Costa Rica is being taken over by developers, capitalists, tourists, and expats. I spent the summer there working for a youth leadership program and fell in love with a country that is in danger of becoming yet another exploited playground for the wealthy and privileged, including programs like the one I participated in. Like many other Latin American countries, Costa Rica is being transformed into an economic engine for developers and capitalists without any regard for its intentional and unintentional impacts on its people and environment. There are two Costa Ricas, the one in which affluent and privileged foreigners live in, along with the richest twenty percent of Costa Ricans who hold 52 percent of the total income, and the one where Costa Ricans or Ticos and marginalized Nicaraguan immigrants, or Nicas, live in. In places like Tamarindo, both worlds intersect only during working hours – the locals who are the service workers making a living from the tourism industry and come into town on public transportation and or employee shuttles from nearby towns, and the expats who own many of the businesses, hotels, and restaurants, and live in town. Outside of work, the locals and the expats very rarely interact, except for the local surfers who make their living by providing surf lessons and afterward hang out for a few rounds of drinks generously donated by the tourists. Playa Grande was referred to by a local surfer as “the only beautiful thing about Tamarindo” because it has not been tainted by development or tourism. Otherwise, many cities like Tamarindo have become the land of the expats and tourists making Costa Ricans feel like immigrants in their own land.
I have written about the beautiful people I met, and inspiring experiences I had in Costa Rica, but I also have to write about the other reality that is taking place in Costa Rica. A reality overshadowed by the images of Costa Rica that permeate travel websites: sandy beaches, pristine waters, tropical getaways, breathtaking sunsets, and magnificent landscapes. And of course by a never-ending array of real estate propaganda convincing folks why buying property in Costa Rica is such a great investment.
Many of the expats that have taken residence in Costa Rica have driven property values and food cost so high that many Costa Ricans, especially those that live in towns heavily occupied by expats, can no longer afford the cost of living; it has been referred to as the most expensive country in Central America. While for an expat paying an average of 41,1000 colones ($85) in utilities and 249,000 colones ($500) for a one-bedroom apartment may provide comfortable living, for a Costarricense or Tico who only makes 700 colones ($1.40) an hour, it proves to be an immense economic struggle. Rising costs coupled with meager salaries have created less than dignified living conditions for the locals, forcing many to resort to living in makeshift homes cobbled together by wood palettes, scrap metal, and cardboard boxes. These are images that expats and tourists don’t expect to see in Costa Rica. They have bought into the single story of the adventurous, relaxing, and glamorous living that Costa Rica has to offer.
Many Ticos have abandoned farming to work in the tourism industry in hopes of better wages and improved working conditions. However, the exploited local workforce is often relegated to minimum wage support and service jobs which are often low-paying and limited in their potential for upward mobility. In the villa I stayed in, owned by a Canadian expat, the manager was from Costa Rica and the housekeepers were Nicaraguans. The manager earned three dollars an hour and the housekeepers earned two dollars an hour. “We each have to do the job of two or three people. We can’t take a minute of rest, and even then, we never finish. Then the boss questions what we do all day.” Of course their responsibilities proliferated with the 40+ teenage students that were housed there throughout the summer. Despite their working conditions, they felt they received better treatment than the employees in other lodges.
While there is a stipulated minimum wage in Costa Rica defined by very specific job descriptions, the minimum wage fails to keep up with the increasing cost of living, and is further exasperated by insidious tactics by developers and employers to low-ball wages, even more, through the exploitation of Nicaraguan immigrants.
Where Nicaragua meets Costa Rica, one can see the signs of “illegal” immigration: men with back packs hiking along the border wall, lookouts on the streets signaling the Nicas for a clear path, and cars discretely transporting migrants. Though Costa Rica “ranks 97th in the world in per capita income, at $10,9000 a year, poorer than Mexico or Venezuela,” Nicaragua is worse off, prompting many to desperately migrate to Costa Rica. Nicas would migrate to the United States but they are deterred by the gang and drug violence in Mexico, a country they must traverse to get to the “land of opportunity.” Costa Rica has an estimated population of 4.6 million of which 10% are Nicaraguans.
“Nicas are cheats, liars, and manipulators,” said the manager of the villa I stayed in. “They lie about their skills just to get a job that a Tico is qualified for, and they do so accepting a lower wage.” The manager of the villa was also in charge of managing other lodging facilities for the same owner and did not feel that it was fair that she only made one dollar more an hour than the housekeepers from Nicaragua. In speaking to various construction workers around the area, those from Costa Rica seemed to have the same sentiment toward those from Nicaragua. One construction worker explained, “The Nicas are willing to do the same job for 500 colones an hour instead of 700, and even though they are less skilled, they are hired because they are cheap labor.”
There are many economic analysts who argue that the influx of Nicaraguan migrants has contributed to falling earnings, increased inequality, or stagnant poverty in Costa Rica. While this may be true for an economic machine that operates on supply and demand, growing revenue, and cutting costs for greater efficiency, the real bottom line is the cost of the lives that are being violated through this type of economic model that exploits the worker in return for increased net earnings. Costa Rica is considered the 4th most competitive country in Latin America, and this is in large part contributed to the signing of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement). But in Costa Rica, it’s not difficult to observe who this economic boom is benefiting. A dignified minimum wage is a dignified minimum wage no matter how one slices it, and using illegal immigration as a scapegoat for unscrupulous labor practices is just another way in which capitalists and developers avoid social responsibility by criminalizing people who have no political clout.
The bus drivers that were contracted to transport the students in the program I worked for were paid 8,000 colones a day, the equivalent of $16, while the tourism bus companies , many owned by foreigners, contract the buses out for $150 a day. The “We are temporary drivers, so when this program is over we will have to struggle until travel season comes around. And even then, the jobs aren’t guaranteed because we have to compete for work with other bus drivers.”
A woman who worked in the day spa industry explained that she was secretly building her own clientele out of her home. Permits were too expensive, so she was running an unlicensed operation. The day spa she worked at charged $100 to $150 dollars for a manicure and pedicure, and she only received $15 for each client she served. At home she could charge $20 to $30 dollars. “I’ve worked at hotels where they only wanted to pay us $10 for each client.”
Everywhere you go, you are greeted with Pura Vida, because surrounded by so much nature, intuitively, Ticos understand what it means to be in the flow of life, whether things are going positively or negatively. Ticos have learned to embrace a life that is simple, yet full and vibrant. They have succeeded at being happy and living in the moment despite the challenges that life presents to them. And maybe this is why I am so afraid for them; for in Costa Rica, I saw what had once been the simple and vibrant, though not perfect, life of Mexico, before it was colonized by NAFTA, developers, and tourism.
In the second part of this article, I will explore the gentrification of Costa Rica through housing developments, the impact developers have on its environment and natural resources, land grabbing – the large scale acquisition of its land by foreign investors, the fishing industry and its infringement upon the local fisherman, and the dietary effects of American junk food and fast food on its people.