The Costa Rica Government Needs to Take More Responsibility

Each day from December to May many Josefinos (San Jose residents) routinely fill buckets with water in the early morning preparing for Aquaductos (the water company) to cut off the water from 7 am to 6 pm. There is enough annual rainfall, but their reservoirs are inadequate to carry them through the six month dry season and there are many broken water mains that take sometimes weeks to locate and fix. The answer for homeowners is to install a holding tank that fills overnight, but many Ticos haven’t the means or space. Gringos who live in San Jose generally learn to cope and adapt just like the Ticos.

The creeks and rivers in San Jose, particularly towards the west end smell and look polluted, hedged in by tin and wooden plank shacks erected by squatters. Most of San Jose’s sewage is not treated, though building permits now require the problem to be addressed. The Central Valley rivers make their way through a break in the mountains down to the Pacific mainly via the Rio Tarcoles. Costa Rica tours going to popular Jaco Beach pass over this river. At any one time they can stand on the bridge and see ten to twenty large crocodiles basking in the sun or lazily submerged facing upstream in the polluted river awaiting an unsuspecting fish. On tours to the picturesque and pristine canals of Tortuguero on the northern Caribbean coast known for its wildlife sightings, you can never see as many crocodiles. These prehistoric relics must be highly adaptable and unbothered by sewage.

Strides have been made in cleaning up air quality. Since 1996 leaded gas was abolished, and vehicles are now required to have annual “ecomarchamo” exhaust emission and vehicle fitness tests. Some older vehicles have been pulled off the crowded roads. But city buses seem to pass unchecked and are left running when parked and spew out diesel fumes so bad that even the beggars avoid these areas.

Starting a business is relatively easy once you learn all the hurdles, and pay off the right inspectors and officials to expedite your case. It is important to realize laws strongly favor employees for social security coverage, wrongful dismissal rights, injury compensation, vacation pay, health care for their families, school taxes and an eventual retirement pension, and there are six additional types of payments to employees that have to be made above their base salary.

Understaffing tellers causes long lines at times to pay social security deductions, tourism tax, insurance, telephone and internet bills which we are forced to pay directly to the company. The post office is unreliable, and not often used. M any business owners hire messengers to pay their bills, creating employment. When they leave pot holes in the roads, they create employment changing tires also. It seems in the First World you deal with stress, in Costa Rica you deal with frustration. Fortunately some banks are now accepting payment for electricity, water bills, impuestos de ventas (sales tax) and property taxes through their tellers, and the Banco San Jose is pioneering bill payments on-line so things are improving.

Nepotism, knowing the right person, gets things done quickly, both in government and private. One of my employees had an uncle in the telephone company who instantly had an extra line installed for us. Normally we would have had to wait months, perhaps years.

The laws of the land are full of good intensions. Some of the most pristine Costa Rican beaches, for example, that have been developed by large resorts, displacing local residents, still have to accept a fifty meter zone stretching inland from the high water mark remains public property. The larger Costa Rican hotel chains tend to add little to the local economy, buying inventory from and sending revenue to their home country, and delegating only menial work to the local population. But the government has time and again proven itself ineffective in enforcing its own rules. One example is the Grupo Barcelo that broke all rules when it built one of the largest Costa Rican hotels at Playa Tambor, filling in mangrove swamps with huge amounts of beach sand and river gravel causing serious erosion, installing improper sewage treatment facilities, and harassing passersby on the fifty meter public beach out front. The hotel continued to build against stop work orders, opened in 1992 and still operates today, under the new name Los Delfinos. In the meantime, law suits are still pending. Is there any other reason besides corruption?

