CITIZENS of Costa Rica, the only working democracy in Central America, cna be forgiven for wondering if they must surrender their pride and uniqueness in order to get a bit of attention from the United States. Certainly it seems that way. Costa Rica lies in a region accustomed to being on the receiving end of heavy doses of American influence. When Costa Ricans look north now, however, they see a Washington transfixed by Central American states in various stages of revolution -- post (Nicaragua), mid (El Salvador) or pre (Guatemala). Without a brewing revolution of its own, Costa Rica must make its way feeling that its natural patron has other things than preserving democracy on its mind.
Not that violence is unknown there. In recent months, acts of terror have been committed by elements, mostly leftist, abusing the country's loose democratic structure in the way that similar but far more powerful elements abused and finally destroyed democracy in Uruguay. There is widespread dismay at this evidence that the violence endemic elsewhere in Central America is seeping into a country that for 30-odd years has regarded itself as an oasis of order and civility.
But Costa Rica's principal difficulties, most peolple agree, lie elsewhere: in a relentless deterioration fed by escalating oil costs. falling coffee price and the resulting need for an IMF austerity program that bites mercilessly into public services. So far the argument over responsibility for this collection of misfortunes remains centered in the political arena: the current election campaign is a beaut. ybut it is being asked whether the tensions outside Costa Rica's borders and the pressures inside will let the country keep to this path.
The Latin left and the left in the United States pay heed to Costa Rica from time to time. They suggest, for instance, dishonestly and cruelly, that it is only at Washington's bidding that the country has taken certain modest measures to prevent its hospitality from being exploited by Cuban and Soviet diplomats and by itinerant Central American revolutionaries.
In fact, Costa Rica, having neither a Communist insurgency nor an army, is scarcely on the Reagan administration's Latin map. The place gets an occasional rhetorical bow for having run elections uninteruptedly since 1948, but there is no acknowledgment of the strains it is under, no offer of aid and no recognition of the importance of preserving democracy in one of its hardiest hemispheric outposts. Surely Costa Rica deserves better.