One of the questions I am nearly always asked on-air is how I ended up retired early and living in political exile in Costa Rica. So this page is a bit of an attempt to explain just who I am and how I ended up down here.
Yes, I am a political exile, very much in the classical your-huddled-masses-yearning-to-breathe-free sense. Not as so many expatriates down here claim to be, people who have violated the law, usually tax or financial responsibility laws and have had to flee to escape prosecution or lawsuit, and, through the application of their arcane, twisted political theories, claim to be political exiles. No, what I have done is nothing that is not only fully legal, but is actually specifically protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. I have been made a refugee by a government that has a simple casual, callous disregard, even contempt, of an obvious and clear reading of the U.S. consitution and the underlying principles on which it is based.
When people think of exiles and Latin America, they often envision brutal fascist dictators forcing out waves of political refugees who flee up north to The Land Of Freedom And Liberty to live out their lives huddled miserably in the isolation of bitter exile. What an increasing number of Americans are only now beginning to realize is that Latin America has begun to throw off the chains of its Monroe-Doctrine past and has begun to democratize and liberalize. Meanwhile, the United States has begun to grow seriously repressive under a burgeoning de-facto one-party system that is increasingly intolerant of dissent and intellectual inquiry, and is slowly beginning to resemble, however faintly, the fascist dictatorships of Europe from a century ago. The current administration has become glaringly indifferent, and occasionally even outright hostile to the most basic of human rights (Remember the "torture" debate, anyone? Or did you even notice when your right to a trial by a jury of your peers was simply abolished?) - an ugly reality that is increasingly thinly hidden behind what has become a sham democracy of rigged elections and meaningless, carefully-steered, tweedle-dee versus tweedle-dum political debate over such trivial and relatively unimportant issues as whether or not to teach "intelligent design" in the public schools. Some readers of this bio have written to me, challenging the veracity of my claim to having been politically persecuted in the United States. Well, all I can say to that is that the series of death threats, which I managed to trace to government sources, were very real. So was the monitoring truck parked in front of my house in Phoenix for days at a time. As was the hardware bug planted in my computer. And try to tell the doctors in the hospital here in 2005, who treated me for a week, that the very sophisticated attempt on my life wasn't real. Those who can't believe that political repression has come to the United States are simply living in denial. All they need do to prove it to themselves is attend an anti-war rally, a Cop-Watch meeting, or write a letter to the editor of their local newspaper strongly critical of the Bush administration's corruption and incompetence, and then try to actually get on a scheduled airplane flight and go somewhere. Just because Fox News or CNN doesn't talk about it doesn't mean it is not happening.
So, unnoticed by nearly everyone, at least in the United States, the flow of political refugees across the national borders of the U.S. has now largely reversed. I am part of that reversed flow, and believe me, I am hardly alone. There are now so many people like me forced to flee "The Land Of Freedom And Liberty" that some governments down here have actually begun to write new provisions into their immigration laws in order to accomodate us. And many long-time Latin American exiles and intellectuals living in the U.S., many with decades of life in exile behind them, have now begun to abandon their exile and return home. I found myself joining many others, fleeing a government of which I was once proud but which now I have come to fear, and hoping to live the kind of life in a new place, that I had hoped to live in my home country. One member of the political underground here estimated, at the time I arrived, that there were a minimum of two hundred per month coming to Costa Rica alone, and probably a thousand or more to the rest of Latin America - and that flow is increasing these days. I encounter them on the streets here with ever-increasing frequency.
So how did it come to this? How did a quirky but an otherwise inoffensive microwave and satellite earth station transmission engineer with a love of and fascination with radio and communications, develop such a profound politicization that he would end up in such a predicament?
My love of radio and my long and winding political journey both began as a small child, as did the interest in radio for so many other hams. When I was eight years old and growing up in the then boom-town of Idaho Falls in eastern Idaho, I was given a christmas gift that totally changed my life. It was a simple little toy pocket radio with all of two transistors in it. And from the 25th of December, 1957, just three months after Sputnik, with the world still reeling from that history-changing event, nothing would ever be the same for me, ever again.
What totally caught my fancy was that I could carry around a tiny little box in my pocket - about the size of a pack of cigarettes - anywhere I wanted to go and listen to voices and music coming from many miles away, even from the far side of the planet. To me, this was my tiny little piece of the brand-new Space Age. I could know what was going on in the world at any time, and never again have to depend for the news on someone else, but, even as a little kid, I could be the one who told the news to those around me. To that eight-year old child, the sense of empowerment was truly incredible. So now I had my very own radio, my own source of news, information and entertainment, and I listened to it. A lot. Constantly, in fact, during nearly all of my waking hours, at home, at school, even at church.
