Cliff May

TAMARINDO, COSTA RICA – I’m not about to pretend that spending a few days in this rather funky little surfing village on the Pacific has given me great insights into Latin America’s current political, economic and social reality. On the other hand, if one keeps an open mind -- and a not excessively open mouth -- one generally learns something.

Based on the evidence I’ve been able to gather, Costa Ricans – or Ticans as they refer to themselves – deserve the reputation they enjoy as friendly, good-natured and peaceable. The national slogan here is pura vida, literally "pure life," but it is also used – with great frequency -- to mean “all’s well” and “life is good” and “no problem!”

Google “Costa Rica” and "news" and you’re not likely to come up with much of the latter. As I’m writing this, the top item in the Tico Times announces: "Costa Rican officials hope to break the all-time attendance record for an Under-17 Women’s World Cup. Azerbaijan set the record with 151,066 spectators, and Costa Rica is slightly off pace of that number."

Whatever the outcome of that competition, Costa Rica is a winner by other criteria. For example, 96% of the country’s population – just shy of 5 million -- is literate. And Ticans enjoy far more freedom and democracy than most people in Latin America – or the Middle East, Asia and Africa for that matter.

No terrorist groups or drug cartels lurk in the nation’s mountains and rain forests. One can, however, find big cats, two- and three-toed sloths, a variety of monkeys, and over 840 species of birds including the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the Resplendent Quetzal and the Keel-billed Toucan. Costa Rica’s spiny-tailed iguana is the world’s fastest running lizard. (You guys in Azerbaijan got any reptiles to match that? I didn’t think so.)

People here seem to know they have it better than most people in what we hopefully call “the developing world.” Their mixed economy -- based on tourism, coffee, bananas, sugar and beef -- provides a per capita GDP nearly three times higher than in Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua to the north. For what it’s worth, Costa Rica is in the number 12 spot -- higher than many much wealthier countries -- on the "Satisfaction with Life Index."


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.