U alumnus runs in Costa Rican presidential race

by Brian Close

A University alumnus could become the first black president of Costa Rica.
Dr. Sherman Thomas is a long shot in the Feb. 1 election, but overcoming adversity is nothing new for Thomas. Besides teaching for more than 20 years, Thomas also founded a major Costa Rican political party and talked his way out of a hostage situation.
Thomas came to the University on a Rockefeller scholarship and received his doctorate in chemistry in 1969.
After teaching for 20 years at the University of Costa Rica in San Jose, several people encouraged Thomas to run for the presidency. He started the Costa Rica Renovation Party in 1994.
“Seeing what has been happening in the country in the last few years and being in a position to do something, I felt it was time to get involved,” he said.
This election will mark the party’s first attempt at reaching public office. Other party members will run in state and local contests.
Since he has “no money,” Thomas said his campaign has consisted of giving speeches on the radio and in person. He has actively campaigned at farmers markets, which host farmers from all over the country.
Thomas will focus on the importance of family during his campaign. “Families are the basis of any society,” he said. “As families go, societies go.”
Lupita Barahona, assistant to the Costa Rican consul to Minnesota agreed. “(Thomas) is a very intelligent guy; very committed to family,” she said.
While there are about 10 government agencies offering assistance to families, Thomas said he will propose having them work more closely together to provide more efficient services.
“We are proposing a Ministry of Family Affairs,” he said. “We will make better use of the money we are now investing.”
Other areas Thomas will focus on include: the fiscal deficit, foreign debt, cost of living, and corruption, which Thomas said is prevalent under the current leadership.
Besides his stance on issues, Thomas also hopes some publicity he received will help his chances.
Thomas was held hostage for 16 hours while teaching a class one day. After calming the situation, he became friends with his captor. He said news coverage of the incident gave him nationwide publicity.
As a teacher in a country of 3.4 million people, many in the government high-level private sector jobs are among his former students.
“Practically all University (of Costa Rica) graduates have heard of Sherman Thomas,” he said. “I was very active in the administration end of the University.”
The country’s two main parties, Liberation and Unity, have encouraged people who are dissatisfied with the government to send a message by abstaining from voting, Thomas said. By doing so, the parties hope to assure themselves 40 percent of the vote necessary to win the election.
Thomas, on the other hand, is encouraging those citizens to cast a vote — something Costa Ricans have historically done.
In the past, Costa Rica has had a more than 90 percent voter turnout, said Tony Andersen, honorary Costa Rican consul to Minnesota. In contrast, the U.S. voter turnout was only 49 percent in 1996.
“Election day is almost a fiesta. We think we in the U.S. are proud of being a democracy; it is very important to the people of Costa Rica,” Andersen said. “Costa Rica has a grand history of democracy that goes back 150 years or more. It is the longest standing, real democracy in Latin America.”
Though Thomas talks little of his days at the University, he says he has fond memories of his professors and his college experience.
Andersen, who met Thomas on a trip to Costa Rica, said Thomas would be a very capable candidate.
“When you have a University of Minnesota graduate going back to his country to maximize his education, that’s an exciting statement about a very special kind of person,” he said.
Thomas, whose mother was Costa Rican; his father, Jamaican, said being black during the civil rights movement also taught him some lessons he will apply if elected.
“Don’t ever get caught up by what’s on the surface,” he said. “Always dig deep, there’s always much more underneath.”