Needless to say, this good example did not sit well with foreign business interests. It earned Figueres two coup attempts and one attempted assassination. He responded by abolishing the military (except for the Coast Guard), leaving even more revenues for social services and infrastructure.
When attempted coups and assassination failed, says Bidstrup, Costa Rica was brought down with a form of economic warfare called the “currency crisis” of 1982. Over just a few months, the cost of financing its external debt went from 3% to extremely high variable rates (27% at one point). As a result, along with every other Latin American country, Costa Rica was facing default. Bidstrup writes:
That’s when the IMF and World Bank came to town.
Privatize everything in sight, we were told. We had little choice, so we did. End your employment guarantee, we were told. So we did. Open your markets to foreign competition, we were told. So we did. Most of the former state-owned firms were sold off, mostly to foreign corporations. Many ended up shut down in a short time by foreigners who didn’t know how to run them, and unemployment appeared (and with it, poverty and crime) for the first time in a decade. Many of the local firms went broke or sold out quickly in the face of ruinous foreign competition. Very little of Costa Rica’s manufacturing economy is still locally owned. And so now, instead of earning forex [foreign exchange] through exporting locally produced goods and retaining profits locally, these firms are now forex liabilities, expatriating their profits and earning relatively little through exports. Costa Ricans now darkly joke that their economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the United States.
The dire effects of the IMF’s austerity measures were confirmed in a 1993 book excerpt by Karen Hansen-Kuhn titled “Structural Adjustment in Costa Rica: Sapping the Economy
.” She noted that Costa Rica stood out in Central America because of its near half-century history of stable democracy and well-functioning government, featuring the region’s largest middle class and the absence of both an army and a guerrilla movement. Eliminating the military allowed the government to support a Scandinavian-type social-welfare system that still provides free health care and education, and has helped produce the lowest infant mortality rate and highest average life expectancy in all of Central America.
In the 1970s, however, the country fell into debt when coffee and other commodity prices suddenly fell, and oil prices shot up. To get the dollars to buy oil, Costa Rica had to resort to foreign borrowing; and in 1980, the U.S. Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker raised interest rates to unprecedented levels.
In The Gods of Money (2009), William Engdahl fills in the back story. In 1971, Richard Nixon took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard, causing it to drop precipitously in international markets. In 1972, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon had a clandestine meeting with the Shah of Iran. In 1973, a group of powerful financiers and politicians met secretly in Sweden and discussed effectively “backing” the dollar with oil. An arrangement was then finalized in which the oil-producing countries of OPEC would sell their oil only in U.S. dollars. The quid pro quo was military protection and a strategic boost in oil prices. The dollars would wind up in Wall Street and London banks, where they would fund the burgeoning U.S. debt. In 1974, an oil embargo conveniently caused the price of oil to quadruple. Countries without sufficient dollar reserves had to borrow from Wall Street and London banks to buy the oil they needed. Increased costs then drove up prices worldwide.
By late 1981, says Hansen-Kuhn, Costa Rica had one of the world’s highest levels of debt per capita, with debt-service payments amounting to 60 percent of export earnings. When the government had to choose between defending its stellar social-service system or bowing to its creditors, it chose the social services. It suspended debt payments to nearly all its creditors, predominately commercial banks. But that left it without foreign exchange. That was when it resorted to borrowing from the World Bank and IMF, which imposed “austerity measures” as a required condition. The result was to increase poverty levels dramatically.
Bidstrup writes of subsequent developments:
Indebted to the IMF, the Costa Rican government had to sell off its state-owned enterprises, depriving it of most of its revenue, and the country has since been forced to eat its seed corn. No major infrastructure projects have been conceived and built to completion out of tax revenues, and maintenance of existing infrastructure built during that era must wait in line for funding, with predictable results.
About every year, there has been a closure of one of the private banks or major savings coöps. In every case, there has been a corruption or embezzlement scandal, proving the old saying that the best way to rob a bank is to own one. This is why about 80% of retail deposits in Costa Rica are now held by the four state banks. They’re trusted.
Costa Rica still has a robust economy, and is much less affected by the vicissitudes of rising and falling international economic tides than enterprises in neighboring countries, because local businesses can get money when they need it. During the credit freezeup of 2009, things went on in Costa Rica pretty much as normal. Yes, there was a contraction in the economy, mostly as a result of a huge drop in foreign tourism, but it would have been far worse if local business had not been able to obtain financing when it was needed. It was available because most lending activity is set by government policy, not by a local banker’s fear index.
Stability of the local economy is one of the reasons that Costa Rica has never had much difficulty in attracting direct foreign investment, and is still the leader in the region in that regard. And it is clear to me that state banking is one of the principal reasons why.
The value and importance of a public banking sector to the overall stability and health of an economy has been well proven by the Costa Rican experience. Meanwhile, our neighbors, with their fully privatized banking systems have, de facto, encouraged people to keep their money in Mattress First National, and as a result, the financial sectors in neighboring countries have not prospered. Here, they have—because most money is kept in banks that carry the full faith and credit of the Republic of Costa Rica, so the money is in the banks and available for lending. While our neighbors’ financial systems lurch from crisis to crisis, and suffer frequent resulting bank failures, the Costa Rican public system just keeps chugging along. And so does the Costa Rican economy.