SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – A few decades back I worked for a call center in Great Falls – everything from appliance warranties to Visa cards to trouble-shooting computer and satellite TV problems.
At the same time I was teaching my son to drive a stick shift on the graveled mountain backroads of Western Montana.
I came up with an in-house computer joke: “If my son goes over a cliff, do we call it an ‘upgrade’ or a ‘migration’?”
The information highway of the Costa Rican Ministry of Education (MEP) has upgraded, migrated, downloaded and otherwise catapulted over a cliff, leaving about 20,000 of the nation´s 70,000 public-school teachers payless for months.
In the nationalized public education system all teachers get direct deposit. In this allegedly Third World country cell phones abound. In addition to phone calls (texting is preferred, and cheaper), Costa Ricans use their touch screens to pay utility bills and mortgages, even bus fare.
ATMs are a must. Most Ticos are paid on the first and 15th of the month. So one of my favorite pastimes while waiting in line at the ATM in the last days before payday is watching Costa Ricans in the ATM booth, starting withdrawals at 50,000 colones ($100) and ratcheting down until they have a winning balance.
Another saying I invented in my computer days was: “If the system starts spitting stuff out in Sanskrit, we will outsource for someone to teach us all Sanskrit.”
We never blame the system – unless it’s the old system.
After the teachers of much of Costa Rica went out on strike May 5, the former minister of education, Leopoldo Garnier, had to call a couple of press conferences since the 67-member National Assembly ignored his pleas to be called to testify.
The diputados had bigger tilapias to fry – not the 8 percent unemployment rate, not the influence of foreign drug lords in the court system, not the fish-poaching and illegal Japanese shark-finning on Costa Rican high seas.
But they did take a preliminary vote to give themselves a raise.
And the teachers took to the streets, blocking major routes in downtown San Jose, the road to the airport and key routes headed for the nation’s 1,100 miles of beaches and dozens of volcanoes and national parks.
The constitution allows for only a single, four-year presidential term, yet Mr. Garnier had served for eight years as director of education. He oversaw (but did not fix) the old pay system, and bought the new $4.8 million Integra2 system, developed by a Spanish company and installed by a Costa Rican firm.
Apparently there was no warranty.
“It is not a matter of the system … . The technical aspect is OK,” said Mr. Garnier, adding that the government had tested the new system 1,600 times in various scenarios before putting it on line.
In his meet-the-press performance, the silver-maned Mr. Garnier laid out a few smokescreens regarding the old system.
He cited a case where one teacher continued to get his pay even after his death in 1973. Over the years, he said, some 235 deceased docents got around $23.5 million in post-mortem benefits - including the aguinaldo (extra month’s pay received just before Christmas).
Even when a death is reported, he added, it might take the MEP’s understaffed human resources department 90 days to change the information and stop the payments.
Mr. Garnier, along with others at MEP headquarters, did continue to get paid, but it is not known whether such errors were corrected or merely migrated over.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Speaking of garbage, the incoming president, history prof Luis Guillermo Solis, compared the country he inherited to “una hacienda encharralada” - a trashed property. Fitting, but not quite like the “pura vida” (pure life) slogan everybody uses.
Someone once called Montana “a Third-World country where everybody speaks English and you can drink the water.” In Costa Rica you can drink the water and the typical Southern Zone resident has spent a few years working legally, usually in New Jersey, so speaks English – albeit perhaps with a “Sopranos” accent.
You could fit Costa Rica – and its 4.8 million inhabitants – into an area the size of Montana’s Hi-Line counties.
With a yearly per-capita income of about $9,600, Costa Rica is one of the richer countries in Latin America – although a 13 percent sales tax on just about everything has a leveling effect.
Montana ranks in the mid-40s among the 50 states in terms of prosperity at about $38,000 per capita (wait, I don´t know anybody who makes that much). That is about half of what a Costa Rican diputado makes.
Montanans and Costa Ricans share a common fate in outlanders (Californians frequently mentioned in both cases) buying up prime lands generations of locals may have lusted for.
“It’s all for sale” might be a more apt slogan than “pura vida.”
But you can eat the scenery in Costa Rica. Bananas, oranges and avocados are within a few steps of the door of my cabin on the un-trashed finca-resort where I live.
Sometimes, it is a race with wild birds, monkeys and who knows what matter of nocturnal fauna to be the first to reap this fat of the land.
I suppose unpaid teachers will be the next competitors on this food chain.
Former lifelong Montanan T.J. Gilles resides on the Costa Rica-Panama border. Much of the information cited here was retrieved – practically for free – from the Internet via a $70 Chinese cell phone using a phone system owned and operated by the Costa Rican government.