San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cultural Attitude Is Not the Whole Story

A Costa Rican friend of mine once described the Tico approach to getting things done as “a circular, tender, loving inefficiency, always the same, never going anywhere.”

If you live here or just sometimes visit, I’m sure you can relate. Take, for example, the typical bank line, where one customer may take 20 minutes or more to process his business, oblivious to the line of people behind, gritting their teeth. Moreover, whereas a long line of impatient customers would have Gringo tellers in a sweat, this doesn’t bother the Tico tellers at all.

This manner of doing things, as well as the unperturbed attitude toward its inefficiency, is, of course, cultural. It drives us mad; it even bothers the Ticos standing in line. Nevertheless, it is something we must accept if we are to live here.

But cultural attitude is not the whole story. Many of the things we consider to be a lack of efficiency or a matter of incompetence are, indeed, partly or fully the result of another factor, one we tend to overlook. Let’s look at some examples.

Costa Rica recently revised its Traffic Law to impose higher fines, in hopes this will put an end to the irresponsible and chaotic driving practices here. Their thinking isn’t entirely wrong. Stiff fines do cause people to drive more carefully, if and when people are afraid of getting caught. But Costa Rica continues to catch transgressors by having tráficos (Traffic Police) stand alongside the road and flag people down, rather than employing patrol cars and motorcycles. As a result, drivers who have already passed the cops blink their lights to warn the cars on their way there, and thus only a small number of speeders actually get caught. What’s more, the random nature and visibility of the situation motivates people to take chances, high fines or no.

Here are some other disconcerting phenomena we put down to inefficiency:

Restaurants are not always safe because there is no system of frequent checks. Costa Rica gets big ecological kudos for having more than 20 percent of its land in national parks. However, these parks are neglected, and poaching is a major problem.

Unlike the United States, which, in the past, has left thousands of people without health care, Costa Rica provides public care, known as La Caja, for a small fee. The intention is good; however, when patients have to wait a year and a half to get an urgent test done, what’s the point?

Garbage collection is a muddle. People put plastic bags out on the sidewalk, where dogs sometimes spread the refuse all over.

Sometimes it does not get picked up, creating a health hazard. Moreover, people throw out their garbage along highways and back roads. There is a high fine for doing so, but who’s around to catch them?

I could go on and on, but why bother? You see, it’s easy for us Gringos to pass judgments, harsh ones (“It’s just pure incompetence”) or mild ones (“It’s ‘a circular, tender, loving inefficiency … ’”). After all, we are the efficiency experts, aren’t we?


Here’s the truth of the matter:

Traffic cops stand by the road and flag people down because Costa Rica doesn’t have the money to pay for patrol cars and their maintenance.

Restaurants aren’t well-monitored because Costa Rica doesn’t have the money to pay for sufficient employees to do this. National parks are neglected because Costa Rica doesn’t have the money to pay for enough park rangers.

Patients have to wait a year and a half to get tests because Costa Rica doesn’t have the money to pay for more equipment and technicians.

Garbage collection is a muddle because Costa Rica doesn’t have the money to pay for equipment and maintenance.

In other words, Costa Rica does not have the means to provide the first-rate services we enjoy in North America. It is also true that Costa Rica would have more money if it reformed the tax system and found a way to clean up political corruption, but even this would not put it on a comparative basis with North America.

We need to stop making assumptions.

Recently a friend of mine, who was on tour in Costa Rica and who had just seen a parade, asked me why Costa Ricans preferred marching bands consisting of nothing but drums and xylophones and no horns.

“Probably, they don’t prefer them,” I answered. “They probably can’t afford anything else.”

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