Costa Rica: An Introduction


My study abroad in Costa Rica has just started, and part of the requirement is that I keep a journal or a blog of some sort, to process and explore the issues we are learning about on our trip and will be studying afterward. I figured you might all enjoy a blog, so here we are.

In preparation for this trip, we watched the documentary A Bold Peace, about the demilitarization of Costa Rica in 1948. This year, Costa Rica celebrates 71 years of being a peaceful country, and their story challenges us to re-imagine what things like "national security" mean, as well as questioning whether or not a solution like Costa Rica's could be scaled up to a country the size of the United States. (Side note: I'm having trouble writing this blog because I saved it until the end of a long day in Costa Rica, and "The United States" keeps sticking because of how many times I've said "Los Estados Unidos" today. Oi.)

National Security and U.S. Intervention

According to this documentary, president Figureres Ferrer abolished the Costa Rican military primarily because it failed the cost/benefit analysis. Keeping a standing military (a paid one) would use so much of the Costa Rican budget that could be spent on education or social infrastructure and yet still be too small to make a significant difference in potential military conflicts that it didn't seem wise to maintain it. Additionally--and this point really stuck with me--the militaries of Central American countries have been frequently used (or encouraged, or supported) by the U.S. government to overthrow elected Central American governments. Military coups have been frequent enough that the Costa Rican president, after being democratically elected, decided not to risk it and disbanded the military. Who knows which reason was foremost, the cost/benefit or the security of a democratically elected presidency, but it's worked. The Costa Rican electoral process, though no doubt not perfect, has continued to function for the last 71 years, and seems to be continuing strong.

During the Cold War, the United States (under Ronald Reagan) pressured Costa Rica to take a stand against "communist" governments in Central America. This was during the time that the U.S. was backing the contras in Nicaragua, and they wanted Costa Rica to join them in pressuring/fighting Nicaragua's "communist" governement. The U.S. was working on the assumption that any government in South or Central America which was successful and communist would encourage other countries to convert to communism, and thus threaten the security of the United States. Reagan's government went so far as to threaten Costa Rica with no further financial aid if they wouldn't re-create their military, forcing Costa Rica to officially declare neutrality. They have been neutral ever since, and have not re-formed their military, in spite of being pressured to do so. The United States continue to support coups in Central and South America, such as those in Bolivia and Venezuela in the past few years, as the Organization of American States (OAS) has taken it upon itself to invalidate elections even in cases when no fraud has been shown.

The abolition of its military raises important questions about what "national security" means, and how such a concept is defined. The Costa Ricans seem to view "national security" as something that requires having good international relations and a stable democracy. To their thinking, free education for all (including college), accessible health care, and a sustainable infrastructure are all national security issues. The nation is secure when the people are safe, healthy and happy, and Costa Ricans don't put faith in the ability of a standing military to guarantee that safety. They do, however, utilize the court systems, both domestically and internationally. In 2017, Costa Rica sued Nicaragua in the International Court of Justice for setting up a military post on their territory, in a strip of land which has been contested throughout the years, and which Nicaragua claimed they "thought" was theirs because Google maps showed it being in Nicaragua. This dispute had begun several years before, but Nicaragua wasn't backing down or settling the dispute financially, so Costa Rica brought it to the court. This is a good example of a situation where a country with a standing army would likely have responded with military force, and a conflict at the border would likely have resulted. Because of Costa Rica's commitment to peace, they pursued resolution in the courts, and ultimately won. Nicaragua accepted the International Court of Justice's ruling, and the situation was resolved peacefully.

Neoliberalism and Central American Economies

Neoliberalism in economics is a theory which became popular in the 1980's under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and which may be regaining popularity today, under the Trump administration. Neoliberalism posits that governments should not regulate capitalism or trade, but should be limited to the protection of private property and the founding and running of the national military. People who support neoliberalism believe that the economy can best flourish--and free trade most succeed--when the government is not involved in the process. Removing government regulations, they argue, allows the market to manage itself, provides workers with access to more jobs, and encourages countries to work together on trade which will most benefit all parties. Opponents to neoliberalism, however, argue that unregulated capitalism ultimately benefits only those at the top of the economic structure, and exacerbates income disparity while removing safety nets often provided by governmental regulations and social programs.

