Learning from the best: how environmentally-friendly policies were unleashed in a small Latin American country.

Much of the news streaming from Central America stems from issues related to the northern triangle. Specifically, headlines often discuss the drug trade and subsequent crime that causes Honduran, Guatemala, and El Salvadoran residents to migrate north to the United States. And sometimes those stories include the much needed unveiling of the work that our government has done in prior decades to destabilize the region and hasten such migration.

But what gets less attention is a small jewel in area, beloved by many progressives despite its existing far away from the praised Nordic countries. The country sports some of the best environmentalist policies, has abandoned its standing army, prides itself for its political stability, and sports the lowest poverty rates in Latin America with an expanding GDP.

Reversing the trend of deforestation, the country of almost 5 million derives almost all of its electricity from clean hydropower and has protected about one-third of its natural resources from extractive or exploitative pursuits. Now, it plans to electrify everything, especially its cars, buses and trains. I’m speaking, of course, about Costa Rica.

But since the obstacles to transitioning to a greener economy had been so large — including the opportunities to exploit low-cost fossil fuels — the question becomes why: what catalyzed Costa Rica to transition away from dirtier emissions?

Politics Comes First

The story of Costa Rica’s expanded use of hydroelectricity and other renewables, enabling the country toward a green revolution much more quickly than its northern neighbors, has a lot to do with one institution: ICE. (No, not the detaining and deporting body of the U.S.) The ICE in this story is the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, or the electrical utility organization.

In the 1940s, grass roots organizers and intellectuals gathered to fight corporate interests in the electrical sphere. The push came from deep ties to its civil society, particularly from a variety of labor union activists. The result: the country’s leaders nationalized electricity, and improved upon a failing system. In other words, electricity became an entity divorced from profit, beholden to the interests of the general public according to the country’s constitution.

But one interesting quirk in this institutions story is the fact that it has a degree of autonomy from state government. That is, according to the country’s constitution, it enjoys “political and administrative independence from the State.” Consequently, it’s not mired in electoral battles and is able to engage in its own long-term interests while maintaining the explicit aim of helping the public. Its electrification body later allowed for the branching off of a few electrical cooperatives, which all helped to electrify rural areas — a system partially influenced by developments in FDR’s 1940s U.S.

Since that time, ICE has become so popular that decades later in the 2000s, when the legislature tinkered with introducing the privatization of the electrical system, thousands of people ­ — led mainly by students and environmental groups — protested, thus stopping the bill’s passage.

Costa Rica has a lot of other things going for it: it’s one of the most literate countries, which is backed by an emphasis on reading and education, especially for rural residents, stemming from a push in the late 19thcentury. What’s more, as of a few years ago, Costa Rica had more gender parity in its politics than the U.S., with 45.6% of women representing the country’s lower House compared to America’s 23.5%. Costa Rica is also one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, which, in the mid 20th century constrained the interests and representation of the rural bourgeoise.

All of these things, cumulatively, have made it easier to avoid corruption, including the easy payouts from corporations in the fossil fuel industry. Nonetheless, the United States has a lot to learn from the tiny Latin American country’s public utility system.

Up here in the north, we have a sprawling system of local and state laws that allow for various companies or public entities to control utilities. Sometimes that has yielded nonprofit cooperatives and municipalities that, in addition to offering more reliable electricity, have an easier time transitioning to cleaner technologies. And sometimes, as is seen in Michigan and California, states and localities have succumbed to monopolistic utility corporations, leading to a more destabilized energy grid and dirtier emissions.

With Costa Rica’s public utility organization as a guide, it’s hard to deny the results of a cleaner, more fuel-efficient world. It’s certainly easy to imagine what sort of good a similar institution could do in the U.S.

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