I visited Costa Rica as part of my Latin America trip to get a glimpse what this small, stable, democratic country in Central America looks likes from the inside. Costa Rica is a country that is often held up as a model democracy, especially given its regional context: neighbor to extremely poor countries that have suffered prolonged internal armed conflicts (Guatemala, El Salvador). The country also has a legacy of serving as a peacemaker to conflicts in the region.
Even those who don’t know much about the region might know that Costa Rica abolished its army back in the 1940s, and that its two-term President, Oscar Arias, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil wars then raging in several other Central American countries. The country ranks at the top of development indices for the region and has a strong tourism sector which draws visitors to its Pacific and Atlantic coasts and verdant rain forests.
Sadly, during my brief stay in Costa Rica I did not have an opportunity to venture out of San Jose. The city is not especially striking, so I did not see the true beauty of the country, which I understand is stunning.
While in San Jose, I met with local and international non-governmental organizations as well as two inter-governmental institutions (the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights and the UN’s University of Peace). Colleagues were generous in sharing their insights about Costa Rican society and the state of its democracy. During my stay I observed the high standard of living of the Costa Rican populous in relation to other Central American countries. There is a solid development infrastructure in place, and the branches of government function independently with a system of checks and balances.
At the same time, there are challenges that face this democracy, and the way these challenges will be a reflection of how strong and inclusive their democracy is, or whether it is lacking in this area. Some of the central tensions I observed during the trip include the following:
* Costa Rica is a largely mestizo society (95 per cent) with the exception of the Afro-Costa Ricans of the Atlantic Coast and the small numbers of indigenous Costa Ricans. These minority groups do not receive much attention, support, or resources from the state. These groups have been historically excluded from full participation in the political and economic life of the country. The communities do not feature prominently in the public space or on the minds of the majority population. Many of the organizations I spoke with whom work on these issues say that it is as if the communities are “invisible.” Afro and indigenous Costa Ricans are under-represented in higher education, and the political and public spheres. I was impressed with the work being done by the Interaamerican Institute of Human Rights and CEDIN (http://www.cedin.org/) on these issues.
* A second and possibly less obvious, challenge facing Costa Rica’s society is its lack of receptiveness to its migrants. There is democratic resistance to foreigners, many of whom are there contributing to Costa Rica’s economy, and at the request of the coffee industries. Historically, Nicaraguans migrated to Costa Rica for political and economic reasons. More recently, Colombians fleeing the armed conflict in that country arrived. And then most recently, there is a new pattern of trafficking of drugs and people from Asia and the Caribbean. Foreigners are treated poorly, and many stereotypes and myths exist about immigrants in Costa Rica (see a succinct report on this at: http://www.ticosynicas.org/?page=proyecto&tip=2&idp=15). There is a lack of cohesion in local communities and schools between native Costa Ricans and the new Costa Ricans. From conversations I had it seems that the media may be exacerbating this situation through inflammatory reporting and by highlighting the nationality of individuals accused of crimes. We know that Costa Rica is not alone is addressing questions of inclusion of migrants, so it would be worth looking at international and comparative experiences which may be instructive to the country.
~ Jessica Berns
This is the second post from Jessica Berns, Program Director of Coexistence International (www.coexistence.net). She just completed a trip to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru to understand the coexistence challenges facing the region, and those countries in particular, and to learn from non-governmental organizations and governments about their efforts to create shared societies. This is her dispatch from Costa Rica.