Letters From Exile

...Scott Bidstrup's Life And Living In Costa Rica

Tue, Dec 15 2009

Giant Senatorial Sausage Machine Churns Out Smelly Sausage

The U.S. congress has spoken and we're not going to see meaningful health care reform in the United States anytime soon.

That's because the people who control congress - the lobbyists - don't want to see health care reform (the insurance industry is already getting rich without any help from "reform," thank you very much) and so our beloved Senator from Aetna, Joe Lieberman, has torpedoed any meaningful health care reform by vetoing it (yes, he has veto power in a senate where his vote is required to break a filibuster). So health care in the United States will continue to be business as usual except for the one big change that is being made, and that is to impose taxation by corporation - using the power of government to force you to buy "insurance," whether you can afford it or not, whether it is useful to you or not, or whether it gives you real, actual access to health care or not. Some reform.

Well, here in Costa Rica where I live, I have no such fears. We have socialized medicine here. Yes, that's right, full-on old-fashioned Fabian socialism, of the very kind that sends the conservatives in the United States into apoplectic shrieks of fear and horror.

And you know what?

It works!

Costa Rica spends a tiny percentage of what the United States does per capita on health care, but the health outcomes here are every bit as good as the United States - the percentage of deaths resulting from inadequate access to health care is tiny compared to the U.S., the life expectancy here is longer, and the infant mortality rate is comparable, in spite of Costa Rica's relative poverty. The rate at which women die in complicated childbirth is actually lower. You may have to wait a few hours for health care at the emergency room if your issue isn't life-threatening, but if it is, you'll be whisked right in. I know. It has happened to me, even not being "in the system." Because I am not, I had to pay my own full freight when I was hospitalized for an entire week. The result was that when I was discharged, I was presented for a bill for $2736 for a week of emergency cardiac care. That's probably one percent of the fee I would have been hit with in the United States - if I had been given access to health care there at all.

The Fabian-socialized-medicine system here works, because the one absolute prerequisite that is required to make socialism work, is in force here. Accountability and transparency. A former president who tried to game the system to get rich through corruption is now doing time in jail. When hospital administrators can't keep the local population happy with how the hospital is run, they get replaced, and that occurs with some frequency. Sure, there are lots of problems with the system, but there are none of them at all that couldn't be fixed by spending even half as much here as is spent per capita on health care in the U.S.

Of course, the obvious question is why does Costa Rica have a functioning health care system that meets most all its citizens' needs, and the U.S. does not?

The answer is obvious. The U.S., with its obsession with privatization and "free market solutions" has applied that doctrine to health care when that is clearly a sector to which the free market "solutions" cannot solve the problem - because of the perverse incentives inherent in private enterprise. That is now obvious to everyone. Something needs to be radically changed if everyone in the United States is to have access to health care at a price they can afford.

But in response to the obvious, the free-marketeers are now rather cruelly suggesting that access to health care is not a right - implying that somehow, some people deserve to die in the streets. Will such arrogant rich folks be the first to give up their place in the health care line to a poor person? Somehow, I didn't think so.

Costa Rica has shown that decent, if basic health care for everyone, regardless of their "socioeconomic status" can be done, even by a poor country. It considers itself a more humane country for having done so, and that's true and it's one of the main reasons why I live here.

Why doesn't the U.S. follow this successful example?

Ideology. Pure and simple. The United States Senate has used ideology to justify putting the wishes of corporations ahead of the needs of the USAnian public, and the sheeple of the United States, because they believe in the ideology, are going to go along. Some are even demanding it.

So enjoy your ideology, USAnians. Here, I enjoy health care that doesn't bankrupt me.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 09:09:42 AM

Sun, Dec 13 2009

Things Are Tough All Over - And Some Places Tougher Than Others

I am reading in the paper today that the sale of lottery tickets for the biggest draw of the year, "El Gordo" or The Fat One, are down substantially this year. The article says that fully 20% of the tickets remain unsold, in spite of the fact that the draw takes place tonight. Ordinarily, the tickets sell out quickly - usually within a week of their going on sale. Not this year. It's the first time since 1988 that the El Gordo hasn't been sold out by the draw. That's a big deal in this country - El Gordo is the draw that the lottery enthusiasts look forward to all year - it would be kinda like Macy's cancelling the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.

Everyone is scared about the economy. Rightly so. Some time ago, my worker told me that he had heard that foreclosures had been running at the unprecedented clip of 1700 per month at just one of the many banks. By any measure, that is a lot in a nation of fewer than five million people.

