This past summer, our three-generation family took a vacation trip to Costa Rica. Upon our return, I began doing some research into the country and its history. This is a first draft report about what we saw and what I have learned. I welcome additions and corrections.
We did all of our travelling across the country by small vans. We started in San Jose, the capital, and went northwest to the Arenal Volcano area for a few days and then went southwest to the Pacific Ocean before finally travelling back east to the airport. We travelled on good roads and bad ones and saw cities, suburbs, towns, extensive rural sections and, on the ocean, resorts catering to an international clientele. Everywhere, the small towns looked the same; as one guide told us, Costa Rican towns are required to have three things—a school, a football field and a bar. The football fields were immaculate. Here’s a map of the country:
The country is not large, a bit smaller than West Virginia, with Panama to the south and Nicaragua to the north. As most readers probably know, the country is defined by its rain forests and is incredibly beautiful; it has pleasant year round weather in spite of almost daily rainfalls and eight months of a rainy season. The rain, along with the volcanic soil and the warm temperatures, explains why much of the country is covered with forests and the fertility of the soil that’s devoted to agriculture. The country is characterized by the presence of about 100 volcanoes that show some signs of volcanic activity but only five are classified as “active.”
The terrain of the country is divided into two coastal plains–on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea–and a double-sided mountain range that runs north and south through the middle of the country. The range forms a Central Valley that includes the major population centers of the country—San Jose, Heredia, Cartago and Alajuela.
The country has a very varied agriculture, forestry and fishing ecology. It includes dairy cows, cattle, rice, sugar, coffee, bananas, pineapples, teak wood, palm oils, and fisheries on both coasts. It appears to be self-sufficient in foodstuffs except for a substantial supply of name-brand American cereals and snack foods in stores.
Costa Rica’s population is about five million. About 60% of those live in the areas in and around the cities in the Central Valley. The great majority of the people is considered to be of European or European-American Indian descent; approximately 7% is Afro-Caribbean; less than 3% of the people are considered to be indigenous probably less than half of them live on “reserves” that are scattered across the country. There is a sizeable population of Nicaraguan immigrants that continues to grow because of the current political danger in that country. There is also a growing population of American emigres—many of whom have retired to Costa Rica.
In the early twentieth century, thousands of Jamaicans arrived to work on building a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to allow for the more rapid transport of crops for export. The Jamaican immigrants settled on the Caribbean coast and that region still remains the center of the Afro-Caribbean population.
A Distinctive History
I would guess that many people are aware that Costa Rico has been spared much of the pain and torment that have been the fate of people in other nearby countries. And some may know that one of the country’s distinctive political features is that it does not have a standing army. Of course, the question is how come. I hope to provide some answers.
While we were in San Jose, we had an opportunity to see a quite remarkable permanent exhibit in the National Museum of Costa Rica on the anthropological/ historical development of the country. The exhibit was, logically enough, displayed in chronological order, but we managed to see it in reverse order—going from the present to the pre-Columbian period because we misread the directional signs.
In this report, I won’t subject readers to our mistake and will address things in the right order. Since our journey through the museum, I’ve done a bit more reading about Costa Rican history that I’ll incorporate along the way. I’ll begin in the 19th Century. Costa Rica achieved its formal independence from Spain in 1821 without violence and soon afterwards, abolished slavery in 1824. The country secured complete independence from Mexico in 1838.
There appears to have been a significant liberal/enlightenment influence on the development of institutional forms over the course of the rest of the century—affecting matters such as the adoption of representative democratic institutions, public education and universities. As elsewhere, these influences did not extend to the treatment of the country’s remaining indigenous peoples.
