CHICAGO - I used my frequent flyer miles to get out of Chicago just a couple of hours before the biggest snow storm of the winter. A week in Costa Rica and a visit to a tropical rain forest sounded lovely.
Costa Rica has a population a little larger than Chicago and an area equal to West Virginia. Progressives have long applauded Costa Rica's abolition of the national army. Using the military budget for education and people's welfare was a wonderful idea. As a result, Costa Rica enjoys a higher standard of living than most other Latin American countries. But I had also heard that rain forests were being cut down to create cheap pasture for beef for McDonald's hamburgers.
Of course I wanted to see the rain forests. Three days in Tortuguero National Park was all a tourist could ask for. We saw bands of monkeys - all three local species; crocodiles sliding out of the canals to sunbathe; toucans and other brilliant birds; monarch butterflies; and tiny jewel-tone venomous frogs. But we also saw pop bottles and other garbage floating in the waterways, endangering the fish and all other life. It was obvious that profit was being put ahead of the environment.
Still, there were many signs of victories that people had won in addition to abolition of the army. Costa Rica enjoys national health care for all. Pregnant women's job rights were protected and public places including the extended grounds of the national university were tobacco smoke-free. My most inspiring experience at the university was meeting the young people of Frente Amplio, the equivalent of the Young Communist League. The 12 proposals in their pamphlet included a call for true equality and democracy in education and the work place, overcoming poverty, strengthening democracy and a more just and inclusive society, socialism.
A democratic revolution in Costa Rica in 1948 had won fundamental democratic rights. These included abolition of the army, health care for all, minimum wage, and other benefits.
But the party now in power is expected to win the coming national elections. Laura Chinchilla, the current president, is not allowed to run for another term.
According to teacher unionists, Chinchilla is following a neoliberal agenda. An example of the strong U.S. imperialist influence is the 5,000 US troops allowed into Costa Rica despite massive protests. The excuse was the need to "stop drug shipments."
My friend and guide, Professor Maria Perez Yglesia, got me an appointment with the president of the High School Teachers Union, Beatriz Ferreto López. I expected a discussion with two or three teacher unionists. Instead, an audience of 40 unionists was eagerly awaiting my "speech." It was part of their celebration of International Women's Day. I was surprised. In my 80 years as an activist, I had never made a presentation in Spanish. But not to worry. We got over the language barrier with the help of a Princeton University graduate in the audience. And it was easy to understand each other because their issues were so similar to what teachers are facing in the Chicago Public Schools.
Cuts in the educational budget were leading to a loss of some student services. For example, cutbacks in bus service made it difficult to impossible for students in rural areas to get to school. These cutbacks were also leading to threats to cut teachers' salaries. Still, local corporations were pushing for privatization of public schools. Public university budgets were being slashed. Teachers' unions and all public service unions were under attack. Public service unions are strong in Costa Rica but organizing in the private sector was difficult. "Try to organize a union and you're fired," some told me.
I learned that the political left was influential in Costa Rica. But they were divided. A united left could form a winning coalition. The people of Costa Rica deserve nothing less.
Photo: Lumpkin, center front. To her right, Beatriz Ferreto López and Dr. Maria Perez Yglesias. Courtesy Beatrice Lumpkin