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The Costa Rican Catholic Church, Social Justice, and the Rights of Workers, 1979-1996

Interview with Dana Sawchuk

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How did you come to be interested in Costa Rica and the issue of workers’ rights there?

As a university student in Winnipeg in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was very involved in Central American solidarity and support work and very interested in the role that some members of the Catholic Church were playing in the struggles for justice in the region. In 1993, I decided it was time to go to Central America to see for myself what was happening and to see if I could contribute in some small way to the process of social change going on there. Through a series of events I ended up in Costa Rica, and I worked there for a year as a volunteer English and environmental education teacher in the public schools of a banana plantation. Aside from the temperature changes - I left Winnipeg in January! - what shocked me most about my time on the plantation were the conditions experienced by the workers. Long hours of physical labour in the tropical lowlands are hard enough, but these people also were exposed to large amounts of agro-chemicals both in the fields and in their villages. For example, a small plane would fly overhead and drop pesticides everywhere on a regular basis. Though the chemicals were obviously meant for the banana plants, unavoidably the powder would waft into peoples’ small farming plots, their schoolyards, and their rivers. As a result both adults and children experienced a higher than usual rate of health problems. Now you might think that under such conditions the workers would be prime candidates for trade union organizing, but there was a definite anti-trade union bias amongst the workers, a bias that seemed to be supported by some of the national Catholic Church’s statements. Interestingly, when I returned to Canada and tried to read more about this situation, I found a lot of material on the Church in other parts of Latin America, but almost nothing on the Church and social justice in Costa Rica. So the book grew out of both my experiences in Costa Rica and my awareness that very few people outside of Costa Rica itself were writing on these topics.

Your experiences on the banana plantation aside, isn’t Costa Rica supposed to be a relatively stable and prosperous nation overall?

I guess the key word there would be “relative.” Yes, Costa Rica is relatively well off in comparison to countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, which undoubtedly have experienced much worse social and economic conditions and greater political instability over the last few decades. But, Costa Ricans have a saying, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” In other words, just because things aren’t as bad as they could be, it doesn’t mean that everything is fine. Costa Ricans endured a severe socio-economic crisis in the few years after 1978, the effects of which were compounded by government mismanagement and the incurring of a huge external debt. In order to solve its problems, the government adopted so-called neo-liberal or structural adjustment policies in the years that followed. This meant that by the early 1990s, unemployment and inflation had skyrocketed, and much of Costa Rica’s once enviable health and social service system had been decimated by cutbacks. During this time, though there was no civil war or revolutionary agitation in Costa Rica, many people did react to such conditions and challenged the government by taking to the streets in protest, by refusing to pay their utility bills, or by squatting on farmland owned by large corporations. In terms of workers’ rights more specifically, even though Costa Rica is considered a democratic nation that grants its citizens the right to strike and to form unions, once again things are not as they seem. In reality, most strikes are declared illegal and union members are often subject to persecution and harassment. Part of my aim in the book, then, is to challenge some of the widely-held notions about Costa Rican stability and prosperity and to show people that the country is more than just an eco-tourism hotspot or beach-lovers’ paradise.

We often hear about liberation theology in discussions of Latin American Christianity. Do you discuss the role that this type of “radical religion” plays in the Costa Rican Catholic Church in your book?

Not exactly. In my book I am concerned with official Catholic Social Teaching on social justice and workers’ rights, and with how different officials within the Costa Rican Church interpret and apply such teachings as they minister to workers and their families. Catholic Social Teaching generally comes out in papal encyclicals or in the documents of bishops’ councils such as Vatican II; it also comes from the conferences held by the Latin American Conference of Bishops. Liberation theology is not official Catholic Social Teaching, since it generally emanates from a much lower level of the Church. Now, undoubtedly, liberation theology has had an impact on official Catholic Social Teaching (and vice versa), and I discuss in the book how some of the official teachings are more “liberationist” than others. But - and here is where by analysis differs from that of certain other scholars on the topic - I would argue that much of the Catholic Social Teaching commonly assumed to be liberationist is in fact quite conservative in nature, that truly liberationist Catholic Social Teaching has actually been the exception rather than the rule over the past century. On top of this, though liberation theology definitely has had some effect on the Costa Rican Church over the years, the Church agents who are involved in defining and defending workers’ rights in Costa Rica actually refer more to the official teachings and documents than to liberation theology anyway. All of which is to say that though I use many of the categories and critiques common to liberation theology in the book, the book is really not about liberation theology per se.

So does this mean then that the workers’ pastorate of the Costa Rican Church falls fairly close to the official Vatican line?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, we can see that the Church documents related to workers and their rights and the Church agents who are involved in setting up programming for workers generally cite the same Vatican teachings over and over again. On the other hand, the way that they interpret and apply such teachings in the Costa Rican context differs dramatically from case to case. In the book I try to show the process through which this occurs by examining four particular Church bodies - the national Church as a whole (represented by the bishops’ conference), the Church in Limón region (one of the poorest areas in the country), and two lower-level Church agencies run by priests. In each case, we can see how the socio-economic context and class alliances, locations within the institutional church, and the complexities of Catholic Social Teaching itself all combine to produce a workers’ pastorate that falls on a unique spot on the “liberationist-conservative continuum.”