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Issue Date:  July 14, 2006

Good news from Costa Rica


Here in Costa Rica we have good news. I don’t mean just right now, but on an ongoing basis. This is chicken soup for my troubled soul, and a much-needed reminder to caring people everywhere that not all of the Americas are succumbing to heartlessness, greed and violence.

Earlier this year, I watched with outrage as the U.S. Congress passed a budget containing about $40 million worth of cuts to programs that assist people in low-income situations, especially the elderly and disabled, as well as children and college students. At the same time, many of our representatives believe that multimillion-dollar estates should not be taxed when the owner dies, and efforts are currently underway to almost completely eliminate this important source of government revenue.

How encouraging then to pick up The Tico Times, Costa Rica’s English-language newsweekly, and read an article summarizing statements made by recently elected President Oscar Arias: “The social security system will double government payouts for 74,400 people who are unable to work, Arias said. He also announced a temporary tax on luxury homes intended to fund improvements in housing conditions for people living in shantytowns.”

Even if these had just been campaign promises, they are more compassionate than any promises, kept or unkept, that Americans have heard from George W. Bush. But President Arias will almost certainly be able to implement them; he is not a man to say things for effect. Twenty years ago, he served in the same office and won international respect, as well as the Nobel Prize, for his groundbreaking work in bringing peace and stability to Central America.

I then flipped to another article containing the headline: “Gov’t Plans to Destroy Assault-style Weapons.” The lead paragraph explained, “Weapons of war have no place in a country of peace, according to Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal, who announced Monday he plans to destroy all semiautomatic military weapons such as M-16 rifles that have been in Costa Rica since the 1960s.”

Reading the news from the United States -- Bush’s lifting of the decade-long assault weapons ban, the “historic victory” for the National Rifle Association giving gun manufacturers immunity to civic lawsuits -- had conditioned me to think that our lives are awash in firearms and we have to live with the risks: There is no turning back. Who would have imagined that they can simply -- gasp! -- be destroyed? Well, that’s what is on the agenda in Costa Rica.

My point is not to paint Costa Rica as paradise and Oscar Arias as perfect. My wife and I moved here in August 2001, and during these five years we’ve become fully aware that this little jewel of a country is not without its problems. As for President Arias, he is in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a measure we believe will hurt the poor.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to feel that the president is acting in the best interests of the Costa Rican people when he is in the process of raising the education budget to 8 percent of the gross national product. That alone is so breathtaking that it blows the imported bad news cobwebs right out of my mind.

Of course, it may be argued that Costa Rica can afford to be so peaceful because the United States stands ready to defend it. True enough. Certainly being a superpower brings with it not only privileges but onerous responsibilities, including that of defending less powerful allies. But what good is power and privilege if the United States can’t protect its own citizens and treat them decently?

Several months ago when I visited the United States, I listened to a public radio show that sought to explain why, in a recent poll, young people so rarely cited politicians as heroes. What has changed in this new millennium? A panel of experts said things like, “The media now shows all the warts,” and “Young people today are more cynical about the government.” It apparently didn’t occur to any of them that to be a hero one has to act heroically.

This occurs, according to our Judeo-Christian tradition, when the powerful stand up for the powerless, when the courageous and capable come to the aid of the hard-pressed and imperiled. I bet most young people in Costa Rica would consider Oscar Arias a hero. To find out why, just review his past and present deeds.

Mark Klempner is an oral historian and the author of The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage, recently published by the Pilgrim Press.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2006

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