Costa Rica



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officially REPUBLIC OF COAST RICA, Spanish REPÚBLICA DE COSTA RICA, country of Central America, covering an area of 19,730 square miles (51,100 square kilometres). Extending from northwest to southeast, Costa Rica is bounded on the north by Nicaragua, along its 630-mile (1,015-kilometre) southwestern coastline by the Pacific Ocean, on the southeast by Panama, and along its 185-mile northeastern coastline by the Caribbean Sea. At the narrowest point, the distance between the Pacific and the Caribbean is only 74 miles. The capital is San José.
Costa Rica played a role in the federation of Central American states from 1823 to 1838 and is a member of the Organization of Central American States. Of the states that have been partners in these two enterprises, Costa Rica is the most Spanish in character and is generally regarded as having the most stable government and economy. Its well-populated heartland is devoted to harvests of coffee, its most important product, while in its outlying reaches banana cultivation is most significant.
Two mountain chains together run almost the entire length of Costa Rica. These are, in the north, the Cordillera Volcánica, noted, as the name implies, for its volcanic activity, and, in the south, the Cordillera de Talamanca. The Cordillera Volcánica may be divided into three ranges: from northwest to southeast, the Cordillera de Guanacaste, the Cordillera de Tilarán, and the Cordillera Central. The Cordillera de Talamanca is a massive granite batholith, quite different geologically from the volcanically active northern ranges. Costa Rica's highest point is Mount Chirripó, in the Talamanca system, at 12,533 feet (3,820 metres). Two of the highest peaks in the Cordillera Volcánica, Irazú (11,260 feet) and Poás (8,871 feet), have paved roads reaching to the rims of their active craters. These volcanoes overlook the densely populated upland basin called the Meseta Central (Valle Central), and they pose a serious natural hazard, as do earthquakes for most parts of the country.
The Meseta Central is separated into two parts by the continental divide. The eastern part is drained by the Reventazón River to the Caribbean, and the western sector forms part of the basin of the Río Grande de Tárcoles, which flows into the Pacific. Another large structural valley, the Valle del General, lies at the base of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the southern part of the country. To the north and east of the mountainous central spine lie the Caribbean lowlands, about one-fifth of the country and less than 400 feet in altitude. The Pacific lowlands, which contain several small valleys and plains, include only about one-tenth of Costa Rica's territory.
Thermal convection and onshore breezes bring abundant rains to the Pacific coast in the wet season, generally May to October in the north and April to December in the south. Northeasterly trade winds on the Caribbean provide ample year-round precipitation. The higher mountain ranges have warm temperate climates, the Pacific slopes having alternatingly wet and dry seasons, while the Caribbean side has year-round rainfall.
San José's weather records report monthly averages of rainfall from well under 1 inch (25 millimetres) in February to more than 12 inches (300 millimetres) in September, with more than 70 inches (1,800 millimetres) the yearly average. Temperatures vary with altitude, San José at 3,760 feet reporting a mean of 69º F (21º C), a nearby station at 7,665 feet reporting a mean of 59º F (15º C), and another at 682 feet reporting a mean of 80º F (27º C).
Settlement patterns
Since the beginnings of European colonization, the Meseta Central has been the heartland of Costa Rica. In the 19th century, settlement slowly expanded from the core areas around Cartago and San José, the capital, into the western parts of the valley. This expansion was based on coffee production from small family farms. Such farms still prevail; more than half of Costa Rica's coffee farms are 10 acres (4 hectares) or less in size, a factor that contributes to the democratic heritage for which the country is famed.
During the 20th century, Costa Rica's settlement frontiers expanded outward rapidly from the Meseta Central to incorporate peripheral areas, until virtually all the suitable lands in the country were settled and the spread of population effectively ended.
In the Caribbean lowlands the banana industry thrived from the 1880s until the 1920s, when disease forced closure of the plantations. New, disease-resistant varieties of bananas allowed reestablishment of the Caribbean plantations in the late 1950s, thus reviving the economy. The southern Pacific coastal region was opened for settlement about 1938 by the development of banana plantations around Parrita and Golfito. After World War II, banana production declined, and the last Pacific region company-owned plantations were closed or planted in oil palm by 1985. Elsewhere in the south, habitation of the Valle del General increased rapidly following construction of the Inter-American Highway during the 1950s.
