A child growing up in the Costa Rican countryside is surrounded by some of the most beautiful and biodiverse landscapes in the world. The government of this tiny Central American country aims to keep it that way. But preserving this land of tropical rainforests isn’t Costa Rica’s only accomplishment. The government ensures all citizens have access to health care and education, and the country actively promotes peace around the world. So when the New Economics Foundation released its second Happy Planet Index, a ranking of countries based on their environmental impact and the health and happiness of their citizens, the No. 1 spot went to Costa Rica, population 4 million.
The United States’ ranking: No. 114. [Update: As of 2016, the U.S. rank was 108.]
What can our neighbor to the south teach us about happiness, longevity, and environmental sustainability?
“Costa Rica enjoys a privileged position as a mid-income country where citizens have sufficient spare time and abundant interpersonal relations,” says Costa Rican economics professor Mariano Rojas. “A mid-income level allows most citizens to satisfy their basic needs. Government intervention in the economy assures that all Costa Ricans have access to education, health, and nutrition services.” Costa Ricans, he added, have not entered the “race for status and conspicuous consumption.”
Created in 2008, the Happy Planet Index examines sustainable happiness on a national level, ranking 143 countries according to three measurements: how happy its citizens are, how long they live, and how much of the planet’s resources they each consume. The HPI multiplies years of life expectancy by life satisfaction (as measured by the Gallup Poll and the World Values Survey), to obtain “Happy Life Years,” which are then divided by pressure on ecosystems, as measured by the ecological footprint. (The ecological footprint, in turn, measures how much land and water it takes to provide for each person.)
The Happy Planet Index “strips down the economy to what really matters,” says New Economics Foundation researcher Saamah Abdallah. It measures “what goes in, in terms of resource use, and the outcomes that are important, which are happy and healthy lives for us all. In this way, it reminds us that the economy is there for a purpose—and that is to improve our lives.”
Abdallah calls the importance of family, friends, and community “social capital.” People who live in countries with higher levels of material wealth often report less happiness than people in countries with less wealth but stronger social networks. According to the HPI, a Costa Rican has an ecological footprint one-fourth that of the average person in the United States.
The United States is one country where social capital is falling, according to a study conducted by the economist Stefano Bartolini.
“It is not surprising that social capital should be falling in the U.S.,” Abdallah says. “Americans work the longest hours in the Western world and have the shortest holidays. All their time is spent making money, rather than building social bonds, which are just as important to well-being.”
The Importance of Peace
Domestic and international peace has long been a priority in Costa Rica. In 1948, the country abolished its military, allowing it to spend more on health and education. Its University of Peace, established in 1980, offers a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies as well as ongoing workshops—like a recent one on corporate responsibility offered to international business executives.
In September 2009, the Costa Rican legislature created a Ministry of Justice and Peace , emphasizing the role of peace promotion and conflict resolution in preventing violent crime. Shortly afterward, the country hosted the 2009 Global Alliance Summit for Ministries and Departments of Peace, where representatives of 40 countries gathered to work on developing peace infrastructure in their own governments.
Central to Costa Rica’s promotion of peace is the Rasur Foundation, which organized the summit and lobbied for the creation of the Ministry of Justice and Peace. Rasur is a teacher in a Costa Rican poem who tells a group of children, “Before directing the lightning in the sky, we must first harness the storms in our own hearts.” Through its Peace Academy, the Rasur Foundation works with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education to introduce techniques of conflict resolution and “being peace” in Costa Rican schools.
Costa Rica’s Nobel Prize-winning president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, who attended the Summit, is quoted on the Foundation’s website:
“Peace is not a dream. It’s an arduous task. We must start by finding peaceful solutions to everyday conflicts with the people around us. Peace does not begin with the other person; it begins with each and every one of us.”
There is little difference in life expectancy across income levels in Costa Rica, unlike in the United States.
Costa Ricans are not only reporting happy lives, they are living long ones. In the second measurement of the Happy Planet Index, longevity, Costa Rica scored an average of 78.5 life years, compared with 77.9 for the United States. Some studies have suggested that Costa Rican men live longer than men anywhere else in the world. There is little difference in life expectancy across income levels, unlike in the United States. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have found an “enormous gap” in U.S. life expectancy, depending on race, income, location, and other factors.
Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is one of the world’s “Blue Zones”—places where the inhabitants frequently live to be over 100 years old. The residents of these zones generally eat well, get plenty of exercise, and have a genetic predisposition to longevity. Nationwide, Costa Ricans benefit from a combination of government-run and private insurance options. Costa Rica promotes good health among its citizens even before they are born, sending doctors and nurses out into the countryside to provide prenatal care and teach parents how to raise healthy children.
