If all refugee sagas unfolded in sunny Costa Rica, they could have happy endings.
When turmoil and civil strife wracked Central America in the 1980s, Costa Rica -- a country of more than 3.5 million people -- absorbed 400,000 refugees, mainly from Nicaragua. Last November, that small nation granted these refugees legal residence status, giving them access to medical benefits, schools, employment and full citizenship in five years. It was the equivalent of the United States issuing 30 million green cards, according to Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica's ambassador here.
But when 200,000 more refugees arrived after Hurricane Mitch last fall, the influx taxed Costa Rica's health care system, schools and general services. "We did not suffer any material destruction, but we got the social impact. . . . We don't have borders in the same sense you visualize borders," said the ambassador.
But another happy ending may be in the cards. Last month Congress allocated $130 million to help settle the refugee problem in Central America in the wake of the Hurricane Mitch disaster. The only country specified by name in that bill was Costa Rica, which has applied for $100 million of those funds.
Another issue Daremblum is pushing -- along with other Caribbean basin diplomats -- is to acquire some of the free-trade advantages that Washington accords Mexico for tariffs levied on exports to the United States. In Costa Rica, tariff breaks would boost the textile industry, for example, creating a demand for American machinery and spare parts and generating employment that would mean less illegal immigration to the United States, he continued.
"If we cannot provide employment for all the refugees from Hurricane Mitch, there are not going to be just 20,000 Kosovars in the United States but hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans," he said. Costa Rica and other Caribbean basin countries "need improved trade opportunities in the United States to solve that problem."
You've Got a Friend in Slovakia
Martin Butora, Slovakia's ambassador here, is in a race against time.
Butora is a sociologist and author who has written about political culture and evolution. His views emerged from his work in one of the islands of what he calls "positive deviancy," a movement that resisted communism in Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia soon after the fall of Communist rule.
Now Butora is actively trying to get post-Communist Slovakia to catch up with its neighbors. In 13 weeks on the job, he has spent at least six weeks on state visits, World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring sessions, the NATO summit and knocking on doors -- all to put Slovakia back on the global agenda now that Vladimir Meciar -- who clung to communist suspicions about the West, free trade and international organizations -- is no longer in power. "We missed out on the momentum," he said.
A remedial package for economic restructuring, an austerity program and lower corporate tax systems to encourage investments are before parliament, and the new government is actively approaching churches, nongovernmental organizations and trade unions to put together a "social stability pact" to alleviate the impact of those reforms on ordinary Slovaks, he said.
"The man on the street will not benefit in the coming months but in the visible future. . . . You simply have to do surgery," Butora said.
He said the World Bank is open to helping with structural strategic assistance in this critical period. Slovakia, however, is still "heavily undercapitalized," he said, receiving 12 times less international investment than Hungary since 1989. "We have done our homework, now we have to work like workaholics," he said.
The Slovak mind-set is slowly changing, he explained, from the time of socialist modernization when industrial monoculture dictated life from birth to one's final days. "It gave everything and took everything. There was no capitalist spirit. Now people are asking for foreign investment," he added. Now there are cell phones and ATM machines in Slovakia, and the three factors of change, he said, are coming together: a pluralistic political regime, market reforms and the forging of a new cultural and ethnic identity.
The most pivotal experience in Butora's career was a stint from 1977 to 1988 as a therapist in a clinic for alcoholics, he said. "It was fascinating, and one of the strongest experiences of my life," he said of the interaction with people from all walks of life -- artists, blue-collar workers and establishment types. He drew two lessons from that experience.
First, he said, "I saw so many people who came through the return of the prodigal son. You did something stupid, but now you can change. I perceived these societies as those who returned from the experience of communism, which was a mistake. It had some illusions, some dreams which proved to be wrong. It was the human potential to recover and mobilize one's internal resources and to realize what a gift it was to be free."
Second, those who came through his clinic went on to organize self-help groups, which helped them develop organizational and other skills that eventually helped topple communism.