That radio was too small, cheap and simple to have a loudspeaker in it, so it was fitted with an earphone instead, one that looked very much like the earphone that folks with hearing-aids used to wear in those days. Since I was so constantly carrying around my little radio with its earphone, everyone who didn't know simply assumed that, like my father, I was hard-of-hearing. That wasn't the case at all. I just had an insatiable appetite for knowing what was happening in the world and how the world works. And I wanted to know how my magic little box worked, too.
My father, who himself had had a lifelong interest in radio himself (but never got a ham license until the very last years of his life) noticed that interest in radio and encouraged it. For my birthday, I was given a book on electronics, and so I was soon able to figure out how my magic box worked. So I modified it and made changes to make it work better. When, a couple of years later, I acquired another, better one, I modified the first one to tune in radio frequencies that few people in the U.S. ever listen to - shortwave broadcast and ham radio. And what I began to hear was stunning to me.
My discovery that I could actually own a magic box of my very own that would not only enable me to listen to the far side of the planet, but actually talk to it as well, and that was a totally stunning revelation to me. I wanted one. I had to have one. I knew that I would have to struggle to get an Amateur Radio license, but I was determined to do so. My dad gave me a copy of the ARRL License Manual, which had the official FCC study questions in it, and an explanation of each question so that I could answer the exam questions correctly, no matter how the actual question was worded on the actual exam. I had questions about some of the explanations, so my dad gave me access to his copy of the ARRL's Radio Amateur's Handbook. It wasn't long before I understood not only the questions and answers, but could answer just about any conceivable variation, all the way through Extra Class. Not bad for a nine-year old - this was a true thirst for knowledge. And while listening to shortwave broadcasts, I also began to hear occasionally comments made by foreign radio stations' news commentators that led me to suspect that the picture of the world I was absorbing from those around me was incomplete at best. I began to wonder and to keep an open mind. I understood the nature of propaganda, and soon learned to be discriminating, listening only to news sources I knew or deemed to be reliable, including especially the BBC and the Voice of America's various foreign services. I began to seriously question why my local news was often telling me a different story than what I was hearing on these international services, especially the Voice of America.
The real stumbling block for me came in studying the Morse Code, as for so many others. In those days, the code test was rigorous and required for all levels of license, and I never could master the code well enough to pass the test, in spite of my determination (I now know that my difficulty was the result of the neurological complications of Asperger's Syndrome, undiagnosed in me at the time). So eventually, I gave up and as I entered my teen years, I grew interested in other aspects of electronics, including radio and television broadcasting, sound recording and high-fidelity audio that didn't require passing any difficult tests. While I kept my shortwave reciever, and still listened to it a great deal, I had more or less given up on getting a ham license. During my freshman year in college, I was offered and accepted a job working as the engineer in the broadcasting department at the college. It was my first professional contact with radio.
My interest in getting my ham radio license was reignited when I took my first summer job in Alaska. It was as an office clerk at a salmon cannery on the shores of the Bering Sea in a little village called Egegik, where my only source of entertainment at all was listening to my beloved shortwave radio. Unbeknownst to me, one reason I was hired for the job (the chosen applicant out of two hundred, as it turned out) was that I had evidenced on my application that I had an interest in and modest knowledge of electronics. I didn't know it when I arrived, but one of my tasks was to install and maintain the radio equipment in the boats, a responsibility for which I had arrived totally unprepared. Improvising with what I could find in the remains of the cannery's old radio shack, and buying some basic tools from the company store, I found a few spare parts, old vacuum tubes and a neon light among some old junk radios and some genuine antiques (among them a T.A. Edison brand incandescent light bulb, complete with a carbon filament, dating from the installation of the first electrical equipment in the cannery in 1898). With that neon light to serve as a crude voltmeter, and a piece of wire laid across the floor used as a noise source, I actually managed to fix quite a few radios and even an occasional electronic depth-sounder or two.
