Costa Rica and the World Cup

June 14, 2014

AFP PHOTO / Ezequiel BECERRA |
by: Jason Clements, Real Estate Consultant

Imagine a country that loved peace so much that it abolished all its military forces 65 years ago. It has lived happily without an army, navy or air force, and most importantly war ever since. No other state in its region has such a consistent, unbroken record of stable democracy. Its pioneering conservation policies and protected national parks (25% of the total land) mean that it regularly tops global polls as the “greenest” nation on earth. By 2021, Costa Rica aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country. Life expectancy betters that of the US, and the National Health Service continues to deliver outcomes that soar above the average for its continent. Surrounded by strife and turmoil on all sides, this tiny country, by and large, prospers in security and harmony.

It’s not every World Cup that throws up an intriguing upstart team with such an upbeat story to tell. Back in 1996, despite its dictatorial regime, many people found themselves rooting for North Korea during its giant-killing run. In 1990, Cameroon, nobody’s idea of a beacon of human rights and environmental responsibility, took on the role of favorite “other” team. In more recent tournaments, one promising African outfit after another has vied to play this part, before inevitably falling to one of the dominant top tier teams. Even the most loyal optimist will find it hard to see the Ticos (as Costa Ricans are called) prevailing against England in Belo Horizonte, or against their other rivals Uruguay or Italy. So the plucky outsiders from a nation of hope may face an early exit. All the same, Costa Rica’s chance presence in the same group deserves to illuminate the non-football assets of a country that, niche eco-tourism aside, tends to lurk far below the European radar.

Costa Rica’s history as a demilitarized zone began in December 1948, when President Figueres took a symbolic hammer to the walls of the army headquarters in the capital San Jose. Inspired by the pacifism of H.G. Wells, he passed the barracks keys to the minister of education to prepare for its transformation into a museum. Shrewdly, Figueres outlawed the Communist Party to appease the US, but then instituted many of the redistributive policies for which the Communists had called to take place. Four decades later, Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias could still celebrate the fact that “in my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter. Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbors. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed.”

From Andorra to Kiribati, Mauritius to Monaco, various states and enclaves scattered across the map survive without armies. Other sovereign nations, such as Iceland, ostensibly maintain no standing forces but instead shelter under the umbrella of a military alliance like NATO, and offer it strategic and technical support. For the duration of its military-free status, Costa Rica has remained a country fully independent. If the popular Epsy Campbell Barr, an economist of Jamaican heritage, had not given way to president-elect Luis Solis, Costa Rica would also have a black female head of state. It has already topped two successive league tables drawn up by the New Economics Foundation for a “Happy Planet” index. But nowhere on earth, and least of all in tropical Central America, will you find Utopia.

Has being army-free helped create a kind of “halo” effect that enabled the country to pursue other progressive measures? There is no way to know for sure what the country would have been like had it gone the traditional militarization route of other countries in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, the likelihood is overwhelming that it isn’t mere coincidence that Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate, best medical care, largest proportion of its land area preserved in national parks and reserves in Central America, and is by many standards, a ‘first world’ country in a ‘third world’ geographic region.

Are the people of Costa Rica proud that their nation has so spectacularly bucked the grim trend towards weaponization in the Americas? They are extraordinarily aware of it, and very proud. It certainly is a key ingredient to what Costa Ricans call the “Pura Vida” life. So, if you are a World Cup Soccer fan and are looking for an underdog to play the role of “David” against the rest of the “Goliaths,” Costa Rica could be just what you have been looking for.

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