San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
No Sugar, Please

Make Costa Rica great again?

The Tico Times is proud to present this new column from Álvaro Murillo, an experienced journalist who specializes in political coverage and has written for La Nación, Semanario Universidad and El País. His twice-monthly reflections will explore politics as a field where, in his words, “there is room for everything, and where there should be room for each of us, with our conflicts and aspirations. I believe that politicians are only one part of politics, just as only part of the discussion is taking place on social media. Political issues are clearly housed within the Legislative Assembly, the Presidency, courts and embassies, but also in a soccer stadium, at a family lunch on the coast, in two coworkers’ conversation as they sit in a traffic jam, or in a one-room schoolhouse.” Read on!

Costa Rica’s best-kept secret isn’t the treasure of Cocos Island, nor is it our suspiciously Anglophonic pronunciation of the letter “r.” Not even close. Costa Rica’s biggest secret is how we construct our national brand: the things we hide behind “pura vida,” that phrase imported from Mexico that is our calling card before the rest of the world.

Now, I would never seek to damage Costa Rica’s international reputation as a peaceful, ecological, well-educated population that defends human rights. That reputation has a basis in reality. It’s music to any Costa Rican ear when a foreigner praises our country’s natural beauty, our beaches, or a positive experience with our people. I still remember the tear I shed in Toulouse when two friends, one Iranian and one Israeli, sang Costa Rica’s National Anthem to me, without the slightest clue what the words meant.

All of this is good, but there is a problem. In Costa Rica we always keep one eye on every international ranking, and monitor how one European newspaper or another refers to our country. We have neglected the priority of working hard each day to become more like the image we portray, and we have allowed antagonistic ideas to sneak in. In other words, we have allowed our good Tico marketing to stay on the outside of the package.

Inside that shiny wrapping, a truly alarming percentage of Ticos are in favor of carrying a gun in our cars; in favor of the possibility of allowing a judge to condemn a person to death; in favor of the supposed right of a throng of neighbors to lynch a thief, leaving him dead in the street. And take photos of this. And show off the photos so others can see what might happen to them. And recommend that other neighbors employ this technique against petty crime.

A 2008 poll by Unimer showed that 51 percent of Ticos supported lynching and 54 percent support the death penalty. Eight years have passed since that time, and I worry that these ideas have gained even more ground. At the same time, I don’t want a new poll to test that theory. I fear that the simple fact of updating the data might motivate others to join this majority and begin planning a serious political proposal in favor of life in prison, capital punishment or tolerance for the application of “popular justice.”

The same is true of xenophobia, that word that popped up in various articles during this past week, as thousands of “likes” and social media comments expressed indignation at the possibility (oh, unpardonable treason!) that the National Anthem of Nicaragua might be sung one day in a few San José schools as part of Central America’s Month of Independence. Yes, it’s Central America’s Month of Independence, even though some like to use the occasion to exalt Costa Rican nationalism before our neighbors in the region.

I understand that it is easy and tempting to criticize the government of Daniel Ortega, but that disdain is often directed at Nicaraguans and, above all, Nicaraguan immigrants, not to mention Costa Ricans with Nicaraguan parents or grandparents. I wouldn’t like to see a poll measuring support for a wall in Peñas Blancas, or another along our southern border. We’ve already seen that support for such notions is massive and transcends social class or educational attainment.

“What, me, a xenophobe?” many will say. To prove otherwise, they’ll crack open a Toña, just as Donald Trump posed with an alleged “Mexican taco bowl.” They’ll say no, they just want to put Nicaraguan foreigners in their place – ideally in a place not too close to us (unless it’s time to pick coffee, cut sugar cane, harvest melons, attend to the garden or clean the house. Even better if they are undocumented workers so we can pay less and not insure them).

I understand, too, that there are politicians and opinion leaders who are tempted to lie publicly three times a day to damage each other’s positions. Later, they will admit that what they said was not the truth. I understand this, because it is a politically profitable strategy.

But beware: the phenomenon that has been unleashed around Donald Trump can be easily recreated in other settings. All that is needed is a person as shameless and astute as he is, capable of capitalizing on ideas that are xenophobic and machista, or on criminal oversimplification.

The bad news is that such a cynic might appear at any time. The good news is that Ticos still worry about the image we project, and that holds us back.

