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Costa Rica Notebook 9 Dec 1993



Bells ringing people shouting horns tooting

REPORTER’S NOTES: San Jose, Costa Rica

By Ashali Varma


San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is a somewhat dilapidated city which sprawls for miles but most points are just an hour away from lush landscapes, rolling hills and volcanoes. Situated on a plateau 3,000 feet above sea level, it is a cool 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, an enviable climate for a city in Central America. The city nestles in a valley where some 60 percent of Costa Rica’s 3 million people live. The beauty of the place can be breathtaking. In fact, at higher levels the scenery reminds one of Switzerland. Once you cross the mountains the ecosystem changes to magnificent tropical rain forests at the fringe of the Pacific Ocean.


The participants present at the Earth Council inauguration were treated to excellent Costa Rican and Spanish dishes organized by the Inter American Institute on Cooperation for Agriculture (IlCA). The Institute not only made their premises available for the conference but also hosted all, the lunches.


President Rafael Angel Calderon of Costa Rica was in Washington while the Earth Council met in San Jose, meeting with President Bill Clinton. Although Clinton proclaimed that this was the first time in the 20th century that a US President was meeting a group of democratically elected Presidents from Central America (Calderon was in a group of five), some of the participants at the Council meeting here noted with dismay the decision of US State Department to close down 21 USAID missions.

One survey showed public support in the US for foreign-aid eroding significantly with the end of the Cold War. In 1985, annual US foreign-aid was $18.5 billion; in 1993, the figure is $14.4 billion, which represents only about 1 percent of total Federal spending and encompasses everything from population assistance to disaster relief to contributions for the UN system. About 40 percent of this aid is earmarked for the Middle East (primarily to Egypt and Israel under arrangements dating back to the Camp David Accords of 1978), and the former Soviet Union. Now the Office of Management and Budget has told the State Department that it must reduce foreign-aid by another 6.5 percent in the next budget. Latin American countries face foreign-aid cutbacks of up to 60 percent. For development specialists, such news is most unwelcome.


The National Theatre built in 1897 is one of the most beautiful buildings, in San Jose.  The frescoes, painted ceilings and ornate carvings transport one to a different era. The inauguration of the Earth Council took place here. After the ceremony we heard a lot of rejoicing in the streets. Cars, fire engines, merry revellers crowded the narrow streets of the city, with bells ringing, people shouting and horns tooting. Some Council members thought it might have something to do with the event but we soon found out that the Costa Ricans were rejoicing because their national team had defeated Mexico in soccer by a score of 2-0.


The Council Secretariat showed grace under pressure: Elizabeth Garfunkel, who  transcribed the proceedings, was an invaluable asset for reporters, Aziyade  Poltier-Mutal, the chief information officer, was equally helpful to the media; Mirian Vilela,  who arranged all our transportation, deserves special thanks for keeping dozens of itineraries in control, and P. Krishnamurthy, the taciturn Indian who welcomed us at the airport, was also there to see us off. Being a whiz in six languages, he was able to say “adieu” in many tongues.  With the great demands on this patience, Krishnamurthy surely breathed easier after the meeting.