The San Carlos Plain, part of the northern lowlands, was settled mainly after 1945, when roads connected it with the Meseta Central. In the 1970s and '80s more new roads brought additional expansion of agriculture and cattle grazing to this fertile area.
The northwestern provincia of Guanacaste, where many people work on large cattle ranches, or haciendas, and also maintain small agricultural plots of their own, was once a part of Nicaragua and still retains a variety of Nicaraguan cultural influences. In many ways, this is the least traditionally Costa Rican part of the country.
San José is the only true metropolitan area in Costa Rica. The congested downtown contains the major stores, government buildings, and offices of many businesses. The few high-rise buildings are located in this city-centre area. Outside the downtown, San José has expanded outward to incorporate surrounding towns. The San José metropolitan area, which contains overall about half of Costa Rica's population, is a functionally integrated urban region that reaches from Alajuela on the west to Cartago on the east
Ethnic and religious groups
Costa Rica is noted for having the largest percentage of Spanish population in Central America. The Meseta Central, with more than half the nation's population, is the most predominantly Spanish region in both its manner of living and its ancestry. Spanish is spoken with distinctive national accents and usages. In Central America, a Costa Rican is called a Tico, for Costa Ricans replace the diminutive ending -tito with -tico, a practice known elsewhere but uncommon in Central America.
The population of Guanacaste provincia, which makes up about 8 percent of the country's total, is a blend of colonial Spanish, Indian, and African peoples; their spoken Spanish is more like that of Nicaragua than that of the Meseta Central.
People of African ancestry live mostly in the Caribbean lowland provincia of Limón, which contains overall about 7 percent of Costa Rica's population. They are the descendants of workers brought from the West Indies to build railroads and raise bananas, and most of them speak both Spanish and a Jamaican style of English, the majority being descended from people who came from that island. There are also a substantial number of Chinese, many of whom are also the descendants of imported labourers.
Less than 1 percent of Costa Rica's population is /bcom/eb/article/7/0,5716,127697+1+117316,00.htmlAmerindian. The Bribrí and Cabécar peoples are the most numerous and inhabit valleys in the Cordillera de Talamanca. The Boruca and Térraba groups live in the hills around the Valle del General. There are also a few hundred Guatuso peoples living on the northern plains in Alajuela provincia. Most of Costa Rica's Indians are rapidly becoming assimilated, but those on the Caribbean side in the southern Talamanca region maintain their separate ways, including their animistic religions. Although Costa Rica's Amerindian groups are legally assigned to protected reserves, the land is infertile, and the Amerindians, most of whom survive through subsistence agriculture, are among the country's poorest people.
About 90 percent of Costa Ricans are Roman Catholics. Roman Catholicism is the official religion, and it is supported with a small part of the national budget. Most of the remaining population is Protestant, the majority of whom live in Limón province. A small Jewish congregation resides in San José.
Costa Rica is neither rich, as its name ("Rich Coast") implies, nor as poor as many of its neighbours. The country's wealth is better distributed among all social classes than elsewhere in Central America. Through the 1980s, the standard of living declined somewhat as a result of economic stagnation and inflation, and Costa Rica lost to Panama its place as the Central American country with the highest per capita gross national product.
The government controls key utilities, including electricity, water, telephone, and port and rail facilities, and the entire population is eligible for free medical care, but private enterprise is still strong and influential in policy-making. Repeated efforts to diversify the economy have failed to reduce the traditional dependence on agriculture, but there has been some success at diminishing Costa Rica's reliance on the two traditional export crops, coffee and bananas. Despite stringent efforts to reduce spending, the Costa Rican government operates at a deficit, a condition that increases the country's already large international debt and high rate of inflation.
