Costa Rica

US warships headed to Costa Rica

Southward bound.

Militaryless, democratic, non-conflict-having Costa Rica is the new front in the United States’ War on Inanimate Objects. The country’s  national assembly has given the OK for a veritable US invasion force to enter Costa Rican territory: 7,000 marines on 46 warships, including the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship the USS Makin Island, pictured.

La Nación quotes a document from the US Embassy that states that, “The US personnel in Costa Rica will be able to enjoy freedom of movement and the right to carry out the activities that they consider necessary to complete their mission.”

Well isn’t that just permissively vague.

The legislation says the mission has to do with fighting drug traffickers, as well as a few humanitarian goals, though the humanitarian use of a Harrier jet is still somewhat unclear.

On a casual note, I would point out again that for all the Costa Rican smugness about not having an army, they do a pretty good job of borrowing one when they need it. On a more serious note, because this is bound to be extremely politically unpopular domestically, the government must have a damn good reason for inviting all this firepower in from up north.

My guess is that the government is secretly terrified it is losing control of the security situation. They probably should be.

A proportionally very large amount of cocaine is busted in Costa Rica every year, and the country has become something of a bodega for Mexican and Colombian drug smugglers, what with its good infrastructure, weak judicial system, ill-equipped police force, long coastlines, remote beaches, terrible immigration enforcement, and ample opportunities for laundering money through real estate transactions and layers of shell corporations.

I’m not sure how well-armed helicopters will change any of those factors, unless you could make the National Registry more transparent by slipping a few Hellfire missiles through the front door . Probably wouldn’t hurt.

Anyway, keep ironing around that wrinkle fellas. You’ll win the war on drugs any day now.

Also posted in Politics, War on drugs | Tagged , , , | 27 Comments

Save our Park! Oh, and the turtles, too.

Playa Grande, the turtle's primary nesting beach, is dark. But is anybody worried about the lights next door? Photo by Dave Sherwood

Legislation to downgrade Costa Rica’s Las Baulas National Park to a refuge has been shelved – at least for now. The country’s transnational environmental lobby is sighing relief.

But what about the turtles?

Downgrading a park is admittedly poor form – and sets an awful precedent. The reality, however, is that the critically endangered leatherback doesn’t need a lousy paper park – it needs comprehensive, holistic management that looks at all threats, not just those presented by a group of surly real estate investors on shore.

Of course, as with most environmental debates, this one is complex. There  are no simple solutions. Las Baulas National Park harbors the single most important leatherback  nesting beach in Central America. And species’ populations have plummeted 97% in 30  years. But the gargantuan legal battle required to expropriate private beachfront property inside the park is a distraction.

While we protest, bicker and carry on, time is running out for the leatherback. Last year, just 30 nested here, down by half from the year before and 1,500 two decades ago (before the ‘park’ was established, incidentally).

Unlike signing a petition on Facebook, navigating government bureaucracy and ineptitude and imposing order on the hundreds of absentee investors in neighboring Tamarindo who pump fecal matter and shine lights (see above) into the leatherback’s bedroom or mitigating sea turtle bycatch in vast international waters requires real commitment - and doesn’t package well in a bulk mailer or mass email.

Too bad for the turtles – but at least the beach is pretty.

Also posted in Environment | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Untethering

Everyone seems to agree that the economies of Latin America are experiencing a nice little recovery. The IMF, for example, just raised its forecasts for the region and is now projecting 4.1% GDP growth for the region, with 4.2% growth for Mexico and 5.5% for Brazil. Oh boy, numbers.

But here’s something interesting.

In an analysis of the region’s sovereign debt prospects (PDF), Fitch Ratings divides the region’s economies into three “camps.” One camp includes countries like Venezuela, Argentina, and Ecuador, whose recovery will be slower than that of the rest of the world for reasons that should surprise no one (high inflation, weak institutions, poor fiscal discipline, if you must know).

In a second camp are countries like Chile, Peru, and Brazil, whose good fiscal discipline, low political risk, and safe investment environments mean their economies will be growing like weeds this year and next.

Then we have the middle camp, which is basically countries that cast their development lot with the United States: Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador. And here’s the interesting part. Fitch projects this group will see only a moderately-paced recovery specifically because they’re tied to the US.

Meanwhile, Fitch says the Chile/Peru/Brazil group is doing particularly well partly because it does more business with China.

