Costa Rica has a very interesting abnormal history for Latin America. Joaquín Lizano, a resident of and a professor of many disciplines currently specializing in intercultural communication, gave us a lecture on Costa Rican history today. He gave me a new background and more perspective of Costa Rica which I’ll explain through a few questions that had been bouncing around in my head—events that I couldn’t really explain and put together.
The first question I pondered: why is college education so cheap in Costa Rica? I can’t imagine going to school for only $100 per semester. The root of this question lies in the ticos’ high value for education. In the 1870s, a cumulation of demand from a wealthy middle class, access to new information from Europe, and Tomás Guardia in power gave birth to mandatory education for everyone. Costa Rica was still a rural country, so education wasn’t ideal for everyone, but this was a start. In the 1940s, Rafael Calderón opened the first public university––the Universidad de Costa Rica. Now, it is the 16th best university in Latin America, highly competitive, and very inexpensive for Costa Rican residents to offer maximum social mobility. Also, since the military is abolished in Costa Rica, much more money goes toward education. The government is able to subsidize education and offer scholarships to many students. Having inexpensive education seems a brilliant luxury to me, but it makes me question how good Costa Rican education is. Universities in the United States are run—sometimes a little too much like businesses—but the extra money makes many more resources available to students. I don’t know for sure, I don’t have much experience with free education, but Iit would be interesting to compare. Also, I feel like there’s a bit of a contradiction in the school system. Only the brightest students get accepted into highly competitive universities, which can raise inequality and make social mobility more difficult.
The second question I couldn’t figure out: exactly why did Costa Rica abolish the military? Figures, a military leader in the 1948 civil war, was financed by the conservative elite to make sure Rafael Calderón did not seize power again. Much to the chagrin of the elite, after he won the civil war, he himself took power for one year. In this year he made a number of changes—strengthening universal healthcare, education, and state sponsored development. He also banned the communist party, gave women the right to vote, and abolished the military (everything the elite were against). Then, he very casually handed over power. Nobody knows exactly why Figures abolished the military, but some say it was to finance his symphonic orchestra or avoid a military coup. More likely, he did it because Costa Rica’s military was very small and unimpressive, Costa Rica wasn’t really a threat to its neighbors since it had been insulated throughout much of its history, the country could go to the United States if it really needed security, and the extra money could go toward social reforms. I think abolishing the military was a smart move for Costa Rica. The United States heavily relies on the military for wielding power in the world, but since a Costa Rican military would be hardly comparable, not having a military frees up so much extra money that can be redistributed for other purposes. The abolition of the military also feels very true to the tico ideal—a laid back, tranquil, peaceful lifestyle without violence.
Another question I asked: why is Costa Rica so sustainable? Costa Rica has a relatively small population in a small country with lots of natural parks and natural resources that allow solar power, hydropower, and geothermal power; but, today I learned a lot of the “sustainability” is a marketing strategy for tourists. The tourism industry pushes this beautiful country with beaches and monkeys and crystal clear water everywhere. I google searched “Costa Rica” and the pictures below all popped up. But this isn’t the reality for everyone (not to say it isn’t a beautiful country). The cities aren’t immaculate. Oscar Arias Sáchez’s “peace with nature” campaign was a bit over exaggerated. A carbon neutral state is a far off dream for Costa Rica. Costa Rica still faces many environmental problems. I think this is one of the biggest contradictions between tico culture and behavior I have noticed. Right now, Costa Rica has a huge problem with chemicals and pesticides being used to grow pineapples. Also, many people have cars and drive them often to travel, therefore the country burns a ton of fossil fuels. The recycling and trash collection systems are regulated a local level, so it isn’t as idyllic as it could be. However, Costa Rica is still rated 2nd in the world for its sustainability. I think it might be easier to see the negatives of your country rather than the positives when you live in it your entire life. But, I think Lizano also told many truths. If Costa Rica is truly 2nd best, the world has a very long way to go to become a more sustainable place.