Costa Rica's agricultural land and climate are its most important natural resources. The country has few mineral resources. The most important are yet unexploited bauxite deposits in the General and Coto Brus valleys and copper in the Cordillera de Talamanca. There is manganese on and near the Nicoya Peninsula, gold on the Osa Peninsula and parts of the Pacific slopes, and magnetite on scattered beaches, particularly on the southern Caribbean coastline. Geologic conditions are promising for petroleum in the southern Caribbean coast, but exploration has proved disappointing. Much of Costa Rica's timber reserves were wastefully cleared to make way for pasture or cropland. The best remaining stands of tropical hardwoods are in protected parks and forest reserves. Hydroelectric power has the potential to supply domestic needs with enough surplus for export. The largest facility is the Arenal hydroelectric and irrigation project in Guanacaste, which opened in 1979.
More than one-fourth of Costa Rica's economically active people work in agriculture, which contributes about one-fifth of the national product. Coffee, from the highlands, and bananas, produced mainly in the Caribbean lowlands, are the most important crops, accounting for nearly half the total value of all exports. Beef, chiefly from the Pacific northwest, is the third largest export, but is declining in importance. Nontraditional exports of growing importance include ornamental plants and cut flowers and pineapple. Palm oil for domestic consumption is an important product from the southern Pacific lowlands. Costa Rica has the capacity to feed itself but dedicates a large share of its land to production of export crops. As a result, the country imports staples such as corn (maize) and beans, which it could produce, along with products such as wheat, for which the Costa Rican climate is not suitable.
Manufacturing contributes more than one-fifth of the gross national product and employs approximately one-sixth of the economically active population. Most industry is concentrated in the Meseta Central, but a few plants operate in Puntarenas and Limón. Food and beverage processing and textile, shoe, and furniture making are domestically important. The main items manufactured for export are clothing and cloth, medicines, thread, and electrical appliances. The textile industry grew in the late 20th century, largely owing to the development of plants making clothing from imported cloth for export to the United States.
A substantially larger number of Costa Ricans are employed in the service industries than in manufacturing. Commerce, finance and real estate, public administration, transport, construction, and utilities are other important branches of economic activity. Tourism has considerable potential and is developing.
Finance and trade
Costa Rica has both state-owned and private banks, and a national federation of savings and loan cooperatives supervises an extensive network of local agencies. There is a small national stock exchange. Insurance is a state monopoly controlled by the National Insurance Institute. Costa Rica is generally favourable toward foreign investment, and foreign-owned companies control a large segment of both agricultural and industrial production. Per capita national debt is among the largest in Central America.
Costa Rica imports wheat from the United States and corn and beans from its neighbours. Nonfood imports include insecticides and other chemicals, machinery, crude oil and petroleum products, and paper products. More than one-third of imports, by value, come from the United States, with most of the rest originating in Japan, Germany, Guatemala, and Venezuela.
Coffee is shipped in great quantity to the United States, western and central Europe, and Saudi Arabia. Bananas are exported chiefly to the United States, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. Other exports of importance are beef, textiles, fish and shrimp, sugar, pineapple, and cut flowers. About 40 percent of exports, by value, go to the United States; other countries receiving Costa Rican exports include Germany, Panama, the United Kingdom, and Guatemala.
Costa Rica is governed by its constitution of November 1949, the 10th in its history. A president, two vice presidents, and a unicameral Legislative Assembly are elected at one time for a term of four years, the assembly by proportional representation. The president is not eligible for reelection. Magistrates of the Supreme Court are chosen by the assembly for eight-year terms, being then automatically continued in office unless removed by a two-thirds vote. An independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal oversees the election process.
The nation's seven provincias are administered by governors appointed by the president. Their importance is mainly as judicial and electoral jurisdictions, most government agencies having their own administrative organization that ignores provincial boundaries. Each provincia is divided into cantones, and each cantón into distritos. Councilmen for the cantones are elected locally, but budgets for all political units are approved by the national government, which controls nearly all the funds available to local governments.
Costa Rica has a stable democratic government. The fairness of national elections has been indicated by the fact that almost every four-year period since the mid-20th century has seen a change in the party winning the presidency. Two parties dominate: the National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional; PLN) and the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana; PUSC). The former, founded by the moderate socialist José Figueres Ferrer in 1948, was largely responsible for establishing the health, education, and welfare reforms for which Costa Rica is noted. The PUSC, a four-party coalition formed in 1977, is more conservative and business-oriented than the PLN.
