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Annual forum examines “Costa Rica at the Crossroads”

<sta Rica claims the longest consolidated democracy in Latin America, yet the country has come to face new political and social challenges in light of the recently passed Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Last weekend, members of the Carleton community examined the unique situation of modern Costa Rica in a series of events for the forum “Costa Rica at the Crossroads.” The events were part of the College’s annual Foro Latinoamericano.

The forum commenced Friday afternoon with opening remarks of from Associate Dean of the College Beverly Nagel. Grinnell College economics professor Janet Seiz then gave a talk entitled, “Hearts and Minds: The CAFTA referendum in Costa Rica.” Seiz has extensively studied the process of the Central American Free Trade Agreement referendum and the health of Costa Rican democracy.

Until last year, Costa Rica was the only country included in the Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Central America, and the Dominican Republic that had not ratified the agreement. A broad grassroots movement in the country has been actively fighting against CAFTA. The movement questions the essence of an economic model promoted by the North, and seeks to open doors to a more congruent model of development that is consistent with the history of Costa Rica and the needs of other Latin American countries.

Describing her research in Costa Rica in recent years, Seiz detailed numerous protests, demonstrations, and campaigns against CAFTA. In a recent demonstration that took place in February of 2007, tens of thousands of Costa Ricans took to the streets in protest. “There were very fearful images about what was going to happen,” Seiz said, “but it was absolutely non-violent. Even the enemies of that movement praised them.”

While the demonstrations have remained peaceful, Seiz described the fierce turn of campaigns propagated by the opposing sides of those for and against CAFTA. With widespread media crusades, “SI” (pro-CAFTA) and “NO” (anti-CAFTA) campaigners were engaged in, “open conflict and harsh criticism that has really broken down in this battle. We were more shocked after each trip,” Seiz said.

With the October 7, 2007 national poll for the referendum, the SI vote surpassed the NO vote by a narrow margin, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent respectively, and Costa Rica joined the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the agreement with the United States.

Seiz is currently researching the effects of CAFTA on Costa Rican democracy. She described the negative affects of deep polarization and a diminished respect for political institutions, but said that the on the positive end, the conflict has created extensive and prolonged mobilization and coalition building.

Seiz posed the question of whether the grassroots movement against CAFTA would continue into the future. Recognizing that it would be difficult for diverse coalitions to sustain such an effort, she offered the possibility that members will remain united around the shared vision of preserving Costa Rica’s unique achievements in the Central American context. “I hope for many more years of Costa Rican exceptionalism,” Seiz said. “It would be a shame if the authentic Costa Rica got tossed to the wind and swept away with all these other forces like neoliberalism that are around it.”

While Costa Rica has been defined as unique among its Central American neighbors, the second speaker of the evening deconstructed the widespread ideals of Costa Rican exceptionalism with a presentation on a groundbreaking novelist, Anacristina Rossi. In her presentation entitled, “At the Crossroads of Activism and Literature,” Spanish American literature professor at Bowling Green State University Valeri Grinberg Pla discussed how the unique works by Rossi, such as Limón Blues, call into question accepted elements of Costa Rican society.

“There is a national idea about Costa Rica, not just in the media and politics, but in the history and literature,” Pla said. The uniqueness of Costa Rica’s self image is widely defined in a number of ways. Politically, the country has enjoyed a history of peace and democracy; economically there has been a just distribution of wealth; ethnically Costa Rica has a predominantly Caucasian population; socially the country has enjoyed strong public education and health systems; ecologically the region is rich in natural resources.

Yet the literature of Rossi calls into question “the myth of Costa Rica as a prosperous land of peaceful peasants.” Pla explained how Rossi’s novels challenge the idealized national image by highlighting corruption in political institutions and emphasizing that the environment is not the government’s priority.

Rossi’s novels also challenge the demographic identity of “whiteness” by calling attention to the large Afro-Costa Rican population. Her works are slanted with a feminist perspective as well. Grinberg described how Rossi creates a “reversal of perspective” by placing “the minority periphery at the center” of her stories. Incorporating several genres with a gender perspective, Rossi “challenges the ‘uniqueness’ of identity…she offers a critical view and asks for empathetic unsettlement,” Grinberg said.

The series of events concluded Saturday morning with a presentation by Christopher Vaughan, co-founder and director of Latin America’s first Wildlife Management/Conservation graduate program at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. In his presentation, “The Long Road Back: Challenges and Opportunities in Conservation,” Vaughan described his experiences living in Costa Rica for more than fifteen years and outlined some of the greatest setbacks and opportunities faced by conversationalists interested in preserving Costa Rica’s enormous breadth of natural resources.

Vaughn discussed current issues regarding the wildlands, the agroscape, coastal development, and a decline in marine and terrestrial species in Costa Rica. One fundamental challenge to conservation in the country is the resent upspring of the tourist industry and the resulting development of resorts and vacation hotspots. “There is not one meter of costal beach property that is owned by a Costa Rican,” Vaughn claimed. “In some ways, as conservationists, we’ve given up on most of the coast. It’s already gone.”

A sharp critic of consumer culture, Vaughn discussed the environmental impact of a society driven by material acquisition, citing consequences such as the extinction of species, global warming, war, and poverty. Yet he also explained various opportunities for environmental protection. He particularly described his own experience, working in chocolate production—where plantations provide refugees for wildlife and jobs for local citizens—and his involvement in a project protecting the scarlet macaw, Costa Rica’s vibrant, tropical parrot.

Vaughn stressed the importance of environmental protection both globally and in the particular case of Costa Rica, with such a rich abundance of plants and animals. “I was exposed to an incredible diversity of wildlife,” he said. “It’s something I never imagined. Vaughn encouraged conscious lifestyle decisions as a base for environmental conservation.

Each year, students, faculty and alumni of the Latin American Studies Program convene to share the academic experience of the Foro Latinoamericano, which highlights a major topic, event and country of Latin America. The series of events for this year’s Foro Latinoamericano were intended to provide the Carleton community with the opportunity to contemplate the unique situation of Costa Rica at an economic, political and environmental crossroads.

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