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Opinion: A Costa Rican visitor’s first snow, and other beasts that came in from the cold in Colorado

Before leaving Costa Rica for Colorado, I was told to “try everything” it had to offer. I took the challenge seriously.

I caught a tour bus to try the snow in the Rocky Mountains, came down with a sore throat to try your health care system and even got to try an Arapahoe County voting center on Election Day. Stay calm, voter-fraud speculators: I didn’t vote.

A health care system that can reject you, the necessity of voter registration, felons with revoked voting rights, and a freaking high-country blizzard — I encountered all of these situations for the very first time in your state.

I’m an investigative journalist who came to The Colorado Sun as part of an exchange program. If you’re reading this, then I’ve already moved on to a conference in Washington, D.C., before heading home.

I hope that what happens in Colorado stays in Colorado, though. Not because I overused my Grindr during my time here, but because back in Costa Rica I would never give my opinion. I’m a journalist, not a commentator.

Nevertheless, I strongly feel that in the same way I found in your state pieces of the solution to the journalistic issues that brought me there, you might find in my Costa Rican experience something useful to address some of the situations you’re facing as Coloradans.

An ice cream of a blizzard

Giving Leonardo DiCaprio a run for his money while facing a blizzard at Rocky Mountain National Park on Nov. 3, 2018. (Ernesto Núñez Chacón, La Doble Tracción)

I had never seen snow and didn’t expect to. October was supposed to be fall, Colorado! I didn’t expect to find you covered in more white powder than Steven Tyler’s nose during the ’80s. I couldn’t resist touching the snow while walking downtown. I couldn’t resist the subsequent frostbite, either. In Costa Rica, winter comes as often as Martians come to Earth.

The blizzard was a first, too. I didn’t know I had “The Revenant” in me, but good thing I did. Arty, our tour guide on a trip to Estes Park, warned us that we might not want to step out of the bus, given the amount of snow coming our way. It truly looked like Storm was attacking us (Comic book Storm. Halle Berry’s movie version was awful.) However, the dozen tourists he supervised decided to face the cold. Who wouldn’t want to meet Storm?

Some of my fellow tourists regretted stepping out. I, on the other hand, came back into the bus energized. To me, it was like walking into Narnia minus the White Witch trying to kill you.

For a couple of moments I just stood there skeptically contemplating images I had seen only on Google, or in “Frozen” while Elsa was letting it go. They looked unreal, but they weren’t anymore. This blizzard, however, was cool, soothing ice cream compared to the cold shoulder I felt from your health care system.

READ:Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Health care was as cozy as ice in my underwear

My plan worked. I got a sore throat and found myself having to use private health insurance for the first time. Most Costa Ricans, or “Ticos,” use the universal public health care system, which covers 94 percent of our population, or they go straight to a private doctor without insurance because it’s not that expensive. My family doctor charges around $50 for the consultation, and you go back for free as many times as necessary until you recover.

Copays were a first for me, too. They seem to me like a car insurance deductible. What am I? A Transformer? My copay was $75 for urgent care and $25 for a non-emergency visit to a family-practice doctor. Being on a budget, I tried to get one. Plus, I didn’t want to risk getting worse. The only drug in Colorado that interested me was weed, not antibiotics.

Actually, I don’t smoke at all. However, The Sun’s editor thinks that the party bus I took to a concert at Red Rocks (which was an ear-gasm by the way) was the cause of my sore throat. Too much secondhand smoke from too many people for far too long. Good thing I didn’t drink from the IV bags full of liquor that they brought (#truestory.)

I called the three family doctors closest to my downtown hotel. The first one never picked up. The voicemail said she worked on Mondays. Well, apparently not that Monday. The second one told me he wasn’t receiving any new patients. That didn’t make sense to me at all. The third one wouldn’t take my health insurance.

Those three things were firsts for me, and not lovely firsts. In Costa Rica, a doctor who doesn’t pick up the phone is frighteningly unprofessional. One who rejects a new patient is unheard of. The mere possibility of being rejected in so many different ways by the health care system felt dehumanizing. Health care is a human right, and therefore the only pre-existing condition to access it is to be human.

Fortunately, I could pay for the urgent care, but I still wonder what would be expected from someone who couldn’t? Is that person supposed to ride out the sore throat? To risk getting worse? They told me that most would then go to the ER, but if a sore throat is now an emergency, then a broken arm is a zombie apocalypse.

Back home, I’m used to people being able to see their private or public doctor on the same day. Either way, you would have to wait hours to get checked, but to be honest the approximate waiting time of my urgent care was three hours. It doesn’t matter where. Sitting for so much time is prison … or a future hemorrhoid.

