San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Déja Vu – and Overspending Bill Came Due

Costa Ricans moved into the 1990s with a growing hopefulness for regional peace and an understandable sense of déjà vu. For the second time this century, and in the same order of succession, they had another President Calderón and another President Figueres. Rafael Angel Calderón and José María Figueres, the sons of legendary rivals Rafael Calderón Guardia and José (“Pepe”) Figueres, took their turns at the helm in 1990 and 1995, squiring their small nation through another decade of economic challenges exacerbated by the usual torments, both natural and man-made.

Calderón’s first weeks in office were all but eclipsed by the first-ever World Cup appearance of Costa Rica’s national soccer team, which scored a Central American first by advancing to the second round. The country ground to a halt at game times as feverish Ticos, including their new president, tuned in to watch.

“If I’m not going to be answering calls during those two hours, there’s no reason anybody else should have to,” Calderón told reporters.


Economic Woes, Cont’d

Though peace was on its way to Central America, the staggering economic consequences of regional conflict and overspending continued to rage in Costa Rica. Pressure from the International Monetary Fund to reduce the size of the state and open borders to trade would mark the entire decade.

Both presidents’ efforts to reduce benefits for state employees and eliminate thousands of public-sector jobs sparked massive strikes and protest. An array of government programs met with the budgetary ax, including special tax breaks for the country’s pensionados or foreign pensioners. Prices on basic goods went up, as did the retirement age, and the sales tax from 10 percent to 13 percent. Ticos moaned and endured.

A decade of commercial protectionism also began to crumble, as the country opened its borders to more imported goods, renewed its focus on exports, and massaged its cumbersome bureaucracy to become more attractive to foreign investors. Mini-devaluations kept the colón on equal footing with the dollar. The state banks’ historic monopoly on offering savings and checking accounts ended in 1995.

Talk of privatizing behemoth state institutions began early in the decade and grew under Figueres and his successor in 1998, Miguel Angel Rodríguez. Powerful public sector unions seethed at the notion.

Costa Rica held true to its reputation for paying its foreign debt, but overspending and indebtedness continued. Its successes, however, lured many multinationals, including microprocessor giant Intel in 1996, which set positive new standards here for labor and community relations. In a series on “Labor Pains,” The Tico Times looked at abuses by some “drawback” firms.


Tourism, Environment in the Spotlight

Costa Rica welcomed its millionth visitor in 1999, and tourism grew steadily, becoming the country’s top dollar earner. Hotels and resorts popped up throughout the country, causing repeated clashes with enviromentalists as wilderness areas were bulldozed and the country started learning about the importance of sustainable development and the fragility of is natural wonders.

Unlawful logging threatened habitat nationwide, leading to a clamor for a total ban on logging in the Osa Peninsula and discovery of a road being pushed through the jungle in Tortuguero on the northern Caribbean coast. The TT published investigative series on pesticide abuse, water pollution and captive wildlife.

The country began exploring debt-for-nature swaps and the sale of “carbon bonds” to offset pollution in developed countries.

For the first time, biologists couldn’t find any Golden Toads during their yearly species inventory at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A new species of dolphin was identified on the Caribbean coast.

The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) announced controversial plans to dam a canyon on the Pacuare River.

Environmentalists with the Sea Shepherd group sounded the alarm on dolphins dying in tuna nets. Scientists trying to protect sea turtles on the northern Pacific coast clashed with villagers. And the “Iguana Mama”, German scientist Dagmar Werner, launched an unsuccessful effort to teach local farmer to raise iguanas for meat.

All Costa Rica’s fuels became unleaded, and the ecomarchamo, or annual emissions test, became mandatory for license plate renewal. A Texas court accepted a classaction suit filed by banana workers who claimed they had been left sterile and suffered a host of other health problems following exposure to toxic herbicides banned in developed countries. And long-criticized banana companies started cleaning up their act: Standard Fruit Co. became the first food-producing company in the world to win the “Green Seal” of the prestigious International Standards Organization (ISO).


Peace Arrives

Peace finally came to the isthmus in 1996, when the Guatemalan Peace Accord ended the first and last of the Cold War-era conflict. Panama eliminated its army and, in 1999, became owner and operator of its Canal. Honduras shifted its police from a military to a civilian force. And thousands of impoverished Central Americans continued to flee poverty and institutional chaos at home, streaming into Costa Rica, filling low-paying jobs in agriculture, construction and housekeeping. In a poignant series on the “Nowhere People,” TT writer Mauricio Espinoza spent time with migrant farm workers in northern and southern Costa Rica, chronicling their lives, hopes and heartbreaks.



The decade saw its share of milestones. The Free Port of Golfito opened in 1990 with the country’s best deals on imported appliances. The notoriously brutal San Lucas Island prison Costa Rica’s notorious “Devil’s Island” closed, and renovations began to transform San José’s long-abandoned National Penitentiary into a museum for children.

