San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Yuck to Sausage and Illegal Business

If you keep up with Costa Rican politics, see if this advice on how to govern sounds familiar: “…provide reasonably good government for the time being, steal as much as decency and the envy of others will allow, and then, because your own position is tenuous, place every relative in the richest position possible so that he, too, can accumulate a fortune.”

Or this description of a corrupt hierarchy: “First, if it was known and condoned that their governor was appropriating public funds, officials on the next tier down were justified in doing the same, although to a more restrained degree. Then those on the third tier were invited to try their luck, and on down to the lowest functionary. All had their hands out and all levels of government proceeded by theft and bribery.”

No, these are not passages lifted from a book about Costa Rican politics. They are passages from James Michener’s “Caribbean,” a historical novel with considerable research behind it. Among other things, it describes the Spanish rule of the colonies.

And the way the Spanish ruled the colonies, my friends, leads us in a direct line to a special little Costa Rican word: chorizo.

In normal terms, chorizo is a kind of sausage, usually made with pork. Since I don’t eat pork, my reaction to it is “¡Huácala!” (“Yuck!”). In Costa Rica, it also has another meaning, one that may inspire a “¡Huácala!” even in devoted carnivores.

According to my dictionary of Costa Rican expressions, chorizo means “negocio ilegal” (illegal business or transaction). It can refer to theft, bribery, blackmail, nepotism, selling of stolen goods or traffic of influences.

A term often applied to politics, chorizo has always been characteristic of Latin American governments in general and Costa Rican governments in particular.

The reason for this is the precedent set by the Spaniards. Here again, Michener explains: “The kings of Spain were a penurious lot, grasping for every gold or silver piece their colonies produced but unwilling to pay a decent wage to their overseers. The

Spanish viceroys and governors were expected to steal, allowed 10 or 15 years to enrich themselves, and it was supposed that they would return to Spain with wealth great enough to last them and their voluminous families the rest of their lives.”

Michener also points out that instead of sending skilled laborers and experienced businessmen and administrators to the colonies, Spain “…brought out the sons of rich families, young fellows who’d never in their lives done a day’s work at anything constructive…

They had come across the Atlantic to fight, collect gold in buckets from the streams, and go home rich.” These factors, then, are “…the fundamental reasons why Spanish lands in the New World would fail, during the next 400 years, to achieve any simple, responsible system of governance, democratic or not, in which good men could rule without stealing…”

“Simple”? Anyone who has lived here is aware that accomplishing any governmental transaction involves so many drawn-out procedures (trámites) that most of us have to pay someone to help us wade through them.

It’s not like this just for foreigners. The only difference between us and the Ticos is that they do everything for themselves, including standing in line for up to six hours to get a passport or a driver’s license.

“Responsible”? Corruption is rampant in Costa Rican government. A month before I left for a trip to the United States, when I needed to renew my residency card, I found it was necessary to wait two months for an appointment – unless, that is, I wanted to pay an extra $100, in which case I could get an appointment right away. My reply? “¿Chorizo? ¡Huácala!

If you don’t mind participating in something illegal and paying through the nose, you can buy almost anything you want from the government: residency, citizenship, a vehicle inspection sticker, a place in front of the passport line, reduced property taxes, an immediate appointment with a specialist in a state clinic, a business license.And while the politicians and functionaries are busy taking your bribes, they are also finding ever more creative ways to bleed public funds, usually destined for the poor, into their own pockets.

Everyone knows this, and everyone has always accepted it as an inevitable part of the system. But wait a minute. Can it be that Ticos are getting sick and tired of, as we say, “the same ole same ole?” The unprecedented and surprising divided vote – of those, that is, who were not too fed up to vote – in the recent Costa Rican presidential elections may just hold out a ray of hope. A large percentage voted for a new party, perhaps in hopes that it represented a change from the same old corrupt party system that has been in place for so long, really since that distant time when Columbus (Colón in Spanish) discovered America and the Spaniards began their rule.

In this context, nothing is more poignant in “Caribbean” than this description of a fictional character leaving the island of Española (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1509: “…he could not resist turning around one more time to gaze out upon this beautiful sea, which would one day be called the Caribbean, and he had a powerful intimation of what the coming centuries portended: I see the men of Spain who come to these islands repeating in perpetuity the behavior of Colón and Pimentel – steal, abuse the natives, place relatives on the king’s payroll, think always of self and family, never of the general weal. It’s a bad precedent we’ve established here in Española.”

Maybe, just maybe, the recent elections indicate that Costa Ricans have decided to break with precedent and to proclaim with me, “¿Chorizo? ¡Huácala!” I hope. I hope. I hope.


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