So I ask you: At what other point in recent history has easy access and close ties to the US economy been seen as a disadvantage?

(Original image courtesy H. Langos via Wikimedia Commons.)

Also posted in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Economy, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela | Tagged | Leave a comment

Crucitas: Loss or opportunity?

Screwed?

Crucitas, a controversial gold mine proposed for a desperately poor region of Costa Rica that is also home to the critically endangered green macaw (why does that always happen?), has hopped the obligatory Supreme Court hurdle.

So what’s next?

The environmental lobby will keep pushing back, as it should, but it must be careful not to lose the forest for the trees. In the grand scheme, it’s not Crucitas that’s the problem. It’s Costa Rica’s mining policy and flimsy regulatory institutions. Win or lose, now is the time to reform, and force the government to stick to its supposed commitment to sustainable development. (Right, Dr. Arias?)

That’s not to say the environmental groups should just let the mining company plant “trees” to “replace” the complex green macaw ecosystem and call it a day. (Nice try, Crucitas.) What they should do is redirect their budgets and energy to lobbying for a serious review of the country’s mining laws, an increase in regulation and enforcement, and stipulations that ensure net environmental and social benefits to the country in the long-term.

There’s a reason Infinito Gold Ltd., the company in question, operates in such upstanding nations as Venezuela and Guyana, and it’s not because they have effective regulatory structures. Since this isn’t the first or the last time Costa Rica will face a proposal like this, dusting off the law book and pumping up Costa Rica’s wimpy Geology and Mines department is urgent.

This is not an endorsement of the political party in power or of gold mining, both of which are proven losers when it comes to the environment. Even Ortega’s ‘anything-goes’ Nicaragua is against mining, and there are plenty of good reasons not to mine gold here, despite the court’s insistence otherwise (No negative environmental impact? Did the judges really write that?).

But as with oil drilling and mining in the more heavily-regulated United States and Canada, the balance can be tipped towards sustainability, just at a much higher cost. And the corporation should be made to bear the brunt of that cost, or get out.

There is some credence to the argument that the wheels of capitalism will keep on turning, and sometimes it’s best to  re-align the spokes rather than derail the thing. There is a lot of poverty in the swampy backwater where the Crucitas mine is located, a real need for jobs in a place where eco-tourism is unlikely to take hold and, according to the Supreme Court, more societal pluses than environmental minuses (the Costa Rican definition of public interest).

Tico’s have proudly and deservedly led the world in innovative ideas that temper business with environmental and social consciousness, and here they have an opportunity to do so again. If Crucitas goes forward, local environmentalists should look to the root of the problem, push for tough regulations, and help ensure they’re enforced.  In doing so, it’ll send a clear message to Infinito Gold, Ltd. and set a precedent for everyone else.

(Original image courtesy Tony Hisgett, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Also posted in Environment | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Rolling southward

Last week I laughed when I read a comment from a Mexican health insurance executive blaming a 16% increase in the cost of health insurance last year on “people getting sick more.” Then my wife said, “Diet?” and I said, hm. And now I read this great post from Structurally Maladjusted on The NAFTA Diet.

Apparently Mexico is very fat, and has become so recently:

About 70 percent of Mexican adults are now overweight, according to government estimates, more than triple the number of three decades ago. Also, about a third of the country’s schoolchildren and teenagers are overweight, making Mexicans the second-heaviest people on the planet, gaining quickly on their American neighbors.

I don’t know of any easy way to figure out what proportion of food people eat is over-processed crap, and anyway, as SM points out, correlation is not causation. Common sense tells us, however, that a free trade agreement with a country whose government-subsidized food industry is killing its customers will not be good for you.

Indeed, living as I do in a country that recently ratified CAFTA and has for the last couple decades been rushing to adopt the American way of life, I’ve seen the food culture change in only the few years I’ve been here. Grocery stores have more (and cheaper) chips and crackers and string cheese and dips and all the other fun stuff you could nominally associate with a Super Bowl party.

Also, fast food is ever-cheaper and quickly becoming competitive with more traditional rice-and-beans-based options. Costa Ricans, like Mexicans, are putting on the pounds: Only 22% of men were overweight in 1982. Now, it’s 62%.

