Dateline: Friday 12 July, Chino’s Cantina
By Nick Dangier
I’m sitting at my usual position at my compa Chino’s bar, here in the picturesque (if not character rich) west side of Alajuela. There are a lot of patrons here for elleven- thirty-in-the- morning on a non- holiday weekday. Chino is beaming. I haven’t seen him this happy since the last time Alajuela’s soccer team won a national title. That’s going back. With Costa Rica’s economy in free fall, more and more people each day seem to be seeking comfort in the bottom half of a guaro shot. Having lost your job, or business, and with zip as far as prospects; what the hell would you do? I’d be looking to form up a northbound caravan. Or a rebel training camp.
“I don’t know what everybody is complaining about…” Says the middle aged cantinero. “ My sales have never been better”. Chino’s wide smile exposes tobacco stained teeth; the product of a forty-five-year, three-pack-a-day habit.
Hearing our conversation from the other end of the bar, the kid, Diego, who we all call “Gigi”, climbs down from his seat and moves to the open bar stool at my nine- o’clock.
“These goh-var-maynt is a shit!” The skinny kid with the baggy black tank top, exposing hand-to- neck revolutionary inspired tattoos, declares to anyone listening, as he plops down onto the bar stool to my immediate left. Being no taller than the bar stool, it is no small accomplishment. The first time I saw him in the joint I reamed out Chino for serving minors, until “the kid” showed me his cédula proving he was of age; even if he is the size of a typical American third grader. Besides his tiny-toon athletic ability, I was also impressed at how much his english has improved since my last visit. So I buy the kid a round. He clinks his Imperial bottle with my glass of Fuze peach ice tea. “Gracias, meester Nick”. He says.
“Drink up, Kiddo. Be somebody”. I answer in english adding a fatherly wink.
He might as well. With over one-hundred-thousand private sector jobs lost in Costa Rica (and rising steadily) since the administration of President Carlos Alvarado took power over a year ago, Gigi is going to have plenty of company. Who knows? Chino might even make enough to get his teeth capped.
Our fearless leader revealed a brief moment of honesty (accidentally) and obvious lack of self awareness, during his recent state-of-the-nation address to the country. He did manage to give us all a brief look behind the curtain when he exposed (as if we didn’t already know) where his government’s loyalty truely lies. At the front end of a long drawn out speech that would make Fidel Castro’s lifeless carcass blush, El Presidente said with no small amount of pride-almost arrogance- in his voice: “Whereas nations around the world are cutting government agencies and are shrinking their government sector workforce… (here is where his voice took on more treble- emotion)… Costa Rica has not decreased the size of government, by one iota, or let go one government worker, and our ‘social services’ (nobody at the bar could name even one) continue unabated!”
When I heard that ridiculous speech I couldn’t help but mentally envision Baghdad Bob, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, acting as Sadam’s press agent in an address to the Iraqi people, how U.S forces were being “crushed “ and were “ in full retreat”, even as forward elements of the 1st Marine Division were entering the Iraqi capital. Alvarado made that statement, mind you, amidst the greatest loss of jobs in modern Costa Rica history, and from within the very tax paying sector that provides his Royal Highness’s salary.
Our presidente is dedicated to reviving Costa Rica’s “struggling” economy. Just ask him, he’ll tell you. Of course saying that this country’s economy is struggling, is like saying the Titanic took on a little water. To prove his deep concern for the people he works for (in theory), his administration has actually added more people to the government pay roster and the shoulders of the average Jose- already bleeding- private sector guy and gal. Don’t worry though, intrepid reader, these new “expertos” are going to save us all. President Alvarado promises!
All this insanity follows suit with the new 21st century trend of doing and saying the reverse of what is practical, or even logical. You know, like the best way to lose weight and get in shape is to be inactive and to double-up on the jelly donuts, or the best way to show your wife how much you love her is to bang her sister on the living room couch during your wedding anniversary dinner at your in-laws. Or that going deeper into debt will get you out of debt, or that a country can tax itself into prosperity.
“Albino Vargas for presidente!” Gigi shouts from atop his bar stool, splashing beer foam all over the toothless crack whore standing beside him. She claps her hands approvingly as the kid waves his beer bottle around gesturing with his hands like Mussolini. I quickly shoot a glance at the liquor rack mirror to confirm that Chino’s Louisville slugger is where it usually is: just below the bartop directly in front of me. That’s why I sit here. It is there. Good. The way Gigi is getting wound up, I might have to use it. “Only Albino can save la patria!” The skinny wannabe Che Guevara bellows to the crowd. A few people cheer and one drunk vaquero in the back goes into a long guanacasteco style eardrum splitting whistle. I rise to my feet and coax the standing room only crowd into a thunderous chant of “VIVA ALBINO! VIVA ALBINO! VIVA ALBINO!” The whole building shakes from the synchronized stomping of feet.
Albino Vargas, for anybody who doesn’t live in Costa Rica (or lives in a cave) is one of Costa Rica’s Top Banana government worker union leaders of which there are dozens. Señor Vargas, who never met a news reporter whose leg he didn’t try to hump, is no doubt planning a future presidential bid himself. Costa Rica’s equivalent to Jimmy Hoffa has launched a masterful campaign of delusion, distraction, projection and diversion in his near daily op’-ed’s. In all three top national newspapers, on any given day, you will find a column written by Mr. Vargas where he jabbers on about the causes and solutions for this historic “crisis” where we currently find ourselves, here in this beautiful (geographically) slice of paradise we call “Puravidaville”.
Like those academic Mister and Mrs. Potatoheads- so called “economic experts”- little Albino can easily give you a list of ten-thousand ways to fix the economy, and never once list the one action that would actually work: #10,001- SHRINK THE SIZE OF GOVERNMENT. Class dismissed… You may pick up your diploma at the door.
It’s hard to say when the friendly bar banter about soccer scores and whether or not Keylor will be canonized by the Pope this year or next, changes to darker topics. Topics like where to hang those political “hijos de putas”. From trees, or from lamp posts? Lamp posts are much more public and really send a message, but require a ladder. It is doubtful to me, judging by their words and deeds, that Costa Rica’s social and political elite have a clue what is coming. For now I’m keeping my weapons permit current, and my position at the bar close to Chino’s well weathered baseball bat.
I think back to something one of my instructors told me a lifetime ago. He was talking about the mental strength neccessary to survive extreme circumstances: “Kid”, He said. “It’s like making love to a gorilla… It ain’t over ’til the gorilla says so”. My going on the wagon may have been a bit premature.