A crime doesn’t turn you into a rat

Learning that Coloradans in prison do not have the right to vote was another first for me. Let alone ex-felons in some states. I’m used to all public retirement homes, mental institutions and prisons being polling stations during elections.

One of our televised presidential debates was inside Costa Rica’s biggest prison, La Reforma. I’ve interviewed ex-felons who have gone back to the prison where they served time in order to vote, because they just hadn’t had the time to change their registration.

Carlos Alvarado, now president of Costa Rica, during a town-hall style presidential debate at the prison of La Reforma in November 2017. (SINART)

According to Costa Rican law, prison limits your freedom to move, but not the rest of your liberties such as your right to vote. This is not a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. You don’t turn into a rat — not when you become a felon, and definitely not after doing your time.

The goal of the prison system is to rehabilitate felons. They should leave it ready to reinsert themselves into society as responsible and productive citizens. That includes the ability to fully participate in democracy.  If the system is not accomplishing rehabilitation, then it’s the system that’s ratting on us.

According to Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court, with some exceptions, such as crimes against children, people who have done their time have the right for their crimes to be forgotten.

After a certain period of time, the government wipes clean the public records so they don’t affect ex-felons, who often suffer discrimination when they rejoin society. Not allowing people to move on from crimes they already paid for is to make them prisoners of their past.

Voter registry and other causes of brain freeze

The last first I’ll mention is your midterm elections. I found the system so different that I felt like Penny trying to understand Sheldon Cooper on Season 1 of “Big Bang Theory.” Gerrymandering, ballot initiatives, propositions, amendments, a national Senate, a state Senate. … So much new stuff. Plus voter registration!

In Costa Rica, when you turn 18 you’re automatically registered by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in the closest polling station to your home. You show your national ID and the officials check if you’re in the official voters register for that station.

An argument I heard against this was the fear of undocumented people voting, but how could they vote without a national ID? And what’s the problem with a national ID? Let’s be real. The government already has your information. They’re like the Eye of Sauron.

During our last elections we had 3,322,329 registered voters and 2,139 polling stations, including 96 in indigenous territories and one on Coco Island, a national park 331 miles from Costa Rica’s coast, where no one lives but 25 park officers. Our voter turnout tends to be around 70 percent..

The Organization of American States has commended Costa Rica’s electoral system for its peacefulness and efforts to help voters cast their ballots.

Unlike Colorado, Costa Rica doesn’t mail ballots, which could increase voter participation. However, I was surprised to learn that you had only 297 polling stations for midterm elections. Colorado has around the same population as Costa Rica but is spread across a territory 5-times bigger.

Your ballot initiatives messed with my head — in a good way. I learned about them when I visited Colorado’s Secretary of State.

We don’t have ballot initiatives in Costa Rica, although we do have referendums, but you need the support of 5 percent of the registered voters in order to summon one. That’s over 160,000 people, or 17 Red Rocks Amphitheatres filled to capacity. In my lifetime of 26 years, I recall only one referendum.

One Secretary of State official told me she didn’t think marijuana would’ve been legalized in any other way but through a ballot initiative. That made me reflective. Ballot measures seem to be a way in which citizens take back the power they once delegated in order to govern themselves on certain topics.

I find that quite democratic, and it makes me question how many debates Costa Rica might settle once and for all if referendums were as accessible as ballot initiatives in Colorado.

But here’s where I get conflicted because there are some issues that are not to be decided by majority votes — like the rights of minorities. In Costa Rica, a referendum on marriage equality was declared unconstitutional based on that same reasoning.

Ciao (Costa Ricans say bye in Italian, too)

Along with dozens of people, sympathizers of five different candidates went out to the streets in Costa Rica to celebrate on Election Day in February 2018. (Twitter)

As midterms came to an end, so did my time in Colorado. Much as you cite your 300 days of sunshine, Costa Ricans celebrate their elections as a “civic party.” People are encouraged to express themselves not only by voting but through color, balloons, T-shirts, wigs … even inside a polling station. If you were to see one on Election Day, you’d think it’s Pride Day. It is. It’s civic pride day.

Nevertheless, our countries’ sunshine must not blind us to the coldness they can harbor. Rather, it should enlighten us to deal with those beasts that rest in the coldest and least humane corners of ourselves.

Colorado’s and Costa Rica’s challenges are different. The sun hits us in different ways, and thus coldness takes different forms. However, just like The Colorado Sun sheds light in dark places through people’s stories, we must, as world citizens, reflect our sunlight on each other by sharing our experiences. More often than not, all it takes to find a solution is to look at the beast in a different light.

Lighting is everything. I learned that the hard way with my high school yearbook picture.

Ernesto Núñez Chacón is a transmedia Costa Rican journalist and professional fellow from the U.S. Department of State and the International Center for Journalists. You can follow him at @ErnestoNCH


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