Costa Rica is supposed to be the jewel of Central America. Disembarking at Puertarenas on Friday, it didn’t give that impression. Puertarenas is on the west coast of the country. Its black sand beaches made it look sort of dirty. A recent tropical storm has left a lot of deadwood along its beaches too. The black sand comes courtesy of the many volcanoes in the country, a couple of which are usually glowing on any given night. A drive on our tour bus showed a city that looked at best second world. After completing a short train excursion along a track lined with shanties, the Costa Rica we saw gave more of an impression of Haiti than Central America’s shining jewel.
It’s likely true that had we disembarked at the ritzier and more touristy areas a bit north and west of where we were docked our experience would have been more positive. As our train also wended its way through melon fields and coffee plantations, our tour guide explained why things were not quite what they seemed. The shanties we saw were overwhelmingly put up by Nicaraguans, citizens of Costa Rica’s country to its north. Just as in the United States it is beneath most Americans to do farm work, so it is today for most Costa Ricans to engage in that kind of labor. Some of these guest workers were here legally. Many more were not. In any event, Costa Rican law allows for squatters to at least try to construct homes on available plots of land. If after ten years the property owner doesn’t throw them off it and they can prove they have lived there that long, they can claim ownership of the land. Given that you could be thrown out at any moment, there’s not much point in overdoing your house. In any event, many of these Nicaraguans worked the nearby fields. Without their presence and the willingness to work for wages that can’t be paid to a citizen, like migrant workers in the United States, the melon fields we saw would not get harvested and probably not planted.
It wasn’t always this way for Costa Ricans. In the 1940s after a civil war started within the army, two things happened. First, the populace was so upset by the civil war that they abolished their army, the only country to do so in the Americas. Second, they elected a progressive who introduced social security and universal health care. Nine percent of a Costa Rican’s wages go into this system. Employers pay twenty percent of an employee’s wages into it. The money not spent on the military was channeled into education instead. A middle class that was virtually nonexistent in the 1940s emerged, took root and now consists of most of the population. Like the Scots, Costa Ricans learned that investing in education pays long term dividends. Basically these progressive policies totally transformed the country.
Costa Rica is thus a country that hovers somewhere between second world and first world status. Our first impressions were definitely wrong. Even the most modest shanties have satellite antennas on the roofs and Internet access. So what we saw was actually a country on the rise with a high cost of living but where most were upwardly mobile, and expecting things to remain that way. It’s also a country blessed by a peace that seems to elude the rest of Central America. This plus its tropical climate, rich soil made possible from its many volcanoes and its abundant rainfall makes it the place to be in Central America. And in truth, if you’ve traversed places like Detroit or rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, the United States looks just as bad, if not worse. So we’ll be back to explore more of Costa Rica.
Nicaragua on the other hand is Central America’s poorest and largest country. If so if doesn’t look it. Its shanties looked comparable to Costa Rica’s, but were perhaps more numerous. Most roads were paved. The port city of Corinta where we docked seemed busy, in spite of its fifty percent unemployment rate. You can find a stray dog or two in the streets or a wild horse along the sides of the road, but also plenty of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as people on bikes.
What you might expect to find in such a poor country but won’t is much of a crime problem. Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, in spite of its poverty. There is no drug trade here because (as our guide told us) no one can afford drugs anyhow. If people have a vice, it’s alcohol, not cigarettes. It does have plenty of corruption. The most profitable profession is not businessman or lawyer, but politician. The corruption seems endemic. Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista, is now in his sixteenth year of rule, having originally led the communist Sandinistas to overthrow the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime. Ortega is now largely not seen, as he has Lupus which makes him avoid daylight. His wife was elevated to Vice President and is effectively running the country. In short today there is little difference between the right-wing Somoza regime and life under Ortega and the Sandinistas, except a lot less repression of dissent. There is a public health service and a free public school education is available to all. But the public schools are poor and under funded. Their health care system while universal also suffers from issues, mainly timely access to services. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning and evangelical churches are moving in. Approximately sixty percent of Nicaraguans are now Catholic.
You would think then that Nicaragua should be avoided, but its tourism business is booming. If you are looking for a cheap place to retire, Nicaragua should be on your list. Real estate is dirt cheap, prices are low, crime in low, gangs that inhabit nearby countries like El Salvador and Honduras don’t exist and you get a drier climate than in Costa Rica, at least along its west coast. I can’t see retiring there, but I can see why Americans who like tropical climates and need to stretch their retirement dollars might want to find a gated community in the country and call it home instead. You might say that Nicaragua is something of a bargain if you can deal with the general poverty and corruption. It’s quite a pretty country too.