Bananas and coffee were the foundational agricultural industries; as is often the case, they were accompanied by the development of artisanal industries, in carpentry and metal working as complements to the operation of the large plantations. In the case of bananas, the development of large scale planting was an accompaniment to the initial building of a passenger railroad from San Jose to Limon (completed in 1890). The American railroad builder, a man named Minor Keith, planted bananas to feed the workers building the railroad. When the passenger trade fell short of expectations, he switched to growing bananas for export. The arrival of the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica in the early years of the 20th Century marked the turn towards direct external control of the plantations. By 1930, the company owned more than three million acres of land. The worsening labor conditions for ever more agricultural laborers led to the establishment of agricultural trade unions and to the Great Banana Strike of 1934, which subsequently resulted in the negotiation of the first contracts. (It would be an interesting project for another day to compare the 1934 strikes in Costa Rica with the ones that were occurring in the United States at the same time).
The Caribbean Legion
During World War II, revolts had been successful in installing democratic institutions in Cuba, Venezuela and Guatemala. Those successes inspired individuals from other countries that continued to be ruled by dictators (specifically, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua). Democratic forces from across the region came together in an informal alliance known as the Caribbean Legion. The Legion’s first military action was designed to overthrow Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. In 1947, a group of 1200 armed men was assembled in Cuba by the Dominican exile Juan Bosch–with the secret support of the Cuban President Ramon Grau. Subsequently, the US government forced Grau to detain the members of the group and the invasion plans were abandoned. This whole episode came to be called the “Cayo Confites affair.” One last note to make concerning it is that the then 21-year old Fidel Castro was a member of the armed group and arrested–but he managed to escape to go on to bigger things.
Jose Arevalo, the Guatemalan president, continued to support the Legion. He had purchased their weapons for the invasion of the Dominican Republic and he subsequently convinced Grau to release the arrested Legion members and their weapons to Guatemala. At the end of 1947, Arevalo also crafted a Pacto del Caribe that formalized a commitment to the overthrow of the governments of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Its language included the following:
We, the undersigned, declare that the immediate re-establishment of the Republic of Central America is necessary for this continent; this principle will be affirmed in the new constitutions of the liberated countries, and each new government will immediately work to implement it with all the resources at its disposal.
The liberated countries pledge to establish a Democratic Alliance of the Caribbean, which will be open to all the democracies of the Caribbean, as well as to El Salvador and Ecuador…
The Democratic Alliance of the Caribbean will constitute an indivisible bloc in all international crises. Its fundamental aims will be: to strengthen democracy in the region; to demand the respect of the international community for each of its members; to liberate the European colonies that still exist in the Caribbean; to promote the creation of the Republic of the Lesser Antilles; to act as one in defense of our common economic, military and political interests.
In the realm of “what might have been”, a Republic of Central America could have been the starting point of a very different regional history that would have spared the people of Central America and its environs of the various miseries that are now dominating the lives of the people of Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and even Mexico. It might also have provided the space for an alternative trajectory to the Cuban Revolution.
As the United States (and its allies) and the Soviet Union engaged in their post-war maneuverings for political advantage, events in Central America, including Costa Rica, were understood through the framework of that global struggle. The US government increasingly justified its continued involvement in the region in those terms. This was most evident in the CIA’s toppling of the Jacobo Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954 and, years later, in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. To give readers a feel for that last event, here’s Phil Ochs singing “The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo”:
The Costa Rican Civil War
But before those developments, events in Costa Rica took an unusual turn just after the Arevalo-sponsored Pacto. Costa Rica had an elected government but Teodoro Picado, the president from 1944 to 1948, refused to support efforts to oust the dictators in nearby countries—which had earned him the enmity of the democratic forces. That had led Jose Figueres Ferrer, a Costa Rican rancher, to begin building a Costa Rican wing of the Legion and to launch efforts to oust Picado.
A presidential election was held in January of 1948. According to the election law, Picado was not eligible to run for re-election. The party in power, which also had a majority in the national legislature, selected Rafael Calderon (who had been president from 1940 to 1944 and remained the party’s power broker) as its candidate. Calderon’s candidacy was backed by an odd couple of the Catholic Church and the Costa Rican Communist Party, at the time called the Popular Vanguard Party, led by Manuel Mora Valverde. The main opposition party selected Otio Ulate Blanco as its candidate. Perhaps most important, Ulate was effectively backed by Figueres.
