In tiny, peaceful Costa Rica, a country that lives on its reputation as a laid-back vacation spot, the political ascent of a conservative evangelical pastor has caught many by surprise.
Fabricio Alvarado Munoz – who has said he’ll challenge the rights of same-sex couples, consider withdrawing from the Inter-American Human Rights Court and uphold the country’s rigid anti-abortion laws – hopes to win the presidency.
His popularity is part of the growing tide of evangelical political power in Latin America – a force that is helping make Central America one of the most socially conservative parts of the hemisphere.
“The conservative message of evangelicals regarding reproductive rights and marriage is going mainstream,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “The most important flagships of the evangelicals, including their homophobic and pro-life discourse, is not that extreme to Costa Rican voters and voters in other countries.”
Latin America remains predominantly Catholic, and Catholicism is the official state religion of Costa Rica. But Protestantism has been making deep inroads in the region. According to the Pew Research Center, about 20 percent of Latin Americans now identify as Protestant, up from just 3 percent just a few decades ago.
And many of those converts subscribe to fundamental forms of Pentecostal Christianity – and that’s being reflected in local politics.
Driven by conservative values, Central America has adopted some of the most restrictive reproductive laws on the books.
In Costa Rica, women can have abortions only if they can prove their life or health is at risk. In Guatemala, Mexico and Panama abortions are only allowed to save a mother’s life. And in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, abortion isn‘t legal under any circumstance.
The fact that El Salvador and Nicaragua are both run by former leftist guerrillas illustrates how conservative social views transcend political leanings.