Saturday, February 13, 2010

Costa Rica, the land of enlightened elite, elects Laura Chinchilla as the new President

In the elections held on 7 February, Laura Chinchilla was elected as the first woman President of Costa Rica. She was a Minister of Justice and first Vice President in the administration of her predecessor, President Oscar Arias. She was leading in the opinion polls and her victory was predicted. It is this predictability and long democratic tradition which makes Costa Rica different from the rest of Latin America. The country has held regular elections every four years and peaceful transfer of power in the last sixty years. This is remarkable and distinct in the contemporary history of Latin America where many countries had suffered military dictatorships, civil wars and interruption of democracies.

What is the secret behind this unique achivement of Costa Rica which has managed to be an island of peace and democracy in the ocean of Latin American political instability and chaos in the post- Second World War era. In fact there are two secrets behind this.

Firstly, the country has no military. It abolished the armed forces voluntarily in 1948. The absence of armed forces meant that there were no cocky colonels or generals who thought they knew how to run governments better than the politicians. Ballots , not bullets , became the only route to power. Costa Rica boasts that they spend their money on teachers and schools instead of colonels and barracks. Costa Rica has set an example to Latin America and the world of a military-free society.

The second secret is the abiding commitment and consensus among the elite of Costa Rica to democracy and social equity. It is true that most of the political leaders come from the small number of oligarchic families in the country, as in many other countries in the region. This includes President Arias, a coffee baron and from the top three wealthiest families in the country. But the Costa Rican oligarchy is an enlightened one with a social conscience. The governments have pursued a policy of inclusive development, irrespective of whether they are conservatives or liberals. The four million citizens enjoy the benefits of a modern social welfare state including pensions, labour legislation, national health care and a life expectancy of 77. In 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make education both free and obligatory, funded by the state’s share of the great coffee wealth. The literacy rate of over 95 percent is one of the highest in Latin America. Even the coffee growing land is distributed among 100,000 families and not monopolised by the oligarchy. Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to give voting rights to women and people of African origin in 1948. It is because of this equity in the society that there has been no revolutionary leftist outsider to challenge the status quo as it happened in some other countries in the region. Latin America has the highest disparity of income in the world. It is this factor which has been responsible for the polarisation of politics and societies and the consequent political instability. Costa Rica has succeeded in reducing the disparity through inclusive development and making all its citizens as stakeholders in democracy. The voter turn out in the elections is one of the highest in the region.

Costa Rica´s democracy which had taken strong roots since the very beginning of the twentieth century was interrupted once in February 1948. President Rafael Calderon annuled the 1948 elections after his handpicked successor candidate lost the elctions. A civil war followed claiming 2000 lives. Jose Figueres , the conservative leader lead a rebel army and toppled the government and took over power in May 1948. But Figueres promised that he would relinquish power in eighteen months after carrying out some reforms. He fulfilled both the promises. He handed over power promptly in November 1949 to the legally elected President in February 1948. His reforms included abolition of the army, decentralisation of power and extension of vote to women. Later he created his own National Liberation party and won the presidential elections in 1953 and in 1970. He handed over power gracefully when he lost the elections in 1958. His son became President in 1990. Ironically he took over from the son of Rafael Calderon against whom his father lead the armed rebellion in 1948. President–elect Chinchilla and President Arias are from the same National Liberation party founded by Figueres.

Costa Rica, known as the Switzerland of Latin America, is not a passively peaceful society blind to the problems around. The country has taken initiatives to help their neighbours. It was Costa Rica which brokered a peace agreement ending the civil war in the region for which President Oscar Arias was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. In June last year when the El Salvadorean democracy was interrupted, USA and OAS turned to President Arias for his help in resolving the issue.
Costa Rica is, of course, not free from challenges such as corruption, drug trafficking and crime. There have been corruption scandals involving ex-Presidents and Ministers. Chinchilla has promised in her election agenda to tackle these issues.

Costa Rica also stands out as a role model for Latin America in many other respects. With its high literacy rate and per capita computer penetration, the country has attracted Silicon Valley and silicon implants. Intel, HP and other computer companies, call centres and BPOs have a significant presence. Silicon implants for breast enlargement are major exports besides other medical equipments as well as some pharmaceuticals. The country has successfully diversified its economy which was dependent soley upon export of coffee in the past. Costa Rica has also pioneered Ecotourism in the region. The country attracts over two million tourists a year. The per capita income of Costa Rica at 11,000 US Dollars is three times higher than the other countries in Central America.

Costa Rica was one of the first in the world which combined its ministries of energy and the environment back in the 1970s and generates an impressive 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. In 1997, a carbon tax was introduced on emissions – with the funds gained being used to pay indigenous communities to protect their surrounding forests. Deforestation has been reversed, and forests cover twice as much land as 20 years ago. In 2007, the Costa Rican Government declared that it intended to become carbon neutral by 2021.

¨Pura Vida¨ is how the Costa Ricans respond cheerfully when you ask them , Como esta ( how are you ). Pura vida literally means pure life. But what the Costa Ricans mean is ¨full of life¨. This makes them distinct among the Latin Americans who respond generally as Bien ( fine) or Muy Bien ( very well ). It is not surprising that Costa Ricans were classified as the happiest people in the world in the Happy Planet Index compiled by the British research group, the New Economics Foundation in their annual survey of 2009.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Peron Novel – by Tomas Eloy Martinez

This is the fictionalised versiĆ³n of the life of Juan Domingo Peron who was President of Argentina 1946-55 and later in 1973-74. After overthrown by rightist military generals in 1955, Peron was in exile in Madrid for 18 years and returned in 1973 to become President of the country and died a year later. The story starts with Peron preparing to leave Madrid in 1973 and return to Buenos Aires and be reanointed as President of the country. But the 18 years of exile and 78 years of age had taken its toll on his body and mind. He is no longer sure about himself, his ideology, friends, followers and even about Argentina in general. He is in a progressive state of mental decay and is uncertain and confused in his understanding and decision making. At the same time, his followers are also equally confused since they had lost touch with the leader for a long period which was painful for the country and themselves . Even the mention of the word Peron, Eva or peronism was prohibited and was punishable with jail sentence in the anti-Peronist military rule. Understandly, the Peronists were clueless as to how Peron would relead the country which had undergone so much of traumatic changes.