Although Ulate Blanco won the popular vote by a decisive margin, the National Assembly (which remained under Calderon’s control) annulled the results and Calderon was declared the victor. With 600 soldiers, Figueres launched a war against the government—which had the support of a small army and the Communist Party’s much more substantial militia. The resulting civil war lasted 44 days and cost 2,000 lives. Aid from President Arevalo of Guatemala proved decisive since the US government’s position remained ambiguous and indecisive. (I don’t know what lessons, if any, the US government learned from its hesitations although its actions in Guatemala several years later provide a clue).
The Abolition of the Army
The Figueres forces were victorious and he became the head of La Junta Fundadora de la Segunda Republica charged with establishing a new constitution. On December 1, 1948, Figueres took a “mazazzo” to the tower wall of the army’s central barracks in San Jose to signal the abolition of the army and gave the barracks to the University of Costa Rica for a museum—the museum we visited during our trip.
I confess that I didn’t learn very much during our trip about the ways in Costa Ricans understand the significance of the abolition of the army. Since we returned, I came across a video of a lovely song by children of a song by an accomplished Costa Rican composer intended to promote the understanding of the significance of the abolition:
I should note in passing the quite painful departure in revolutionary politics over the course of the 20th Century from the tradition of anti-militarism once eloquently proclaimed by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg early in the 20th Century. We now pick our wars; the Costa Rican example calls out for something different.
One further thought about the significance of the abolition—it may very well be the case that the reason why Costa Rica has been able to avoid the bloodshed that other countries in Central America and the Caribbean have endured at the hands of the US and its local allies is that the absence of an army deprived the US military and intelligence forces of willing and well-placed conspirators within the country.
During the period of the Junta’s power, there were limited repressive actions directed towards the defeated groups. However, when the communists were discovered to have hidden weapons, the Junta did disband the communist-controlled unions, outlawed the Popular Vanguard Party and arrested two hundred party members. Mora Valverde left Costa Rica for Mexico but he was able to return in 1950 and it appears that he and Figueres achieved some sort of reconciliation. True to its word, after the work of the constituent assembly was completed, the Junta gave up its power and new elections were held. Ulate was elected president. Figueres remained active in Costa Rican politics for several more decades and served two terms (1953-1958 and 1970-1974) as president.
The new constitution adopted in 1949 formalized the abolition of the army. It also recognized the citizenship rights of the Afro-Caribbean population and granted women the right to vote. Existing welfare programs were maintained. All children were guaranteed a free public school education through high school and universal health care was secured. The banks were nationalized and numerous industries were folded into public entities. The ground was established for a substantial social democratic republic.
Costa Rica faced one significant military challenge to its new democracy. In the mid-1950s, it found itself “isolated in a sea of dictatorships”—opposed by what was sometimes referred to as “the International of the Swords”—an alliance of Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala (after the removal of Arbenz) and Venezuela. In 1954, a short-lived invasion was launched from Nicaragua but was thrown back by the Costa Rican Civil Guard.
Costa Rica and Cuba
Any accounting of Costa Rican history for the last seventy years presents us with a compelling opportunity to observe connections and contrasts between Costa Rica and Cuba.
At the end of 1953, the young Argentinian doctor and wanderer, Ernesto Che Guevara, arrived in Costa Rica after having left the Argentina of his birth because it was under the control of the idiosyncratic dictator, Juan Peron. He had yet to become a participant in the Cuban Revolution, with which he would be identified for the rest of his life. He was travelling with a friend, Gualo Garcia, and they arrived at the Costa Rican border with Panama all but penniless. By hook and by crook, they managed to secure passage on a boat to Puntarenas, a port on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (on which, most of the passengers became seasick, but, apparently, not Che). I note this because on our recent trip I too became seasick on a water trip off the Pacific coast. Che and his companion then made their way to San Jose. Guevara had hoped to meet various leaders of the Costa Rican government but was mostly unsuccessful. Guevara was aware that Costa Rica had become a haven for political exiles from across the region.