Protecting the Landscape
The Costa Rican government’s promotion of peace and health for its citizens extends to a peaceful and healthy relationship to the planet. The size of its ecological footprint indicates that “the country only narrowly fails to achieve the goal of … consuming its fair share of the Earth’s natural resources,” according to the Happy Planet Index.
Costa Rica has pioneered techniques of land management, reforestation, and alternatives to fossil fuels.
Spurred by rapid deforestation of its pristine rainforests due to logging and agriculture, the country began converting parts of its territory to national parks in the 1970s and prohibited the export of certain trees. Even so, by 1987, illegal logging, cattle ranching, and development had reduced the country’s rainforest from 73 to 21 percent of the landscape. So in 1996 Costa Rica introduced the Payment for Environmental Services Program (PES). Oil importers and water-bottling and sewage-treatment plants now have to pay a special tax to do business in the country, while other businesses contribute via a voluntary carbon-offset fee. The money is used to pay local people to protect the trees, water, and soil in their surrounding environment by abstaining from cattle ranching and illegal logging.
The PES program has had mixed results. In some areas, cattle ranching and illegal logging remain more profitable, and the government has had to scramble to raise enough money to finance the program. But overall, because of the country’s new environmental policies, including a massive UN-sponsored tree-planting program begun in 2007, more than half of Costa Rica’s territory is once again covered with rainforest.
In a further effort to go green, the country has banned oil drilling within its borders and invests heavily in renewable energy sources like hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal power, which now provide 95 percent of its energy. In the capital, San Jose, vehicles are permitted downtown only on certain days, depending on the license-plate number. A planned commuter train will also cut down on automobile pollution. The country has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2021, the year of its bicentennial.
“The position of Costa Rica is that we all have to make ourselves present on the issue of climate change,” said Gerardo Mondragón in a telephone interview with YES! Magazine. He is with Paz con La Naturaleza (Peace with Nature), an advisory agency to President Arias on ecological planning. “We want to get the message out that all countries have to support one another in this , and in particular, industrialized countries should support those countries who have clear initiatives.”
Critics of Costa Rica’s green policy, like Rachel Godfrey Wood of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, have pointed out that no amount of tree planting can completely undo the damage done by fossil fuels.
The Costa Rican conservation organization FECON posts regularly on its website about continuing ecological problems in Costa Rica: deforestation by landowners, pineapple plantations that cause soil erosion and pollute community drinking water with pesticides, and a new mining development in Las Crucitas that has local residents worried about cyanide poisoning in the region. Another controversy recently erupted in a region called Las Baulas, where environmentalists fear development will threaten the turtle population.
“We have to go slow,” Mondragón said of the environmental challenges still facing Costa Rica. “But we still have to let people know what’s happening.” He blamed the Las Crucitas mining project on antiquated laws that don’t give Costa Rica enough protection from environmental damage by companies working within its borders. “We need to change these laws so that development can proceed in a balanced way.”
As a stable democracy for the past century, Costa Rica has been considered a “business-friendly” country. Though large banana, pineapple, and coffee plantations have not disappeared, ecotourism and high-tech companies have increasingly invested in Costa Rica.
“Good lives need not cost the Earth.”
But a recent struggle between proponents and opponents of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement that passed last year, highlighted divisions over the issue of liberalizing trade laws. In one camp are those such as President Arias, who support CAFTA because they believe it will bring additional foreign investment; in the other camp are those who fear trade liberalization and privatization will allow businesses to be unaccountable to Costa Rica’s labor or environmental regulations. The controversy over CAFTA illustrates an innate dilemma in Costa Rica’s green strategy: How can a country that relies on corporate investment for its economic survival demand that those same corporations abide by the country’s ecological guidelines? And what clout does it have in enforcing those guidelines?
No country, not even Costa Rica with its No.1 ranking, has reached the goal of “one planet living” that the creators of the Happy Planet Index believe we should all aspire to: consuming our fair share of the Earth’s resources.
“We want nations, regions, and cities to assess how well they are doing based on well-being and environmental impact,” says Abdallah of the New Economics Foundation. “We would like to highlight the message that good lives need not cost the Earth and that ‘one planet living’ can actually mean a better life.”
On September 15, 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger authorized the U.S. government to do everything possible to undermine the incoming government of the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Nixon and Kissinger, according to the notes kept by CIA Director Richard Helms, wanted to “make the economy scream” in Chile; they were “not concerned [about the] risks involved.” War was acceptable to them as long as Allende’s government was removed from power. The CIA started Project FUBELT, with $10 million as a first installment to begin the covert destabilization of the country.
