Sunday, February 7, 2010

Adiosta Rica

I'm writing this from about 30,000 feet above probably Ecuador or Colombia, en route to Montevideo, Uruguay.  The flight is about 7 hours, and, with Central America in my rearview, at least for a while, this seems like an opportune moment to try to synthesize my thoughts on my time there.

First let's start with Costa Rica.  I was talking last night with my brother Art, and he asked me to tell him about the place, and I found I had a tough time explaining it.  I think we can agree at this point that I rarely run out of things to say, so I found it a bit surprising, but the truth, I think, is that the real Costa Rica is less tangible to a tourist than the real Nicaragua was.  Costa Rica is a beautiful country, with excellent people and a strong cultural identity, to be sure.  However, it at times also feels like a country that has given its identity over to tourists and expats.  I was trying to articulate this idea to Art, and I think the best explanation I came up with for how Costa Rica differs from other countries is this: visiting another city or country necessarily puts you into the midst of that region's culture.  Its food, its music, its architecture, and its language are all things that you cannot avoid--not that you should want to--and that are just part of the experience of being a tourist.  In Costa Rica, it seems to me to be distinctly possible to visit the country, see a number of places and things, and never once encounter authentic Costa Rican culture.

Tico culture is certainly there--and it's great.  But you have to look for it much more than you do anywhere else I've ever been.  In places like Manuel Antonio, La Fortuna, and, from what I've heard, Jacó, it almost feels like the local culture has quietly moved out of the way to make room for tourist culture.  Even the popular tica refrain, "pura vida"--which literally translates to "pure life" but is used more like "no worries"--is emblazoned on every crappy mug, t-shirt, and stuffed animal you see, making it feel at times like a phrase that belongs more to the country's visitors than to its residents.  I suspect this issue will only continue to grow, as many locals get priced out of their homes in developing tourist hubs like Quepos.

This is, without question, one of the downsides of having a tourism-based economy, and of creating a place in which any traveler can feel at home.  The news is not all bad, of course.  Costa Rica is easily the most stable country in the region, with a good education system and a leading environmental research university.  Many of the people I met were college-educated, with a number of them having studies abroad in Europe.  The lack of a military has allowed Costa Rica to spend on public services far superior to those of their neighbors.  I spent two weeks there without once being panhandled--something I could never say about New York.  A recent ranking system devised by Yale and Columbia placed Costa Rica third in the world in environmentally sustainable policies.  As much as there are any number of tourist services that take advantage of the appeal of the phrase "eco-tourism," there are many more operations that really take the idea to heart, and try to preserve the natural beauty that draws so many of the people who make the economy run.  It would be nice to see outside developers catch up, however.

The Costa Rican political situation is also pretty complex.  The lack of a military has earned it respect in the region and the nickname "the Switzerland of Central America."  President Oscar Arias tried to negotiate a resolution to the Honduran coup last year, although he ultimately failed when the military refused to restore the old presidential government--sort of an important point in those negotiations, I imagine.  There are plenty of domestic issues, as well.  A few of the presidents between Arias's first Nobel-winning term and his current less successful one have been convicted on corruption charges, with another having fled to Europe to escape his own comeuppance.  Interestingly, he political system was a straight two-party system for years, until Ottón Solís mounted an credible third-party push four years ago, narrowly losing to Arias as the candidate of the left-leaning Citizen Action Party (PAC).  This year there are four candidates.  Laura Chinchilla represents Arias's incumbent party, the National Liberation Party (PLN), while the other establishment party, Unidad, tries to overcome all of its convicted former candidates.  Their candidate, Luis Fishman, is running under the amusing and telling slogan "el menos mal," or "the least bad."  The other two candidates, Solís and Otto Guevara, are the surging challengers.  Guevara, the candidate from the Libertarian Movement Party (ML) is a Harvard grad with the most right-leaning agenda in the group.  Of course, in this case, that just means that he recently abandoned his thoughts of privatizing the healthcare and education systems, and he wants to lower taxes.  What's also interesting is that, even with four candidates, virtually no one I talked to seemed particularly inspired by any of them, and a lot of them felt resigned to just voting for their usual party, because they didn't know what else to do.

At any rate, Costa Rica is clearly very different from Nicaragua.  Before I left, Nicaragua had been described to me as "Costa Rica without the excessive tourism."  There is some truth to this, in the sense that there are a lot of cultural similarities--they even argue over who invented gallo pinto--and a lot of the natural landscapes are similar.  But Costa Rica is, in truth, a developed country with no military and a functioning--if occasionally corrupt--democracy.  Nicaragua is, by contrast, still just beginning to climb out of the hole it found itself in by the end of the 1980s.  Relations with the U.S. and its revenue stream obviously have a lot to do with this, but a lot of it can also be traced to the fact that while Sandinistas and Contras were killing each other in the streets of Nicaragua, Costa Rica was spending money on social programs and infrastructure.  A socialist government like Managua's FSLN isn't going to be able to do a lot for the populace if it's spending most of its money on beefing up the military and consolidating power.  Costa Rica has also historically done a better job of utilizing its natural resources.  Even before tourism became king, pineapples, coffee, and palm oil took turns as staple exports.  Nicaragua has the ability to produce all of the same things, but has been stuck dealing with internal turmoil for too long to do anything about it.  So it is no surprise that the two countries are positioned as they are.

The truth is that Nicaragua and Costa Rica remind me a bit of estranged siblings.  They share a great deal, but there is a lingering animosity between them.  Nicas say ticos* are "muy fresa," and ticos blame Nicas for recent surges in crime in the northern part of the country.  Ticos also point out--rightfully although less self-consciously than might be warranted--that Nicaragua does a poor job of protecting its natural resources and landscapes.  Whatever, the case, the countries need to find a way to coexist, economically and physically.  Right now, some 20% of  Nicaraguans live abroad, most of them just across the border in their employment-rich southern neighbor.  Perhaps some combination of Costa Rican investment and Nicaraguan policy change (e.g. less military spending, improved education and environmental protection) would start them down that road.  For the time being, however, it seems a long way off.  As long as one brother remains the second poorest country in the hemisphere, and the other remains the favorite son of all the other countries in the neighborhood, we can expect to encounter these types of issues.

Anyway, with that I move on to South America, where I'll have to learn (again) how to conjugate verbs when I'm calling someone "vos."  I also happen to be arriving barely a week into the month-long festivities of Carnaval, about which I'm incredibly excited.  Uruguay is one of the most developed countries in South America, known largely for its beaches and small old-world style cities.  It is a common vacation destination for Argentinos and Brasileños alike.  I'll have to make friends again pretty much from scratch, so I'm going to leave my misanthropic tendencies at the door.  For the time being, however, I have about 4 hours to kill on this plane, so I'm going to read and maybe take a nap.  If past history is any guide, it may take me a few days on the ground before I get to check back in, so enjoy the Super Bowl, and I'll talk to you all soon.


*If you're wondering about the capitalization, "Nica" comes from the country name, whereas "tico" comes from the diminutive form used in Costa Rica's countryside, where, for example, a baby might be referred to as "el chiquitico."

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