As you are probably aware, the largest single component of the Costa Rican economy is the tourist business, and with personal consumer wealth in the United States down hugely since last year, the tourism business is taking a huge hit, too. The worst hit are the high-end tourist resorts; golf-condominium beach resorts out on the Nicoya beaches are the worst hit. I've seen all kinds of numbers, but the most often repeated number is that business there is down by 40 percent. That is believable - I just don't see anywhere near the number of tourists on the streets of Cartago as I did last year. Condo sales in the beach towns has grown to a halt, as has construction in those towns.

That doesn't mean that the tourist business everywhere is in the toilet. There is still construction going on in Cartago, a city that has traditionally been one of the first hit by slowdowns. But not this year - the construction has slowed but I still see houses and commercial real estate being built. There is still some money around and it is being invested. My architect friend isn't lacking for commissions, either. Low-end tourist spots, and those that cater to the backpacker crowd, are all doing well. Some are up over last year. And in Nicaragua, where the tourist economy is almost exclusively low-end, bookings are up over last year by 19%.

Here, in this, ahem, "less than average income" town of Tobosi de El Guarco, there are a few gringos renting low-end apartments and houses, and the properties all seem to be as full as ever, including commercial real estate. Apparently people who would have done a beach resort in years past are this year renting a Tico house in the mountains and doing some mountain tourism instead of the overpriced and usually crowded beaches. That is giving the less-wealthy tourist businesses a break. Frankly, if some rich dude from Heredia with millions invested in a risky condo project at the beach goes broke, it doesn't bother me as much as someone struggling with a small property trying to generate enough income to feed his kids and send them to school. Since this town was until recently an Indian reserve, it has only recently been opened up to "white" settlement, and lots of folks are moving here because it is an easy commute to Cartago, but prices are still low. At least for now. But there are subdivisions springing up like weeds, and being sold to wealthy Ticos and gringo retirees. And while construction has slowed, it hasn't stopped.

One of the reasons that the Tico economy has been largely able to weather the storm has been that Costa Rica had been practicing fiscal conservatism for a long time, ever since it got badly burned by Wall Street in 1982, and forced by Ronald Reagan to implement some very unpleasant (and very counterproductive) neoliberal economic policies in return for loan guarantees. The three largest banks in the country ended up owned by the Costa Rican government in that crisis, and they're still state-owned banks to this day. The central bank, who runs them, keeps them on a tight rein. The private banks are all tightly regulated and carefully supervised, so the go-go capitalism that got Wall Street into trouble has had only a secondary impact here, making only very large loans difficult to get. A qualified residential borrower has no problem getting a mortgage.

Additionally, Costa Rica has had a policy of diversifying its economy to the maximum extent possible. So even though tourism and construction were traditionally big components, they have been reduced in importance considerably in recent years. The result is that while some sectors have been down, others are humming along (such as the ornamental flowers business) and that is helping stabilize the economy generally.

Not that there aren't any problem areas. There are, and they're not limited to tourism. The incrementally increasing unemployment rate has led to a rise in crime, and the criminals are getting bold. A large commercial building in Quebradilla, a neighboring town, had been sitting vacant for several months after the occupant business had folded, and a few weeks ago, some robbers looted the building completely, pulling out the plumbing fixtures, stripping electrical wire out of the walls, removing windows and doors, and robbing the place of anything that could be carted off and sold. Even the rafters in the ceiling were taken.

The neighbors apparently saw what was happening, and called the police. But the police agency they called (the "Fuerza Publica") refused to do anything, saying that it was a matter for a different police agency, the OIJ - which can't be called after hours. There are more than two dozen specialized police agencies in this country, and each one has a limited jurisdiction and can't tread on the toes of the others. So figuring out who to call is a nightmare - and one of the reasons why policing is so ineffective in this country. Nobody wants to take ownership of a situation. And this case was no different. So the robbers stripped the building with impunity, and left it a total shambles. It will have to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. None of it is salvageable.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 11:47:46 AM

Sat, Dec 12 2009

Global Warming - And Baby, It's Cold Outside

This is the point in world history at which global warming is supposed to be kicking in big-time. And indeed, if you look at what is happening in Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic, it certainly is. All over the world there are signs of global warming - birds migrating north earlier in the spring, trees blooming earlier in the year, etc. I needn't go on down that long list.

Here in Tobosi, global warming is probably happening, but you'd be hard pressed to tell it right now. For a tropical paradise, this place is surprisingly chilly - the low this morning was 59.7 degrees Fahrenheit. But that is actually warmer than normal for this time of year. Normal for this time of year is more like 55, and morning lows as cold as 52 are not unheard-of. That's because the elevation at this place is right up there - 5,000 feet. Roughly the same elevation as Idaho Falls, the town in which I grew up, and which is also seeing some significant effects from global warming.

