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Contrasting Costa Rica, Colombia

I sent in my absentee ballot and took off for Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. Apparently I missed quite a hailstorm. I spent a week in the San Jose area and then went down to the Pacific Coast for a week. I have a couple of friends who have lived there for a few years, and they introduced me to a network of expatriates residing there. There are now more than 75,000 Americans calling Costa Rica home in a country of 4 million. Many are men running from ex-wives, business failures and (I’m guessing) tax problems. They report that they can get a 30 percent return on dollar accounts without Costa Rican tax obligations. I question the safety of such investments, but they don’t seem worried. Dollars are scarce here and in high demand.

Overall, the Americans I met there, even with families, seem very satisfied. Good private schools (grades one-12) run about $300 per month. The Costa Ricans (Ticos) are very friendly, and the geography is magnificent. Food is cheap and of excellent quality, and housing is about 30 percent less than Nevada County, with almost no property taxes. The air is very clean. Fishing and golf are moderately priced. There is universal health care for the Ticos and upgraded private care available for about a $1,000 a year. Most of the population lives in the upper plateau (San Jose), which is cool, while the coasts are much warmer. Costa Rica is a Second World country without the pervasive poverty of much of the rest of Latin America.



Unlike nearby countries, Costa Rica’s people are mostly of unmixed Spanish blood (80 percent), with only 17 percent being mestizos. Because Spain and the Catholic Church ignored the European settlers, they had to form a very equalitarian society in order to survive. This has evolved into the large and dominant middle class of today. The women are very liberated and comprise half of the work force.




There are some negatives. Although violent crime is low (guns permitted), theft is common, and most houses and businesses are protected with razor wire and bars. Traffic is beginning to be unbearable around San Jose. Cars and appliances are very pricy because of large import duties.

About 25 percent of the country is now forested (75 percent in 1949; 49 percent in 1973). Mahogany, rosewood and dyewood have been exploited, and much land has been cleared for farming. Recently, in order to protect the rain forests, 13 percent of the forested lands have been placed in preserves in exchange for canceling large foreign debts.

Costa Rica has had a stable democracy for 50 years and has no army. Lately there has been an upsurge of immigration (legal and illegal) from Colombia. The seemingly endless civil war in Colombia between the government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has heated up and taken a much more violent turn. More than 350,000 Colombians were displaced by the violence last year. Many are looking for refuge in other countries. Which leads me to the subject of Colombia.

Until recently, the U.S. policy toward Colombia was mostly narcotics intervention. Now that FARC is more actively supporting its insurgency with drug sales, the U.S. has taken an active role in helping the government in its civil war against the rebels. Advisors, Blackhawk helicopters and billions of dollars have been committed. These expenditures increasing our involvement now come under the guise of the “war on terrorism.” The protracted peace talks are off, and both sides are gearing up for serious violence. This nasty war will most likely drag on for a long, long time. Each day there are attacks on infrastructure, including water supplies and electricity and telephone towers. How deep the U.S. gets involved remains to be seen. You can be sure that sooner or later, some of this violence and terrorist acts will reach our soil. Its such a shame that a country with such great natural resources and potential for economic improvement is instead sliding backwards into poverty and endless cycles of violence

We should all be very grateful to live in a beautiful, safe, and peaceful place like Nevada County. The rest of the world’s problems seem so far away. We should always be thankful to our veterans and the political leaders who have followed our Constitution. Our freedoms are our strength.

Michael Schwalm, a resident of Penn Valley, writes a monthly column.


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