San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sherman Thomas: Family is the Foundation

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ForSherman Thomas, today’s Costa Rica is not exactly the one he wants to leave forhis kids.

Andhe’s not just thinking about his 10 sons and daughters, but also about thehundreds of students he’s taught over the years at the University of CostaRica.

Respondingto what he sees as a disintegration of the public health system, a growing indifferencein the country’s schools and a widening gap between the rich and the poor, he’slaunched an effort to tackle the problems from the most powerful place in thecountry: Casa Presidencial.

Thisis not the first time the chemistry professor has launched a presidentialcampaign. He tried 12 years ago, but lacked sufficient name recognition and thecampaign finances to make a dent in the final numbers.

Thistime, he’s hoping his work in opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreementwith the United States (CAFTA) and in various public functions, including hisservice for the Partners of the Americas and for the Education Ministry, willgive him a leg up in the leftlist Patriotic Alliance Party’s primaries on Aug.29.

Accompaniedby his wife, Luceth Wattler, for an interview on Tuesday at The Tico Times’office in San José, the 70-year-old professor emeritus laid out his vision forthe country, the importance of stitching troubled Costa Rican families backtogether and his opposition to CAFTA.

TT:What convinced you to launch this presidential effort?

ST:I have done it before, 12 years ago. And, I think, in these past 12 yearsthings have really deteriorated. If you look at any area, you’ll see that wedon’t seem to be heading in the right direction. If you look at the economy,most likely you’ll see growth. You will see that we are adding more value toour exports. But the money that we are making is not being redistributed. Andthat is serious. As that gap between rich and poor widens, you are reallyasking for trouble.

Inthe area of health, I want to point out the bright spots. Infant mortality isdown to single digits. You can’t beat that. Life expectancy is almost up to 80years. Obviously, those are great things that have happened. But we have givenup much of what we had in the area of prevention. All you have to do is look atthe long lines and the two or three years it takes for people to get an appointment.There has been a deterioration of a system that at one point made us reallygreat.

Ifyou look at the area of education, it is much of the same thing.

Anotherone of the problems, which is at the foundation of our country, is the breakupof the family. Sixty percent of our families are one-parent families. And the familyis at the foundation of a society.

Thereare all these situations out there. If we don’t do something and do it rapidly,the consequences will be very, very serious. Looking at that and knowing thatwe have kids and that we are going to have grandchildren, as well, we couldn’tjust sit back and let the time roll. You have to really stand up and say, “HereI am. Here is what I think and I want to change this country.”

Whatwould you bring to the presidency?

It’snot only what I can do, but it’s the ability that I have to bring people intomy tent, to get people encouraged, to get people gung-ho about the things thatneed to be done for the country.

Weneed to turn things around. We have been run by the elite for the past 100 or200 years. Did you know that more than 90 percent of our presidents trace backto about two or three families in Costa Rica? It’s time to turn that around.And I think I have that ability to get people involved, to get people excitedabout bringing about change. We need a more participatory democracy. … Peopleneed to realize that they have to be responsible for their own destinies. Noone is going to do it for them. There is an old saying out there … if somethingis going to happen, I have to do it.

Andhow would you go about doing it?

Well,I am a member of a party that has done a great job in bringing in the common folkand getting them involved in community problems and in national problems and helpingthem realize that, indeed, they can make a difference.

Speakingof your party, why do you identify with the Patriotic Alliance (AP) and notwith a more established party?

Themain reason is the value they have invested in the common folk. They work hardto get them involved. And also – I think – the idea of solidarity, we have lostpart of that in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t say we have lost it all, but certainlywe have lost some.

Ifyou think about what the French Revolution was about, you think of three words:equality, liberty and fraternity. There is no way you can have equality if youhave liberty. There are always going to be guys out there who are audacious …they trample over everyone to make sure they get what they want … The only wayyou can possibly have equality is if you are willing to give up some of yourliberty, and that is called fraternity. That is called solidarity. That iscalled love. Without that, there is only so much you can do. If you think aboutthe great institutions in Costa Rica – health, education, (public works),electricity – none of that would have been possible if we didn’t have a systemin which those who have done well were willing to give up some of what theyhavein order to improve the lives of others in the community.

Youwere involved in the movement against CAFTA. Why do you feel this agreement isnot good for Costa Rica?

Fora small country like ours, there is no way we can survive if we don’t havetrade … if we are not capable of bringing in investments. To think you can doit without that foreign presence, it’s not real. But on the other hand, youcannot accept a free trade agreement just because it will increase trade. Weneed the right free trade agreement.

Theimpression was that those who said “No” to CAFTA, were against free trade. But thatwasn’t the case at all. That was never the question. It was that particular treatywe were against.

Oneof the things this treaty worked against was the idea of solidarity. Solidaritywould be taken away from us. In the case of ICE (the Costa Rican ElectricityInstitute), over the years, we’ve had power in just about every corner of ourcountry. Yet, electricity is not a good business at all, but telecommunicationscertainly is … Because we were able to raise money throughtelecommunications, we’ve been able to bring about certain programs that havecontributed to the tremendous changes that have taken place in this country.

Aspresident, what would you say would be your greatest challenge?

Families,without a doubt. There is an old saying that as your families go, so goes yournation … Families are the best health clinic you can think of. Families are thebest preschool and elementary school that you can think of. If you havefamilies operating the way they ought to operate, you are in business.

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