FREDRICK NAUMANN / PANOS pictures
When the first European settlers arrived in what is now Costa Rica in the 16th century, there were an estimated 19 indigenous chiefdoms with about 400,000 inhabitants. Little record is left of that life, and Costa Rica is bereft of the pyramids that dot Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
Costa Rica stands apart from its Central American neighbours, not least because it has no army. Armed forces were abolished after the 1948 civil war – since then no administration has come to power by force and Costa Rica has avoided the despotic dictatorships, frequent military coups and internal turmoil that have plagued other countries in the region.
However, President Óscar Arias, who won the Nobel Prize for his peacekeeping efforts in Central America, was recently confronted with an embarrassing fact: Costa Rica – hailed as ‘the Switzerland of Central America’ – has sent nearly 2,600 students to the former School of the Americas, for military training, since it opened its doors in 1946. This school, renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation in 2001, is notorious for having taught some of the worst human rights offenders in 20th-century Latin America and Arias had to agree to stop sending Costa Ricans to the military training facility after he was shamed by human rights activists.
A history of peace, strong exports and a thriving tourism industry has allowed Costa Rica to enjoy the highest standard of living in Central America, although 23 per cent of the population still lives below the poverty line.
But the fact that Costa Rica is the most advanced democracy in Central America means little to indigenous people, who account for two per cent of the population. Disparities between the country’s indigenous and non-indigenous population in terms of human development are shocking.
A third of indigenous people lack access to basic services such as healthcare, education, public transport and potable water, and their life expectancy is 15 years less than non-indigenous Costa Ricans.
Largely to blame is a deeply ingrained racism that exists within most Latin American societies, exemplified by politicians’ attitudes towards indigenous peoples – a useful source of votes, but easily ignored once in office.
This could change, though, with the approval of a bill granting autonomy to Costa Rica’s indigenous population, which seeks to change the balance of power but has yet to be ratified due to bureaucratic hurdles and lengthy debates on the issue.
Costa Rica also stands out as the only country in the isthmus that has signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), with the United States – though it has yet to ratify the treaty. The debate over CAFTA is now three years old and a public referendum on the treaty is imminent.
CAFTA’s opponents have vowed to fight the treaty tooth and nail, and argue that its clauses on intellectual property would endanger the production of generic drugs and that the national health service would all but disappear, leaving the poorest sectors of society with little or no coverage.
President Arias recently came under fire after he signed an executive decree authorizing the production of high-calibre weapons and nuclear fuel on Costa Rican soil – part of the adjustments being made to the country’s legal framework to bring it in line with CAFTA regulations.
The arms scandal has allowed the anti-CAFTA camp to score political points against the Government. Critics have argued that, should CAFTA be ratified, the treaty will open the doors to US weapons manufacturers wishing to take advantage of cheaper labour and production costs and will tarnish Costa Rica’s image as an island of peace amidst a sea of violence.
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