U.S. business firms, such as the telecommunication giant ITT, the soft drink maker Pepsi and copper monopolies such as Anaconda and Kennecott, put pressure on the U.S. government once Allende nationalized the copper sector on July 11, 1971. Chileans celebrated this day as the Day of National Dignity (Dia de la Dignidad Nacional). The CIA began to make contact with sections of the military seen to be against Allende. Three years later, on September 11, 1973, these military men moved against Allende, who died in the regime change operation. The United States “created the conditions,” as U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger put it, to which U.S. President Richard Nixon answered, “that is the way it is going to be played.” Such is the mood of international gangsterism.
Chile entered the dark night of a military dictatorship that turned over the country to U.S. monopoly firms. U.S. advisers rushed in to strengthen the nerve of General Augusto Pinochet’s cabinet.
What happened to Chile in 1973 is precisely what the United States has attempted to do in many other countries of the Global South. The most recent target for the U.S. government—and Western big business—is Venezuela. But what is happening to Venezuela is nothing unique. It faces an onslaught from the United States and its allies that is familiar to countries as far afield as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The formula is clichéd. It is commonplace, a twelve-step plan to produce a coup climate, to create a world under the heel of the West and of Western big business.
Step One: Colonialism’s Traps.
Most of the Global South remains trapped by the structures put in place by colonialism. Colonial boundaries encircled states that had the misfortune of being single-commodity producers—either sugar for Cuba or oil for Venezuela. The inability to diversify their economies meant that these countries earned the bulk of their export revenues from their singular commodities (98 percent of Venezuela’s export revenues come from oil). As long as the prices of the commodities remained high, the export revenues were secure. When the prices fell, revenue suffered. This was a legacy of colonialism. Oil prices dropped from $160.72 per barrel (June 2008) to $51.99 per barrel (January 2019). Venezuela’s export revenues collapsed in this decade.
Step Two: The Defeat of the New International Economic Order.
In 1974, the countries of the Global South attempted to redo the architecture of the world economy. They called for the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) that would allow them to pivot away from the colonial reliance upon one commodity and diversify their economies. Cartels of raw materials—such as oil and bauxite—were to be built so that the one-commodity country could have some control over prices of the products that they relied upon. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), founded in 1960, was a pioneer of these commodity cartels. Others were not permitted to be formed. With the defeat of OPEC over the past three decades, its members—such as Venezuela (which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves)—have not been able to control oil prices. They are at the mercy of the powerful countries of the world.
Step Three: The Death of Southern Agriculture.
In November 2001, there were about 3 billion small farmers and landless peasants in the world. That month, the World Trade Organization met in Doha, Qatar, to unleash the productivity of Northern agri-business against the billions of small farmers and landless peasants of the Global South. Mechanization and large, industrial-scale farms in North America and Europe had raised productivity to about 1 to 2 million kilograms of cereals per farmer. The small farmers and landless peasants in the rest of the world struggled to grow 1,000 kilograms of cereals per farmer. They were nowhere near as productive. The Doha decision, as Samir Amin wrote, presages the annihilation of the small farmer and landless peasant. What are these men and women to do? The production per hectare is higher in the West, but the corporate takeover of agriculture (as Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research Senior Fellow P. Sainath shows) leads to increased hunger as it pushes peasants off their land and leaves them to starve.
Step Four: Culture of Plunder.
Emboldened by Western domination, monopoly firms act with disregard for the law. As Kambale Musavuli and I write of the Democratic Republic of Congo, its annual budget of $6 billion is routinely robbed of at least $500 million by monopoly mining firms, mostly from Canada—the country now leading the charge against Venezuela. Mispricing and tax avoidance schemes allow these large firms (Canada’s Agrium, Barrick and Suncor) to routinely steal billions of dollars from impoverished states.
Step Five: Debt as a Way of Life.
Unable to raise money from commodity sales, hemmed in by a broken world agricultural system and victim of a culture of plunder, countries of the Global South have been forced to go hat in hand to commercial lenders for finance. Over the past decade, debt held by the Global South states has increased, while debt payments have ballooned by 60 percent. When commodity prices rose between 2000 and 2010, debt in the Global South decreased. As commodity prices began to fall from 2010, debts have risen. The IMF points out that of the 67 impoverished countries that they follow, 30 are in debt distress, a number that has doubled since 2013. More than 55.4 percent of Angola’s export revenue is paid to service its debt. And Angola, like Venezuela, is an oil exporter. Other oil exporters such as Ghana, Chad, Gabon and Venezuela suffer high debt to GDP ratios. Two out of five low-income countries are in deep financial distress.
