Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Costa Rica is happy — but not too much

The new United Nations’ World Happiness Report ranks Costa Rica among the happiest countries on earth, and as the happiest one in Latin America. So when I interviewed Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis this week, I couldn’t help asking him why there is so much discontent in his country.

According to the U.N. World Happiness Report, based among other things on a Gallup poll in 158 countries asking people about their levels of happiness, the happiest countries in the world are Switzerland (1), Iceland (2), Denmark (3), Norway (4) and Canada (5). Costa Rica (12) is the top-ranked Latin American country, and is listed three places above the United States (15).

Asked how he explains the fact that his country — one of Latin America’s most stable and democratic ones, but not among the world’s richest — ranked so well, Solis told me that Costa Rica has a “virtuous combination” of democratic stability, no armed forces —they were banned in 1948 — a relatively good social security system and an economy based on small businesses. All of this has helped the country improve its living standards over more than a century, he said.

So why are other domestic polls in Costa Rica showing high levels of unhappiness? I asked him. A recent poll by the University of Costa Rica’s Center of Research and Political Studies (CIEP) showed that a whopping 60.6 percent of Costa Ricans think that the country is doing “badly” or “very badly.”

Among other things, there is a lingering racial dispute over a school book titled Cocori, which some Afro-Costa Ricans consider racist, and growing public dissatisfaction over lack of good professional jobs for university graduates despite an expected 3.4 percent economic growth this year. “I think that societies have become increasingly demanding, and they have the right to be so,” Solis said. “People are better informed on issues such as lack of transparency in government, generalized corruption and growing inequality.”

He added, “The fact that a country is happy does not mean that it’s perfect, and Costa Rica is still very imperfect. We have a lot of work to do.”

On the debate over the Cocori school book, Solis told me that it’s a popular Costa Rican children’s book first published in 1947, which should be read keeping in mind the time in which it was written. While there is still racism in Costa Rica, as in many other nations, the debate over this book has been taking place for more than a decade, and doesn’t reflect an increase in racism, he said.

On other issues, Solis told me he is fully implementing the decree he signed shortly after taking office a year ago, which prohibits government offices from displaying his picture, or inaugural plaques of public works to carry his name. In a region where presidents go out of their way — and spend millions — to promote their images, Solis’ anti-personality cult decree made headlines around the world.

“It’s being implemented rigorously,” he said. “Even in kind of private places, such as special VIP rooms at the airport, there is not one single picture of the president.”

Manuel Orozco, a Central American expert with Harvard University’s Center for International Development and with the Washington, D.C., Inter-American Dialogue think tank, describes Costa Rica’s current mood as one of “discontent.”

“The country is growing very well, but economic growth is not always translating into better living standards,” Orozco said. He added that the cost of living in Costa Rica has risen sharply in recent years, to the point that foodstuffs such as eggs and tomatoes cost as much as in Washington, D.C., while Costa Rican salaries are much lower.

And yet, Orozco said that, after 15 years of living in Washington, he is seriously considering moving with his Costa Rica-born wife to Costa Rica. “If you are a professional working in your field, you have a better quality of life in Costa Rica than in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

My opinion: Costa Rica may be suffering growth pains — the inevitable disruptions that happen when a country grows too fast — or may be affected by the fact that its people have started comparing themselves with residents of the world’s richest countries, and find themselves less fortunate. Whatever it is, Costa Rica — without an army and without pictures of a maximum leader everywhere — is doing significantly better than Latin America’s populist countries.