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Two Costa Ricas

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Same river, two perspectives

Most people talk and write about Costa Rica from the typical vacationing tourist perspective. The rainforests are amazing, the zip-lining is cool, the beaches are wonderful, and the volcanoes are awesome. Visitors tend to treat Costa Rica as a tropical get-away. It is a place where nature is at her finest. National Geographic dubbed the Central Valley of Costa Rica the best annual climate in the world. All of this is true. Costa Rica is a truly beautiful country with abundant sights and activities for visitors.

Costa Rica is also a living functioning country with real people facing real problems behind the tourist facade. It is a country juxtaposed of wealth and poverty, technology and primitive conditions, global aspirations and isolation. To experience the real Costa Rica requires leaving the all-inclusive resorts and the tourist attractions and getting to know people.

There is another side to Costa Rica. Not too far from the lush pristine rain forests and flowing rivers you will, unfortunately, find horrific forest degradation, polluted water ways, and tons of litter. Even though the country is literally two-thirds national park and a world-renowned ecological treasure trove, Costa Ricans do not seem to place the same value on the environment as we do. In general, you will find gross amounts of litter along the roads, trash floating in rivers, and cars spewing all sorts of noxious fumes. This is part the reality of an impoverished nation and culture.

We purposefully lived outside San Jose, the capital, in a predominantly native area away from the tourism and expatriate communities. Areas like Escazu, sometimes called “Gringo Land” by locals,” are the epitome of Americanization in Costa Rica. It reminded me of southern California right away when we first ventured there. The mall there caters to the wealthy elite with stores like Tiffany’s, Macys, and Banana Republic. You can dine at TIGF, Applebee’s, or Azteca. There are also many very upscale restaurants in the area. As you walk around, Porsches, Ferraris, Land Rovers, and Corvettes driven by mainly white expatriates zip along the streets. There is even a very modern and well-staffed private hospital for the privileged who can afford it.

Escazu is in sharp contrast to other areas of Costa Rica. Areas like the southern part of the country where people struggle to get by and largely ignore the outside world. Unfortunately, the wealth brought in to the country through tourism tends to get funneled away from them. The wealthy in the country garnish the lion’s share of the spoils. This is just how things work, is the general feeling.

Latin American has always stood out as the area with the most skewed distribution of wealth. Although Costa Rica has been applauded for its progress in social equality, it still has some deficiencies and there is evidence that it is sliding backwards. Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras are for sure far worse, but Costa Rica aspires to be an example in the region.

Chinese investment in the country is a concern for some. Indeed, Chinese immigration to Costa Rica is accelerating with an already sizeable population of 45,000. San Jose now is home to the world’s newest China town district. China even financed the building of the new Costa Rican National Football Stadium (soccer type). Why? In politics, favors are expected in return. China is second only to the United States as the leading trading partner with Costa Rica. Costa Ricans rightfully worry that Chinese workers will take Tico jobs like they have in the U.S. in a country already stricken with high unemployment.

The trade agreements have not brought down the prices on consumer goods. Commodities, like cars, electronics, clothing, etc. are incredibly high. As we found out, living in Costa Rica is no bargain. Most items are considerably higher than in the U.S. The average Tico has difficulty saving money and getting financially ahead. To worsen matters, the increasing expensiveness of Costa Rica has caused many expatriates, retirees, and tourists to search elsewhere, to places like Ecuador and Peru, taking with them valuable dollars.

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and activist, coined the phrase pedagogy of the oppressed. He used the term to describe how the wealthy elite, the oppressors, either intentionally through action or unintentionally through in-action, subjugate the poor, the oppressed. He argued that the oppressors really are not interested in changing the plight of the oppressed, but merely helping them accept the situation and be thankful for any charitable deeds done on their behalf. "Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them” (Freire, 1970). This paradigm is played out in much of Latin America, even Costa Rica.

I hope that Costa Rica continues on its path to socio-economic equality and full democracy along with environmental activism. It has achieved much in a region of the world ravaged by conflict, corruption, and poverty. It is a beautiful country to visit and the people are wonderful. We made some endearing friends who we hope to visit back in Costa Rica and host in our home in the U.S. someday. When you visit, I encourage you to take a closer look around you and learn the whole Costa Rica.

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