Two weeks ago, Costa Rica elected their first female Head of State which saw the ruling party, the center-right National Liberation Party grab another win. Then President-elect Laura Chinchilla pointed many goals for the next four years as improving public education, bettering health care coverage and continuing the country’s push for environmental sustainability.
The day before this election I had been part of an election observation mission from school which saw me and other students meet Chinchilla and the runner up Otto Guevara.
I asked both campaigns what plan they had for marginalised communities in Costa Rica especially black people in this country. Both of them rushed through their answers and literally avoided mentioning that this is a serious problem in a country that has been stable with no army for a little over 60 years.
The struggle of black people here is not necessarily different from that in other central and South American countries but I simply asked because this country is often held high, almost singled out as an island of democracy and development in Latin America.
When you first arrive in Costa Rica, you’re told of the beauty of the country and no doubt the place is very well gifted by nature. Then you’re told this a peaceful country but you should watch your back when you visit one place called Limon.
Limon is a province in the east of the country on the Caribbean Sea where most black people live. It is also home to the main port for Costa Rica’s imports and exports. The people mostly speak English and many are bi-lingual. So if you’re black and English speaking you’re told that the Caribbean is a must visit but most tourism which the country is well known for has been directed to the pacific.
The infrastructure development is almost non-existent in most tourist spots like Tortuguero (basically the land of turtles). Many schools in this province (am told by a friend who works with an NGO there) are in an appalling state. The dropout rate for school kids is much higher as many have to help their parents support families.
Getting out of San Jose to Limon basically takes you to a different world. There are visibly few black Costa Rican professionals in the major sectors and industries that the country has seen grow in recent years.
When I asked Chinchilla’s campaign team about this regional and racial inequality one man told me that he too is from poor place and that poverty is not just a problem for only Limon. This kind of attitude showed me that they are not willing to admit to historical misfortunes of their country.
Otto on the other hand told me that the problems of black people are founded in the lack of land rights but does a government need people to have land rights in order to construct proper schools, health facilities and good roads? But this is the same man who was talking of punishing criminals like there’s just one way to curb crime and I asked him aren’t this criminals created, to greater extent, by the country’s system but he said he also had plans for poverty eradication.
They all avoided the link between the isolation and marginalisation of a people and crime. All they sought was to assure the country’s majority that their safety will be guaranteed with more money to the police and more sophisticated operations against gangs and criminals. There were many Costa Ricans at the conference that came up to me and told me what a good question I had asked. They further confirmed to me that they don’t see any plan that their government has for this historical imbalance.
“They actually have a plan for Limon,” on gentleman said, “their vision is to use Limon for only specifically exporting their bananas and pineapples and nothing else.”
The ignoring of the racial issues, I noticed in most political adverts for the election. I didn’t come
across any that featured a black or Indian person. This tells that segregation need not be written in laws. In such political events, we learn who is important and who is not.
As I put these questions to the campaigns, there was hardly any black Costa Rican in the room and I thought that’s why it was easy for them to ignore these issues because none of them is there to ask.
On the election night when the Tribunal was announcing the results, the numbers of absent voters in the region of Limón was the highest and it wasn’t a surprise. Why would one go to vote people that won’t change a thing in their life? This reminded me of elections in Uganda where most people don’t have hope in the elections only that in Uganda it’s also a mix of issues like vote rigging and voter disenfranchisement.
So while Costa Rica made headlines about voting a woman to the highest office, this is not meaningful to many lives here. For many in Limon and other areas with unequal access to resources it will be four more years of inequality and being forgotten.
Limon has a high crime incidence than any other part of the country and sometimes the UN has highlighted it as no-go zone for its staff for some periods. What the country is missing by neglecting certain people must be a lot.
This country is a poor one. This is a country the giant international software company Intel plant exported more than $2 billion in microprocessors and chipsets in 2009.
Of the 4.6 million people, black people account for 3 percent and most of them live in Limon province. For years the country had racist immigration and residence laws that restricted black people to the Caribbean coast until 1949, when the new Constitution came but they remained isolated from national culture.
Afro-Caribbean settled on the Caribbean coast as early as 1825 but most blacks today trace their ancestry back to the 10,000 or so Jamaicans hired by Minor Keith to build the Atlantic Railroad, and to later waves of immigrants who came to work the banana plantations in the late 19th century. They are now about 3 percent of the country’s population. Follow Epsy Campbell Barr a politician and economist to get a little idea about the issue.
I must say that it’s not common to experience open racism here save for a few instances. Like one time in San Jose when a woman at a restaurant yelled at her colleague for changing the music to reggae when my friend arrived for a meal. Even with her limited Spanish, my friend could grasp the irritation and the ranting of this one woman saying, “If you want black people music and reggae, just go to Limón. Not in my restaurant.” Of course my friend walked out gently and looked for some other place to buy her lunch.
While such incidents aren’t common, to the best of my knowledge, the inequality and systematic ignoring of the issues of race by subsequent governments has had a toll on development of black people in Costa Rica. Whether it is the exclusion of their history in the education system or the lack of investment in people who made this country’s economy to flourish as they constructed the railway and planted bananas and pineapples, I found this worth writing about.