Or at least, I want to believe that it will.

Watch out: that Trumpism can travel.


“No Sugar, Please” will be published every two weeks. Comments? Connect with Alvaro Murillo on Twitter.

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Julius Cesar

Who cares about anything in Costa Rica but hot Ticas!

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Hi, Alvaro. Thank you for your insights on the current Costa Rican political psyche.

I visited family in San José recently (I’ve been an expat since the early 80s), as I have done from time to time over the last three decades and, as always, I keep looking for telltale signs of socio-political, economic and cultural shifts in Costa Rican society. While I love delving into the quotidian life of my extended family and hearing their views of the world, Costa Rica and the theme du jour: Donald Trump, I found it quite depressing to see more and more walled communities and high rise condos springing up as the counterpoint solution of the well-heeled elites to the growing malaise, collective apathy, inertia, and worsening conditions for the average Tico and Tica.

What does it say about the collective imagination of the Costa Rican people that the solution to our problems is found in building higher walls, girding our properties with more barbed wire, investing in the latest security cameras to keep an eye on all those potential intruders beyond the walls guarding our homes… to entertain and justify the notion of normalizing gun ownership as a panacea to current ills? Has it come to be that the way to represent the Costa Rican psyche is to point to any of the thousands of homes in Anytown, Costa Rica, with their grills on the windows, barking dogs in the backyard (or rooftop), high fences, high walls, hushed tones in the company of strangers, and say: “This is who we are now” – as we timidly look out to the world through steel bars of our own choosing, and casting those outside our perimeters as potential aggressors?

Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Pura Vida with the accompanying upward inflection (betraying an underlying insecurity) is becoming more and more the thin veneer for what is a projection of a Costa Rica that simply doesn’t exist (and arguably has never existed). I came away feeling that some of my fellow Costa Ricans believe themselves to be a certain version of themselves that is promoted by others other than themselves! There is a role to play, it seems, and very little legitimacy of existence. The general complaint is that no one does anything to improve the situation in Costa Rica while the teller quite consciously does nothing to change, challenge or improve the status quo. It’s like a nation of supposedly free people waiting for someone else to lead everyone out of this seemingly never-ending chapter in Costa Rica’s history. And yet, is it fair to expect anything to change when people genuinely don’t know themselves, and neither their capacity nor their agency? Did Samuel Beckett visit Costa Rica at some point before penning Waiting for Godot? How did Costa Rican audiences respond to the visiting production of the play last year? Did they feel like they were sharing the stage or a certain pervasive sense of déjà vu?

All I want for my fellow Costa Ricans, for my family and future generations is a cultural reawakening á la 1948 (without the bellicosity) – an opportunity that leads to a few collective steps in the right direction: constitutional, justice system and government department reform, and political vision and leadership committed to the real human development of its citizenry; an end to corruption; a re-invigorated constituency fluent in effective self-advocacy; a collective commitment to social security, education and the socio-economic advancement of the poor and marginalized; a cultural shift directed at empowering the individual to prosper; and, a reimagining of our commitments and responsibilities as citizens of a living experiment in nationhood.

As a kid growing up in Costa Rica in the seventies, I had my fair share of third world ailments – worms, amoebas, Hep. A – you name it – our playground was the street when cars were not zooming by, and we had no general pride for our flora and fauna the way we do today. Environmentalism was not littering with abandon like every one else! Whatever art education I received was to be found in the books my grandparents kept on the shelves at home, and the twice year visits to the coast were “luxurious” events that I cherish to this day. The only time I flew out of the country was when we finally left to join my father in Australia (I would not return to Costa Rica for another 16 years)… Costa Rica was not perfect but it was home and as such, you always want to improve it where you can, be as proud of it as you can. Costa Rica has improved in certain aspect since then, no doubt, but so much of what makes Costa Rica wonderful is neglected and impoverished. Without some sort of reinvigoration, these qualities wither and die, and thus we become other people not necessarily recognizably Costa Rican anymore. Please, Costa Rica, wake up! Reclaim yourself!

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Joe Ippolito

Very well stated! I look forward to your future articles.

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Eva Jodiccel

Make Coata Rica great again! Fuck inmigrants!

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Dakota Liebow


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Dakota Liebow


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