The banana industry, particularly on the Caribbean side is another example of government inaction. Bananas are a monoculture industry that rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients, thus requiring large doses of fertilizer to maintain productivity, and making the land useless for other types of crops. The fertilizers wash down the streams causing exuberant growth of water hyacinths and reeds clogging waterfowl habitats. Silt washing into the ocean has killed much of the pristine coral reefs. Plastic bags filled with insecticides and fungicides (and banned in the US) to prevent black marks on the skins are placed around the bananas stems, for warmth and to concentrate ethylene gas. Thousands of farm workers (mostly poor Nicaraguans) have been rendered sterile, and there have been major fish kills in the rivers and canals. The bags themselves end up in the rivers and eventually the ocean where sea turtles mistake them for jelly fish, eat them and suffocate. Large tracts of virgin rainforest are being hacked down annually to allow the banana industry to expand. Environmentalists claim the jobs that are created do not compensate for the massive destruction done by the industry. Steps are being made to correct the problems under the Eco-OK program which makes it easier for producers to export bananas by following the recommended guidelines. They must reduce their use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, send contaminated water through a special filtering system, and recycle the organic wastes and plastic bags. The government has been constantly issuing permits to clear the rainforest in designated environmentally sensitive areas. Pay offs? You bet!

The Tico Times is Costa Rica’s only English weekly newspaper and read cover to cover by nearly every English speaking person living in Costa Rica. It ran several stories in June, July and August of 2003 regarding Taiwanese fishing boats that were permitted to unload hundreds of tons of cruelly-gotten illegal shark fins (without the carcasses attached) at private docks bypassing five government departments with irregular paperwork and finger pointing. “Despite growing concern over the multimillion-dollar business and its effect on collapsing shark populations, Latin American countries have done little to curb it. Some 200 million sharks worldwide are killed each year, their cartilage-filled fins crushed into a powder and sold as soup in Asian restaurants for $60 a bowl. Figures from the Costa Rican Fishing Institute (INCOPESCA) show that shark fin exports totaled 818,000 kg last year, although some environmentalists have begun to question the accuracy of the INCOPESCA statistics.” Trying to investigate the case further, Tico Times reporters were stone-walled by both the Costa Rican Customs Authority and INCOPESCA. For a country so proud of its environmental record, this is a huge embarrassment.

Instead of modernizing in the enlightened Costa Rican tradition, the present government is being accused of hampering progress and scaring foreign investment away because of dogmatic judicial irregularities and corruption. President Pacheco himself has been embroiled in a campaign contribution scandal involving private Taiwanese sources, the same country that has been permitted to unload illegal shark fins. With Costa Rican travel and tourism reaching over a million tourists yearly, each bringing their ways of life, and Costa Rica entering the global communication age, with cable television and the internet, seeds of discontent are being sewn. The public’s passive acceptance of government policy may be coming to an end. Pacheco’s approval rating has fallen through the floor and is staying there. The weakened governmental power base that allowed Costa Rica to reform and grow by natural economic winds is no longer appropriate. This weakness leaves room for corruption between government officials, profit motivated companies and selfish individuals.

The government has serious financial problems. One third of its budget is used to service foreign debt. Teachers have started striking for their just wages, which the government claims it cannot afford anymore. The Union of Public Employees strikes on a regular basis for more wages, jamming up the already crowded streets. The twelve thousand employees of I.C.E., the national telephone and electricity monopoly have launched strikes, protesting the Finance Ministry’s refusal to approve more financing for future projects, or afraid of losing their jobs with pending privatization legislation. They use scare tactics that privatization would be selling the country out, playing on Tico emotions. The government usually gives in to the striking public servants. Singapore offered to install several new giant cranes at the Limon docks free of charge, but the offer was refused by the government for fear it would cost union dock worker jobs. Ticos are an educated and well-informed people, yet have traditionally chosen leaders on the basis of charisma, and oratory abilities rather than policy. Privatization of telecommunications in other Central American countries has brought tremendous consumer price savings.

Ticos feel corruption has increased over the last eight years. A 2003 Gallop survey on global corruption for Transparency International found that 64.6% of Ticos feel corruption strongly affects their personal and family lives, but they were slightly optimistic things would get better. Some view the corruption as advantageous, being easier and cheaper to pay off a corrupt cop than face the dragged out hassles of court or to bribe a government official rather than doing things legally. But everyone is losing respect for those enforcing law and order, undermining the whole legal system. As in the past four centuries, Ticos need to elect strong honest benevolent government officials on good sound policy rather than personality. Enforcing their well-intentioned laws with stiff penalties for violators is essential, especially for government officials who are in a position of public trust.

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