The Costa Rican Way – What a Small Country in Central America Does Differently

3 mins read

By Eric Axner-Norrman

THERE IS NO COUNTRY in the world like Costa Rica. In the case of this small Central American nation, the uniqueness is in fact striking. With a size of a little more than 50,000 km² and a predominantly Spanish-speaking population of a bit more than 5 million inhabitants, the “Rich Coast” was supposedly given its name by Christopher Columbus, who on his fourth expedition in 1502, was gifted with gold by the natives. It is, however, its vast expanse of tropical rainforest, home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, that most of us would consider the republic’s primary wealth today.

Their long tradition of protection and reinvigoration of their natural habitats are among the things that have made Costa Rica famous and what sets it apart from other Latin American countries. They are also the only nation on the planet not to possess a military (albeit their police force is heavily equipped instead). Abolished in 1949, the country has escaped much of the political turmoil so prevalent in its neighbours, remaining – for the most part – a developing modern Western-styled democracy since its final independence in 1839. A military dictatorship from 1917 to 1919, and a brief civil war in the late 1940s, did seemingly little to disrupt Costa Rica’s peaceful progress. On the 17th of November 1983, the country issued a declaration of neutrality, pronouncing it shall be an “active, autonomous, non-armed nation” and committed to “always maintaining neutrality”. Despite holding a great degree of power and authority in accordance with the constitution, no holder of the presidential office, since its inauguration in 1949 (the first general election under the new constitution was held in 1958), has felt the urge to misuse these privileges. This is quite different from the situation in, for example, its northerly neighbour Nicaragua – long suffering from political unrest caused by both left- and right-wing political groups.

The “Flower Garden of the Americas” might seem like a flattering nickname intended to attract tourists and foreign investors to Costa Rica. However, the outstanding natural beauties and the peaceful stability that Costa Rica possesses give the name some actual bearing. Crime rates are incredibly low, especially compared to other Central and South American countries, which are often rightfully regarded as the most crime-ridden part of the world. Located in one of the world’s most migration-prone regions, with news reports of refugees from all over Latin America seeking to enter the United States reaching global audiences, Costa Rica is a country even many Westerners could imagine moving to and living in. In the year 2010, almost half a million immigrants were said to reside in Costa Rica – mainly from neighbouring Central American countries – while a little more than 125,000 Costa Ricans were living abroad at that time. One key to its success both politically and financially is likely the high quality of education available in the country. This is partly due to foreign investors, but also because Costa Rica spends more than the global average of its budget on education (6.9 per cent compared to the global average of 4.4 per cent in 2016). The rate of literacy is also, for example, about 97 per cent. The Costa Rica of today also has relatively few people of native origins, leading in turn to a more homogeneous – in this case Spanish European – population which, however sad a fact it might be, still makes for less tension within the country’s population than in other Latin American countries, where cultural clashes still pose problems. However, there seems in general to be few flaws that one can find in this small nation. It boasts hardly any chinks in the non-existent armour of this narrow strip of land, dividing the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans by no more than a few hours when travelling by car.

It is an inviting thought to compare this small country with that of the somewhat geographically smaller Switzerland. In fact, both countries are divided into cantons – a striking similarity – with the former clearly drawing inspiration from the latter. The natural wonders, neutrality, wealth, high living standards and peaceful relations with historically often warmongering neighbours, unite these two even further, giving rise to a wide range of comparisons of many kinds. Both countries rank high internationally when it comes to the health of their population. Costa Rica is also a very popular destination for medical tourism with 150,000 foreign medical tourists in 2006 alone. Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, in the northwestern corner of the country, is among the regions with the highest life expectancy anywhere on Earth – with several inhabitants living to be a hundred and beyond. Despite its close proximity to some of the world’s largest illegal drug-producing countries, Costa Rica seems to have rather low levels of drug abuse. Switzerland, on the other hand, has larger problems with drug addiction as well as a very high percentage of mental health issues among its inhabitants. Another noticeable difference, with respect to both nations’ neutrality, is that while Switzerland is not a member of the United Nations, Costa Rica is among the founding members of the UN.

It would undoubtedly be inspiring to see more countries, not only in Central America but all around the world, to follow the Costa Rican Way. Not least, the successful efforts at preserving invaluable nature and the complete demilitarisation of the nation could inspire others to take small yet giant steps toward a brighter future for humankind. And if a small, rather defenceless country in a volatile corner of the planet can achieve all this, then why can’t others?

By: Eric Axner-Norrman

Photography: Luis Quintero

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