In the case of Central American countries such as Costa Rica, neoliberalism has brought about trade agreements which ultimately do not benefit most civilians in Costa Rica. Ideally, free trade would open markets in other countries and allow both imports and exports which benefit everyone. In practice, according to A Bold Peace, "free trade" has brought chain stores and businesses such as Wal-Mart and Mc Donalds from the United States to Costa Rica, where they put small, locally owned stores out of business. Tourist attractions, such as all-inclusive resorts and cruises, create opportunities for tourists to visit Costa Rica without ever actually setting foot outside of the cordoned-off tourist areas. These areas are owned, run and sometimes staffed by non-Costa Ricans, and when Costa Ricans are hired it is often for low-paying positions. The consequence of this type of unrestrained, unregulated capitalistic neoliberalism is, in my opinion, not beneficial to the peoples of Costa Rica, but rather is imperialism and colonization wearing new clothes.

Economic Condition

Costa Rica became a member of the United Nations in 1945. It is also a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the 1980s, the IMF, the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Treasury developed policy recomendations for countries in Central and South America which became known as "The Washington Concensus". These policies were primarily neoliberal in orientation and expressed the belief that free-market economies and reduced state involvement were vital for the economic recovery of countries in the global south. This approach to economics has encouraged Trans National Corporations (such as the previously mentioned McDonalds and Wal-Mart) to set up shop in Costa Rica. However, the outcome of the Washington Concensus' policies have not been all that was hoped. Income inequality in Costa Rica is higher than that in many Central American countries. There seems to be a connection between the sort of neoliberal approach to economics and scoring poorly on the GINI index (a way of scoring equality or inequality in incomes of the peoples in a particular country)--more income in a country in total doesn't necessarily equate to more income for everyone in the country. It's difficult for someone who isn't schooled in economics to grasp all these concepts at once, but the Purchasing Parity Power (PPP) is another way that economists measure and compare the economic productivity and standard of living between countries. The idea of the PPP is that ideally a person in a country should be able to buy the same product for the same amount, once adjustments are made for currency conversion. A $10 t-shirt in the United States should cost $10 worth of the income of a person in Cost Rica, as well as a person in Germany. When using this approach to determining the GDP of a country one is more able to determine a closer to accurate GDP than when just looking at the GDP on its own. This index tells us that the top 20 countries produce 79% of the world's economy. Costa Rica is one of the other 173 countries which make up less than 25% of the world's economy.

Present Threats to Costa Rican National Security

Income inequality and the continued failure of the Costa Rican government to deliver on promises to improve infrastructure are among the top threats to Costa Rican National Security currently. Dissatisfaction with the wage disparity is high, and is impacting the elections and political process. Additionally, the rise of Evangelical Christians and Pentecostal Christians in Costa Rica has created political conflicts around issues such as abortion and gay marriage which mirror conflicts we are seeing in the United States. Edgar Mora Altamarino, an Athiest, resigned his position in July after national protests against his leadership of the education of Costa Rica, including Pentecostal-Christian-led protests against his support of allowing transgender persons in schools to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. This resignation is only one of a number of officials who have been forced into resigning for various reasons over the last few months or years, many of those reasons having to do with issues one might consider social justice issues.

Costa Rica's Alternative Way

Costa Ricans are proud of promoting "pura vida", the best life. They frown on the idea of military force, and it is said they are even polite when fighting (men outside a bar yelling at each other in "usted" form, rather than the more casual "tu" form). Their peace-focus has created a country which is striving to lead in areas such as sustainable energy and environmentalism. Costa Rica consistently scores high in quality-of-life and satisfaction measurements, and when we broached the topic of Costa Rica's demilitarization with our Spanish teacher this morning, her response was "Why would we spend all that money on the military? There's education to fund!" In a country where mall food-court meals are served on ceramic plates with real silverware rather than plastic or disposable containers, life expectancy has risen along with literacy, and sustainability valued, it's easy to see why Costa Ricans are proud of their beautiful country and "pura vida".

Simultaneously, however, poverty is still a significant issue in Costa Rica, as people in the "slums" are impatiently waiting for all that money saved by not having a military to turn into running water or sustainable sewage systems in their neighborhoods. Costa Ricans may be peace-loving, but every house is surrounded by metal bars with double or triple locks keeping the residents safe from their peace-loving fellow citizens. It feels contraditctory to me, a new-comer to Costa Rica who's just starting to learn how people here think, what they value, what they believe, and how they want to live. And, while I would love to say that demilitarization is a workable solution for every country out there, when we asked our Spanish teacher what Costa Rica would do if Nicaragua invaded, her quick (and glib) response was "Call Los Estados Unidos". The United States still has a big military, and Costa Rica knows it's in our interest to protect them. So why have a military of your own if you've got a bigger one you can call? I know that's a simplistic response, and I adore the idea of resolving international conflicts through the international courts as Costa Rica did with Nicaragua, but I can't help but wonder: Would Nicaragua have followed the ruling of the International Court of Justice if they hadn't known that countries with big militaries might be willing to step in to enforce that ruling? I don't know the answer yet, but I'm afraid it might be "no".

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