Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life in San José – Poverty and prosperity at the hands of globalization

This week's blog post comes to us from Fall 2014 LASP'er Jason Jensen. Jason is purusing a degree in Economic Development and Spanish at Eastern University. You can see more of his posts at:

A poster in the LASP building; “Indifference is the worst evil”
     But now it has been a full week that I’ve lived here, and I wonder how anyone could have ever doubted San José. I drink the water right from the tap, and use the WiFi connection in my personal bedroom with full bath attached. 
     For breakfast I nibble on toast with rice and eggs, and for dinner I gorge myself with grilled salmon or filet mignon. Even in the gritty downtown, stepping over the litter, I feel safe and not far removed from the lifestyle in the United States.
     While this surprising pace of life may make my mom happy, to me it is a somber reminder of the inequality that exists in the world. When I talk to my fellow students in the program, I discover glimpses of the reality I was expecting: eating bean soup with an egg for dinner, or sharing a small space with several other siblings. I find that I am the “lucky one” who got a house with a warm shower. But even these things are superfluous, only hinting at the depths of disparity.
     Poverty in Costa Rica is indiscreet, but can be easily found if your eyes are peeled. It nestles itself under tin roofs tucked into a green valley. It hides behind the immaculate personal appearance all Costa Ricans value. Obscured by blankets of newspaper and trash, it sleeps behind park benches in the sun and the rain. In living metaphor, it illustrates the fissure of inequality by juxtaposing the grand bank building with the beggar sitting on the steps.
     We are told in our class that it was not always this way. Ignored by the Spanish crown for its lack of gold, the fertile mountain valley of Costa Rica was left as a humble frontier. Since they were almost as poor as the slaves they owned, settlers treated them well, beginning a tradition of equality. After a civil war in 1948, the egalitarian movement reached its peak, abolishing the military and instead investing in education so that all would have opportunity. The rich learned alongside the poor, and those abjectly in poverty numbered only 6% to 8%.
     After the global economic crisis of the early 1980′s, however, Costa Rica was forced to privatize and globalize in order to secure foreign loans. The lower classes, no longer supported by social programs and public education, slid down the income ladder so that now 18% to 22% are abjectly poor. At the same time, those who caught the rising tide increased in prosperity, so that now 80% of Costa Ricans have a washing machine, refrigerator, and color TV.
     It is in the middle of this new era that I write this post. The debate over opening the borders still rages, in Costa Rica as well as in the United States. Luckily for them, the Costa Ricans must live beside the poor while they deliberate. In the US, the marginalized have been red-lined, policed, and protested into back corners of the country. Like the parable of the Samaritan, we intentionally keep our distance so as not to be caught up in their problems.
     More than the material prosperity of the country, the sensitivity to the poor is what Costa Rica really stands to lose. An introductory article to this program read, “A typical American reaction to poverty is to first pity the people living in poverty, and then be annoyed because it inconveniences them.” Nothing I have ever read has rung so true, and stung so much. The rawness of poverty is odious to us, and so we keep it behind a sad face in a charity campaign. But as long as we keep the poor behind border fences and within inner-city limits so that our American Dream might not be disturbed, have we not won the world but also lost our souls?
     To redeem ourselves does not take much. It costs less than a guilt-induced donation to World Vision, but takes much more time than sharing a link on Facebook.
In the words of Oscar Romero, we must simply walk with the people.

No comments:

Post a Comment