The company was apparently sufficiently impressed with me, that they brought me back for a second season (I was much better prepared the second time around), and then for the third and fourth, the last two years of which I was hired as the full-time radio operator, the first they had had at that cannery in quite a few years. It proved to be the best job I had ever had, and I enjoyed it immensely in spite of the long hours and occasional sleep interruptions for emergencies. And while doing this job, I grew quite close to the one ham radio operator in the village, Stan Chmiel, KL7GSC, who occasionally ran phone patches to my family back home for me. My brother, who had obtained a job as the cannery electrician, was there with me, and occasionally visited with Stan, promised that if I got my license he would get his (a promise he has yet to keep). Stan urged me to try once again for my license, and after my fourth and final summer season in Egegik, I was determined to do it this time. When I got back home to Idaho Falls, I got hooked up with the Eagle Rock Radio Club, and Dave Napper, K7DQU, who provided the encouragement that I needed to continue working on my license. After three months of diligent, determined effort, I passed my novice exam and received my license as WN7UZO in October of 1971. I made a page or two of contacts on CW as a novice, but found that the mental effort involved in working CW (as a result of the Asperger's) was just too great for me to find enjoyable, and so I continued my study of the code in the manner that had heretofore been successful in earning me the novice license - twenty minutes of copying code on my shortwave receiver, every day, no matter how tired or busy I was. Finally, after studying hard for an additional nine months, I managed to pass my Conditional exam, and was delighted when, just days after my 23rd birthday in late January of 1972, I received my Conditional license in the mail. By now, I had completed and tested the Heathkit HW101 transciever kit and put it on the air in SSB mode for the first time. I tuned around the Alaska calling frequency of 14.292, hoping to snag my Elmer, ol' "Great Salmon Chaser," Stan, KL7GSC. Imagine my thrill when I heard him, called him and he answered. We had a fine little chat and he congratulated me on finally getting on the air - my first phone contact was also my first DX contact and my Elmer, all in one! What a thrill that was for me! A lifelong dream had finally come true! I still have the QSL card from that QSO - neatly framed to be hung on the wall in a place of honor in my shack when it is finally built here soon.
I was never content to just talk on the radio, I listened a lot, too. Especially to the shortwave broadcasts that often proved to be much more enlightening than the domestic media to which I was being exposed. Listening to the BBC, Radio Netherlands, Radio Canada International, Radio Australia and Radio Japan, especially in Alaska, where it was my only entertainment, I began to realize that much of what I was reading and gleaning from the American media was incomplete at best and downright intentionally misleading at worst. And I began to delve into it a bit more, because I still had that passion for knowing how the world worked. So I began to acquire and read books about politics, among the first that classic by William Lederer, "A Nation Of Sheep." My view of American foreign policy would never be the same after reading that book. And it was becoming apparent to me that, like the people of Oz, kept from peeking behind the curtain, that there was much more to the story than I was being allowed to hear. I had begun to have doubts about my religion, my politics and my entire world view. And the more radio I listened to, the more books I read, the more it became apparent to me that my world view, particularly with regards to politics, was hopelessly incomplete and unrealistic.
In the summer of 1974, I passed my Advanced Class amateur exam as well as my First Class Commerial Radiotelephone Operator's License. I had been promised by the owner of a local radio shop that if I got my First Phone that I would be given a job in two-way radio, a job I desperately wanted, and I was offered a position in his Salt Lake City shop. I eagerly accepted, and worked there for two years, getting pretty good at it, and eventually managing the portable (walkie-talkie) department. Eventually, I left and went to work for Motorola, in their San Carlos, CA service depot, working on the real dogs that the local shops just couldn't fix. Living in California, at the height of the counterculture movement, and listening to shortwave radio where I was exposed to points of view not sanctioned by the American establishment, my political views began to change, moving slowly from the right-wing conservatism of my parents and the eastern Idaho farming town in which I had grown up, to a far more cosmopolitan, liberal and progressive economic and social outlook. Eventually, I was forced to concede that my religious faith had eroded in the face of what I had come to know and understand about science, and my social and political views had changed as my religious belief had dwindled and I had learned more about how the world actually works. I had come to conclude that the conservatism of my parents was a political system designed to appeal to the base instincts of selfishness, thereby supporting a repressive social agenda of rule by a ruthless elite, and I eventually rejected both. I eventually concluded that religion was not only a waste of time, but positively an impediment to social progress, and that the conservatism with which it had co-evolved was really, at the end of the day was not just a legitimate difference of political opinion, but was just the politics of self-interest among the elite and demagoguery through ignorance and appeal to base instincts, to control the middle-classes and poor. Things really began to crystallize for me politically, when I spent a year and a half in Nigeria, where I was forced to confront the fact that the public face of the American government, and what that government does abroad when Americans are not looking, are two dramatically different things. So I began to look for satisfactory alternatives to the conservative capitalism on which I had been raised. I did not deem left-wing socialism or communism to be the answer, either. So, what was?
