by María Suárez Toro
Costa Rica/Puerto Rico
Millions of tourists have visited Costa Rica, affectionately know as “ticolandia,” for decades, attracted to it largely because its protection of both its lush forest and coastal areas means it offers inviting, pristine beaches and unique natural beauty.
But the pending US elections may result in changes that could affect our country very profoundly, with very negative effects.
Call of the Wild
Costa Rica is what you might call a species in threat of extinction by CAFTA agreements. The majority of people in Costa Rica have become protectionists of the rare species of government and life that we have, which is now actively being eaten away at by some of its own as well as by outsiders: the pressure of the US Administration, multinational corporations and the local elites with close links to both.
What may not be well known to the general tourist is that at least for the past 60 years, besides its outstandingly beautiful natural resources, Costa Rica has also been a country without an army, a country with a stable democracy that offers universal social services.
Visitors to “ticolandia” may wonder how we have been able to maintain peace without an army in the middle of an area so recently scarred by such strong regional conflicts. All of Central America experienced wars in the '70 and '80s, wars often triggered by local dictatorships and their links in the '80s to Reagan Era “reaganomics.” In the recent past, El Salvador and Guatemala signed Peace Accords to end their wars; Nicaragua decided to convene elections to resolve its conflicts. Honduras ended a military dictatorship. Costa Rica's unique democracy, and the stability ensured by its universal social services, saved us from getting trapped in the conflicts that surrounded us.Because of CAFTA and other international pressures, it might be Costa Rica's turn next. We are indeed, at a threshold. Costa Rica is unique in being a country without an army; a country with highly protective laws for “the commons,” which in Costa Rica constitute not only the environment, but telecommunications, water and electricity; we are a country with a human rights framework that has its basis in law, and a country in which governmental policy ensures social services and protection of natural resources. In addition, Costa Rica preserves and treasures its democratic participation and strong system of interactive sovereignty.
The more we Costa Ricans speak to people outside Costa Rica about our situation, the more they see that we are organized nationally to meet the fundamental needs and rights of people. What “ticas” and “ticos” need to explain to the world are the connections that make it all work:
The country’s decades-long history without an army began and has persevered because all the factors above are so closely interconnected. Our forefathers and foremothers knew that an armyless nation would not be possible without a strong social service system, without protecting the commons, and only with democratic participation. The entire civil society since has understood and continued to support these principles. For people to live peacefully, their fundamental needs must be met.
However, Costa Ricans are at a turning point: if we allow global market trends to impose their logic on our country, we endorse the escalation of conflict, which often requires armed forces. Armed forces could be needed to defend a system that allows its citizenship and inhabitants to live with human rights and environmental standards that guide both its economy and its democratic life. Peace today is a complex issue. It has to be considered in light of security issues, as well as issues regarding the defense of its own sovereignty. Costa Rica is not exempt from the global issues that challenge all countries.
Women Resist CAFTA
The Central American Free Trade Agreements (CAFTA) is presently negotiating clauses that would allow guns to be built in Costa Rica. However, according to recent public opinion polls (UNIVERSIDAD newspaper May, 2007), the great majority of people do not want CAFTA, specifically because it would bring guns, and with guns come armies.Furthermore, many Costa Ricans appose CAFTA because it would accelerate privatization of the commons. CAFTA is being challenged by many social movements, especially by women's organizations, because of the impact privatization would have on women and their communities.
Reports from Estado de la Nacion, and on human development from the UNDP (UN Development Program) show such neo-liberal policies do result in the growing impoverishment of women.
Voices of women from the feminist and women's movements have expressed these views especially on FIRE (the Feminist International Radio Endeavour), the first worldwide women's internet radio station. The Consejo de Mujeres de los 12 Puntos back in March 2004 was already warning that:
"When health, education, water, energy, communications and other services that cover basic human needs are privatized, the consequences on the population with fewer financial resources go well beyond a detriment to the quality of their lives. For women, it means that they will have to compensate with additional personal efforts, more work hours, and also [by] taking responsibility for that which was previously supplied by the government for their families, such as health and education. When the market dictates policy, and does away with the principle of solidarity, each family is left to get by through their own means.”
The Consejo de Mujeres report also noted that the burden then falls most heavily upon women, who shoulder the responsibility to make ends meet with dwindling financial resources, and have to work much harder to keep both family and their communities afloat.
The CAFTA treaty will inevitably deepen, and take advantage of two conditions: one - in general, women face greater disadvantages compared with that of men, due to the current gender division of work; and two - Costa Rica obviously faces much greater disadvantages when compared with the USA, due to the existing international divisions of work and commerce it has established. For women, the CAFTA treaty goes far beyond a simple exchange of merchandises and goods. In fact, it intervenes into key areas such as national self-determination, and the safety and security of basic life conditions for all Costa Ricans. Supposedly, women will benefit from this change in the development model when in the name of efficiency, key services get transferred to the private sector.
You might not hear about these potential changes in the tourist brochures, but look closely for these signs of the times elsewhere. Or, come to Costa Rica with open eyes. Not just with eyes searching for beautiful species to see and observe, which you will find - but also with eyes that see beauty in those who seek to resist dirty war and who resist betraying the beauty of peace.
About the Author
María Suárez Toro is a journalist, feminist and human rights activist in local, and international arenas through her work as co-director of FIRE (Feminist International Radio Endeavor), a position she has held since 1991. She has covered most UN conferences since 1992, in addition to numerous other local, national and international conferences and events. She worked as a human rights activist and literacy teacher at the grassroots level in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras in the 1970s and 1980s. María is the recipient of numerous awards for her work.
María holds a Ph D. in Education from the University of La Salle in Costa Rica, Licenciatura in Journalism from the Universidad Federada in Costa Rica, and a Masters Degree in Education from New York State University.
She was the Professor of Communications at the University of Denver from 1998-2002 as well as at the Institute for Further Education of Journalists (FOJO) in Sweden from 1995-2000.
Most recently, María has co-authored a groundbreaking book entitled, Se Vende Lindo Pais (Lovely Country for Sale), which focuses on a controversial plan by a U.S. oil company to drill for oil off the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica, and the grassroots democratic movement organized to stop it. The book includes the voices of indigenous women and other Costa Rican and European expatriates living along the coast.