In hindsight, the tale of Costa Rica’s 2020 can be split fairly neatly into two halves - and at at least one point during the year, it seemed as if a country renowned for its democratic stability might split down the middle as well.
While the nation, along with the rest of the planet, was rocked by Covid-19, with its initial case reported on March 6th, Costa Rica’s early response to the global pandemic earned international accolades. Glowing reports in May from the United Nations and the World Economic Forum praised President Carlos Alvarado for his quick response and strict lockdown measures. On the home front, acclaim for the administration’s Covid-19 point man, Public Health Minister Daniel Salas, earned the young epidemiologist the nickname “San Daniel” and even sparked talk of a presidential run. In mid-May, when the number of hospitalized patients nationwide dipped down to a dozen, the government announced a four-phase reopening plan that would run from May 16 to August 2. Many heaved a sigh of relief.
Public schools, whose classrooms and — even more critically, lunchrooms — were shut down, organized much-needed food donations for students and their families. Parents masked up to exchange completed homework packets for bags of rice, beans, fruits, and veggies, as the Ministry of Public Education rushed to train its teachers in online teaching methods and Microsoft Teams. The devastation to the tourism industry was staggering as the so-called “Temporada Cero,” or “Zero Season,” began; however, a wave of social spending, including an emergency government unemployment payment called the Bono Proteger, and a spate of philanthropic initiatives enlisted less-affected ticos and international donors to alleviate to at least some of the suffering for families whose income had suddenly dropped to zero.
May also brought the legalization of marriage equality, a milestone that had been achieved after a 2018 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly’s feet to the fire. While the shutdown prevented public celebrations, it also prevented noticeable backlash. This was an extraordinary turn of events given that the advent of marriage equality ripped through the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, changing the face of Costa Rican politics and nearly landing an evangelical pastor in the Casa Presidencial.
What’s more, the country had an ace up its sleeve — or a horse. Behind the scenes, researchers at the University of Costa Rica’s Clodomiro Picado Institute, a global pioneer in research on snake venom, were busy immunizing horses with different combinations of Covid-19 proteins, then extracting and purifying the horses’ plasma In July, the equine antibody serum drew international attention when George Washington University researchers confirmed that the Costa Rican serum inhibited the virus in human subjects. Costa Rica’s success created a burst of national pride, a coup for a state-funded higher education system whose salaries continue to be the subject of political and media criticism in a cash-strapped nation.
The announcement came just as the country was spiraling down into a very different back half of the year.
First there was the virus. As in many other countries around the world, early Covid-19 success in Costa Rica failed to hold. In early June, outbreaks began in the Northern Zone, where health officials would soon move to shut down multiple agricultural plants where a largely Nicaraguan workforce pack pineapple, sugar cane, yucca, and other goods. The virus threw inadequate working conditions and undocumented immigration into sharp relief. Elsewhere, clandestine parties and carelessness with guidelines caused cases to spike, and Costa Rica joined the dreary ranks of countries racing into exponential growth and community spread. In one of many signs of the rapid deterioration of public attitudes towards the situation and its handling, when Dr. Salas’ own father died of COVID-19 in September, the health minister received criticism instead of condolences from social media users angry about the shutdown — though, of course, an even larger number of furious supporters rose to his defense.
That anger would soon bubble up in the streets, creating a whole new set of challenges beyond the pandemic. When President Alvarado announced that a 1.75 billion dollar aid package from the International Monetary Fund would require Costa Rica to enact new taxes and spending cuts, many Costa Ricans were enraged. Former legislators José Miguel Corrales and Celimo Guido launched the Movimiento Rescate Nacional (National Rescue Movement) called on those who opposed the measures to block roadways in protest.
This was a major inconvenience to some, but a potentially fatal blow to entrepreneurs who had just reopened to national tourism and now faced a new wave of cancellations from Costa Rican visitors who couldn’t reach their destinations. It also divided public opinion sharply. Were Corrales and Guido leftist villains who were stabbing hard-working business owners in the back and preventing the passage of an ambulance in which a woman who had just given birth to twins? Or were they heroes for a population suffering hunger in the face of an incompetent administration? Was the government guilty of dereliction of duty for not removing the protestors and freeing up national roadways, or was it guilty of police brutality?
President Alvarado called for a national dialogue led by seasoned academic Jorge Vargas Cullell. The round table stumbled in the face of National Rescue demands, then eventually limped forward in the final months of the year. Meanwhile, cracks showed in those early relief efforts: for example, criticism of the quantity, delivery, and selection criteria of Bono Proteger funding, and of the lack of connectivity that caused educators to simply lose track of massive quantities of public school students, hinted at the extent of difficulties the country will face while emerging from the pandemic.
Both versions of 2020 — the rapid and competent initial Covid-response and scientific development, and the blundering financial reaction and misreading of public needs — will be part of the benefits and burdens Costa Rica carries into the future. Rampant inequality and outstanding academic achievement; social cohesion and bitter disagreement; cheerful compliance with rules mixed with disorder and defiance; solidarity and strife; all of these are very much realities in a nation frequently hailed as an outlier, but which remains subject to strains that don’t easily square with its green, peaceful brand. As Costa Ricans make their traditional New Year’s Eve wishes on December 31st, the stakes for the year to come - with the tourism industry, urgent public spending cuts, and even the country’s democratic values all hanging in the balance - have arguably never been higher.
*Katherine Stanley Obando has been working in journalism and nonprofit development in Costa Rica for the past 16 years. She is the co-founder and managing editor of El Colectivo 506, a new, bilingual media organization focused on in-depth coverage of rural Costa Rica.