The two travellers spent time at the “Soda Palace”—a café that was a hotbed of exiles. In the slang of the expatriates it was called “The International”. It was in that café that Guevara first met and made friends with two Cuban members of the 26th of July Movement and survivors of the attacks on the Moncada military barracks. They told him about Fidel Castro, about his ideas and about his plans.
Guevara did meet Manuel Mora Valverde who apparently filled him in on the events of 1948. Later, Mora would say that he was very impressed by Guevara’s personality and political convictions: “… he is a calm man, more than that ‘slowed down’, because he has a series of movements of tics that indicate a great inner restlessness, a dynamism held back by his method.”
Years later, the Dominican Juan Bosch remembered the young Guevara:
Che Guevara visited my house in Costa Rica sometimes. This happened in the first months of 1954, when no one suspected that the young globetrotting doctor was going to have an international celebrity. My son Leon, who was then beginning to paint portraits and who lived with me in the small and sweet Central American country, had made friends with some Argentine anti-Peronist exiles and through that friendship they came to see me, to have a cup of coffee and to exchange opinions about the problems of an America that in those years was a collection of dictators. It was one of those exiles… who came one day accompanied by a silent, serious young man, who from time to time took an inhaler out of his shirt pocket and applied it to his nose while pressing the tiny bladder of the instrument. That young man was Dr. Ernesto Guevara. By then his friends called him Che, national nickname of the Argentines.
Ernesto Che Guevara was asthmatic – and hence the use of the inhaler – but his body was constituted as if it were not. His chest was not sunken, nor was he short or thin. He did not become tall; he was not thick; he was not muscular. However, he produced sensations of physical firmness. It had features that made it unmistakable: the forehead, the superficial arcs, the eyebrows, the eyes, the nose and the mouth. These features immediately evoked Beethoven, and I remember telling my son Leon these words: “That boy has a Beethovian face.” His gaze was both fixed and intense, but with more fixity than intensity, and very clear, almost illuminated. He listened carefully and only occasionally asked any questions, but it was always a question that went directly to the bottom of the problem that was being addressed.
As he himself told me, Guevara had come to Costa Rica from Panama. He was a doctor specializing in allergies and traveled through America with the illusion of knowing everything. From Costa Rica he was going to Guatemala and asked for some information about the country. In Argentina he had opposed Perón and did not want to return to his land while the general was in charge.
Frankly, I did not expect to see him acting in politics, and even less in Cuba, much less in guerrilla actions. I thought he was temperamentally gifted for scientific research. He was controlled, but certainly not cold, and quickly reached the bottom of the problems that caught his attention. I never assumed that he could ever become a communist leader. A few years later, in Caracas, I was visited by a young American looking at our America who wanted to know from my mouth if Che was a communist when he was in Costa Rica. “No,” I said. “In those times I did not feel any inclination to communism, I do not think he had any idea what that was.” And I was not wrong. A few days later, Guevara declared in Havana that he – properly speaking, “we” – had known Marxism in the Sierra Maestra. And I am very foolish or Guevara was a man who spoke the truth in all circumstances.
Che Guevara became a communist – at least, a Marxist – in the Cuban mountains and embraced that doctrine with such hard faith that he died for it. But whoever carefully observes the trajectory of the legendary character who has fallen in the Bolivian jungles, has to distinguish a peculiar nuance in Che Guevara’s communism: he was communist because he was intensely anti-Yankee. Now, why had he become anti-Yankee to the very root of his soul, he, who, when he was in Central America, was looking for an orientation of another kind?
The answer to that question must be sought in Guatemala… …the reports that I have of people who were in Guatemala in those days indicate that the events that took place in that country after the arrival of the young Argentine doctor-mid-1954-produced a profound and disturbing impression on his mind.