In the Costa Rican system of justice, cases may be decided by a single judge or by a panel of judges; the jury system is not used, but the courts are generally noted for their fairness. Capital punishment is banned, and sentences to the penitentiary must be for a stated number of years. The highest court is the Supreme Court of Justice. Costa Rica has no army, only a nonconscripted civil guard that has police duties. There also are district police.
The constitution provides for free and compulsory education. The government oversees school attendance, curricula, and other educational matters. About one-fourth of the nation's budget is allocated to education, and literacy rates exceed 90 percent. School attendance is relatively high, with almost 90 percent of children aged 6 to 11 enrolled in primary schools and nearly 40 percent of students aged 12 to 16 enrolled in secondary schools. The University of Costa Rica has a well-planned, functional campus in San Pedro, a suburb of San José; the National University has a smaller campus in Heredia; and the "open" university (Universidad Estatal a Distancia) offers courses by television from offices in San José. The Autonomous University of Central America (founded in 1976) is also located in San José, as are several private institutions of higher education. The Technological Institute of Costa Rica, located near Cartago, provides engineering and other technical training.
Health and welfare
Costa Rica has greatly reduced the incidence of diseases associated with tropical climates. Malaria has been virtually eliminated except in the border areas with Nicaragua; waterborne diseases are rare, and mortality rates are low. The incidence of cancer and heart disease has risen, however.
Though the break between the wealthy and the manual worker is less distinct in Costa Rica than in other Central American nations, there remains a large number of agricultural and industrial workers who earn very small wages. The poorest areas are the province of Limón, the Cordillera de Talamanca, the northern lowlands, and isolated parts of the Pacific coast. The San José metropolitan area stands out as the area of greatest affluence.
Cultural life
Most Costa Rican diversions are cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic in nature. The people attend films with great frequency, enjoying international cinema. They listen to an extraordinary variety of music, especially from the many radio stations in the country. Residents of the Meseta Central attend the National Theatre, where the music played and the drama performed may come from any part of the world.
Costa Ricans take a strong interest in their pre-Columbian art, which includes large statues from the Pacific northwest, smaller examples of carved relief in stone from other districts, and some fine work done in the form of small objects of gold. Samples of all these may be seen in the national museum. Guayabo National Park, near Turrialba, features the country's only preserved pre-Columbian archaeological site. Genuine colonial architecture is rather scarce, the most famed example being a 17th-century mission in Orosí. Cartago's older buildings, destroyed by earthquakes, have in some cases been restored; new ones like them have also been built. Among the folk arts, Costa Rica is most famous for its highly decorative oxcarts.
The fine arts have seldom flourished in Costa Rican history, but they have received some impetus from government support, particularly with the creation in 1970 of the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports. Painting, sculpting, and music all showed considerable development in the latter part of the 20th century. Particular pride was taken in the growth of the National Symphony Orchestra since 1971, with the ensemble playing large halls and also taking music to the countryside. Costa Ricans have been marginally active in the field of literature. Roberto Brenes Mesén and Ricardo Fernández Guardia were widely known as independent thinkers in the fields of education and history, respectively. Fabián Dobles has attracted international attention as a writer of novels on social-protest themes.
Costa Rica has developed the largest national park system of any Latin American country, relative to its territorial extent. These parks include a bewildering range of tropical ecosystems, such as tropical rain forest, cloud forest, dry forest, and elfin forest. Other parks include active volcanoes, turtle nesting sites, and coral reefs. The national parks are a major attraction for Costa Ricans, who flock to them on weekends and major holidays such as Easter Week, Independence Day (September 15), and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. International tourists are also attracted by these parks, some of which are noted worldwide for their vegetation and wildlife.
Numerous publishing houses operate in the country, issuing both fiction and nonfiction on a wide range of topics. The government-operated Editorial Costa Rica and the Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana are among the most prolific of the publishing houses. Both the number and variety of publications available in Costa Rican bookstores surpasses those of any other Central American country and some South American countries as well. La Nación, an independent but conservative daily, is the most widely read of Costa Rica's newspapers. It is balanced by La Républica and La Prensa Libre, independents that lean more toward reform ideas. There are several television stations, one of which is government-owned.
