The new president of Costa Rica, Abel Pacheco, 69, is a humble man with a large spirit, who stumbled into politics.
"I was sitting in my San Jose store, happy and tranquil. . . . Miguel Angel Rodriguez walked in and asked me to join Congress and be his vice presidential candidate. I had an easy life, I was making money, I had a popular TV program, but he touched my patriotism," said Pacheco, touching his heart. The pair lost in 1994, but Rodriguez won in 1998, and Pacheco was elected this year.
Pacheco is a big man. He walks slowly, with a slight stoop, as he ambles carefully up a few steps into a modest hotel off Washington Circle, resting his hand on the shoulder of a younger, shorter aide for support. His agenda is uncomplicated. The psychiatrist, poet, popular television commentator and entrepreneur wants to restore confidence to Costa Ricans and prepare them for globalization, and to stamp out corruption and poverty.
Growing up in lush, tropical Limon province on the Caribbean coast -- where most of Costa Rica's black minority is concentrated, the sky is very blue, the sea is silken, and the sun is hot and bright -- Pacheco learned to love nature and revere its rhythms. He never forgot "Mr. Walker," an old banana plantation worker who introduced children to the secrets of the forest.
"He taught us wonderful things. He would have us touch a fruit we never tasted and ask: 'Do you feel it, do you smell it, do you hear it?' We shook it. 'Sit down and close your eyes, what do you hear?' 'The wind,' we would answer. 'What else?' 'The rushing river.' 'What else?' 'The crickets,' " Pacheco recalled as he relaxed in his small suite.
Pacheco "loves Limon," said a longtime friend who has seen photos of a smiling, pale child in a sea of black faces. "He is a white man with a black soul."
Brought up mostly by his grandfather, Francisco de Espriella, a Panamanian diplomat who wrote poetry, Pacheco was drawn to do the same.
After his uncle was shot in 1948, Pacheco's family went into exile in Mexico, where he studied medicine. He became enamored of the politics and ideals of ex-president Rafael Calderon, leader of Costa Rica's Social Christian Unity Party. Pacheco dabbled briefly in politics and revolution before studying psychiatry at Louisiana State University.
Returning to Costa Rica, Pacheco lived in small towns in the jungle and worked with schizophrenics before becoming director of the national Psychiatric Hospital. He quit three years later in protest because of the scarcity of government funds to care for poor patients.
The father of six children -- five from a first marriage and one with his wife of 27 years, former beauty queen Leila Rodriguez -- Pacheco sought other ways to make money. He wrote books and songs, became a television commentator on social issues and eventually ran a clothing factory that produced pants for his store in downtown San Jose.
He wrote his own commercials featuring a hapless character he called DeSampa Jones (a spoof of Indiana Jones), who was "a funny fellow with a hat, skinny and ugly, and out of a job." DeSampa wore Pacheco's pants to look for work and his life changed. "I sold a lot of pants," the president said with a chuckle about his 10-year stint as a businessman. He was elected president on April 7.
One of the smallest Latin American countries, Costa Rica has no gold, silver or oil and few resources except its coffee crop, but it does have a tradition of hard work. It also has a crippling debt and widespread corruption.
"In order to have progress, you have to kill corruption and catch the thieves stealing foreign aid destined to the poor," the president said. "That is the most important cause of underdevelopment."
When pressed by friends and acquaintances eager to join his government, Pacheco went on national television. "Everybody knows how much I adore my mother," he said. "What if I nominated her as minister of economy?"
Everyone got the message that Pacheco was looking for sound managers, not cronies, noted Pilar Cisneros, the director of Telenoticias, a widely watched news program, in a telephone interview from San Jose, the capital.
Pacheco has selected a team of young economists, trained at a national institution run by Harvard University. Cisneros said Pacheco now faces a challenge: "He is people-oriented and wants to improve housing and health, which costs money. They [his economic team] are pragmatists from the private sector, and this may create conflict."
"His strongest point is that he speaks the language of the people. He knows the nature of Costa Ricans and what to say and how to say it," said Evelyn Fachler, another journalist who has known him for years. She noted his use of local idioms, his ability to communicate difficult themes in simple ways and his ability to switch instantly and effortlessly from humor to profound issues.
Pacheco did not give up his middle-class home when he became president, refusing all trappings of luxury. In that respect, he is not a traditional politician, but independent and determined to be himself, even if it displeases others, Fachler said. "I have a good feeling about him. He won because of his charisma and charm, his persona. I am concerned about his health, however," she said. Pacheco has been a diabetic since childhood and suffered a stroke four years ago.
Pacheco admires the writings of Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as Peruvian authors Mario Vargas Llosa and Ciro Alegria. He describes life as a learning process in which great and humble people have their stories. Ask him who he would be in another life and he shakes his head: "I think I have been useful to mankind, known hard work and pain . . . had friends. I am in love with nature, I am in love with my wife, with life. So . . . let me do it again.'