Columnists > Voices

A tough assignment

Nationhood is hard, and Iraq is not the only country to ask, How long?

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

With the eyes of the whole world on Iraq over the next few days, wondering what the birth pangs of democracy might possibly yield, it's worth remembering that almost every such fledgling nation spends a little while gasping for its early breath. Sometimes it's more than a little while.

Impatient Americans, for example, forget too easily the 13-year gap between the signing of their own Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. No network anchormen were around back then to wonder out loud whether things had gone on long enough-but the record shows there were plenty of doubters.

I'm thinking about all this, however, through the unusual lens of life in Costa Rica, a long-time gem of democracy in Central America. I'm reporting from the capital city of San Jose-and I'm here to remind you that even where democracy seems to be a given, it's always still a fragile thing.

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So very much seems right about Costa Rica. It is not only one of the prettiest of all the specimens of God's great creation, but environmentalists take pride in telling you what a great job Costa Rica does in taking care of the natural wonders it has inherited. That combination (mountains with working volcanoes, tropical forests, spectacular beaches, and much more) has catapulted tourism to the No. 1 position in Costa Rica's revenue producers; more than a million folks from other countries visited here in 2004-a pretty high number for a country with only 4 million residents to start with.

And in so many respects, what those tourists find is impressive and pleasing. Driving around the country for just over a week, my wife and I saw little evidence of typical Third World poverty. Everywhere, Costa Ricans were so smartly and brightly dressed that I decided economists should add an important indicator to their tools for measuring prosperity: Check out a nation's clotheslines on laundry day. If people have a second, third, and maybe fourth set of clothes to wear-and if they take care to keep them looking good-something positive is going on.

Politically, Costa Rica seems quietly content. It's one of few Central American countries with virtually no record of armed conflict-a condition fostered, no doubt, by a constitutional provision banning the existence of a national army.

Yet winsome and compelling as Costa Rica is in so many ways, it's not quite the heaven travel agents would like you to believe. Cases in point:

The first thing you notice at the airport are the billboards warning against sexual exploitation of children. It's said to be an epidemic in San Jose and elsewhere. And the newspapers also headline drug addiction among the country's teenagers.

There were no hub cabs on our rental car. In their place we got several reminders to be cautious not just with car thieves, but with connivers who would deliberately damage our tires and then show up mysteriously to offer high-priced repairs.

If tourism is the biggest business, home and business security can't lag far behind. Rolls of razor wire make otherwise attractive neighborhoods look more like prisons-and that is as true in remote rural areas as in the cities.

Political corruption is rampant. The current president is under investigation for corporate payoffs. So are his three immediate predecessors-one of whom is in Switzerland and refuses to come back to face charges. But it's not just high-powered stuff. Drivers are warned repeatedly not to give cash to policemen. Was the extra $8 I paid not to have to wait an extra two hours for a ferry really a bribe? I hate to think I did my little part, just because I was in a hurry, to drag down a nation's moral stance.

The point is that nationhood is hard. Like the United States, Costa Rica's been at it for several hundred years. Like the United States, Costa Rica enjoys its freedoms-and still very often doesn't quite know what to do with them.

I don't have a clue how long it will be before Iraq is ready to welcome tourists on the scale Costa Rica does now. President Bush has said repeatedly, from the very beginning, that this would be a tough assignment. Maybe the best way to measure just how tough is to think about freedom's unfinished battles everywhere in the world.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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