference officially ended two days before a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck off of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
“The breaking of paradigms and the possibility of analyzing and sharing best practices is always important,” Chacón told the Blade, referring to the conference.
Chacón: Government committed to fighting anti-LGBT discrimination
The Costa Rican constitution established two vice presidencies. Voters in 2014 elected Chacón and Vice President Helio Fallas along with President Luis Guillermo Solís.
Chacón was a member of the Costa Rican National Assembly from 2006-2014. She was the minister of public safety from 2002-2006.
Chacón told the Blade the Costa Rican Supreme Court in 2005 “was very clear . . . in saying that the recognition of economic and civil rights of people of the same sex were a matter of law.”
Costa Rica in 2013 extended inheritance and other economic rights to same-sex couples who have lived together for at least three years.
Assemblywoman Ligia Elena Fallas in 2015 introduced a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Chacón told the Blade that opposition among Costa Rican lawmakers remains strong.
“Our legislature is a very fragmented legislature in which many ideologies exist and in which conservatism is also present,” she said.
Chacón — along with Panamanian First Lady Lorena Castillo and Panamanian Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo — are among the handful of prominent political leaders in Central America who publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues.
Chacón told the Blade the separation of powers between the country’s executive and legislative branches limit what the current government can do to advance the issue.
The Costa Rican government in 2016 asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for an advisory opinion on whether it has an obligation to extend property rights to same-sex couples and change the gender marker on transgender people’s identity documents. Observers have noted this request may be a way to prompt a ruling in favor of marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
“We cannot do anything more than support the bill,” said Chacón. “However at this moment the final discussion has not taken place.”
Solís, who, along with Chacón, is a member of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party, publicly opposes marriage rights for same-sex couples. Chacón told the Blade the Costa Rican government nevertheless continues to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Solís has extended hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples and mandated government institutions adopt what Chacón described as “important changes with regards to the acceptance of the name that a person wants to use.” Chacón — who has marched in the annual San José Pride parade and spoke at a Madrid conference in June that corresponded with WorldPride — told the Blade the government has also ordered its institutions to fight discrimination against LGBT Costa Ricans who seek access to their services and ensure trans people can receive hormone therapy and psychiatric treatment in public clinics.
“We have done everything humanly possible to ensure that each of our institutions are institutions that are free of discrimination,” said Chacón.
Chacón told the Blade the government has not focused its efforts on the country’s churches, noting many of them continue to promote the idea that marriage is “only between a man and a woman.” She said they have instead focused on increased education around LGBT-specific issues.
“What we have tried to do is create more education,” said Chacón. “The approach that we are going to look at here is there is no danger . . . to the traditional family, but what we can do is to expand the idea that a great variety of families exist.”
Chacón acknowledged to the Blade that homophobic and transphobic attitudes among Costa Ricans remains a “big challenge.” She said the government has worked to change school curricula in order to combat them.
“There is a part that explains to children that they should put themselves in someone else’s shoes, put themselves in someone else’s skin,” Chacón told the Blade. “[It also says] we should not discriminate because there are people who end up falling in love with a person of the same sex.”
“We can really change these discriminatory and segregating opinions that people have that say couples should only be those who are heterosexual,” she added.
Elections ‘can be a setback’ for human rights
Chacón spoke with the Blade a year after President Trump’s election.
The U.S. is Costa Rica’s largest trading partner. The State Department estimates roughly 100,000 American citizens live in Costa Rica.
Chacón did not specifically comment on Trump’s election, telling the Blade that she “has an absolute respect for the sovereignty of all countries.” Chacón said elections in the U.S. and in other countries around the world can impact human rights.
“They can be a setback in the push for human rights, depending upon who is governing,” she said.
Chacón said many Costa Ricans travel to the U.S. to work or to study. She also reiterated the countries’ long-standing economic ties when the Blade asked her whether Costa Ricans are concerned about the Trump administration.
“It is always important to see what is happening in the U.S. and to also recognize that we have been trading partners for many years,” said Chacón.