Guevara arrived in Guatemala and the Arbenz government was soon overthrown. Guevara, and everyone in both Americas, knew that he had been overthrown “by superior order”—order, that is, from the United States. That intervention – which was not open, like that of Santo Domingo – left in the soul of the Argentine doctor a trace that was like a wound always alive. Since Che Guevara came out of anonymity I had the impression – and I still have it – that his struggle was dedicated more than anything to fighting the United States, and that the root of that attitude is in the facts of Guatemala.
There is something that the Americans have not learned in a century and a half of relations with our countries, and of course they will never learn it, because if this world has seen a hard people to acquire human knowledge–not scientist–that people is the people of the U.S. There are swarming technicians in public relations, but there are not among them, two who have realized that Latin America is a term of sensitivity, a living unit. A tyrant of Venezuela offends, with his only existence, the young people of Chile and El Salvador as well as the Venezuelan youths; an American intervention in Guatemala hurts a young Argentine doctor as much as it can hurt the most proud Guatemalan.
Guevara left for Guatemala and soon I left for Bolivia, precisely for that land of high pampas and dense jungles where he was going to fall thirteen or fourteen years after having visited my house of exile in Costa Rica. I did not see him again, but as soon as I heard his name in early 1957, when he was already in the Sierra Maestra, I remembered that young Argentine doctor. I remembered it clearly. I remembered not only his physical presence but even his voice. Why? I could not say it. Perhaps I was impressed by that tone of fixity, and of a certain anxiety that I saw in his eyes, in his peculiar type of look. An anxiety as of who needs to be and does not find the way to perform; the one of someone who is sure that he has a destiny and does not know how to fulfill it. The Spanish television transmitted scenes related to the death of Guevara. There was a hamlet in the Bolivian jungle, a hamlet that was the stamp of loneliness, misery and ignorance; There was a general covered in gold ribbons and medals, and Che Guevara’s body was lying on a table. There was summarized the drama of America: The misery, the oppression, not imprisoned, not hurt, but annihilated by shots. I evoked some words of Gregorio Luperón that say something like this: “He who tries to end the revolution by killing the revolutionaries is like the one who thinks he can turn off the sunlight by taking his eyes off.”
Costa Rica, in those early years after its “revolution”, provided both an opportunity for exiles to plot and for revolutionary dreamers, like Che, to nourish their dreams. What became of Guevara’s dreams is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it’s important to note that no matter how much he pushed and pulled against the limits and regressions of Castrpism, I don’t think he ever escaped from them. He too needed a different Cuban Revolution.
Figueres provided weapons and other forms of assistance to Castro’s forces as they fought against Fulgencio Batista and secured victory against him in 1959. Later that year, Figueres was invited by Castro to give a speech to a large crowd in Havana. Figueres took the opportunity to praise the Cubans, to declare his solidarity with their cause and to describe what he saw as the challenges facing the American revolutions:
Cubans, what a beautiful word! Cubans sounds like ‘War of Independence’, sounds like ‘Martí’, sounds like an epic of the ‘Sierra Maestra’. Cubans, this hat I bring is called “cachucha” and this “cachucha” means in my country what the “beard” of Fidel Castro means in Cuba…
Sister revolutions are these, Cubans, the “cachucha” of Costa Rica and the “beard” of Cuba. In reality, they are part of a great revolution, the revolution that Latin America is now waging.
In Latin America it is in effervescence–the only continent in the world that is currently in this trance–the idea of representative government, for which one must die–the idea of the division of powers, of the dignity of the judicial power, and above all of the electoral law, the only source of permanent sovereignty for a people.
To the extent that the ruling class, at least in business, that is, the wealthy class, to call things by their names, will support the Revolution because it disagrees with this or that measure, in that same proportion, the Revolution will suffer a retarding effect.
