South American Travel Notes, Part One

Is there a connection, real or imagined, between Costa Rica’s comparative dearth of governmental corruption and the apparent dearth of popular unhappiness? Does an official stance of neutrality and a more equitable division of natural resources produce a generally more cheerful populace that in the region’s kleptocracies?

Like every other Central American country, Costa Rica is poor compared to the United Sates. But they seem less haggard and hopeless than in neighboring nations. There’s less roadside trash and squalor and more optimism. More smiles. The beauty of the volcanic hills and verdant cloudforests is reflected in a sunny national outlook. Contrast this with Peru to the south. Blessed with some of the world’s most ravishing topography — from sea to Andean Mountains to Amazonian lowlands — the country has been controlled for decades by one thief after another, and the psychic toll is clear on the grim faces. Protective bars on every window and armed guards at many business establishments are meant to provide protection and security. They suggest, conversely, a populace imprisoned by fear.

While traveling in Peru recently, the country conducted a Presidential election, which was explained to me (by nearly every person I spoke to) as the choice between two bad guys: Ollante, a military leader similar in character to the charismatic Socialist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Garcia (known familiarly as “Alan”), who served as President before Fujimori and provided an instructive precedent in how to rob the republic’s treasury before fleeing for pampered exile. Although we in the United States don’t have to choose between such extremes of evil — a military bully and an embezzler — can we say our electoral atmosphere is much better? The big difference for Americans is that their political parties are often nearly interchangeable. For Peruvians, it’s a choice between two bitter pills.

Garcia won the run-off; the military behaved; and business went on as usual. The average Peruvian gritted his teeth, shrugged his shoulders, and tried to make the best of it. Meanwhile, up north, Costa Rica continued to spend nothing on a military, and the residents seemed content with the status quo.

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