Category Archives: Journalism

Friedman does Costa Rica

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman paid Costa Rica a visit recently, and decided to take the chance to pen a column lauding the country’s forward-thinking environmental policies. His information seems to have come entirely from a conversation he had with former environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, who — I am inferring — painted a pretty nice picture of the environmental situation.

Being on vacation, Friedman apparently couldn’t be troubled to apply the same level of critical thinking to these claims as he does the praise espoused by U.S. politicians when speaking about their own work.

No doubt, Costa Rica is doing a much better job than most of its neighbors in the hemisphere in protecting its natural resources. And many in the private sector, particularly tourism businesses, have stepped up to the plate in making their business practices more sustainable. But then, it pays to be green when you operate in a country known for eco-tourism — a country, it’s worth mentioning, where the vast amount of sewage is untreated and ends up dumped in the rivers (the Health Ministry recently acknowledged it has not had a functioning waste treatment plant for years in the populous Central Valley, which includes the capital, leaving the companies that pump septic tanks to dump their sludge in fields and rivers). Another good amount of waste is piped directly out to the ocean, in some cases at top tourist beaches.

The country’s national park system, when created, was revolutionary and a good chunk of Costa Rica is now under some type of protected status (though the 25% figure he cites is debatable). But these areas are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Manuel Antonio National Park — the second-most-visited national park in the country — is now biologically isolated, as all surrounding forest has been cleared either for agriculture or tourism and real estate development. Its famous populations of monkeys are falling ill or critically endangered, depending on the species. The park was recently threatened with closure when it was discovered that the decrepit and abandoned public bathrooms were seeping sewage into the environment, among other problems.

Friedman also praises Costa Rica’s Payments for Environmental Services program, which is widely cheered, but its real impact has been questioned. While the country has been able to first stop, then reverse deforestation, it is a combination of both sound policies and good luck. The collapse of Costa Rica’s beef exports went a long way towards allowing pastures to regenerate.

The government has also been pushing carbon-neutrality left and right, though most of that work is being done by private businesses while even the Environment Ministry’s offices have yet to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs.

Friedman said Costa Rica “did something no country has ever done: It put energy, environment, mines and water all under one minister.” Roberto Dobles, the President’s second cousin and former telecom exec (telecommunications was also put into the same ministry), was the head of that ministry for the past three years, finding himself on the business side of a series of environmental conflicts (like this one over an open-pit gold mine). In March, he was forced to resign after it became public he signed a mining concession connected to his family and business associates, much to the joy of many in the nation’s environmental movement.

The same Carlos Manuel Rodríguez that spoke with Friedman for yesterday’s column gave me a much more critical view in an interview in January:

What are the greatest environmental challenges that Costa Rica is facing in the coming year?

Rodriguez: Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is the lack of environmental leadership on behalf of the government, which has demonstrated little environmental commitment and a lack of coherence between political discourse and actions. The government has expressed an unconditional support for the economic sector without considering environmental costs. The isolation of the protected areas, the opening to mining and oil exploration… are examples of these circumstances.

While there are many things being done right in Costa Rica, nobody wins when the real story is glossed over, as my friend Patrick put it. This present administration running Costa Rica has taken considerable heat for talking a nice game on the environment but failing to really do anything to back it up, and uncritical praise from such a tall podium like a New York Times column only inflates egos while giving little pressure to enact truly progressive policies.

I would love to see the United States using much, much more renewable energy and putting environmental protection at the top of its list of priorities. But for those of us who see Costa Rica as more than a pretty vacation destination, real environmental commitment here — a tiny country with a lion’s share of the world’s biodiversity — is critical, and it does no good to gloss over reality in order to make a case for change in the United States.

Costa Rica’s secret police?

What is a country with no military and an international reputation for peace and human rights doing with a secret police that is authorized to spy on its own citizens and answers only to the President?

The question, which has been asked before, has taken on renewed importance since it became public that Costa Rica’s Dirección de Intelligencia y Seguridad Nacional (Department of Intelligence and National Security), or DIS, was apparently keeping a file on a journalist who vocally opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, known as CAFTA. President Oscar Arias campaigned on  a promise to approve CAFTA, at one point nearly staking his presidency on its passage.

Gilberto Lopes, who was born in Brazil but has spent the past 30 years working as a journalist in Costa Rica, was denied his request for citizenship last year because, as the Civil Registry put it in the rejection letter it sent him, Lopes “had not conducted himself well” in Costa Rica. The Civil Registry drew this conclusion after checking with the DIS and being told that Lopes’ name was “annotated” in their files.

Though he has never been convicted of a crime, Lopes did publish a booklet critical of the free trade agreement and spoke out on panels and round-table discussions against CAFTA, which polarized the country and was barely approved in a national referendum in 2007. Lopes also has long worked at Semanario Universidad, a left-leaning weekly published by the left-leaning University of Costa Rica. Semanario Universidad was first to publish a leaked, now-infamous memorandum written by a legislator and administration minister advising the president use fear tactics and other unsavory strategies in order to win the referendum.

When asked if he believed that the DIS was monitoring him because of his political activities, the 66-year-old writer, literary critic and BBC-collaborator said, “It’s evident.”

“But if you ask me for proof, the only proof I have is that file,” Lopes said.

Lopes has not seen the file, because the DIS refused to give even the Supreme Elections Tribunal, which oversees the Civil Registry, access to it during the appeals. The DIS is authorized to withhold information pertaining to ongoing investigations or deemed “state secrets,” but it did not specify where the info on Lopes fell.

Now, it appears that the whatever it was, the information has disappeared, or never existed at all.

“I have investigated and there is no file on him here. We are completely sure about this,” said the sub-director of DIS, Jorge Torres, in an interview this week inside his wood-paneled office in the unmarked, nondescript DIS headquarters off a busy intersection in San José.

Torres also denied that the DIS ever investigated opponents of CAFTA.

“That’s totally false. We are not a police force that has been created for that. In Costa Rica, we have the freedom of expression,” Torres insisted.

This defense is unlikely to go far with critics, however. The DIS was rocked last year when Torres’ predecessor, former sub-director Roberto Guillén, was forced to step down after being accused of robbing property and money from at least 14 businesses and individuals by accessing their personal information.

The nation’s chief prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese has called for nothing less than the total dissolution of the DIS.

In an op-ed for the daily La Nación, he wrote: “It is worrying that in a nation of laws there exists an entity such as the DIS, which, contradictory to Article 11 of the Constitution, is not called to account, does not file reports nor assumes responsibility for what it does.”