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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Costa Rica stands apart
The BBC's Mike Lanchin
By Mike Lanchin
BBC, Costa Rica

Costa Rica, Central America's "paradise" of pristine rain forests, abundant wildlife and long sandy beaches, is an intriguing place.

Costa Rican mountains
Costa Rica is a peaceful paradise compared to some of its neighbours
It has no army, and throughout the turbulent 1980s, as wars and rebellions raged elsewhere in the region, it managed to stay largely neutral.

Costa Rica actually hosted the start of what was later to become the peace accords that eventually ended the region's conflicts.

Yet, two decades after stability returned in the rest of Central America, I found in Costa Rica a country at times aloof, and at times hostile, towards its poorer neighbours elsewhere in the region.

"A lot of people here in Costa Rica don't understand about a person from another country, because Costa Rica has a blessing," Cesar Melendez, a Nicaraguan actor and playwright, told me.

Worker's tale

Mr Melendez came to the country with his teenage parents when he was a small child.

He now tours, playing to audiences in local churches and universities as well as packed theatres, with his one-man play - "El Nica" - about an impoverished Nicaraguan migrant worker, "Jose".

Nicaraguan actor and playwright Cesar Melendez
Melendez aims to show how migrant workers are treated in Costa Rica
His character is an Everyman who, like the more than 400,000 other Nicaraguans, has come looking for work in wealthier Costa Rica and faces a barrage of discrimination, insults, and even physical abuse from the local people.

"El Nica talks about the human drama of the immigrant and the way Nicaraguans are treated by many people here," Mr Melendez says.

"Nicaragua has had lots of problems, and for us Costa Rica is like a paradise."

For the purposes of researching the play, Mr Melendez disguised himself as an illegal migrant and paid "coyotes", or guides, to take him and others along the tortuous and at times dangerous route through the mountains that divide the two countries.

"Jose" makes the same journey and, in one of the play's most emotive scenes, loses his baby daughter when she slips from his arms as they cross a raging river.

"I am trying to shock people and challenge their prejudices," Mr Melendez says.


Despite their common language and culture, Central America remains a divided region - with one country often rivalling its neighbours.

"You can see this in the negotiations with the US over free trade," says Lorna Chacon, a journalist based in San Jose.

Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica
The cold war is over - and that means there is no such thing as foreign aid
Oscar Arias,
Nobel-winning former president
"All the countries want to have the best opportunities in the agreement," she adds.

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all signed up to the US-Central America Free Trade Accord, or Cafta, with the Bush administration at the end of last year.

Each country negotiated bilaterally with Washington. Costa Rica took until mid-January to agree on its terms of entry.

Many politicians in Central America, even those who resisted US pressure in the 1980s to join the anti-communist insurgency war against the Sandinista rulers in Nicaragua, now firmly believe that trade barriers must be lifted from all sides.

"The cold war is over - and that means there is no such thing as foreign aid," said Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica who won a Nobel prize for his peace plan for Central America.

"We now have to rely on two basic instruments for our future development - trade and foreign investment. If we cannot have a market like the US market, if we cannot export our goods, then we have no choice but to keep exporting our people," he told the BBC.

And that is a lesson that every poor Central American, like "Jose" and others, knows all too well.

Mike Lanchin reported from Central America for the BBC in the 1990s.

His four-part series Legacies of Rebellion was broadcast on BBC World Service.

Past vanishes in Honduras
20 Jul 04 |  Americas
El Salvador's suffering lingers on
09 Jul 04 |  Americas
Nicaragua's broken dreams
06 Jul 04 |  Americas
Costa Rica's digital nature
25 Feb 03 |  Technology
Country profile: Costa Rica
02 Jul 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Costa Rica
31 Dec 03 |  Country profiles



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