The brand-new Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court made its first rulings early in the decade, including the decision to eliminate duty-free privileges for deputies. And Ticos got their first Ombudsman, Rodrigo Carazo, whose office was bombarded with citizen complaints about everything from health care to police torture and pollution.

Pan Am made its last flight from Costa Rica and folded its wings in 1991, 64 years after its birth and 62 years after it opened this country to commercial aviation. The Tico Times recalled the airline’s glory years in a series of articles.

The country’s phone numbers changed from six to seven digits. A second brief attempt to institute daylight savings time ended in catastrophe after some Ticos stubbornly refused to reset their clocks, and plans became mired in “new time or old time?” confusion.

Tico-born astronaut and national hero Franklin Chang, after being stripped of his Costa Rica citizenship by an overzealous bureaucracy, ended up paving the way for Ticos to be legal dual nationals – and regaining his own Tico citizenship.

Swimmer Claudia Poll brought home the country’s first Olympic gold medal.


Health Worries and Breakthroughs

For the first time in nearly half a century, dengue fever returned to Costa Rica on the wings of its carrier, the Aedis aegypti mosquito. Potentially fatal cholera also returned after a long absence, causing nationwide hysteria and hasty public education efforts, but infected only a few dozen victims before fading away.

A Tico Times series looked at Costa Rica’s alcoholism problem and the resources available to battle it.

Doctors performed the nation’s first heart and liver transplants and delivered Costa Rica’s first test-tube baby. In one of the country’s most tragic accidents, patients received overdoses of cobalt radiation from a poorly adjusted machine at San José’s San Juan de Dios Hospital. And a health official’s sick joke that a Chinese restaurant had served mice to its customers caused an outcry from the Chinese community that ended with President Miguel Angel Rodríguez showing solidarity by attending with his Cabinet a televised dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. The author of the hoax was fired.

Land disputes turned bloody. A squatter-related shootout in 1997 in the south Pacific beach town of Pavones claimed the lives of longtime U.S. resident Max Dalton and a Costa Rican farmer. The tragedy sparked a bitter international controversy that lasted three years.


No Lack of Scandals

Scandals dominated the headlines all decade, beginning with the “Chemise Case”, which became an issue in the presidential campaign and continued to haunt President José María Figueres. Brothers José and David Romero published a book, El Caso Chemise, linking Figueres to the murder of a marijuana dealer known as “Chemise” in 1973, when Figueres was an 18-year-old lieutenant in the Civil Guard during the administration of his famous father, José (“Pepe”) Figueres.

The younger Figueres sued the Romeros for libel, but the celebrated trial failed to clarify the case.

In 1994, the Banco Anglo Costarricense, the country’s oldest bank and a pillar of the national banking system, closed following losses of more than $100 million. A dozen of the bank’s top executives were charged with suspected corruption responsible for the demise. Also biting the dust amid scandal and leaving investors stripped was the private Banco Germano.

Eight presidential aides were convicted and former President Luis Alberto Monge was cleared following the longest trial in Costa Rica’s history and a 10-year scandal involving the looting of the National Emergency Fund of $125 million. Later in the decade, the Family Assistance Fund was looted of some $70 million.

Canadian Leonard Zrnic was convicted of investment fraud after four years in prison without a trial, based on a boiler room operation he ran here in the ‘80s known as Swiss Investments Corp. Tico Times writer Ronald Bailey unraveled the complex web of companies operated by U.S. financial consultant Edwin Lowery, who enticed investors with unregistered mutual funds and farms through his Investment Shop in the ‘80s. He was later sued for some $4 million by disgruntled investors, and slipped out of Costa Rica in 2002. And TT writer Peter Brennan looked at the claims of controversial teak company Bosque Puerto Carrillo, which came under fire for selling millions of dollars in unregistered stocks, mostly to U.S. and Canadian tourists.

Toward decade’s end, investors were trying to recoup their money from wunderkind Marc Harris of the Harris Organization, and the band played on. . .


A Disastrous Decade

The ‘90s started shakily, with a “seismic swarm” of near-continuous small quakes unleashed by local faults wreaking havoc in the western Central Valley area of Puriscal, as buildings slowly cracked, floors split and roads sank. In 1991, a 7.4 monster quake left dozens dead, leveled homes and crumbled bridges in the Caribbean province of Limón.

The temblor lifted the coastline, peeled acres of virgin jungle off steep slopes in the Talamanca mountains and caused irreparable damage to railway tracks, marking the definitive end of “Jungle Train” from San José to the Caribbean. Officials had hoped to revive the historic Atlantic Railway – formerly the Northern Railway –which had stopped service due to economic woes the year before, on the eve of its 100th birthday. Other victims of the Limón quake were San Jose’s National Theater and National Library, which suffered structural damage and were closed for years for repairs.

Hurricane Mitch lingered off Central America’s Caribbean coast for days, killing 7,000 in Honduras and pelting Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. In Costa Rica, Hurricane Cesar did more damage two years earlier in 1996, flooding the Southern Zone and wiping out rice crops.


