COSTA RICA JOURNAL  (By Litavh) — What do we think of when we hear the name “Costa Rica”? Lush rainforests and beautiful wildlife, butterflies, toucans, tropical drinks and exotic foods. But what of the people? Just friendly natives who want nothing more than to show us a good time in paradise? Is that really all there is?

I always heard about Costa Rica as the biggest tourist hotspot in South America, invited through school to explore dormant volcanoes and splash in enormous waterfalls, but I never really thought about what it’s like for the people who live their. Most of South America is severely impoverished, could Costa Rica be the exception? Is it really so different?

The truth of the matter is, the biggest difference is that here in the U.S. we don’t hear about their struggles. It’s all just a tropical playground to us, just waiting to be explored.

But why? Because of the advertising, the PR, the resorts who speak loudest and drown out any communication from those in need. Because who wants to visit poverty? Who will pay thousands of dollars to vacation in a shantytown? Not the people who actually can afford to. The only way to attract tourists-and their money-was to completely make over Costa Rica’s image as the most beautiful place to be, a tropical paradise, and it worked.

Now the only people not convinced are the native people, and because of it they must suffer in silence. In August 2010, “The National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC) announced that 7.3 percent of the Costa Rican populace is unemployed while 21.3 percent are considered to be living in poverty.” There are numerous reasons and the pain is felt throughout the country, but the reality is, there is extreme poverty being hidden behind the tourism in Costa Rica.

One reason why the poverty is so publicly underestimated, is that the largest majority of Costa Ricans below the poverty line are under the age of twelve. According their governments 2010 figures, “one third of Costa Rican children under age 12, almost 300,000 in all, live in poverty”. These children Know no other way of life, and many have mothers and fathers away from home for much of their lives, breaking their backs just scrape by. Its not uncommon for children to start working at early ages, and for older siblings, looking after the household chores as well as the little ones is a given.

The severity of these children’s situations varies, and in a devastating portion, the case moves to exploitation of children living on the street. “The government, security officials, and child advocacy organizations acknowledged that the commercial sexual exploitation of children remained a serious problem” it was estimated in 2004 that “three thousand children suffered from commercial sexual exploitation and street children in the urban areas of San Jose, Limon, and Puntarenas were particularly at risk.” Avoiding such situations is particularly difficult without a stable home and adjusting without parents leaves “a high number of street children [who] are addicted to drugs and victims of sexual exploitation.”

With such atrocities from such a young age, how are they expected to become healthy adults, let alone deal with starting families of their own and “the lack of family planning campaigns and opportunities for women who get pregnant at early ages is having negative effects on the country’s children.” This means that not only are their children growing into teenage years without parents, but many themselves are having children of their own, and have so far had little experience with what “family” even means. Because of this, poverty in the lower age demographic has grown more than any other and remarks published in the daily La Nacion Spanish newspaper have stated that “one of the causes lies in the elevated rates of fertility in poorer homes.” This means that while more and more families are developing, the people are only getting poorer.

Another factor with this widespread poverty is that “between 1990 and 2008, the proportion of homes where the head of the household is a woman increased from 11 percent to 19 percent, and of these, 40 percent of the women are jobless.” With so many homes where initially the mother’s job was to raise the children and look after the home, now they must now work jobs as well leaving children with relatives or simply in the care of the eldest child. In addition, “unemployment is greater among women and they generally receive lower pay than men, as well as the lack of networks to care for their children while they are working at their paying jobs.” How these women can manage at all truly amazes me, but in all honesty, many can’t and their children end up on the streets like their parents before them.

Most street children are involved in gangs, drugs & alcohol, but it isn’t just the unemployed who struggle with substance abuse, “in Costa Rica, an estimated 30% of absenteeism may be due to alcohol.” The situation with drugs in Costa Rica has only escalated from “being a bridge for drug trafficking between South and North America to becoming established as a warehouse and trading center for drug cartels, from which the authorities have seized 92.7 tons of cocaine and $17 million in the last 3½ years.” Because of this, to stay in drug infested areas like San Jose, especially, gives little chance of finding a steady income without involving drugs or prostitution, and for many parents the only option is to travel to the U.S. with the hopes of sending money back home. For women who immigrate to the Los Angeles, the jobs are very limited, mainly made up of factory workers in the garment industry, housekeepers, nannies, and hotel maids.

