Election banners can't hide Costa Rica's economic crisis

Costa Ricans always launch their national elections with fanfare.

Horn-honking drivers screech through the streets in cars draped with the flags of their favored political parties. Banners on rooftops turn the city skyline into a rainbow of color.

Behind this year's festive celebrations, however, Costa Rica's 1 million voters are taking the Feb. 7 election very seriously.

Their next president will be called upon to bail the ''Switzerland of the Americas'' out of its worst economic crisis in recent history. He will also have to cope with rising terrorism, a major change from this country's once peaceful image. Restraining communist influence is another political issue.

The candidates are running a race against national bankruptcy in a country struggling with a $2.6 billion foreign debt.

Costa Rica, long a showplace of democratic prosperity in turbulent Central America, has an inflation rate of more than 50 percent, double that of l980.

The national currency has collapsed; the rate of exchange was 8.6 colons to the dollar in 1980, and last week it was 45 to the dollar. The average worker's 3,000-colon monthly salary has dropped in dollar value from $350 to $75.

Milk, sugar, flour, and beans are becoming scarce on supermarket shelves. As one San Jose office worker put it: ''If this continues, I'm going to have to go on a hunger strike -- whether I want to or not.''

An economic analysis by a New York investment firm suggests that Costa Rica's credit requirements will soar to more than $4 billion in the next five years. The government chose to forfeit a $350 million loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid austerity measures.

''We are facing the most difficult government in this century,'' admits National Liberation Party candidate Luis Alberto Monge, a virtual shoo-in in the Feb. 7 elections. ''It's going to be a tough two years ahead -- maybe more.''

Monge represents the chief opposition to President Rodrigo Carazo's Unity Party. Mr. Monge is expected to garner at least 55 percent of the vote. Unity Party candidate Rafael Calderon - hurting in the polls with his government's economic crisis - is expected to get about 20 percent of the vote.

Former Costa Rican President Mario Echandi, representing a business coalition called the National Movement Party, and Rodrigo Gutierrez, candidate of a coalition of leftist political groups, are expected to receive about 10 percent each.

Among the many causes for the country's economic plight are: high international interest rates, soaring oil prices, falling prices of Costa Rican exports, and substantial government spending on social service programs.

Foreign exchange from coffee, the chief export, has dwindled in the past five years. In 1977, a 100-pound sack produced enough foreign exchange to buy 13 barrels of oil. Today it's about three barrels. Banana, meat, sugar, and cocoa exports have not picked up the slack.

A January survey of 200 businesses by the university of Costa Rica indicated that a third of the nation's businesses were on the verge of bankruptcy.

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