Costa Rica History and its gourmet coffee
Central America´s Beacon of Hope.
In a context of revolutionary Violence, Costa Rica is a model democracy
where issues are decided by ballots instead of bullets
By David Reed (Reader´s Digest, 1981)
Around dawn each morning, the railroad station in Puerto Limón,
a steaming tropical town on Costa Rica´s Caribbean Coast,
suddenly springs to life. Passengers pile into wooden coaches. A
whistle shrieks. Soon the little train is climbing into the
cordillera, the backbone of Central America. At 5000 feet of altitude,
it tops the continental divide. Then the train descends into the
central plateau and rolls into San José, the 3700 foot-high
capital of a remarkable country.
Costa Rica is almost too good to be true. Unlike many other Latin
American republics, it has no appalling social problems, no military
dictator. Instead, it is an oasis of democracy. With
two brief exceptions, Costa Rica has been a flourishing democracy
for nearly a century...One looks in vain for that standard feature
of many Latin American republics--the swaggering soldier with a
submachine gun. Costa Rica, however, abolished its army more
than 30 years ago. Charasteristically, the national anthem has the
memorable refrain: ¨Vivan siempre el trabajo y la Paz!--¨Long
live work and peace.
ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY. Through it all, Costa Rica
remains a place where issues are resolved by ballots instead of
bullets. When visitors to other parts of Central America ask
people what sort of government they would like to see in their countries,
the answer is usually: ¨Just like Costa Rica¨. U.S.
Officials similarly regard this tiny country (About the size of
West Virginia ) as a beacon of hope.
Why is democracy so strongly rooted in Costa Rica? From the
start, the country was different from other Spanish colonies in
the New World. When Christopher Columbus landed on its
Caribbean coast in 1502, he saw Indians wearing golden trinkets.
Thinking that there were vast riches in the interior, the Spanish
named the place Costa Rica, the Rich Coast. But the name proved
to be ironic, for the country has little gold or minerals of consequence.
Nor was there a large population of Indians to exploit. As
a result, Costa Rica was largely ignored by the early Spanish empire
Instead, the colony attracted hardy farmers from Spain. By
boat and oxcart they journeyed through tropical rain forests and
mountains to reach the fertile central Plateau, where they carved
small farms from the wilderness. While the Spanish colonial
governors elsewhere lived in splendor, one governor in Costa Rica
was forced to till his own vegetable patch to keep from starving.
To this day, Costa Ricans have a strong sense of self-reliance,
a feeling that everyone is equal. Even in colonial times,
public issues were resolved at town meetings in which everyone had
Most importantly, Costa Rica was spared the curse of large-scale
land ownership and the system of peonage that breed revolutionary
unrest. In contrast with other Latin American countries, where
one finds vast haciendas worked by impoverished peasants, Costa
Rica remains a nation of farmers who till their own fields and live
in trim stucco houses along a network of first-class paved roads.
Wealth is far more evenly distributed than in the rest of Latin
America. The result is a society with a strong middle class,
the indispensable ingredient of democracy.
After Costa Rica became independent from Spain in 1821, a school
principal was elected president. By 1889, when most of the
world languished under authoritarian rule and public ignorance,
the government had introduced free elections and free primary education
for all. As one later president declared: ¨Liberty without
education is an illusion.¨ Over the years, education proved
to be as important as the pattern of small landholdings in guaranteeing
the success of the nation´s democracy.
LEADERS AND CITIZENS. As part of their frontier
heritage, Costa Ricans have a strong work ethic and are much in
demand for managerial positions in other Latin American countries.
But they remain staunch individualists. Says a factory owner,
¨If you have an assembly line and a man comes in late, you don´t
shout at him. He´d quit on the spot. You put your
arm around him and say, ´Well, Juan, what happened?´¨
Costa Rica has also been blessed with good leaders and citizens
who, though pacifist by nature, are ready to defend their liberty.
Costa Rica is the only country in Latin America that has abolished
its army. One reason this constitutional provision was made,
in 1949, was to prevent future military takeovers. Another
was that Costa Ricans feel that money can be better spend on education
and health programs. Costa Rica devotes 32 percent of its
national budget to education, 33 percent to health problems.
The country´s 7000 policemen, who handle internal security--and
who, in theory, would repel invaders--get just 2,6 percent of the
NO HARD FEELINGS. The frontier spirit of
equality remains as strong as ever. Costa Rica does not feel
that it should pamper its presidents by providing them with official
residences. Presidents live in their own houses and, when they stroll
about San José, attract no special attention. Indeed,
one president was run over by a bicycle while walking to work.
Costa Rican presidents are accessible. Citizens with grievances
take the matter directly to el presidente-- and are ushered into
his office. To keep presidents from becoming too powerful,
a constitutional amendment now limits them to one four-year term.
Few people take democratic processes as seriously as do the Costa
Ricans. Six months before election day, an electoral tribunal
appointed by congress assumes full command of the national police;
not even the president can countermand the tribunal´s orders.
As election day nears, a fiesta mood comes over the country.
Party flags appear on cars and homes. Parades fill the streets.
Ballots are cast by more than 80 percent of the eligible voters.
Despite campaign passions, a sense of decency prevails once the
votes are counted. Remarks one Costa Rican, ¨We say, ´It´s
over. No hard feelings. Let´s have a drink.´¨
In recognition of Costa Rica´s achievements, the General
Assembly of the United Nations has approved a plan for a University
of Peace in San José. the Assembly felt that no country
could provide a more appropriate home for the University.
The institution is to have and international faculty and student
body, with programs related to promoting world peace.
Costa Ricans hope that San José will eventually become another
Geneva, a New World seat for meetings where nations will work out
peaceful solutions to their quarrels.
Costa Rica´s scrupulous respect for the rights of its citizens
has resulted in another honor. In San Jose an Inter-American
Court of Human Rights, sponsored by the Organization of American
States, hears complaints of human-rights violations by OAS member
states. The hope is that the court will play a major role
in curbing abuses that ahve been widespread in many countries in
Costa Rica has come a long way since the early conquistadores wrote
the Rich Coast off as not worth the bother. Today it serves
as a golden inspiration to all freedom-loving people...
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