Few of these jobs even pay minimum wage and with garment workers, even those “who have been in the industry as long as 15 years still earn as little $105 per week working full-time. And in many cases, even when they have steady work, the factory owners do not pay them on time.” The situation for immigrants trying to raise money to send home is dire as well, but to most Americans, they are thought to be all from Mexico, when in reality many are from different parts of Central America, like Costa Rica. Meanwhile, these families being left behind are living in shantytowns made up of little more than aluminum siding and wood. Recently it has been found that “there are 400 shanty towns in Costa Rica at present, housing 40,000 families.” One man studying the underbelly of Costa Rica reported on the horrors he witnessed, that for locals there is everyday life: “after entering one of these shantytowns, I still have flashbacks of a poor little girl sitting barefoot in a dry gutter. I imagine her providers are unable to afford the dollar a day to buy books, a uniform and school supplies.

Her older brother is now addicted to crack. Often on the streets of central San Jose are bearded weathered old men with a stick for a cane and a plastic bag over their shoulder stuffed with their life’s belongings plodding along the broken sidewalks. Elderly women with reams of lottery tickets slung over their arms wander in search of a sale. A little mentally challenged man regularly sits on the pedestrian walkway strumming a one-stringed ukulele and singing his best for donations. At night a few children walk around the bar areas with hands extended, begging for money. Later they sleep until noon in cardboard boxes in an alley with only their small filthy shoeless legs sticking out.” These people are suffering far from the isolated resorts that promise you the beautiful paradise and wish for you to see nothing more. To be blind and simply fork over your money, and as foolish tourists, we do, asking nothing more of the country’s actual native people.

The puzzling question is, why is it that a country whose largest demographic of impoverished is in infants, is cast a paradise for tourists? Do they know about the thousands of children who are starving? Is it on the brochure? No. Because who would suffer if they did? The travel agencies. The resorts. The tourist attractions. Those who don’t need any help. We don’t think of Costa Rica as some kind of cover up, some kind conspiracy, it’s the way of the corporations like those owning the resorts plain and simple. But in truth, who would visit a shantytown?

It’s not as if the people of Costa Rica live in 5-star resorts, so really, no one actually visit’s the place, but the idea, sure they want to see the beautiful nature, but then why not just camp out in the towns and give your business to the locals? The hard truth is that that isn’t an option anymore. The cities have changed and adapted to being harsh and frightening to enter, places of suffering that are a wonder anyone can survive in them.

Perhaps if these resorts put their money into rebuilding the towns and making them places where locals could work and tourists would visit, the people there could actually thrive off of some of the tourism, but then, the money-hungry companies would suffer financially and to them, that’s all that matters. It functions the same way we do in the United States, with a few fat cats at the top, perhaps a small middle class, and millions suffering at the bottom, the largest difference being that Costa Rica is considered a third-world country, so to be at the bottom means something in a class of its very own that no American can relate to. It is this that continues to spurn on the cycle of poverty from parents who can’t make ends meet, to children who dropout of school and are unable to attain successful jobs, making Costa Rica like so many other Central American countries in desperate need of assistance.

In Central America, there is a common trend of poverty, exploitation and general suffering. It has been this way for decades and as the years go by, more and more people seem to think that it is a thing of the past. The truth is, poverty is alive and well in South America. So many places like El Salvador and Guatemala have a situation so dire, that horror stories of the atrocities of the military guards and landowners do come through, but there is one country whose plight seems to go overlooked. Costa Rica.

Their percentage of impoverished children has grown exponentially, the drug cartels no longer use it as a simple transit point, but major trafficking hub and trade point between South and North America, and the number of street children involved with gangs, drugs and alcohol is astonishing. Yet none of this seems to be anyone’s first thought when they think of Costa Rica. Tourism from other countries relies on us all thinking it’s a tropical paradise and shielding us from the truth. Until we can focus a little more on the people and a little less on the day spas and waterfalls, the poor and suffering will remain unseen, unheard, and uncared for behind the tourism.

From Lita’s Blog, Behind the Tourism In Costa Rica, December 2010

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