Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A culture of equality

"I heard there's an amazing couple over here, a gringa and a tico, who can do magic." the homeless guy said to Caleb and I as we sat outside the national theatre, waiting for the open air concert to start.

"Really?" we asked.

"Yes, they are able to magically make a coin from their pocket appear in my pocket." the man smiled.
And with that, Caleb pulled a coin out of his pocket and gave it to the man.


Caleb and I have been in the habit of attending the free concerts outside the national theatre every Friday night in February.

The first time we attended, a homeless man entertained us by putting a coin on the tip of his shoe and then flipping his foot in an attempt to get the coin to land on top of his head. The coin landed on his head about 50% of the time, but he was successful at entertaining us 100% of the time.

The best entertainment, though, was watching elderly couples dance to traditional Costa Rican folk songs. Here's a little video of a couple dancing (and Caleb and I at the end), that I captured after I spotted the man giving his wife a red rose he'd purchased from a vendor nearby.

At the concert the evening before Valentine's Day, several people from a candy company were dressed as cupid, and offered chocolates to all the folks in the plaza.  Here are a few photos we took with them:


That day, Caleb taught me the word "arratados" (ratty or scrawny), because he thought it applied to the skinny cupids.  I liked them; they worked hard to hit me with their arrows before we took our photo together.

 A week earlier, Luis Guillermo Solís (the President of Costa Rica), attended this same concert, and when a random elderly woman asked him to dance, he danced with her and it made the news.



And that's one of the things I love about Costa Rica--the people believe in equality, and it's a small enough country that regular people can interact with the leaders.

"What surprises you about the current president of Costa Rica?" I asked several people for an assignment in my Spanish class.  That's when I learned that Caleb used to work with Luis Solís--who was an academic; they both worked in the same Social Sciences department at the University of Costa Rica.  Solís came from a middle class family who lives about a block away from my Spanish school.

Caleb's friend Hernan showed me a selfie of himself next to the former president, Laura Chinchilla.  The president and congresspeople (diputados) walk around on the streets near the central government buildings, and so it's easy for citizens to talk to them briefly, share concerns, ask about policy issues, or take a selfie together. I like that.  (Although a while back a bicylist accidentally crashed into the president on the street...something that would NEVER happen in the US).

 Equality is a big part of Costa Rica's values.  The sociologist Geert Hofstede created a "power distance index", where he compares different cultures on the extent to which the less powerful people accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.  I found it very interesting to note that Costa Rica has a lower power-distance index than even the US. (Mexico has a score of 80, the U.S. a score of 40, and Costa Rica a score of 35). 

The Peace Corps suggested I read the book "Costa Rica: Quest for Democracy" where political scientist John Booth examines the history, culture, economy, and politics of CR in hopes of using this information to help other Latin American countries advance, as Costa Rica's history of strong, stable, democratic government is very unique in Latin America.    One major help is the fact that when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 1500's, Costa Rica had the good fortune of lacking precious metals or a workforce the Spaniards could exploit, and were geographically isolated from the capital in Guatemala city.  That helped them avoid the experience of, and establishing the tradition of, a government "of, by, and for" the elites like in most of Latin America.  They were poor, but they were all poor together.   

Costa Rica's national myths also help establish a culture of equality.  For example, the San Jose airport is named after national hero Juan Santamaria, who was a regular guy who changed the outcome of a battle and war by burning the barracks of the army of William Walker, an evil confederate who tried to turn Central America into his own private slave-holding empire a few years before the U.S. civil war.  Juan Santamaria's image is carved on the wall in a beautiful room in the Museo de Art Costarricense:


Here's Denis, one of my professors in the same room that beautifully illustrates Costa Rica's history through carvings.
And the national myth of equality is reinforced today, such as when Obama came to visit, instead of having all the dignitaries greet him, the Costa Ricans sent several school children to greet him, as well as Franklin Chang Días, the Costa Rican austronaut that has made 7 space shuttle missions. 

I was reminded of Costa Rica's uniqueness when the flight attendant handed me a local newspaper during our brief stop in El Salvador on my flight back to the U.S. (so I can attend Peace Corps orientation in Houston and then return to Costa Rica with the other volunteers).

San Salvador's 'El Diario De Hoy' paper reported 27 homicides over the weekend, and 550 homicides since January 1 (as of Feb 22) in that small country.  The paper was full of gang-related violence, and a stinging critique on the editorial page about a government who had other priorities than its most basic responsiblity of protecting the lives of its citizens.  According to the statistics, San Salvador is the 3rd most dangerous place in the world...Baghdad's streets are safer.

The newspaper also had a large section about irregularities as El Salvador is practicing for an election this coming Sunday.  In 1948, Costa Rica established a strong, independent Electoral Commission which has ensured that their elections are clean and legitimate.

I remembered meeting a Salvadorian man in Salt Lake City who had fled the country to avoid the violence and corruption, who told me about how criminals who belong in jail freely roam the street and terrorize everyone else.  I couldn't blame him for fleeing.  If I lived in a country overrun by gangs and full of corruption, I would likely do the same.

Not many Costa Ricans, however, flee their country, because the government is stable and good there.  In fact, one of the former presidents of Costa Rica (Oscar Arias Sánchez) even received the Nobel Peace Prize for helping broker a peace agreement among the neighboring countries in the 1980's.  Later, he went on to establish "La Universidad de Paz" (University of Peace) which educates people on human rights and environmental protection.

Costa Rica is famous because it hasn't had an army since 1948 (it does have a national-guard force for internal problems).  Using the money to fund education and health care instead of an army makes a lot of sense to me--often in Latin America the armies are the source of problems as they seize power from civilian governments.  And, the reality of being a very small country (the size of West Virginia) means that even if Costa Rica had an army, it wouldn't be capable of defending itself against the armies of much more powerful countries anyway.  Instead, Costa Rica relies on its friends and on its moral authority to protect itself.

And I like that.  I feel really blessed and happy to have the opportunity to spend the next 27 months in Costa Rica.

No comments: