The Trouble with Costa Rica

La Miel de los Mudos, y Otros Cuentos Ticos de Ciencia Ficción

by Iván Molina Jiménez
San José: Editorama, 92 pp., $12.50 (paper)
Oscar Arias
Oscar Arias; drawing by David Levine


The CIA needed a very important favor from Oscar Arias after he became president of Costa Rica in 1986. Just across his country’s northern border, in Nicaragua, CIA-sponsored rebels were fighting to overthrow the leftist Sandinista regime. Costa Rica’s outgoing president had allowed them to maintain clandestine bases on Costa Rican territory. The CIA wanted Arias to do so as well.

Despite intense pressure from Washington, Arias refused. His courageous stand was one of the main reasons the anti-Sandinista uprising failed. Later he devised a peace plan that led to free elections in Nicaragua, and also helped end civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. For his achievements, he was awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. He left office in 1990 as a national hero, the most revered Costa Rican of his generation.

Over the next decade, Arias traveled widely, spoke for disarmament and other international causes, and accumulated scores of awards, plaques, diplomas, and honorary degrees. In the meantime, trouble began enveloping his homeland. Costa Rica, with long Caribbean and Pacific coasts and a population of about four million, is by far the most successful country in Central America. In recent years, however, social progress has come to a halt, senior government leaders have been implicated in corruption, and urban slums have metastasized as nearly half a million poor Nicaraguans have come in search of work. Arias responded to this gathering crisis by deciding to return to the presidency.

Arias and his friends imagined that Costa Ricans would be thrilled by his return to politics. No other politician is so famous. Despite all his advantages, however, his campaign fell flat. The result of the February 5 election was so close that electoral authorities ordered a manual recount of all 1.3 million ballots. Nearly a month later, they finally announced that Arias had won by a margin of 18,169 votes over his main rival, Ottón Solìs, an economist and former cabinet minister who had served in Arias’s government. Arias received 40.9 percent of the vote. That was fortuitous, because anything less than 40 percent would have forced him into a runoff that he might well have lost.

As I traveled across Costa Rica during the campaign, I found people gripped by foreboding and self-doubt. Many worry that their country’s good days are ending, that the cozy cocoon in which they have lived for half a century is coming apart. They see a host of symptoms. Corruption is perhaps the most visible: one former president has been charged with embezzlement, another with accepting bribes from a French cell phone company, and a third, who has been implicated in scandal but not formally charged, has taken up residence in Switzerland.

Besides having lost its reputation for honest government, Costa Rica is also losing its longstanding position as a land of social equality. Between 1988 and 2004, according to a new study, the income…

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