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The 1980s were especially turbulent ...

Travel, Vacation and Adventure Guide to Costa Rica

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. ~ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, TS Eliot, 1888-1965

The 1980s were especially turbulent times in Central America. In 1979, communist Sandinista guerillas overthrew the oppressive, dictatorial government of Anastasio Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua. At first, Costa Rica supported the efforts of the Sandinistas, but it later served as a haven for Contra rebels, who fought against them in a long, bloody, US-backed Nicaraguan war.

America gave large amounts of aid to Costa Rica in exchange for allowing the Contras to operate along their northern border, yet it only postponed the dire effects of an inflation-ravaged economy. Meanwhile, the country’s foreign debt swelled to $3.8 billion and unemployment rose to over 15%.

In the first serious unrest in modern Costa Rica, a US embassy van was firebombed in San José in March 1981. A chauffeur and three marines were injured. The terrorists, only some of whom were Ticos, were captured. In 1993 a group that called itself the Death Commando took over the Supreme Court building and held justices hostage inside. The bad guys were at first thought to be Columbian radicals, but it turned out they were led by a pair of Tico brothers who wanted money. They were disarmed and arrested.

In 1986, when Ticos elected Oscar Arias Sánchez president, it proved to be a providential choice. He adopted an ambitious policy of federal government reduction and restructuring. With painful belt tightening, the economy slowly recovered. However, President Arias is most remembered for his Central American Peace Plan, which helped end the war in Nicaragua. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. The award reinforced Costa Rica’s world standing as a tolerant, pluralistic, peaceloving country.

Costa Rica’s reputation as a sanctuary has been strained more recently by the huge influx of economic refugees from Nicaragua. Because of a lack of adequate health care in their native country, many of the refugees have inundated Costa Rica’s social welfare system and its free health care system has serious financial woes. Both petty and violent crimes have risen dramatically in the last few years, which any Tico taxi driver will tell you is the fault of the “Nicos.” Whether that’s true or just racism (there is a racial difference most North Americans can’t distinguish), Nico refugees have altered Costa Rican culture – both for the better and for the worse.


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