Step Six: Public Finances Go to Hell.
With little incoming revenue and low tax collection rates, public finances in the Global South have gone into crisis. As the UN Conference on Trade and Development points out, “public finances have continued to be suffocated.” States simply cannot put together the funds needed to maintain basic state functions. Balanced budget rules make borrowing difficult, which is compounded by the fact that banks charge high rates for money, citing the risks of lending to indebted countries.
Step Seven: Deep Cuts in Social Spending.
Impossible to raise funds, trapped by the fickleness of international finance, governments are forced to make deep cuts in social spending. Education and health, food sovereignty and economic diversification—all this goes by the wayside. International agencies such as the IMF force countries to conduct “reforms,” a word that means the extermination of independence. Those countries that hold out face immense international pressure to submit under pain of extinction, as the Communist Manifesto (1848) put it.
Step Eight: Social Distress Leads to Migration.
The total number of migrants in the world is now at least 68.5 million. That makes the country called Migration the 21st-largest country in the world, after Thailand and ahead of the United Kingdom. Migration has become a global reaction to the collapse of countries from one end of the planet to the other. The migration out of Venezuela is not unique to that country but is now merely the normal reaction to the global crisis. Migrants from Honduras who go northward to the United States or migrants from West Africa who go toward Europe through Libya are part of this global exodus.
Step Nine: Who Controls the Narrative?
The monopoly corporate media take their orders from the elite. There is no sympathy for the structural crisis faced by governments from Afghanistan to Venezuela. Those leaders who cave to Western pressure are given a free pass by the media. As long as they conduct “reforms,” they are safe. Those countries that argue against the “reforms” are vulnerable to being attacked. Their leaders become “dictators,” their people hostages. A contested election in Bangladesh or in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in the United States is not cause for regime change. That special treatment is left for Venezuela.
Step Ten: Who’s the Real President?
Regime change operations begin when the imperialists question the legitimacy of the government in power: by putting the weight of the United States behind an unelected person, calling him the new president and creating a situation where the elected leader’s authority is undermined. The coup takes place when a powerful country decides—without an election—to anoint its own proxy. That person—in Venezuela’s case Juan Guaidó—rapidly has to make it clear that he will bend to the authority of the United States. His kitchen cabinet—made up of former government officials with intimate ties to the United States (such as Harvard University’s Ricardo Hausmann and Carnegie’s Moisés Naím)—will make it clear that they want to privatize everything and sell out the Venezuelan people in the name of the Venezuelan people.
Step Eleven: Make the Economy Scream.
Venezuela has faced harsh U.S. sanctions since 2014, when the U.S. Congress started down this road. The next year, U.S. President Barack Obama declared Venezuela a “threat to national security.” The economy started to scream. In recent days, the United States and the United Kingdom brazenly stole billions of dollars of Venezuelan money, placed the shackles of sanctions on its only revenue-generating sector (oil) and watched the pain flood through the country. This is what the United States did to Iran and this is what they did to Cuba. The UN says that the U.S. sanctions on Cuba have cost the small island $130 billion. Venezuela lost $6 billion for the first year of Trump’s sanctions, since they began in August 2017. More is to be lost as the days unfold. No wonder that the United Nations Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy says that “sanctions which can lead to starvation and medical shortages are not the answer to the crisis in Venezuela.” He said that sanctions are “not a foundation for the peaceful settlement of disputes.” Further, Jazairy said, “I am especially concerned to hear reports that these sanctions are aimed at changing the government of Venezuela.” He called for “compassion” for the people of Venezuela.
Step Twelve: Go to War.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton held a yellow pad with the words “5,000 troops in Colombia” written on it. These are U.S. troops, already deployed in Venezuela’s neighbor. The U.S. Southern Command is ready. They are egging on Colombia and Brazil to do their bit. As the coup climate is created, a nudge will be necessary. They will go to war.
None of this is inevitable. It was not inevitable to Titina Silá, a commander of the Partido Africano para a Independència da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) who was murdered on January 30, 1973. She fought to free her country. It is not inevitable to the people of Venezuela, who continue to fight to defend their revolution. It is not inevitable to Tricontinental: Institute for Social Change’s friends at CodePink: Women for Peace, whose Medea Benjamin walked into a meetingof the Organization of American States and said: No!
It is time to say “No” to regime change intervention. There is no middle ground.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Chief Editor of LeftWord Books. He is a Writing Fellow and Chief Correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He writes regularly for The Hindu, Frontline, Newsclick, and BirGün.
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