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Costa Rica: The Manicured Middleman

July, 2001


Costa Rica, or the Rich Coast, is endowed with spectacular jungle adorned beaches, lush and colorful flora and amazing lava-spewing volcanoes. In the heart of this natural wonderland, San Jose bustles with a diverse and professional populace. The city itself is home to 300,000 people, or one third of the county’s population.

During my time in Costa Rica, I stayed with a marvelously warm, large and boisterous family in a suburb of San Jose. In the Latin American tradition, there were a plethora of small children laughing, singing and dancing. The sound of Costa Rican swing music mixed with the ubiquitous smell of beans simmering on the stove. Every evening during our family cena or dinner, Senora Liquia, our housemother, spent hours chatting with me about Costa Rican politics and power structure.

Costa Rica is seemingly an oasis of hope within a post-war and poverty-stricken isthmus. I was pleased to learn that there are more teachers than police officers in Costa Rica and that they have not had a standing army since 1948. Our housemother asserted: "Our problems come from our neighbors the Nicas and the El Salvadorians.” Costa Rican political analysts agree that Costa Rica’s non-financial problems during the twentieth century stem from the 500,000 Salvadorian and Nicaraguan refugees who have poured across the border since the 1970’s.

Many tourists seek out Costa Rica’s awesome seascapes and active wildlife. But, for those of us who seek answers to questions about Costa Rica’s invincibility, we are left asking: “So what is Costa Rica’s deal anyway?”

Within the context of the civil wars that took place during the nineteen eighties in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, how did this tiny country evade all of the problems faced by their neighbors? I asked a number of Costa Ricans why they thought their country was so different. The response was unanimously, “its just pura vida maje.” This translates to something like, “Its just totally chill dude.”

However, this sanctuary of peace and prosperity may serve only as a comfortable mirage for the passing visitor. Looking more closely, one finds racial tensions, hidden urban poverty and a slow but insidious destruction of government allocated rainforests.

As civil wars drew to a close in the early nineteen-nineties and peace treaties were signed throughout Central America, economists and government officials are pushing bothersome issues such as poverty, xenophobia and the destruction of rain forests to the sidelines. Instead of addressing national, social and economic problems, government officials focus national funds and energies into building Disneyland-like facades around their national parks and historical landmarks.

As illustrated by Senora Liquia’s comment, and substantiated by Costa Rican political analysts, many Costa Ricans ignore the deep historical roots of their economic and racial problems. Racial discrimination that began after initial contact in the sixteenth century against indigenous and Afro-Costa Rican populations are reflected in the modern political structure. These tensions are further exacerbated by fears that immigration from Nicaragua and El Salvador is causing the job market to close.

In many respects Costa Rica is a mirror of our own immigration policies and beliefs. For example, Senora Oscar the father in our home believes that “Immigrants are a big problem, because they come here and go to our schools until they are old enough to work. Then they drop out of school and take our jobs.” This statement illuminates the intricate embroidery of socio-cultural tensions between newcomers and Costa Rican citizens.

Through evening chats with my host family and interviews with nature experts in the jungles, I ascertained that the Costa Rican people and government are hanging precariously on the edge of the twenty-first century. In essence, the peace and tranquility Costa Rica experienced during the twentieth century is historically misleading. Further, the current socio-political circumstances in Costa Rica reflect a larger global movement towards privatization of government into the hands of multi-national corporations.

Environmentally, Costa Ricans assert that their government is the only government in Central America that is taking an active role in the preservation of its natural rainforests. 15% of Costa Rica’s land is dedicated to national parks and preserves. However, deeper probing and analysis reveals that this national environmental conscience may not be completely altruistic.

While I was hiking through Monteverde with our nature guide Miguel, I asked about how the allocation of national funds to the preservation of the rainforests was related to the tourist industry. Miguel chuckled, stating “The government receives a huge amount of money from the tourist industry each year. But, the increase of people tromping carelessly through the forests and feeding the animals causes similar damage to these natural ecosystems.” Elucidating the other side of the coin, this statement shows that the government’s interest in preserving its rainforests does not stem from a desire to preserve nature. Contrarily, the government seeks to promote its own business enterprises through privatized tourism.

The United States government, backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, continues to provide financial incentives for developing countries such as Costa Rica. Business interests throughout the world allow deforestation, labor exploitation, civil strife and massive privatization schemes for basic services to take place. It is not enough to analyze Costa Rica’s peace and prosperity at face value. Figuratively speaking Costa Rica represents a manicured middleman who carries out larger economic and political interests. As a passing visitor, I feel like a small child being taunted in game of political catch, only the ball these political powers are playing with is our environment and our basic human rights.

-Alex Clement
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