After many years of soul-searching, lots of book reading and considered examination, including deep introspection, I began to formulate a series of social and political views that are not particularly popular in the U.S. these days, though they are not at all considered extreme by world standards, certainly not in western Europe, where there they are essentially mainstream. And eventually, after working careers in two way radio, satellite earth station engineering and eventually microwave transmission engineering, I found myself living in Phoenix, Arizona, not particularly active as a ham radio operator anymore (though I maintained my license), but still listening to shortwave radio, particularly the BBC. And growing ever more passionate about what I could see going wrong with the American political system, and where it was headed towards what was clearly destined to become a neo-fascist dictatorship if nothing was done to stop and hopefully reverse the trend. Having been raised in the belief that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, and having been imbued with Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" love of liberty and sense of responsibility to the concept of government only by the consent of the governed, I decided, after September 11, 2001, and the anti-terrorism hysteria that followed that tragic day, that I could not just sit by and watch all the values I cherish be swept away by an opportunistic regime bent on creating a climate of carefully cultivated fear, paranoia and ultra-patriotism designed to sell my countrymen on abandoning the very values on which my country had been founded and for which its founding fathers and patriots had fought and died.
So I began to write. Political essay after political essay, and published them on my rapidly growing . I was attracting an audience, but only a small one at first. And then I made the move that changed everything, and convinced me that I was on the right track, though it quickly became abundantly clear that I was playing with fire. You know you are doing something right when the establishment threatens you, and just weeks after one of my biggest projects went live on my web site, I began to receive a series of threats, which I traced to a series of government IP addresses, after I published a on my web site detailing the corruption and incompetence of the George W. Bush administration and its chummy connections with some of the most notorious criminals of big business and sleazy lobbyists. I won't detail here , but interested readers can find the story on my main web site at those links if they are interested. What surprised me, but even more, shocked me, was that no one I turned to seemed to be willing to help - and I now know that making dissent and alternative views unfashionable, and thereby depriving me and others like me of much-needed support, was all just a part of a carefully calculated plan. Suffice it to say that it soon became obvious to me that I had a choice to make: continue my political activism, and get jailed on a trumped-up charge (as one colleague already had been), or worse, get myself killed, or I could chicken-out and abandon my activism and accept the message and be a good little doobie henceforth and forevermore.
I didn't opt for the good-little-doobie route. That's not what I do if it means I am going to have to ignore values I hold dear. I that the most principled thing to do was to do what generations of intellectuals and political activists had done before me, and that was to flee into exile and continue my work from there. I had hoped that by doing so, the unwelcome attention I was attracting would dissipate. I began my preparations for exile, and among the posessions I chose to take with me were my ham radio rigs. It was a good decision to bring them, and I have been thankful that they came with me. But little did I understand what I was in for otherwise.
On August 9, 2003, I got on a plane and said goodbye to my homeland, fully expecting it would be for the last time. And flying out over the suburbs of Houston, Texas, as the plane was gaining altitude for its flight to Costa Rica, I realize now that I didn't even look back as the plane headed out over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I didn't feel a sense of sorrow or even regret. It was more a sense of relief that I was feeling. I was headed to a place where I could drive down the street and not have to fear being stopped by the police. Where I figured I would not be surveiled when I stopped by a restaurant for lunch. Where I knew that no one would be sending me death threats for simply espousing my political views. When that plane landed at the airport in Costa Rica and I walked out of the terminal into the warm, balmy tropical evening into my new life, the sense of relief was genuine and palpable.
With little else to do after I arrived, I set up my IC-735 and began to monitor 40 meters, listening for gringo voices in this new land, as my Spanish was still pretty poor. I heard several fellows talking with each other here in-country, and one of whom is now my landlord, TI5KD. I found out where the Control Nacional de Radio office was, went there, and got my reciprocal operating permit, and was soon on the air joining them. Ham radio has become a major part of my life here in Costa Rica, and a major diversion for me. I enjoy it immensely, and it is now a considerable source of satisfaction as well as entertainment to me.
In October, 2008, for the only the second time ever, a VEC exam was going to be offered (at short notice) in Central America, at my landlord's contesting QTH of TI5N. So I figured this was probably going to be the very few, if not the only opportunity to complete the final upgrade of my license to Amateur Extra, which would afford the opportunity of obtaining a 4-character call sign - a huge improvement with that TI prefix appended. So, without studying, I went and took the exam - and passed it with flying colors. Then, in February of 2010, after having moved to Tobosi de El Guarco, I applied for and got my dream call - W7RI. So locally, I am now TI3/W7RI until I can get a Costa Rican citizenship and obtain a local TI3xxx callsign.
