Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the former president of Costa Rica, gave a lecture on Tuesday, titled “Fighting for Democracy and the Planet,” to an Alice Statler Hall Auditorium packed with Cornellians.
Alvarado spoke about his time in office and about multiple issues he faced during his mandate, from the rise of populism and pushback against same-sex marriage to the global pandemic. He also spoke of his accomplishments while in office, such as enacting economic and environmental reform.
The lecture was part of the Bartels World Affairs Lecture, a series of talks hosted by the Einaudi Center for International Studies. The program brings distinguished international figures to campus each year to speak on global topics and meet with Cornell faculty and students, particularly undergraduates — Alvarado’s visit was sponsored by the Henry E. ’48 and Nancy Horton ’48 Bartels World Affairs Fellowship. Past speakers have included Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, and Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesian Minister of Finance.
Alvarado is a journalist, politician, writer and professor who served as Costa Rica’s president from 2018 to 2022. He had previously held a position in the country’s cabinet as minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion.
Students expressed their enthusiasm and expectations for the lecture before the event began.
“I thought it was a good mix of what I’m trying to combine for possibly a future career,” said Nicole Collins ‘25, a climate change and Spanish minor. “The speaker just seemed really interesting. He was president of Costa Rica, and I thought this was a really cool opportunity to meet someone like that.”
Other students were hoping to hear Alvarado’s thoughts on a recent report on the climate crisis by the United Nations.
“I am interested to hear what the past president of Costa Rica has to say about organizing countries to combat climate change — specifically, regarding the recent report from the U.N. climate change panel that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is becoming increasingly out of reach based on our current actions,” said Nicholas Behrens grad. “What advice does he have for countries to develop climate policy?”
The lecture opened with introductions from Prof. Rachel Beatty Riedl, government — who is also director of the Einaudi Center — and Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff.
Alvarado began by speaking on his personal story and the reasons why he became involved in politics — he had previously worked in the private sector as the Adviser of the Legislative Citizens Action Party caucus for the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly, and by 2014 he was living in Panama, about to become a father.
Alvarado later became the youngest member of the Costa Rican cabinet in 2014, when he first stepped into the role of Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion, but he remained unwilling to pursue higher government positions.
However, Alvarado noted that in 2016, the events of Brexit, the United States presidential election and the failed Colombian peace referendum motivated him to pursue politics further because of concerns for the future of his country and his son.
“Confronted with any given condition, you have the choice of loyalty [and settling, or] you have the choice to voice your opinion [and] try to change the situation,” Alvarado said. “Either you choose the exit or change [your] party, change [your] position.”
Alvarado said his unlikely road to leadership began when he first launched what he described as a “value-driven” political campaign, which included support for egalitarian marriage, economical reform and sustainable development.
“I was talking during the campaign about enforcing taxes,” Alvarado said. “We supported [marriage equality] for citizens in Costa Rica. In a society that remains very conservative, we openly supported the idea of [same-sex] marriage and also supported what was called the ‘therapeutic’ abortions [for medical necessity].”
Despite the controversial issues on which his campaign focused, Alvarado managed to win the election with 60 percent of the popular vote.
Alvarado expanded on the achievements and challenges of his government, including the legalization of marriage equality and a financial reform that generated controversy and civil unrest in the country. He also discussed the challenges of governing a nation during a global pandemic and expressed criticism against his administration’s COVID-19 response.
“Talking to people about taxes is hard,” Alvarado said. “[And] most people are not happy with us [about the COVID-19 response], as many people are not happy when you say you have to take a mandatory vaccine. But you do it out of love for your kids, out of love for your country, out of love for your fellow people.”
Alvarado also spoke about the importance of taking action to address climate change. He commented on Costa Rica’s past vanguardist efforts to adopt universal healthcare, institute a national park conservation system and abolish the country’s military to finance social projects.
Reflecting on his presidential legacy, Alvarado discussed how he thought of his son Gabriel and what prospects he was leaving for the younger generations.
“‘What was your contribution? Did you do anything useful to try to change what my world is going to be?’ That was not only [Gabriel], but all his generation,” Alvarado said, noting the questions he aimed to address for his son’s generation. “[Taking action] goes beyond asking that question to us. And we’d better be ready to answer with the best of ourselves. And I believe the best of ourselves is in our thinking [and] in our efforts, but also our love to the ones that [came] before us.”
Alvarado then spoke of the plan to make Costa Rica carbon neutral by 2050. The controversial project, called the National Decarbonization Plan, was criticized as unrealistic and ineffective, according to Alvarado. He also noted that the Californian carbon-neutral plan was modeled after the Costa Rican plan.
“It is not only the ethical thing to do for the future of humanity, but it is also possible,” Alvarado said. “Never underestimate the power of leading by example.”
When asked by The Sun what he hoped to accomplish in his new role as a professor of diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University , Alvarado said he was going to use his knowledge and experience from working in government to teach the next generation of global leaders.
“[I hope] to relate to young people and share my experience with young people,” Alvarado said. “Now what I want to try is to share a little about my experience and try to get others to not give [up] under hopes that it is possible [to find solutions].”
At the conclusion of the presentation, President Alvarado was awarded recognition as Bartel Speaker of the year.
At the reception following the lecture, students and faculty shared their takeaways from the event.
“President Quesada is undoubtedly a remarkable and influential figure in the realm of climate issues and democracy,” said Rhys Healy ’25. “Hearing about his growth and accomplishments as an aspiring novelist, creative environment social activist and politician, it was intriguing to see how he advocates for the balance of sustainability while supporting growing livelihoods.”
Attendees said they found Alvarado’s message compelling and relevant to current issues.
“I admired that he tried to find a balance between representing the democracy of Costa Rica and doing what was best for the country relative to improving people’s lives,” said Jenna Ceraso ’25. “[President Alvarado] had a strong focus on connecting with others who are different from you and finding common ground and a strong emphasis on empathy and love.”
Riedl expressed her satisfaction with the event, adding that Alvarado’s ideas were important for the Cornell community to hear.
“President’s Alvarado’s message resonates so strongly with the many strengths that Cornell brings to bear in environment and sustainability, policy and health,” Riedl said. “His message of love, of truth, of finding your capacities and self-awareness [shows] that you can make a difference when using your knowledge, science and evidence to advance the public good.”