Peron is manipulated by his fawning secretary Lopez who has a game plan for the post-Peron time. He is preparing Isabella the third wife of Peron to take over after the death of Peron. Knowing that he has very little life left in him, Peron is preparing his memoirs to claim his place in the history of Argentina. This exercise makes him recollect his past starting from his childhood. He recalls his career as an army officer, marriages and involvement in politics leading to his Presidency of the country. In the memoirs, Peron edits his life story with omissions and commissions to make him appear as heroic and admirable.

Peron was not just one of those Presidents of Argentina. He has left an indelible mark on Argentine politics and modern history. Peronism has become a force to reckon with in the politics of the country. Peron´s second wife Evita has also contributed to the mythology of Peronism. The current President Christina and her husband who was President from 2003 to 2007 as well as Menem who was President from 1989 to 1999 are Peronists. Peronism has come to stay as a leftist and populist ideology with belief in a strong government as protector of the masses and control of the market. While Peron was the undisputed supreme leader of Peronism at that time, Peronism has now broken into several factions and is divided.

One can see the origin and evolution of the Peronist ideology from Peron´s remiscenses. As an army officer, Peron believed in strong leadership leaning towards authoritarianism. He is influenced and inspired by Mussolini during his posting as military attache in Italy. He is impressed by Mussolini´s nationalism, populism and militarism which became ingredients of Peron´s brand of ideology later. Although his political ideolgy became controversial, Peron had
contributed to development of the country in industry, infrastructure and social justice.

Tomas Eloy Martinez, the Argentin author of this novel passed away last month. I have developed admiration for him after reading two of his other novels, Santa Evita and The Tango Singer. Martinez was also a victim of military dictatorship and was exiled to Venezuela from where he migrated to US and became a professor at Rutgers University. Before his exile, he had worked as a journalist and had interacted with and interviewed Peron. With his personal knowledge and experience, Martinez has given an accurate description of Peron highlighting the various facets of the personality of this enigmatic leader. Martinez has done extensive research on the life of Peron and has published two other books. He has cleverly mixed facts with fiction in the style of magical realism. It is difficult to know where reality ends and imagination starts. Combining his real-life knowledge with his magical realism skills, Martinez has made the novel more powerful, leaving a strong impact on the readers. The book is useful to understand not only Peron but also the contemporary politics and society of Argentina which are haunted by the past.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The News from Paraguay – novel by Lily Tuck

The story starts with a feather. A bright blue parrot feather falls out of the hat of Ella while riding a horse in Paris. Francisco Lopez picks it up and gives it to her. And there starts a romance ... like in a Bollywood movie. Francisco has been sent to Paris by his father Carlos Antonio Lopez, the first constituitional President of Paraguay. Francisco lives an adventurous playboy life in Paris showing off his wealth and status. Alongwith his luggage from Paraguay he has even brought a native band to play at his parties. He falls in love with Ella, an equally adventurous and horse-riding Irish girl of nineteen, who has come to live the good life of Paris. She lives with a Russian count after having divorced a French man whom she married when she was fifteen. The Count leaves her to join the Russian war and Francisco enters her life at this opportune time. Francisco courts her in royal style and takes her back to Paraguay. But he cannot marry her since his father does not allow the marriage because she is a divorcee . He puts her up in a separate house and Ella puts up with her status as a mistress. She manages to survive in the midst of the hostile family members of Francisco and the hot, humid and backward life in Asuncion. She impresses the natives with her elegant Parisian dress, shoes and perfumes. She gives birth to seven children of whom the first one Pancho takes after his father in his adventurous and headstrong attitude. Franciso takes over from his father as the President of Paraguay and modernises the country with railways, telegraph, industries and even starts building a opera hall like the La Scala of Italy. But his overconfidence and megalomania lead him into a war against the combined forces of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. He is killed in combat and Paraguay is ruined. Ella goes back to Paris but dies as a pauper, having lost everything.

This is a historical fiction based on the Paraguyan President (1862-70) Francisco Solano Lopez and his Irish mistress Ella Lynch. Many other characters in the novel are also real. Lopez started off his Presidency well with his modernisation programme. He built the first railways in South America, ahead of Brazil and Argentina. Paraguay at this time was more developed and industrialised than many countries in the region. But the war against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay was foolish and catastrophic. Predictably, Paraguay was defeated. But more devastating was the fact that two thirds of the male population of the country was killed in the war. The impact of this is felt even now and there is shortage of men., who have taken advantage of this situation. There are lot of children in Paraguay who don’t know their fathers.

This book won the National Book Award in 2004. The author Lily Tuck is an American who was born in Paris. She had lived for sometime in Uruguay. She has given a flavour of Paraguay in the novel and has given a lively portrayal of the historical characters. She has blended and contrasted the high society Parisian lifestyle with the laid back life in backward Paraguay. These are brought out in the exchange of correspondence between Ella from Paraguay and her friend princess Mathilde who lives in Paris. Buenos Aires also figures in the novel since it is the transit point to enter the landlocked Paraguay through the Rio de la Plata river. The Paraguayans in those days as well as now come to enjoy the parties and fashions of Buenos Aires, the Paris of Latin America.