I know those reactions. It is very easy in life to say one such thing they did wrong in my opinion, and therefore I set myself apart. This is the first phase; the second is to speak ill of the Revolution; the third is to criticize it and put the rich companies that own the newspapers at the service of the systematic counterrevolution, and the last one is to get along with the military agencies that want to return to tyranny again. I understand, gentlemen, the feeling of businessmen at this time. They have a great fear, we must say it clearly: the Revolution scares them.
I have faith in the men of the Government of Cuba. A party like this one of the “bearded” brothers of the “cachucha”, a party like this has to tell the people that their struggle and heroism was needed to overcome the tyranny, struggle and heroism will be needed to overcome the misery.
If we live next to a house that burns down, we cannot avoid the consequences; and if we are together with a country as powerful as the United States, we feel the tension of being at war (…) Communism, that is Cuban, Latin American, does not keep me awake. The bad thing would be if someone of us made the mistake of associating with an ideology that is sustained by a distant power (emphasis added).
I very much disagree with the attitude of the United States towards the dictatorships of the Caribbean. I completely disagree with that.
In any case, Cuban friends, you can be sure of one thing: any solution attempted by the Cuban Revolution José Figueres respects it, even if it were against it; I have not come to criticize you, much less to give you advice, but perhaps to expose some of my modest theses, and then hear yours.
Great men have emerged in America and especially here in Cuba. It seems to me that since the time of Independence, nothing as interesting as what is happening now has happened; no men of such magnitude had arisen. Men like Fidel Castro have the right, in the parade of history – which bears a lot of resemblance to this parade of men who has passed through here today – to stand and shout at the heroes who were ahead: “Martí, Bolívar, Moreno, Sucre, San Martín, Santander: Here we are.”
In response to the rather pointed criticism of Castro’s possible alliance with the Stalinists of the Soviet Union, Castro pulled the microphone on Figueres and sent a trade union leader to the stage to attack him. Worse still, Castro attempted to humiliate Figueres by calling him “Pepe Cachucha.” “Cachucha” appears to be a word with both ordinary and slang meanings. Figueres had only intended one meaning but Castro played on both. As he said, the 1948 rebels in Costa Rica had worn inexpensive caps to signal their loyalties and “cachucha” can be understood as meaning a cap. But Castro meant more than that and he contrasted the “Barbados” (bearded ones) men of the Cuban revolution with the Costa Rican rebels who were like women with hair around their vaginas. But “cachucha” does not signal “vagina”. Its equivalent is a vulgar one. A great way to fight and win a political debate!
In 1970, events conspired to bring Costa Rica and Cuba in a face-to-face dilemma. In 1969, Carlos Fonseca, the Nicaraguan founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in exile in Costa Rica, had been arrested and imprisoned for bank robbery there. Another FSLN leader, Humberto Ortega, attempted to free him but was injured, captured and imprisoned. In response, several FSLN members hijacked a LACSA (Costa Rican) airliner and took it to Cuba to demand their release. Figueres sent Valverde to Havana to negotiate a resolution. Whatever the terms of the deal were, the airliner was returned and the two FSLN leaders were released.
Later, Castro was forced to apologize, sort of, to Figures. He needed Costa Rica’s assistance in supporting the growing Sandinista revolt against the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Specifically, he wanted Costa Rica to allow for the transport of soldiers and weapons across the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border. Figueres agreed. But he exacted a price. For some years, he had provided asylum to Robert Vesco, a corporate gangster fleeing from prosecution in US courts, and he wanted to get rid of him. He “offered” him to Cuba and Cuba said yes. Not too many years later, Vesco’s criminal instincts and deeds became egregious enough that the Cuban authorities sent him to prison—where rumors and other sources suggest that he died in 2007. Whatever else this means, it suggests that Figueres knew how to strike a bargain.
