San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘¡Vivamos la Democracia!’ a crash course in civic pride

In the back corner of “¡Vivamos la Democracia!” paper cutouts line the wall, portraying dutiful citizens lining up to vote. They look happy and proud. They live in Costa Rica, a democratic country, and every ballot counts. Literally, the exhibit’s title translates to “Let’s live the democracy!” But by the time you reach the colorful cutouts, you may think, “Viva democracy!” Period.

At face value, the new exhibit at the National Museum should bore us to tears. “Vivamos” is a crash-course in civics combined with a chronology of Costa Rican governance, a middle school textbook in three dimensions, the dullest of the dull. Because the country has no bloody wars or saber-wielding heroes to liven things up, this history lacks overt drama. Without a Gettysburg or Berlin Wall or Ho Chi Minh, how could any body politic be interesting? Bring on the guillotines and toppled statues! Countries must be forged in blood. Let the rest eat cake.

But the truth is that “Vivamos” is a painfully beautiful exhibit, and everyone – from proud Ticos to disaffected expats – should spend a half-hour within its two quiet rooms. The beauty of “Vivamos” is its pure ideals and plainspoken history lessons; we read about slavery, women’s suffrage, electoral trends, courts, communists, and even the National Registry. Who knew that Costa Rican elections were once three-day fiestas, with tallied votes posted at the end of each day, like World Series stats? Who knew how difficult it was to actually document every citizen in the republic? Who knew that women weren’t allowed to vote until 1949 – long after, say, Thailand or Turkey? Not this amateur historian.

What’s startling about “Vivamos” is its subtlety, and by extension, the subtle evolution of Costa Rican political life. The exhibit foregoes triumphant marches into burning capitals; instead there are legal documents and vintage photographs, painted portraits and explanatory plaques. You can see a facsimile of a typewriter that produced important manifestoes, cameras that took important photographs, ballots and IDs and personal histories. The walls are covered in quotes by wise statesmen about the virtues of democracy. If you have the faintest interest in municipal life, you may walk away from the National Museum with a burning desire to write your legislative deputy.

Meanwhile, the curatorship is strangely intimate: Many texts are bilingual, but others are written only in Spanish. One section, “The First Electoral Processes,” makes reference to “nuestros antepasados,” or “our forefathers.” Ticos are meant to take ownership of this history; foreigners, having no native forefathers, can only appreciate from a distance.

Yet the exhibit is also painful, because history is still being written, and we live in a difficult chapter. “Vivimos” began showing last week, between Independence Day and San José’s Bicentennial, and patriotic feelings could be strong. But government approval ratings have slumped, corruption dogs the current administration, and a brutal election looms. There is a great chasm between political philosophy and actual politics, and “Vivamos” celebrates mostly the good parts – great ideals, progressive legislation and civic successes. We must remember that Costa Rica did endure a civil war, albeit a small one, and not every couple can legally marry, and no matter how forward thinking the culture, politicians will always be politicians. No matter where or when you live, some part of government is always going wrong.

“Vivimos” is a reminder and a rallying cry, and it could not be better timed. In the noise and confusion of daily headlines, it’s easy to forget what a nation-state is for. Within the soothing white walls of the National Museum, you may be surprised to remember: It’s for you.

Contact Robert Isenberg at

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