Travelers often ask what has led this country on a path that sets it apart from its Central American neighbors. Different it is. Costa Rica is a country without an army in a world that counts tanks, missiles, and nuclear warheads as the measure of a nation's power. The national hero is not a general but a young, barefoot canpesino (farmer). Schoolchildren, not soldiers, parade on Independence Day. While other countries debate the issue, Costa Rica abolished the death penalty more than 100 years ago, it is a peacful democracy.

Located in a region where violence has too often been the order of the day, Costa Rica lives in peace. Costa Ricans like to say they have gained through evolution what other countries try to attain through revolution. A brief look at its history, economy, and political and social systems sheds light on some of the questions most often asked.

When Christopher Columbus dropped anchor off Costa Rica in 1502, near the present-day Port of Limon he still thought he had found a new route to the East and believed he was on the southeast coast of Asia, near Thailand. Even today, some people confuse Costa Rica with another Caribbean locale: Puerto Rico.

Stories about great wealth to be found here began at that time. The Indians offered Columbus gifts of gold, and Spanish explorers began to refer to the area as Costa Rica, or "rich coast." Later expeditions touched along the Caribbean and then the Pacific coasts, but it was not until the 1560s that the first permanent European settlement took root. Cartago in the Central Valley became the capital of what would become a province under the Captaincy General of Guatemala.

The first Spanish inhabitants of this new land found neither mineral wealth nor a large indigenous population that could be used as forced labor. The Indians they did find were not keen on servitude. Resistance ranged from warfare to retreat into the forested backcountry. Though definitive numbers on the indigenous population at the time of the conquest are not available, a range of 300,000 to 500,000 is commonly cited. By 1522, colonial authorities reported only 27,000 indigenous peoples, probably an underestimate but still life at birth in the early part of the century was 40 years; today it is 75 years, When the system started, coverage was limited, but now practically all Citizens have access to care.

Rural health-care programs geared to both prevention and treatment touch the lives of the poor even in remote corners of the country. Scenarios include a medical center staffed by paramedics and visited regularly by and nurses. I was once visiting a rural highland school when the doctor came for his scheduled community visit. He used one room of the two room school for consultations. In a coastal Caribbean village, a young told me the doctor came by boat once a month. Poor urban neighborhoods are also targeted.

As you travel around the country you’ll see clinics in small towns and a growing number of regional hospitals. The Red Cross (Cruz Roja in Spanish) is a
strong highly respected organization in Costa Rica, working closely with -care agencies and providing ambulance service.

Housing, another focus of social programs, has been particularly emphasized in recent years. Both urban and rural public projects have been implanted in an attempt to meet a serious housing shortage.

Costa Rica and schools are practically synonymous. The country was among the first in the world to mandate free, compulsory, tax-supported education; children must attend school through the ninth grade. More than 22 precent of the national budget goes to education. The literacy rate is an impressive 93 percent.

In rural areas the schoolhouse may be one room, with six grades divided between morning and afternoon classes. Continuing on to secondary school can mean real commitment for students' for while primary schools are abundant; secondary schools are centered in areas with larger populations. Two young people on a mountain road explained to me that they were on their way to the nearest bus stop for a 30 minute ride to school in Turrialba. The daily walk to and from the bus stop was 90 minutes each way, with the return trip after dark.

Most visitors ask about the rationale behind school uniforms for primary and secondary students. This, too, harks back to egalitarian roots. The idea is to minimize differences between social classes. Private schools also have uniforms. Many private primary and secondary schools do exist, an option for those who complain about inferior levels of instruction at public schools.

Costa Rica has four state universities in the Central Valley, with branches in outlying areas. University education is not free, but tuition is generally low (although increasing) and scholarships are available. Technical and vocational schools outside the San Jose metropolitan area also put higher education within reach of more students as well as promote other regions in the hope of stemming the flow of people into the heavily populated Central Valley. The number of private universities has mushroomed.

Debates on quality of education, and even what constitutes an education, rage here as elsewhere. Resources are stretched thin. Urban areas have an advantage because of backup facilities (such as libraries) and easier access to educational support; it is often difficult to retain teachers in small, isolated areas. The overall picture, however, has some positive hues. For the most part, schools remain the nucleus around which a sense of community forms. Dedicated teachers do exist, often working with few of the materials that teachers in the United States or Canada take for granted. Innovative projects include radio programs aimed at primary schoolchildren in rural areas, a growing program to provide computers to classrooms, and initiation of English-language training in primary schools. Bilingual materials in the surviving Indian languages (Maleku, Cabecar, Guayini, and Bribri) have been incorporated into the curriculum on Indian reserves, including history and legends that have passed down through oral tradition.

While some historians question aspects of the rural democracy thesis (such as whether the colonial social structure was egalitarian, whether there was universal poverty, or whether landholdings were uniformly small), no one seems to debate the importance of early emphasis on public education to the democratic process a major difference from its neighbors. Until universal suffrage came with the 1949 constitution, literacy was a requisite for voting. Enlightened education policies enfranchised the populace and gave them power at the polls.

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