San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Decepción Means Just That

All right. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know from experience in the United States just how absolutely dreadful government agencies can sometimes be: incompetent, slow, wasteful, corrupt, unjust, indifferent and even downright silly.

What I recently experienced with a Costa Rican government agency, however, has surpassed any such experience I have ever suffered in the United States. I love this country and try to accept its flaws, but… well, you judge for yourself.

It was in September or October of 2006 that we got a phone call from a politically active member of the small community where we live. He informed us that he had been talking to the social workers from IMAS, the Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social, which translates rather badly into Mixed Institute for Social Aid. Its governmental function is to help poor families change for the better. The social workers wanted to arrange a meeting with us because they were interested in providing funds for the campesino theater group we have been running here.

On the appointed day, two officials from IMAS and two officials from the Agricultural Development Institute (IDA) drove a number of kilometers of bad road to show up at our house. Despite my husband’s warning about “government people,” I was impressed and, yes, flattered.

What they told me was, I admit, rather disconcerting. They had, they said, a huge surplus of money that they hadn’t spent in 2006, and they needed to spend it by Dec. 31 or lose it. They had chosen our village as a place to unload all this cash by financing several projects. Our cultural group was to be one of the lucky recipients of this bounty.

My first reaction, of course, was to wonder how many poor families had gone without basic necessities in 2006 because IMAS hadn’t gotten around to allotting them their money on time. I bit my lip. I couldn’t do anything about those poor children, but perhaps I could do something about my poor children. We could finally buy sound equipment. I could get a dance teacher to come in once a week. I could take them to a professional theater production. I could … I could …

I’ll save you all the boring details. Suffice it to say that after several village meetings, much time, paperwork, falsehoods and heartbreak, Dec. 31 came and went. The result was … nada.

Some time after the first of the year, I went to the IMAS offices and asked the same social worker just what had happened to all that surplus money IMAS was going to shower on us. His enlightening answer was that he had been “busy.”He added that I was not to worry, however, for they had lots of 2007 money to give us.

So, I went and did all the running around and paperwork again. When I went back and turned it in, he grinned and said, “Ahora vamos a arrancar” (Now, we are going to get started).

Famous last words, literally. We were unable to talk to him again until the year was nearly over and, once again, it was simply too late.

Then, he came to the village and asked that we rework for the next year the same lists and documents we had already turned in twice. “Thanks, but no thanks,” we replied.

Te lo dije (I told you so),” my husband said.

I know, but come on, these guys came to us.

Why would they come to an impoverished village, promise children something and then disappoint them? And what did these children learn thereby about their government, their country, even about their own worth?

It’s not just that these “social workers” failed to do any good. It’s that they came here and did harm.

My husband offered a rather chilling explanation. He thinks they probably went to several villages, made people run around and do the paperwork for their projects, then turned in all the documentation to show on the books that they were doing their jobs. As for the money, it ended up somewhere, just not in the pockets of the people for whom it was destined.

So, here is my question for all of you out there, a question that might sound ingenuous coming from someone who has lived here so long: Can they really be that bad? I ask the question in part because I find it difficult to believe that they can be that incompetent.

The word for “disappointment” in Spanish, “decepción,” is what grammarians call a “false friend.” That is, it sounds like another word in English: “deception.”

Sometimes, false friends tell the truth.


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