In 1502 Christopher Columbus' fourth Atlantic voyage brought him to the shores of Costa Rica, where he remained for 18 days refitting his ships. Relations with the natives became friendly enough that they brought him a number of items of gold, possibly prompting Columbus to name the land "Rich Coast," although there is some dispute over the origin of the name. Other more promising regions forced Spain to neglect the area, however, and the few Spanish /bcom/eb/article/6/0,5716,108616+1+106074,00.htmlcolonists clung to the coast for 60 years. In 1564 the Spanish crown established the Meseta Central village of Cartago as the first permanent settlement.
Theoretically under the political jurisdiction of the captain general of Guatemala and the spiritual guidance of the bishop of León in Nicaragua, Costa Rica was ignored by both administrations. The absence of great mines meant the collection of few taxes from the Ticos, as Costa Ricans called themselves; consequently Spain provided little help in developing the infrastructure of the province. Compared with other colonies Costa Rica lacked a large labour force, so essential in the Spanish scheme of conquest. Costa Rican Indians were not numerous, and they resisted capture and disappeared into the forests rather than succumb to the encomienda, Spain's usual system of forced labour. Lacking products for a great overseas market, the Costa Ricans eked out a subsistence economy based on cacao and tobacco. Hence most people were small landowners with a close personal interest in local affairs. Historians often give credit to these developments for the growth of the democratic ideals that have become associated with Costa Rica. It should be noted, however, that some persons who became rich established a small finca- (estate-) based oligarchy which led the nation in the independence era.
When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, Costa Rica, with other parts of Central America, joined the short-lived Mexican Empire. In 1823 Costa Rica helped create the United Provinces of Central America but, disenchanted with the strife in the other four states of the federation, severed its ties in 1838. Already a pattern of isolationism had been formed, and in the many attempts to revive the federation the Costa Ricans have invariably shown little interest.
From the 1840s a constant stream of oxcarts carried coffee from the Meseta Central to Pacific ports and ships bound for Europe. This trade brought British investment. Farmers with even small acreage could derive an adequate if simple existence, and the ground was laid for a society that demanded schools and roads from its government and found political participation necessary to achieve these goals.
Costa Rica's policy of isolationism did not completely save it from foreign troubles. In 1825 the province of Guanacaste seceded from Nicaragua and joined Costa Rica, creating an issue that was contended until the boundary treaty of 1896. Sharing the San Juan River with Nicaragua, Costa Rica also shared some of the canal and filibustering fevers that nearly destroyed its neighbour.
Material progress came to Costa Rica during the era of General Tomás Guardia, who dominated the nation from 1870 until 1882. His government curtailed liberty and increased the debt, but it also brought increases in coffee and sugar exports as well as widespread construction of schools. A new constitution, adopted in 1871, remained in effect until 1949. The emphasis on agricultural exports strained transportation, and, with mainly British funds, Costa Rica sought to link the Meseta Central with the seaports by railway. The chief promoter was an American, Minor C. Keith, who made a fortune with the opening of his rail line between Cartago and Limón. With vast land grants, Keith then entered the banana business. By the late 19th century, bananas were beginning to rival coffee as the chief source of Costa Rican foreign exchange, especially after Keith's investments were merged with others to form the United Fruit Company in 1899.
The last decades of the century were also marked by a gradual decline in Roman Catholic church activity in secular affairs. The Jesuits were expelled for a few years, cemeteries were secularized, and public education was expanded. In 1886 free public education became compulsory; normal schools, a museum, and a national library were founded. Though the government continued to support the church, the constitution of 1871 provided for religious toleration. Strengthening the tradition of democracy for which Costa Rica was to become famed throughout Latin America was the victory in 1890 of President José Joaquín Rodríguez in what is considered the first entirely free and honest election in all Central America.
20th century
When Nicaragua, in the /bcom/eb/article/1/0,5716,17071+1+16820,00.htmlBryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916, gave the United States permission to use the San Juan River (the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica) as part of an interoceanic canal route, Costa Rica protested that its rights were being ignored. The claim was brought before the Central American Court of Justice, which ruled that Nicaragua had violated Costa Rican claims to the river; Nicaragua refused to accept the decision and withdrew from the court, a major factor in the court's death a year later.