The End of the Golden Age
The “golden age” of Costa Rican stability and prosperity, introduced by the post Civil War agreements, lasted until the early 1970s. Then the country, like all too many others, became caught up in the global wave of economic free-fall, initiated in part by the oil boycott but more fundamentally by the return of the ghost of capitalist crisis. At the end of the 70s and in the early 80s, Costa Rica was challenged to reduce its budgets and curb its expenditures on social welfare by the newly empowered international financial institutions—the IMF and the World Bank. In spite of initial resistance, it eventually succumbed but the worsened conditions were never quite as severe as elsewhere.
Nonetheless, the challenges to Costa Rican well-being kept on coming—even in disguises, such as the imposition of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the wake of NAFTA. The challenges have been met by continuing forms of popular resistance to the elimination of benefits and privatization of public services but, as elsewhere, things are almost always getting consistently worse.
Today, the lives of most Costa Ricans appear to be OK. But things are not great. The streets in San Jose are safe but cops are everywhere; police cars use flashing lights even when they are not pursuing anyone; private armed security agents are in many stores; iron gates and fences surround most residences and commercial enterprises and there is barbed wire along the top of the gates and fences. All of this, we learned, is to prevent break-ins. I read one account that suggested that the break-ins are the work of the poorest residents and that much of what they steal is simply recycled back to communities through retail stores that specialize in the trade. The cops apparently don’t trouble themselves with this low-level crime.
We saw no evidence of gentrification in San Jose; in the downtown area there are numerous modern and upscale structures side by side with ordinary homes and retail businesses. The streets are crowded with cars and buses and lots of people walking in the middle of the day; few of the walkers appear to be prosperous. The sidewalks are occupied by people selling crafts, trinkets, jewelry and snacks.
At the heart of the city is a pedestrian boulevard that includes the Old Market (a bit like Essex Street in NYC or the Reading Market in Philadelphia). On the boulevard, one of the most prominent items for sale is lottery tickets—very large lottery tickets, whose value does not likely correspond to their size. The sellers come in all ages—old men and women sitting and waiting behind small tables on stools while taking drags on cigarettes as well as young women more actively trying to attract attention. There are musicians and lots of pigeons getting showers in the fountain outside the National Theater. The whole street reminds me of Canal Street or 14th Street in Manhattan. When it starts to rain, some put up their umbrellas, others just walk on. It’s mostly a drizzle but occasionally it gets a bit heavier.
We didn’t see any of the poorest neighborhoods up close. We did see shacks alongside the highways, although virtually all have electricity, evidenced by omnipresent satellite dishes on rooftops and, according to everything we heard, all have potable running water. One of the odd things that shapes understandings from a distance is that most roofs are made of corrugated iron which I assume is really quite good for dealing with lots of rainfall. And, indeed, Costa Rica is a country that seems to have learned quite well how to deal with the natural landscape that it has inherited and to do as well as it can with it and to do with it as well as it should. That seems like an approach worth learning for a new future.
There seems to be a good deal of drug smuggling coming from South America, mostly along the coasts, that’s intended for the US market and a growing level of gang violence associated with it—although at levels far below other countries. There does not seem to be much of a drug use problem within Costa Rica itself.
Costa Rica is a self-consciously environmentally aware state. Virtually all of its electricity is generated by renewable sources (especially by hydro-electric power). There are lots of symbolic gestures in restaurants and hotels about the careful use of paper and water. The country sells carbon credits to European countries to allow it to pay farmers to let land revert to forests rather than growing crops. On the other hand, all mass transit is based on buses; there are lots of cars and motorcycles and the traffic in San Jose is awful.
It’s tempting to treat Costa Rica as a relic but we should not. Nothing about its future is pre-ordained. It may yet come again to be a beacon for freedom in Central America. We should pay close attention to this small land of humanity at work.
In the dungeon of the barracks that became the museum mentioned at the beginning of this article, an inscription on the wall for a different exhibit quoted the German philosopher, Hegel, “Nada Es; Toda Deviene.” “Nothing is; everything becomes.” That’s true for Costa Rica.
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