Outsourcing law and order

US troops to come to Costa Rica as Laura Chinchilla, the country’s first ever female president, is f

When Laura Chinchilla won office in February, it seemed that the thorniest challenge facing Costa Rica's first-ever presidenta would be scraping together the funds for the crackdown on public security she had promised on the campaign trail. Two months later, the Costa Rican legislature voted to host up to 7,000 US marines for six months, solving Chinchilla's problem of delivering her law-and-order platform without emptying state coffers.

The controversial vote reauthorised the 1999 joint patrol between the US Coast Guard and Costa Rican police to fight narcotrafficking and provide so-called humanitarian support. Propped up by Chinchilla's centre-right PLN, the measure passed by a vote of 31-8 in spite of a walkout staged by six deputies attempting to break quorum and prevent the vote.

A week later the opposition PUSC party challenged the law's constitutionality in the Supreme Court. They argue that Costa Rica's constitution bans not just the establishment of a military, but also any occupation by foreign troops.

The US flotilla will include aircraft carriers, destroyers, fighter jets and nearly as many troops as Haiti received after the severest humanitarian crisis the region ever suffered (they will also stay in Costa Rica for longer). This year President Barack Obama signed agreements allowing US troops to occupy bases in Colombia and Panama.

The US government has not commented on Costa Rica's decision.

More perplexing than the motives behind US geopolitical posturing in the Caribbean is what Latin America's oldest, most proudly pacifist democracy hopes to gain from this partnership. Though Costa Rica remains one of the safest countries in Latin America, several recent high-profile cases of narcotrafficking have inflamed public fears that the drug violence plaguing its neighbours may prove contagious.

Last month, the Mexican authorities confirmed the identity of 14 suspects detained in Costa Rica as members of the Familia Michoacana, moving South American drugs through Costa Rica. Reports of local drug seizures fill the dailies and some residents complain of violence spreading in the underbelly of San José.

To an electorate worried about deteriorating law and order, Laura Chinchilla, Oscar Arias's vice-minister of public security from 1994, seemed like the perfect candidate. After her inauguration in May, she duly promised a crackdown on crime within her first 100 days in office, but the state's never-ending fiscal crisis ruled out investment in the inept police force.

Keen to remain a Latin American favourite of the IMF and international investors, Costa Rican politicians compete to outdo each other in their commitment to fiscal prudence, impairing the state's effectiveness. A recent World Bank report blames a lack of political consensus for the legislature's sluggishness in tackling rampant tax evasion, resulting in low tax revenue and "fiscal vulnerability". Lack of investment in infrastructure and social services threatens to undermine the country's development.

More than 60 days into Chinchilla's first 100, the Joint Patrol agreement seemed like the perfect escape from fiscal constraints. The wave of panic over drug violence that Chinchilla rode to victory two months ago has guaranteed widespread quiescence about the inflammatory decision.

"It's better to have US soldiers walking around the country than hitmen and drug traffickers," reasoned the anti-drugs commissioner Mauricio Boraschi.

The Joint Patrol gives the United States a disturbing space to pursue its geopolitical goals in Latin America. But the greater threat to Costa Rican sovereignty is a state so feeble and so preoccupied with fiscal discipline that it must continue to outsource its obligation to provide security for its citizens to its aggressive northern neighbour.

The danger of the Joint Patrol, like any drug problem, is that this political quick fix will develop into dependency.

Samantha Eyler Reid is a research associate for the North American Congress on Latin America and writes about Latin American and Hispanic American politics for nacla.org. She recently finished her MSc in comparative politics of Latin America at the London School of Economics.

Show Hide image

Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.