Costa Rica's boundary with Panama (originally with Colombia) was also in dispute. Arbitration awards by France and the United States in 1900 and 1914, respectively, had been generally favourable to Costa Rica and were rejected by Panama. In 1921 Costa Rica attempted forcible occupation of this area (on the Pacific coast) but was diverted by the intervention of the United States. Panama then evacuated the region, but relations between the two small states were not reestablished until 1928. In 1941 the governments finally reached an accord over the boundary.
When Costa Rica held an election under direct suffrage for the first time in 1913, no candidate won a majority, and the Legislative Assembly chose Alfredo González Flores as president. General Federico Tinoco Granados, disgruntled over reforms proposed by González, in 1917 led one of the nation's few revolutions. Tinoco's despotic behaviour soon cost him his popularity. His administration was also impeded by the refusal of the U.S. government to recognize his regime, and revolts and the threat of U.S. intervention caused him to resign in 1919.
This experiment in dictatorship was not repeated, and Costa Rica continued its tradition of democratic elections and orderly government. A literacy test for voters was adopted in 1920 and the secret ballot in 1925. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Costa Rica declared war on Japan and on December 11 extended the declaration to Germany and Italy.
Costa Rica's most serious political crisis since 1917 came in 1948. A faction containing some alleged communists tried to prevent the seating of the president-elect, Otilio Ulate. José Figueres, a socialist landowner, put down the rebellion and turned the government over to Ulate. A new constitution, promulgated in 1949, prohibited the establishment or maintenance of an army, and the army was replaced by a Civil Guard. Elected in his own right in 1953, Figueres nationalized the banks and threatened the holdings of the United Fruit Company and several utility corporations. In 1955 he repelled an invasion by exiles residing in Nicaragua. Figueres was elected again in 1970, having meanwhile established his PLN as the dominant group in the Legislative Assembly.
In 1974 Daniel Oduber succeeded Figueres as president. Although both belonged to the PLN, they soon fell out over Figueres' ties to the U.S. financier Robert Vesco, who had found refuge in Costa Rica from an indictment on conspiracy charges in New York City. Vesco left Costa Rica in 1978, but the splintering of the PLN made possible the presidential victory of Rodrigo Carazo Odio in that year. Carazo faced serious diplomatic and economic problems. When rebellion broke out against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, thousands fled to Costa Rica. After the overthrow of that regime in 1979, Costa Rica was further strained by the arrival of refugees escaping from civil war or civil-rights abuses in the other states of Central America. Many refugees were deported for using Costa Rica as a military base.
Even more enduring were economic troubles. Inflation rates fluctuated sharply, and unemployment rose. Hospital, dock, banana, and railroad workers received small pay raises after staging disruptive strikes. Economic growth slowed to very near zero when the price of oil became so high that almost the entire coffee crop was needed to pay for that single import. Many years of easy credit, excessive government spending, and unfavourable trade balances brought the country to the brink of economic ruin. Carazo and the bankers failed to reach an agreement and left the problem for the new president, Luis Alberto Monge Álvarez of the PLN, who took office in 1982. In return for extending Costa Rica's debts, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank insisted that Monge impose severe austerity measures, including devaluation of the colón, budget and tax cuts, and suspension of some subsidies.
In 1986 Monge was succeeded by another member of the PLN, Oscar Arias Sánchez, who faced many of the same economic problems. The nation continued to be beset by nearly $5 billion in foreign debt, too-rapid urbanization, inadequate housing, unemployment, and adjustments necessitated by privatization of state monopolies. More than one-third of the nation's income was derived from international loans. Civil wars elsewhere in Central America continued bringing thousands of fugitives into Costa Rican exile, and illicit drug traffic imposed new forms of corruption on the land.
Aside from some easing of the debt structure, Arias could accomplish little with these matters, but he created for himself a powerful role in international affairs. A wealthy coffee grower and political scientist, Arias spent most of his term leading a regional peace movement designed to end the bitter strife in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Although often receiving little support from the United States, he achieved considerable success and did more than any other person to reduce tensions and create machinery to end the bloody Central American struggles. In 1987 President Arias received the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts. Arias, constitutionally ineligible to run in 1990, was succeeded by Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier of the opposition PUSC.