Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Guest post from Michael Cook

As the clock slowly starts to wind down on this nine month stint in Costa Rica, I find myself wondering what the coming tourist season will be like this year up in New England.

Last summer was one of the worst in forty years.

I can only imagine what the still moribund US economy has done to Costa Rica's all important tourism industry but, I'm sure, it hasn't been pretty.

But, as this visit plays itself out, I find my self more worried about Costa Rica and the direction she appears headed than I've been in the decade since I started spending extended periods of time here that, when I added up the monthly totals, came out to the equivalent of seven years on the Caribbean coast.

I actually said to a good Costa Rican friend in San Jose recently, "Your country isn't just being developed, it is being colonized. If this development/colonization craze is allowed to continue unabated, you may find that not only has your country lost her national identity, but her sovereignty as well."

He agreed with me.

A university educated business man, he summed the phenomenon up best when he said to me, "Mike, es como el Pacifico. No es Costa Rica no mas. Es Nueva California".

I wouldn't describe his stating such a sad reality as being overtly hostile, but there was a definite edge to the statement and it summed up similar sentiments I've heard other educated Ticos express during this campaign season.

What astounds me is how woefully ignorant so many Americans who've invested big money here, sometimes their life savings, are of the very real and potentially disruptive political, social and economic issues confronting Costa Rica in the coming months and years.

What is even more incomprehensible to me is that so few of them seem to care - whether they're faux green, Status Utility Vehicle driving, Obama loving bourgeois bohemians, or pistol packing, Dodge Ram pick up truck driving, right wing, Sarah Palin groupies.

While in San Jose two weeks ago, the only comment I heard about the presidential election came from an American pensionado who worried if Laura Chinchilla is elected, she would impose more regulations and taxes on the prostitution and gambling industries and that, in his view, would ruin Costa Rica.

I responded to the comment by saying I know many Costa Ricans who are, indeed, fed up with Costa Rica's international reputation being almost as closely linked to prostitution and gambling as it is to eco-tourism.

His response was, "Well, those Ticos can just go 'f' themselves. If it weren't for whores and casinos, this country would still be in the toilet."

I opted not to bother to try and engage this embarrassment of an American in any further discussion of Tico politics.

But I've heard equally ignorant, if not quite as offensive, remarks from other Americans on several occasions.

One of our local right wing, Sarah Palin groupie gringos here on the Caribbean recoiled in horror when I said I liked some of what Otton Solis was proposing in his presidential platform. He angrily told me flat out, "He's a communist, just like Obama".

I asked him to back up his claim with evidence that Solis is a communist but, of course, he could not and, just as I did with the fan of whores and casinos, I decided not to pursue the conversation any further with the Palin groupie.

But even many of the Status Utility Vehicle driving, faux green, upscale, bourgeois bohemian, Obama-maniac, wash-a-shore, gringos who've landed here on the Caribbean in the last few years are as uninformed, and uninterested, in Costa Rica's national politics as their right wing gringo counterparts.

It almost has an air of outright arrogance to it, as if, because they are Americans, they don't have to bother to inform themselves about something as trivial as Tico presidential politics.

I cannot, for the life of me, especially when people have often invested large sums of money here, understand how they can not be interested in and informed about the complex political and social dynamics currently in play in Costa Rica.

This visit, I have found myself spending much more time with Tico friends, both in the Central Valley and here on the Caribbean, than I do other Americans, and several themes run through our conversations.

One is that Costa Rica is, indeed, being "colonized" every bit as much as it is being "developed", and that reality raises big concerns about the long term implications of the phenomenon for the country's future.

Another is the glaring and growing disparity between those with and those without, especially in now pricey areas like the coasts, where the explosion in the numbers of affluent foreigners has resulted in the prices of even the most basic of food stuffs going through the roof, while the wages of low skill and semi-skilled workers, particularly in the construction and tourism industries, have not even come close to keeping pace.

To grocery shop here in Puerto Viejo, even with the arrival of the Mega-Super, which is actually a subsidiary of Walmart,,is, overall, as expensive as shopping in the US. There is nothing inexpensive about Costa Rica anymore, nothing.

How women working as chamber maids, waitresses, if foreign owned restaurants in tourist towns will even hire Tica women for those jobs, and domestics for American expats, along with the men who chop gringo's shrubbery and whack their lawns, are feeding, clothing, and housing their families when many are earning 1100 or 1200 colones an hour, the equivalent of two dollars US, if they're lucky, is beyond me.

More and more, my Tico friends tell me they worry that if these trends continue and these issues are not addressed, the subtle resentment expressed in comments like my friend's about the Pacific no longer being Costa Rica, but rather "New California", could give way to overt hostility, perhaps even outright social unrest, with foreigners, particularly Americans, being a focus, perhaps even a target, of that anger.

That would be tragic for everyone, but I remain astounded just how many of my fellow Americans here are completely oblivious to these very real dynamics swirling all around them and, even more troubling, when those dynamics are pointed out to them, how little they seem to care.

It's little wonder the stereotype of the "ugly American" still endures. Very few of us, when all is said and done, do much to leave people with any other impression of us.

That has become dishearteningly clear to me here over the last few years.

Michael Cook
Puerto Viejo de Limon
& Newburyport, MA


Anonymous said...

dear mike, we don't live in costa rica, and therefor, don't care.

macsurf said...

Anon, your repsonse just reinforces the perception of the UGLY AMERICAN, be you an Obama Dem or a Palin Repub - the two extremes have MORE in common with one another than they even know - LOL

It's all called ARROGANCE, American ARROGANCE, and it is very much bipartisan in nature.

Anonymous said...

no, i live in newburyport, and i read a newburyport blog for newburyport news. not costa rican. its great mike chose to live there, but why he thinks other people feel the same way as he does about his new home is beyond me. i wouldn't post on a puerto viejo de limon blog about living in newburyport.

Anonymous said...

Anon, I divide my time between both places and have been asked many times by Newburyporters to post or write about the good, the bad, and the whatever about Costa Rica as they consider vacationing, investing or retriring here.

It's a magnificent place but, unlike people in the tourism and real estate industries, I will write honestly about its WARTS and it WONDERS.

In fact, this post resulted in 4 personal emails in my hotmail account thanking me for giving a perspecctive not seen in glossy travel magazines or high end real estate rags like International Living.

You're the one with the beef for some reason, nobody else it seems.

Gillian Swart said...

I'm going to interject in here that Donna O'Neil, Newburyport native who recently moved to Nashville, is also interested in writing about her life there as compared to here, where she grew up. People seem to like this sort of thing - at least some like doing it! I find it very interesting.