Laura Chinchilla, the former Costa Rican vice-president and a political protégée of the legendary outgoing president Óscar Arias, took office recently to become the country's first ever woman president and Latin America's fifth in the last two decades. In February, she won a landslide victory for her centre-right National Liberation Party (PLN). Her closest rival, Ottón Solís of the centre-left Citizens Action Party (PAC), in fact conceded defeat with only quarter of the votes counted, as he trailed by 23 percentage points to 47 at the time. Costa Rica is one of the continent's most stable democracies. Since 1899, it has had only two very short periods of dictatorship; it even has no army, and in 1987 President Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for a plan that ended a long period of brutal civil war in five other Central American states. Costa Rica also has regular rainfall, a strong ecotourism sector, and popular exports in the form of coffee, pineapples, and bananas, with newer industries such as microchip production also emerging. As a result, the population of 4.5 million enjoys the region's highest living standards, with a per capita income approaching $7,000.

President Chinchilla faces systemic and policy challenges. The existing social-democratic welfare system and public infrastructure are under pressure after long periods of allegedly cronyistic politics and physical neglect. Public perceptions of cronyism throughout the system may well have contributed to the severe fall in the Left vote, which took Mr. Solís to within two percentage points of the presidency in the 2006 elections. Other pressures have arisen from Costa Rica's accession to the US-dominated Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), under which several public sector activities have been opened to the private sector. The new President has said she would continue the privatisation process. CAFTA, however, faces strong opposition within the country, and Mr. Solís almost succeeded in getting it scrapped in 2007. Furthermore, Costa Rica has a low crime rate but unfortunately it is a transit country for an increasing volume of drug trafficking. Other sources of potential tension lie in Ms Chinchilla's own attitudes. A social conservative, she is opposed to abortion, to same-sex marriages, and to the separation of church and state. Costa Rican feminist groups doubt that she will make much difference to the overall position of women, despite the fact that women now hold 23 of the 57 parliamentary seats. Much will depend on President Chinchilla's capacity to negotiate and compromise. In a significant sense, Costa Rica stands at a crossroads.

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