The high elevations, especially in the tropics are supposed to be one of the places most affected by global warming. The models predict that we will probably see about a ten degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century, and even more than that in night-time lows. Those who have lived here all their lives are telling me that the climate has changed noticeably since they were children, and wintertime weather is significantly more moderate. Maybe it is, I don't know. But I do know that this year is vastly warmer than last year, and is significantly warmer than the running 30-year average that is used to determine what is "normal." For me, a confirmed tropical hot-house plant, that is welcome news.

But it is bad news for the country. For along with the warmer weather has come dryer weather. This year, the rainy season began early - about a month early - but kinda fizzled out half way through. We didn't get a drop of rain for about three weeks in September. That was great for me as I was in the middle of the construction project for the fireplace in my living room. And the rain held off just fine - it didn't start again until about two weeks after the project was done, and the concrete was dry enough that I could safely light a fire in my new fireplace. And just on cue, the rains and cold weather had started in again, and I was ready to throw another log on the fire once the rain and cold rolled in. Unfortunately, it was too late for the coffee crop, which is down by 20 to 50 percent this year, depending on whom you believe.

I had also found and fixed the last of the roof leaks with which this house was abundantly endowed when I moved in. So it wasn't with much dread when I saw those dark clouds to the east, with the grey sheets of rain below them, moving my way in over the city of Cartago, and rolling across the fields towards my village. And having a fireplace with an ample supply of firewood meant that a chilly evening could be broken by a warm, welcoming fire in the fireplace. And having the ability to listen to the news on the Internet radio, while warming my toes in front of the fire, meant that finally, this house is becoming warm and comfortable. It has been a long, expensive struggle, but it is finally coming together - I have a comfortable home, which I own outright, in one of the best ham radio locations I have ever seen, and have an expansive, endlessly changing view to enjoy when the bands are closed. I am starting to enjoy living here.

But the nights and mornings are still chilly. And that's not the kind of weather that I moved to the tropics for, so I do have that one regret in having bought a house at this altitude. But with global warming kicking in. that may all change. The mango trees that the previous owner optimistically planted in the yard may actually begin to grow and flourish, and eventually produce one of the specially blessed of all tropical fruits. My bananas may become more productive, and I won't shed any tears about that. My avocado tress, already doing well, may do even better. And my native guavas and custard-apples may produce less and less, and eventually die - because my high-altitude climate has become too warm.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 09:07:46 AM

Thu, Dec 10 2009

Back To The Future

Well, this is the second attempt at editing this blog entry. My blog editing software has an annoying bug that sometimes will delete an entry without ever even posting it, and you have no idea this has happened until get done editing the entry, save it to disk and then post it to the web site, only to discover that nothing got posted and your entry is gone. Arrrghh!

The point I was making in that failed entry was that my worker came to work today with his ox team. He's a "boyero" and that means he owns, maintains and rents out an ox team. Yes, they are actually still in use here - many hillsides, including mine, are simply too steep to use a tractor, so he used his ox team this morning to haul a large plastic barrel up to my house. I am using that barrel to build a sand filter to clean up the water supply which the acueducto is delivering to me. I live above their filter tanks on the hillside, so I get the raw stuff, strained but unfiltered, so I am building a filter to clean the mud and sand from the water coming to me. It's potable, they insist, but it is very unappetizing, and the sand wreaks havoc on my plumbing.

My worker is a boyero because he has been one since he was a little boy and had to go to work full time at the age of six to help support his family in some very hard times. He has had oxen ever since, and continues to maintain a championship team, famous across the country. He frequently takes time off to go do a job for a nearby farmer who needs an ox team to plow a field, haul some coffee cherries, or help clear some land.

In spite of his limited education, he is surprisingly well read and informed, and we often have long chats about politics and world events while sitting in the shade of a tree here on the property. And he and I have discussed the fit of ox teams in the modern world. I have taken the position, and he agrees, that in a world where oil may rise to $300 per barrel, or in a dire economic collapse, oil may become unavailable altogether, and his ox teams may end up becoming very busy indeed.

So the bucolic television image of Juan Valdez lovingly picking his coffee cherries, one at a time, putting them in burlap sacks and hauling them off to the beneficio on the back of a mule is not all that far from reality. Only the animals are oxen, not mules, the sacks are polypropylene rather than burlap, and Juan Valdez is wearing a crush-cap rather than a cowboy hat. But the use of animals is far from obsolete, and it may become the norm for many farmers if not most - if the capitalists don't get their act together and fix the finance industry instead of just papering over the cracks. If globalization collapses, as it has many times in the past, the world economy may enter a post-petroleum phase, with oil either ridiculously expensive or unavailable at all.

And Costa Rican campesinos, who are already used to using oxen on their land, may end up teaching the rest of the world how to do agriculture.

Back to the future.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Tobosi de El Guarco, Costa Rica 01:58:35 PM
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