On a Changing Country: Coming Home to Costa Rica

After a long, snowy winter in Boston, I get on a plane to go home. Just before the plane lands, I can see from the window green mountains, rivers and valleys. I see home.

I was born and raised in Costa Rica and only moved away to start college in Boston three years ago. Three years does not sound like a long time, but in a small country like mine, it can mean a lot.

As my mom is driving me home from the airport, I can’t help but feel infinitely grateful for living in such a beautiful country (with perfect weather, if I may add.) On the way, I start to spot things that were not there before. ‘When did they build that new building?,’ ‘Wow that was not there last time I was here,’ ‘Wait, is that a P.F Chang’s?’Am I still in the States? Because I feel like I landed in the wrong country.

Costa Rica implemented the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in 2009. This is the first free trade agreement between the United States and smaller countries with developing economies: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Costa Rica was the only country that voted through referendum on the signing of the agreement. 51% of Costa Ricans voted for it. 

Since then, the influence of the United States in the country has been heavier than ever before. Now, I can go home and walk through a mall that looks just like any American mall. There is a Forever 21, a Gap, a Chili’s and a Dairy Queen. There is even a Starbucks! A freaking Starbucks, where they sell coffee for 2,100 colones, which is approximately $4. And people buy it, because it is cool and from the United States. I have nothing against Starbucks, but coffee is one of the biggest industries in the country. Costa Rican coffee has been imported and sold to Starbucks for many years, and now Ticos are willing to pay for overpriced coffee produced by its own people, and that brings no substantial profit to the country only because its cool and American.

A country often considered ‘the happiest country in the world,’ where there is a sloth sanctuary, amazing waves and pura vida people. A country where there are no street names and a GPS will never work. It is also a country where now, you can find a Walmart.

Over the last couple of years, Costa Rica has become the most expensive country in Central America. Many national companies have started to set home in other, less fortunate countries in the area like Nicaragua and El Salvador, where labor is cheaper.

What makes me itch about this situation is that it is so upside down. Some Ticos believe the country has made a lot of progress and I agree in some respects. But I do not think progress should mean having transnational companies like Walmart, or hotel chains like the Four Seasons, come in and make money out of the land they have not treated. The money all goes back to them and the only progress made in Costa Rica are low end jobs for its own people.

As the country becomes more expensive with more American companies coming in, education and growth for its own people becomes less of an opportunity. Last year, public school teachers were on strike for over a month because the government had not paid them for over three months. Tell me, is this progress? What good is it to have more jobs from transnational companies, when the government cannot even set things straight to provide a salary for its educators? I know one is not related directly with the other, but my point is that the government that leads Costa Rica is so backwards that it is forsaking the opportunities of growth and empowerment that could be found in the country right now. The growth of the country and its economic opportunities should be encouraging education.

As Costa Rica keeps changing, filling it’s empty lots with buildings and brand name stores, I cannot help but worry. I do not want my country to lose its identity, which makes it unique and beautiful. So my question is, where does the country draw the line between progress and it’s cultural identity? How much can it benefit my country to be owned by transnational companies? Are we willing to lose our culture for brands? And when will it be that time that I come back home and don’t recognize my country anymore?

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