Varieties of
Liberalism in
Central America

Nation-States as
Works in Progress

Forrest D. Colburn
Arturo Cruz S.

(University of Texas)
According to the authors, the largest exports of Costa Rica are hardwood doors, sugar peas, fresh and dried herbs, plastic pipes, and small kitchen appliances. The largest export of neighboring Nicaragua is people --- men, mostly, going off to dodge the American border guards at Ciudad Juárez or Altár. Those who can't make it to the north pass over the line into Costa Rica to work at the large factories known as maquilas, or go out into the fields to pick sugar peas, fresh and dried herbs and, presumably, small kitchen appliances.

Up to a few years ago, the main export of Nicaragua was the Sandanista revolution ... shipped by surface to El Salvador. The biggest import into both countries at that time were what they called "Freedom Fighters." Freedom Fighters arrived from North America thinking that the hearts and minds of the natives could be won over by Oliver North. Amidst all that turmoil the two countries exported their bankers, writers and intellectuals to Costa Rica or the United States.

Meanwhile, the most sizable exports from the USA were gangs plucked from the streets of Los Angeles and returned to El Salvador and Nicaragua to teach "los bros" how to survive on the streets and get colorful tattoos.

§     §     §

The authors report here that the 1972 earthquake that destroyed most of downtown Managua also toppled the country's financial and social order. As far as U. S. military involvement, all they say is that "The United States government began to provide generous funding and assistance to a counter-revolution." In Guatemala,

    As in Nicaragua and El Salvador, violence disrupted agriculture and frightened entrepreneurs and investors.
On the other hand, according to, during the Reagan years,

    the death toll [in Central America] was staggering -- an estimated 70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000 slain from the contra war in Nicaragua, about 200 political "disappearances" in Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala.

It is a puzzle to the authors of Varieties of Liberalism how Costa Rica on the one side and Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras on the other could show such a difference in per-capita income and economic growth. We know, for example, that Costa Rica is prosperous partly because of what is known as "eco-tourism." This is where people travel for thousands of miles to look at frogs. Another possibility is that seventy years ago the country was fortunate to have Rafael Ángel Calderón elected president. He established social programs that stuck, that changed the face of the country ... welfare reform, land reform, and extensive universal education.

I found out on my own how it all happened. One night back in 1985 I was sitting in the gambling area on the top floor of the Barceló Hotel in San José, Costa Rica, awaiting my clothes. Some idiot at National Airlines (remember them?) had sent my baggage to San Jose, California.

After my fourth martini I asked the bartender why Costa Rica was, well, such a Costa Rica --- a rich coast --- compared to its neighbors. He was a literate man who got more literate with each drink.

He said there were two reasons for the prosperity. He said that in 1940, Rafael Ángel Calderón joined together with the head of the Catholic Church and the head of the Costa Rica Communist Party and somehow induced them to go along with a progressive social program directly stolen from FDR's New Deal. This built what every burgeoning country needs: a powerful middle class which influences the day-to-day government decisions and doesn't want anybody to upset the apple-cart.

"And the second reason?" I asked.

"The niggers," he said. Thus spake my friendly English-speaking bartender in his tuxedo.

"Sorry?" I said.

"The niggers," he said again. "We kept them down in Puerto Limón, didn't let them up here into the altozano until 1959."

I tried for awhile to dicker with him about his choice of words, and the implications of what he was saying, but finally I gave up, bought a couple of martinis to go, and went back to my room to watch Johnny Carson.

§     §     §

Besides ignoring what were patently debilitating wars from the Reagan years, authors Colburn and Cruz have raised some interesting questions about Central America.

  • Why is Costa Rica still so prosperous? Was it Calderón or was it that for the first three hundred years of its life under Spanish colonialism and creeping Gringoism it was a backwater (no gold, no slaves, no natural resources outside of frogs and parrots);

  • How can a culture much less a whole country --- El Salvador, Nicaragua --- survive having 20% or their manpower off to work and live in Costa Rica or in the U.S.?

  • Are these countries winning or losing with their foreign offices now more or less run by the IMF?

  • Why did Colburn and Cruz leave out Panama, not to say Belize? Most political scientists tell us that there are seven countries in what we know as "Central America."

  • And, last of all, why did they leave out Nicaragua's national anthem, as performed by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians (all from Brooklyn) ... which, along with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" and "Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy" was one of the top hits of 1946:

    Managua, Nicaragua is a beautiful town,
    You buy a hacienda for a few pesos down,
    You give it to the lady you are tryin' to win,
    But her papa doesn't let you come in.

    Managua, Nicaragua is a heavenly place,
    You ask a señorita for a 'leetle' embrace,
    She answers you, "Caramba! scram-ba bambarito,"
    In Managua, Nicaragua, that's "No."

    I have been to many tropic ports,
    I might include even Brooklyn,
    If you're ever feelin' out of sorts,
    I'd like to recommend a look in...

    Managua, Nicaragua, what a wonderful spot,
    There's coffee and bananas and a temperature hot;
    So take a trip and on a ship go sailing away,
    Across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua, olé! olé!
    Across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua, olé!

--- Lolita Lark
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