Carballo-Obregón: Culture Has a New Commander,
10 May 2010, Costa Rica

Since May 8, after the ceremony of power transfer, Costa Rica has a new President, Laura Chinchilla Miranda. The Ministry of Culture and Youth also has a new leader, Manuel Obregón, who replaces María Elena Carballo, who was in charge during the four years of Arias Sánchez’s administration.

Even though his capacity to direct ambitious projects, like Orquestas del Río Infinito and Orquesta de la Papaya, and his talent as a musician are well known, his appointment took many by surprise, even himself, as he mentioned in an interview a few weeks ago. He was the last Minister to be appointed and he only had fifteen minutes to decide whether to accept or not. When he was deciding, he was not aware of the prohibition to carry out liberal professions that is established in the Law Against Corruption and Illicit Enrichment in its 14th article for ministers and civil servants. According to it, he would not be able to play with his band Malpaís nor with any other project (if he charges for it). How to combine both facets, if it is possible, is a matter to be resolved.

Obregón arrived this morning to the CENCA with some points in his favour. Firstly, he is a well known figure within the cultural sector, which legitimizes him to take up this post, something his predecessor lacked – she was a literature professor at INCAE and had not held a position of such importance before. Secondly, besides being an artist, Obregón has lead important musical projects in the region, like the Orquesta de la Papaya (made up by Central American musicians) and the Orquesta del Río Infinito (made up by South American musicians). He also knows well the great cultural diversity of our country thanks to the ethno musical research he has done all over America, he has been engaged with nature and environmental causes and is well prepared, experienced and sensible enough to recognize the social development that culture brings to the country.

The success of his administration will depend greatly on his working team, especially because this is the first time he takes a position in public administration, where things can get difficult if you are not aware of the small print. Some members of the previous administration will continue and others will leave. This ship is somehow different and the crewmembers too.

María Elena Carballo’s Legacy

The four years spent in this position were not easy for María Elena Carballo, for various reasons. Firstly, because the Ministry of Culture had fallen behind structurally and institutionally, its budget was very poor (0.33% of the Nation’s Budget) and the aim was to increase it 1%.

The difficulties began from the start of her administration, when ex-president Arias said that he was interested in moving the Presidential House to the Centro Nacional de la Cultura (CENAC). The cultural sector did not allow this to happen and he had to take this decision back.

Another difficulty faced was that the media were interested more in the brand of her shoes, purse, or perfume, or, as has already happened to Obregón, about where she bought her clothes, instead of the projects and programs she was carrying out. Unfortunately, the image created by the media ends up influencing public opinion.

Culture provoked much positive news, but also some negative news, the latter related mainly to dismissals and resignations. During her administration were dismissed Samuel Rovinsky (Teatro Nacional) and Ana Victoria Carboni (Melico Salazar). Aurelia Garrido (Vice Minister) and her successor Laura Pacheco, Esteban Calvo (Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo), and Iván Rodríguez (Festival Internacional de las Artes) resigned.

The reasons and motives behind were of various kinds and created, for some, a negative atmosphere within the Ministry. Other members of the staff, however, thought that the Ministry was a good working environment.

However, as was stated by Virginia Pérez-Rattón, a few weeks ago during the National Prize-giving Ceremony, it would not be generous not to acknowledge Carballo’s and her staff’s achievements. The main achievement was to reach 1.07% of current income’s budget as the budget for the Ministry of Culture, which corresponds to 0.66% of the national budget. This achievement should be maintained and improved during the present administration, which will only be attained by spending the budget efficiently (the Ministry of Culture was the best Ministry to fulfil the goals set by the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo) and demonstrating culture’s impact in the country’s development.

The consequences of this budget rise and good planning (the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo established ten goals) were evident: the Ministry reached a wider coverage (70% nationwide), the Public Libraries were digitalized, and buildings were restored throughout the country.

On the other hand, the cultural offer was increased with programs like Teatro al Mediodía, and dance and theatre workshops in many regions of the country. The Ministry also invested in the independent sector through Proartes, a program that the sector had been trying to materialize for a long time.

The country was filled with music thanks to the music schools that make up the National Musical Eduction System and benefited thousands of children, youngsters and their families. The Ministry changed route and demonstrated that culture is important for the country.

Challenges and Pending Matters

The Ministry of Culture has important pending matters.

Some of the programs and projects that are on course need to be strengthened and for this some laws must be approved: National Library Law, Parque de la Libertad Law, Audiovisual Industry Support Law, SINEM Law, La Aduana Arts and Technology Centre Law, National Music Centre Law’s Reform, Heritage Law. There are programs like Proartes that must become independent through the enactment of a law.

This independence is necessary to face another key issue of the Ministry: centralization. There are institutions overloaded with programs, others need more staff, others have too many members. A profound institutional reorganisation is required.

Some of the pending matters are: to decide which road institutions like the National Theatre Company should take; to equip the La Aduana Arts and Technology Centre and decide how it should be administered; programming and infrastructural issues in theatres should be solved, and there should be a better link between tourism and economy.

The journey has just begun. Manuel Obregón is navigating a new river, in a larger ship and with a different crew. We hope it will be safe from storms and that in four years we will arrive safely to our destination.