But my life otherwise has been no picnic. The tentacles of repression from an arrogant, vengeful political machine with all the taxpayer's money it wants at its disposal can seek you out no matter where you are and networks of intelligence agents can mess with you no matter where you go, as I have learned to my grief. As a result, fleeing into exile really solves little anymore, other than the fact that it puts you under the protection of another government which hopefully will be more respectful of human rights than the one you fled - and something happening to you as the result of the actions of a foreign government can escalate into an embarrassing international incident, hopefully causing your home government to think twice. And so far, a few Costa Ricans familiar with my situation have stepped up to that responsibility as well as they could, and my neighbors and friends here have been much more supportive than even my own family back home, who remain as conservative and enthralled to power as ever. I genuinely feel much safer here than I would feel back in the States, and so here is where I intend to remain, even if someday my exile should end. But what of the United States government? How have they responded to my flight into exile?
My home in Nuevo Arenal was broken into at least twice that I know of, and my computer was bugged (I actually found a keystroke-logging hardware bug that had been planted in the Dell laptop that I bought in the States just a week before I left - I know it was not in the computer when I arrived in Costa Rica). I have lost track of the number of times I have detected that I was being surveilled. My cell phone has been tapped at least once, and I have been soft-interrogated on at least six occasions. I have evidence that on at least two occasions, I only narrowly missed being snatched for an extraordinary-rendition (that was at a time just before the extraordinary-rendition scandal first came to light, and it was when the rendition snatching that was going on was in its heyday). I managed to dodge that bullet only because an honest Costa Rican immigration clerk that had been bought didn't stay bought on the first occasion, and I left the venue of the attempt just minutes before the trap was to be sprung on the second occasion. The worst of what has happened since my arrival in exile was that in April of 2005, an attempt was made on my life outright, a poisoning, and I ended up in the hospital for a week and just barely survived, and only then because of a long chain of very lucky coincidences. My health was damaged significantly and has not been the same since. Since moving to Tobosi de El Guarco, another attempt on my life occurred, just days before the end of the Bush administration, a poisoning which was unsuccessful because of alertness on my part, in which I tasted the poison, ever so slightly, got suspicious and spat it out. I later had the same symptoms as during the first attempt, but not serious enough to require hospitalization.
But I won't give in. I am a stubborn and principled man, and so I'll keep on doing what I am doing, in spite of the danger it clearly poses to me. Because the right to speak truth to power; and the right to insist on governance by consent of the governed, is the most fundamental and basic of all human rights, on which all other human rights are ultimately premised. Because when I finally do go to my grave, I want it to be knowing that I did all I could to help preserve the values of the Enlightenment and the social and economic progress they have brought to so many millions over the centuries, including myself. And so far I have tried very hard to be true to that ideal. My friends in the political underground here have suggested to me that I should go under cover, and have urged me to do it, sometimes quite strongly. But that would mean living out of a suitcase, owning nothing that won't fit in that suitcase (and giving up my cherished books would be a very hard thing for me to do), giving up my ham radio, changing hotels every few weeks at the minimum, never visiting the same Internet cafe or ATM cash machine twice in a row (I already have to keep my money in a series of foreign bank accounts), but mostly keeping no friends and putting down no roots, no place to sit in the sun and drink my tea and read a good book, or set up my radios and tune across twenty meters. And what kind of life would that be? Would that not be a concession? Would I not be giving in? So I am determined that I am going to live my life to the fullest I can under the circumstances, no matter what. And if I disappear, and no one seems to know what happened to me, or I have an "accident" or "sudden illness" and pass away, or "commit suicide," please understand that it is none of those things. Understand instead that it is what I have always said I figured it would end up being - a ruthless, even vicious elite determined to preserve their power and privilege at all costs, by ending what they sneeringly call "the modern project" and returning the planet to the pre-Enlightenment 12th century (more than one has actually told me so in emails), where they can rule, accepted and unchallenged, through what amounts to a reformulation of the Divine Right of Kings, even if they call it by catchy phrases like "unitary executive." Controlling me, if not doing away with me outright, is part - but, of course, only a small part - of that effort. But I am determined not to see the end of the Enlightenment and the social progress it is bringing us, at least to the extent that I can do something about it. It is Patrick Henry's inspiring words before the Virginia House of Burgesses when that body was debating whether or not to join the American Revolution or just do the easy thing and remain loyal to the British crown, that keep running through my mind and driving me on in spite of the fear and the danger. They get right to the core issue I am facing: "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it almighty God! I know not what course others may choose, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!" So I have made my choice, and I assert that choice as loudly and defiantly as I know how - I will always live on my feet, never on my knees.
And as it has always been these decades on, ham radio has been and is still remains at my side, being a comfort when I needed someone to talk to, or had a desire to reach out and listen in to the shortwave broadcast bands to find out what is happening in the world, or just fill that young child's need to feel connected to the world and remain in tune with how it works. No matter where that leads.
© 2008, Scott Bidstrup, all rights reserved. Todos derechos reservados.