Hit the Road

teletica.com

Unless you can afford to travel by light aircraft, getting from place to place in Costa Rica involves driving.
There are commuter trains running between the capital and its feeder towns it is true but the wonderful rail lines running from coast to coast are a thing of the past…..
They were allowed to fall into disuse about the same time as a minister was developing a road haulage business….

Thus you travel by car or by bus…on the roads.

And the roads can be something else.
There are a lot of rivers in Costa Rica – crossed by bridges which only seem to be inspected when they fall into said rivers, with or without buses on them at the time.

There is a bridge – or overpass – on the main road north from the capital with a sort of expanding plate to allow for the expansion and contraction of materials.
Just mention ‘la platina’ and the reply will be…not again! The thing is always falling apart and one suspects that there are a lot of road ministry officials crossing their fingers that it won’t do so on the day of the arrival of President Obama.

Unkind voices also suggest that given the weight of the armoured car he uses to protect himself when travelling there is a distinct chance that the repair to the vast two lane pothole between la platina and the airport will give way with unpleasant consequences for intergovernmental relations and unexpected opportunities for Joe Biden.

Given the mountainous nature of the country, road travel can be slow….but the government has come up with solutions.
Toll roads built by foreign companies.

There is one already, running from the capital to the Pacific coast.
Operated by a Spanish firm, it has not been a resounding success.

Yes, you can drive to the coast in an hour and a half as opposed to about four by using the old road….though you have to watch out if you are a contrarian….should you wish to drive from the coast to the capital at the start of the holiday period you will find that the traffic police have dedicated both lanes to getting people from the capital to the coast – so you will be on the old road, like it or not.
And yes, you did read both lanes…there are but two.
With lots of toll booths.
The other thing you have to watch out for is falling boulders as the firm’s engineers weren’t too hot on soil consolidation…..either that or money needed for engineering works engineered itself somewhere else.

Fired by this example, the government have now decided on another toll road, from the capital west to San Ramon – a large town by local standards and, more importantly, inhabited by coffee barons who have a perceived need to get to the capital more swiftly than by travelling on the overloaded Interamericana highway where you always seem to be behind a truck crawling uphill and puffing out enough black fumes to furnish a London Particular.

Wonderful…the plebs can use it too after all….so why was Laura Chinchilla, the President rated the worst in Central America for the second year running, greeted by people demonstrating against the road when she gave the annual address at the commemoration of Juan Santamaria, the soldier who died defeating the American led invaders at the second Battle of Rivas in 1856?

A little background might help.

Recent governments have been embroiled in financial scandals, dodgy dealings and practices so reminiscent of the European Union that one wonders, rather on the lines of the limerick detailing the exploits of the young gay gentleman of Khartoum, who did what and with which and to whom when it came to learning how to fiddle the public purse.
Presidents have appeared in the dock with the regularity of clockwork automatons on the Dad’s Army town hall clock….only to be sentenced to house arrest pending their appeal….
Presidents have encouraged open cast mining projects which pollute the watercourses and destroy the habitat of rare birds while angling for carbon credits…

But this government takes the prize for unpopularity.

Whopping tax increases…while the tax minister forgets to declare the value of his property.
A law gagging whistleblowers to avoid any unfortunate recurrence of publicity about the absentmindedness of ministers.
The fiasco of the road along the river frontier with Nicaragua….seemingly with two committees running it; the official one with technicians and the real one run by….. the President’s relatives.
The sheer waste of public money.
And the threat to Costa Ricas’s tradition of peaceful protest.

Costa Ricans do protest quite a bit….if it’s not taxi drivers it’s one or other of the main unions, or old age pensioners, or animal welfare campaigners blocking the streets of San Jose….but it all happens peacefully.

Until recently, when the government tried strong arm tactics against a small group of protesters asking for more support for rural hospitals.
Turning out the riot police for a small band of health workers was a bad move….and the government was forced to back pedal.

All sorts of simmering discontent came to the fore after this.
The never ending corruption and incompetence of government was no longer going to be able to count on the acquiescence of a traditionally laid back population…you might be able to tax Costa Ricans, but you can’t silence them.

Then came the announcement that a Brazilian company had been chosen to build and operate the new toll road.
A company already in trouble with contracts in Ecuador and Bolivia.
A company which had until very recently employed the minister responsible for awarding the contract as a consultant – during which time he had ‘forgotten’ to pay his social security contributions.
And the tolls were going to be expensive.
Too expensive for the plebs.

People decided to demonstrate…peacefully…when the President gave the traditional address on Juan Santamaria day. They assembled with banners and marched towards the square in the centre of Alajuela…the hero’s home town… only to find that the police had blocked access to all except the children’s bands and invited politicians.
Not even the parents of the children performing could get through.

Another strand of traditional Costa Rican values had been attacked….even if they are only pretending, Costa Rican Presidents are expected to mix with the people on a footing of equality and to have Chinchilla surrounded by bodyguards, the police holding the people at bay, was too much.
Insults were hurled…and not a few rocks.
The President left hurriedly.

Negotiations are now under way – negotiations refused previously…
Police are raiding the offices of the ministry awarding the contract….
The Ombudsman (woman in this case) is ready to step in….
The President – hailed as ‘favoured daughter of Mary’ by an over enthusiastic bishop at her election – has asked the Roman Catholic Church to act as mediator….

But it is worrying….a government that thinks it doesn’t have to listen to its citizens can only be compelled to do so by citizens throwing rocks.
Translate this to Europe…with well armed police forces trained to control crowds what will it take to compel a European government to listen to its citizens?