Drugs, Kidnappings

Years of record cocaine busts resulted in a treaty between Costa Rica and the U.S. to jointly patrol national waters and airspace for drug shipments.

Kidnappings and takeovers took top headlines. In 1992 Public Security Minister Luis Fishman was kidnapped by a reputed member of the Honduran death squads. He was released after the family paid a ransom.

The following year, the Nicaraguan Embassy and the Supreme Court fell victim to assailants in bloodless incidents. In 1996 a German tourist and her Swiss tour guide were held in the Nicaraguan jungle for 71 days, and later that year a Dutch couple met a similar fate. All victims were released uninjured.

Police coined the term “chapulines” or “grasshoppers” for the young street thugs responsible for a rash of snatch-and-dash street crime in the country’s urban areas.


Police Training Scrutinized

In 1994, a police anti-narcotics unit raided a house in Desamparados south of San José, shooting off the lock on the door. Behind the door, 12-year-old Wagner Alfonso Segura took the shotgun blast, dying before medical help arrived. The resulting press scrutiny of the police unit revealed that the squad had received abundant military training from the U.S., Guatemala and El Salvador. This came as a shock to most Ticos, who had been unaware that their demilitarized “police” had been subject to so much military training, something that had begun in earnest during the 1980s in response to tensions with Nicaragua during the Contra war. National Liberation Congressmen Walter Muñoz led an investigation which determined that Costa Rica had, in Muñoz’s words, “lost political control of the police.” The result was the drafting of a police statute, which more precisely defined police functions and provided for more professional police training. It was still recognized, however, that some police units, such as anti-narcotics units, would require specialized training.


The Weird, The Wonderful

The Lost and The Clueless: A travel agent in Germany didn’t know the way to THIS San José, sending a bewildered woman to San Jose, California while her daughter waited for her here. The makers of “Jurassic Park” (and the dinosaur book’s author) were no less disoriented, placing Costa Rica’s capital on the coast and giving the country an air force. And President Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. immortalized himself by telling reporters during a visit to Spain that Costa Rica had no indigenous populations when the Spanish arrived. (He later said he’d been misquoted.)

For an instant, day became night in 1991 during the first solar eclipse since 1787. UFOs were rumored to be responsible for at least two nationwide blackouts during the decade.

A U.S. cook adapted a recipe for Tres Leches, the Nicaraguan confection that took Costa Rica by storm in the ‘80s, christened it “Costa Rican Cream Cake”, and entered it in the 34th Pillsbury Bake-Off, becoming one of l00 national finalists in the contest. She and her husband had fallen in love with the dessert during a visit here and asked the TT for the recipe.

The Costa Rica family told The Tico Times how they came by their patriotic surname – an ancestor who migrated here from an unknown country changed his name to that of his adopted homeland.

Two U.S. tourists, dazzled by a self-described “Bri-Bri princess” in a souvenir shop, spent over $1,000 on assorted “pre-Columbian artifacts” which turned out to be fakes. And the Nigerian scam letter made its first appearance in Costa Rica, cleaning out the bank account of at least one local businessman.

Someone stole the red carpet that welcomed visitors to Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry building, the Casa Amarilla.

David Hellyer, whose photo appeared in The Tico Times in 1957 when he was adopted by his U.S. Embassy parents, returned to Costa Rica in 1993 for a joyous reunion with his large Tico family.

In 1992, Salvation Army Capts. Michael and Louise Sharpe launched the Angel Tree in The Tico Times to bring Christmas to hundreds of needy children, starting a tradition that continues today.

A 15-year-old campesino in the Northern Zone area of Sarapiquí claimed he was visited by the Virgin Mary, sparking a stampede of pilgrims to the rural area, which now boasts a chapel and is still visited by the faithful.

Costa Rican artist Rosibel Pereira, who paints with her foot, became the first Latin American to receive the Victory Award from the U.S. National Rehabilitation Hospital.

And Costa Rican entertainer Ricky Campbell was awarded Canada’s Medal of Bravery for rescuing 24 people from a burning airliner, despite his own serious injuries.

The “Chupacabras”, or “goatsucker”, a supernatural or extraterrestrial being said to gobble up livestock in Mexico and Puerto Rico, “arrived” in Costa Rica. And cell phones became such a status symbol here that at an odontologists’ conference in San José, organizers reported that more than half the phones checked at the door were toys.


The New Millennium…Or Not?

Debate over whether the millennium was ending in 1999 or 2000 started raging as early as 1996, along with disagreement over whether the country was ready for the Y2K bug. Both arguments turned out to be much ado about nada. As the decade (or century, or millennium) neared its end, the TT published a series on “Ticos of the World” – Costa Ricans such as astronaut Franklin Chang,Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias and army abolitionist José (Pepe) Figueres, who had made a difference not only in their tiny country, but in the world.




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