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How Costa Rica's economic crisis could become a political millstone

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While most of Central America measures its history by military coups, stable Costa Rica's major milestone - and millstone - is a severe economic downturn. Costa Ricans call their predicament la crisis. Real salaries for most Costa Ricans dropped 45 percent over the past three years. The value of the colone against the dollar is less than one-fifth of what it was in September 1980 (from 8 colones to the dollar to 43 colones today). Last year's inflation was 100 percent, and national production in 1982 was down 6 percent. The country is struggling to pay the interest on its $4.2 billion foreign debt, the highest per capita in the world.

Unemployment, once virtually unheard of here, has more than doubled in five years to a record 9.4 percent. Underemployment has jumped twofold to 22.4 percent.

Assessing these conditions, political observers are wondering if the economic chaos of la crisism will turn political.

Some economists say it could. In a recent study, Juan Manuel Villasusos, an economist at the University of Costa Rica's economic science research center, concludes from statistics on land ownership and income distribution la crisis has created of ''income concentration'' or economic polarization.

If something doesn't change soon, he says, ''the model of Costa Rican society could be put into question.''

Not all analysts would agree with him, but people on all sides of the political spectrum say Costa Rica's ample middle class has been largely responsible for the country's 33 years of social and political stability.

Vladimir de la Cruz, a history professor and Marxist at the University of Costa Rica, says the middle classes have been ''a dampener to the revolutionary process.''


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