San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Living Magical Realism: Bowing to the Absurd

Years back, just before I left the United States for Costa Rica, I was deep into a Latin American literary movement called magical realism, which involves stories taking place in a realistic setting where unrealistic things happen, all of which are described in a matter of-fact way – say, a man appears always surrounded by yellow butterflies or a young girl floats up to the sky while hanging up the laundry. No one is surprised.

I thought I understood it, but found I didn’t really until I came to live in Latin America, where, on a daily basis, the absurd is accepted without batting an eye. This is especially true of governmental affairs. Here are just a few examples:

Sidewalks. Those of us who live here all know what they are like, full of holes, stumbling blocks and whatnot. This is because the owners of the home or building behind the sidewalk are responsible by law for maintaining it. Oh, but there’s a catch, actually two: There is no one to enforce the law, and the fine hasn’t changed since the law was enacted. The last I heard, it’s still only ¢100 (about $0.19).

Traffic fines. They appear at the yearly ritual of paying the marchamo (right of circulation). This means that if owners sell the car sometime during the year, the new owner of the car will be stuck with their fines. Moreover, after two years without paying the marchamo, the fine is canceled!

Property taxes. The owner of the property has to go down to the municipalidad (the city courthouse, known as the “muni”), declare ownership and ask for assesment. If he fails to do so, guess what happens – nothing! It turns out that although property owners must by law pay their taxes, there are other laws protecting the right to a dwelling or that contradict this law, or there are not enough officials to pursue it. Recently, Costa Rica enacted a law to charge an additional tax on houses worth ¢100 million (about $190,000) or more. In trying to collect the money, however, they found that most millionaire homes had never been declared. Oh, and yes, if taxes were evaluated 30 years ago or so, the fee remains the same, unless, of course, the owner is patriotic and presents himself to the muni to have his taxes raised. Ha!

Legal adulthood. In Costa Rica, youngsters can’t drink, drive or vote until they are 18, yet they can quit school, move out of their parents’ home and wander around at will if they so please, and, with official permission, work when they turn 15. Neither the parents nor the Child Welfare Office (PANI) have the power to intervene.

Socialized medicine. The Costa Rican Social Security System, better known as the Caja, includes the entire state medical system: hospitals, clinics, salaries and drugs. Socialized medicine has its drawbacks – though, in my opinion, not as many as the U.S. system – mostly in the form of waiting lines and inefficiency, and this varies greatly from one clinic to another. In the worst of cases, a pregnant woman, for example, may present an order for an ultrasound of the baby and obtain an appointment for two years hence. The same can happen to a patient who needs a test to determine if he has a terminal illness; if he does, by the time his appointment rolls around, he will probably be dead.

Immigration. Someone wanting to obtain an appointment to renew a residency permit (cédula de residencia) supposedly can call 900-1234567, which is a number that charges a fee. This is a new service Immigration has provided so that people don’t have to go all the way to the Immigration office just to get an appointment. The first time I called, the young lady in attendance said she didn’t know anything, that I had to come to town. I paid for the call. Months later, I called again, and the young lady in attendance gave me an appointment for a year and a half later, despite the fact that my cédula was already expired. This was to be confirmed by e-mail. I never heard another thing from Immigration. I paid for the call. Now, when I call, I get the message “Esta llamada no puede ser procesada” (This call cannot be processed). I assume I am paying for all these calls as well.

Building permits. As elsewhere, before building, one must solicit permission from the powers that be, in this case, the muni, or the city government. However, it can take up to two years to obtain said permission, and then only by playing the Costa Rican game of constantly calling and going to the city offices to complain about their lack of action. Never fear, though. There is another law, as is often the case here, that compensates for the problem. If the authorities come to inspect permits during construction or after, which rarely happens, they can no longer do anything as long as someone is living there. Thus, people generally build without permission and make sure that it at least appears that someone is living there.

Many of these absurdities stem from what may be Costa Rica’s weakest link: the municipalities. A great many of them, if not all, are extremely corrupt and sometimes run by unqualified elected officials. Although there are good national laws coming out of the Legislative Assembly, where the president and elected diputados (something like senators) submit proposals and vote, the policies of the munis are often the ones that predominate, legal or no. For example, awhile back, it came to light that the most important watershed in the Central Valley, protected by a 100-year-old national dictate, was in a process of development. This, because a small mayor in a small town had given his permission, thus endangering the water source of the entire valley.

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