One thing countries like Costa Rica and Mexico do have going for them is healthier distrust of the companies whose terrible products make them fat. Just try unanimously passing a federal law in the US banning junk food from public schools and you’ll note the contrast.

Even so, I have no doubt that the globalization of the American diet will someday (if not already) be seen as one of the greatest cultural and public health travesties in history.

(Original image courtesy Enrico via Wikimedia Commons.)

Also posted in Arts and Culture, Mexico, Trade | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Costa Rica and China have signed a free trade agreement. The agreement comes three years after the two countries formed diplomatic relations for the first time and removes tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded between them. It’s the first FTA China has signed with a country in Central America. [link]

Also posted in Side notes, Trade | Leave a comment

Arias in favor of homosexual unions

In kind of a surprising turn of events, lame duck Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has come out rather strongly in favor of state recognition of homosexual unions. He told local daily La Nación:

“Yes, there should be some legal recognition. One doesn’t pick one’s sexual inclination. It comes from nature or from God. One doesn’t choose it, neither men nor women…”

“It goes against nature to believe that a 14-year-old would sit down and decide whether to become a heterosexual or a homosexual. They’re things that come from God, and we just have to come to accept them.”

The Catholic Church is, of course, incensed, but everyone – even pro-gay-union activists – was a bit shocked that Arias would go this far with his comments. I could rag on him for being a political opportunist (easy to say controversial, enlightened things when you’re on the way out the door).

But maybe it’s just that when you come to the end of a life and a political career and you have no more backs to scratch or horses to trade,  you start to speak your mind.

Also posted in Human Rights, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cheapskates

You would think if you were inviting a dozen heads of state and their entourages to a party at your house, you would want to make a good impression. But not if you’re Costa Rica, which has budgeted a measly $179,000 to cover the costs of both its 2010 presidential inauguration ceremony and lodgings for all the foreign dignitaries invited.

President-elect Laura Chinchilla figures this is only about a third of what’s needed, so she’s going with hat in hand to the private sector, asking for totally unregulated donations that will certainly have no effect on her future actions toward said private sector as head of state.

La Nación‘s editorial this morning probably said it best:

Costa Rica has been criticized for thinking small, but with this upcoming presidential inauguration, we’re thinking tiny.

I hope they at least have the decency to offer an open bar, as those things cover a multitude of sins.

Also posted in Politics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Arias out of bounds

Juan Santamaría, the pacifist.

Sometimes, almost-former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is insufferable. He has this schtick where he travels around the world preaching that other countries should abolish their militarys like Costa Rica did, and then the world will be a better place.

No doubt it would be, but this is exactly the kind of self-regarding smugness that makes the rest of Central America hate the Ticos. Now Uruguay hates the Ticos too, after Arias decided he has a better idea for how they should run their affairs:

“I’m going to ask President Mujica to consider abolishing his army. Why does Uruguay need an army? Who is Uruguay’s enemy? Is Argentina going to invade, is Brazil going to invade?” Arias said in an interview.

“I’m going to write a letter to President Mujica to ask him to consider what we considered in 1948, when we asked ourselves, what do we need an army for? Why don’t we get rid of it, and declare peace with the world? I certainly think that Uruguay could do the same,” added Arias, who holds a Nobel Peace Prize.

Wow, what a great idea, what could possibly go wrong? I guess this argument might make sense to a country that’s never been in a conflict with powerful, well-armed neighbors (a few dozen of William Walker’s drunks crossing the border from Nicaragua doesn’t count). Historically, however, it’s a deeply hypocritical position because when facing conflict, Costa Rica invariably hides under the skirts of someone else’s military.

During the conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras, Costa Rica sold out its peace principles immediately to allow the U.S. government to operate clandestinely from its northern border, in exchange for billions of dollars in aid money. Similarly, faced with massive amounts of drug trafficking both along its coasts and in the air, defenseless Costa Rica has turned time and again to the U.S. Navy and Air Force to bail it out.

I guess criticizing your neighbor for buying fire and flood insurance is pretty easy when you rent.

Also posted in Politics, Uruguay | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Wrong way

Chaos: Typical.

Costa Ricans are terrible drivers, and they know it. Pretty much every day in this country of 4.5 million, I can open the newspaper and read about someone dying somewhere on the roads: Pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, head-on collisions, drunk drivers, people driving off cliffs.

I have no idea if it’s a statistically significant number of traffic deaths, but it feels like a massacre.

