Leader: Luis Alberto Monge
Economy: GNP of $1730 per person (1980) monetary unit; colon
Main exports: coffee, bananas, sugar, beef
National debt: $3.3 billion (1982)
People: 2.2 million
Health: Infant mortality 24 per 1000 live births
Daily calorie availability: 113%
Culture: 97% white and mestizos; small black and native Indian minorities
Religion: predominantly Roman Catholic, with some Protestant groups, Spanish colony from 16 – 19th Century; independent since 1836.
Source: World Development Report 1982
The ‘Switzerland of Central America’, the ‘friendliest people’, the happiest children’. Descriptions of Costa Rica by both visitors and Ticos, as the people call themselves after the colonial saying ‘we are all hermaniticos (little brothers)’, abound in superlatives. Indeed this tiny, little-known country that abolished its army 35 years ago is also the most democratic and peaceful in Latin America – with the highest literacy rate and an excellent health record.
Columbus is supposed to have given the country its name after being met in 1502 by Carib Indians wearing gold ornaments, but in the resulting colonisation and exploration by Spain little gold was found. The proud Indians fought to their deaths and so that other valuable commodity, slave labour, was not available either. Costa Rica became the Cinderella of the Spanish colonies and was left to those settlers who wanted to cultivate the rich but remote land of the high central valley, running from north to south between dramatic mountain ranges.
Consequently it became a country of small landowners who traded amongst themselves with no subversient, non-white class.
Individual coffee plantations are now scattered liberally over the fertile mountain sides, making use of even the steepest slopes. The tropical coastlines of the Caribbean and the Pacific about in banana and coconut groves and the northern groves and the northern plains provide beef steaks for Detroit.
The capital San José, a myriad of corrugated iron roofs and wooden verandas, is slowly being dwarfed by concrete monsters and billboards. The stranger will be amazed at the popularity of the telephone system, which Ticos use in abundance, often queuing.
Ticos laugh off their insignificance in world teams and the constant confusion of visitors with Puerto Rico. Instead, they cherish quietly the image of their country as an ‘oasis of peace’ in turbulent Central America. They are deeply proud the ‘Don Pepe’ Jose Figueras, the father figure of the modern state established in 1948, pledged the country to peace and took it upon himself to abolish the army.
Yet many observers feel that this pride, while justified, may fall prey to economic and political trans in the region. Caught within the stranglehold of the world banking systems, Costa Rica now has the highest per capita national debt in the world. Financial aid from the US carries a price tag – support for American intervention in Central America.
In 1856 American Empire-builder and opportunist William Walker attempted to overrun Costa Rica but was repulsed by the people. Protest signs during US President Reagan’s visit last year showed that the insult is still deeply ingrained in the Costa Rican psyche. ‘Ni William Walker, ni Ronald Reagan’ they read. This time, however, they might not be so lucky.