Like I said, the Ticos know this, so a few years ago the media went on a campaign to get the government to crack down, outlaw drunk driving, and generally pass a law to get Costa Ricans to stop killing each other on the roads. This was a good idea.

What was not a good idea, however, was the actual law that got passed, which sets first-world traffic regulations for third-world driving conditions while doing almost nothing to improve enforcement. Now we have ridiculously huge fines (US$400 for running a stop sign, in a country where that’s how much a cop makes in month) and comically specific regulations (wait, why am I required to have aspirin in my car again?).

A perfect illustration of the stupidity currently in force is the jaywalking part of the law. Reports La Nación on the government’s glorious efforts at enforcing the new traffic law:

In the case of pedestrians, the fine … for crossing the street without respecting traffic signals, not using sidewalks, or passing in front or behind of a vehicle whose motor was running… is ¢58,680 (US$110).

Basically, this makes it illegal to walk, pretty much anywhere, as there are often no sidewalks, definitely no traffic signals, and as a result, no place to cross without wading into traffic.

Other than just pissing me off, the serious implication of this law is that it disenfranchises the poor. The reason you occasionally see whole families scuttling across highways and pulling other crazy-dangerous traffic stunts is because there is literally no other way to get from Point A to Point B. These people can’t afford cars, they can’t afford to live on the right side of the highway, and they sure as hell can’t afford a US$110 fine for doing what they have to do to survive.

The Legislature is working on an amendment to cut the fines down by as much as 60%, but that amendment will also gut the few enforcement initiatives the law does contain, like the point system for licenses.

It’s like three steps sideways and one step backward, which sounds like a children’s game, but is actually the lawmaking process in Costa Rica.

(Original image courtesy ahrenw.)

Also posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment
  • DAILY LINKS

    • The Nation has a long, wonky, wonderful article on Mexican maize cultivation, the effects of NAFTA, and the dangers of genetically-modified seeds. Author Peter Canby backs up his excellent writing with piles and piles of meticulous research. Not to be missed. [link, via SM] (Image from Joel Penner.)

    • Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas ended his hunger strike yesterday after 134 days. Farinas decided to end his strike after the Cuban government said it would release political prisoners rounded up in the "Black Spring" crackdown of 2003. Get well soon. [link]

    • The Uruguayan selection, which has made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup, just received a shipment of half a ton of fine cuts of beef for the mother of all asados in preparation for a contest against Ghana on Friday: "450 kilos of lomo, 200 of entrecot, 75 of vacío, 75 of colita de cuadril, 150 of ojo de bife and 50 kg of picaña." [link]

    • Hitmen have assassinated the PRI candidate for governor of Tamaulipas State, Rodolfo Torre Cantú. Torre was gunned down along with six others at about 10:30 this morning on a highway on the way to a campaign event. Drug mafias are assumed to be responsible. [link]

    • From the days when coups were something of a regional sport, new documents detail a famous British ballerina's role in a plot to topple the government of Panama. The plan was to use her yacht to gather men and arms, then "land somewhere and collect in the hills." It didn't work. [link]

    • Mexico's Attorney General's Office has posted on its web site irrefutable evidence that gold-plated AR-15s and diamond-studded pistol grips are not nearly as cool-looking as they sound. The deadly knick-knack collection is said to belong to Valencia Cartel leader El Lobo. [link]

    • Two Brazilian ranchers were sentenced to 30 years in prison apiece for ordering the killing of an environmentalist nun: "Prosecutors said the pair offered to pay a gunman $25,000 to kill the 73-year-old [Dorothy] Stang because she had prevented them from stealing a piece of land that the government had granted to a group of poor farmers." [link]


    • This video of a kidnapping and car chase in Mexico is notable mainly for the bad-assitude of the TV journalists who were on this like white on rice. Well done, gentlemen.

    • The Economist takes a peak at the Mockus phenomenon in Colombia: "His moustacheless beard gives him the air of a Baltic pastor... He is financing his campaign with a bank overdraft. His supporters rely on Facebook and make their own posters; street vendors sell unofficial campaign T-shirts." [link]

    • Some cruise lines will cease traveling to Antarctica after this cruise season, as a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil goes into effect next year. The ban came after a 2007 incident when a Gap Adventures ship got punctured by ice and sank, causing a mess. [link]