The Costa Rican Catholic Church, Social Justice, and the Rights of Workers, 1979-1996

The Costa Rican Catholic Church, Social Justice, and the Rights of Workers, 1979-1996

The Costa Rican Catholic Church, Social Justice, and the Rights of Workers, 1979-1996

The Costa Rican Catholic Church, Social Justice, and the Rights of Workers, 1979-1996


Provides a new understanding of the relationship between Church and State in 20th-century Costa Rica.

Understanding the relationship between religion and social justice in Costa Rica involves piecing together the complex interrelationships between Church and State - between priests, popes, politics, and the people. This book does just that.

Dana Sawchuk chronicles the fortunes of the country's two competing forms of labour organizations during the 1980s and demonstrates how different factions within the Church came to support either the union movement or Costa Rica's home-grown Solidarity movement.

Challenging the conventional understanding of Costa Rica as a wholly peaceful and prosperous nation, and traditional interpretations of Catholic Social Teaching, this book introduces readers to a Church largely unknown outside Costa Rica. Sawchuk has carefully analyzed material from a multitude of sources - interviews, newspapers, books, and articles, as well as official Church documents, editorials, and statements by Church representativesto provide a firmly rooted socio-economic history of the experiences of workers, and the Catholic Church's responses to workers in Costa Rica.


In 1993, I spent a year working in the public schools of a banana plantation in Costa Rica. At that time, I had just defended a master’s thesis on the Latin American Church—but had never been to Latin America. By that time, I could translate Church documents from Spanish to English—but could barely converse in the language. And so, in part to remedy some of the deficiencies in my practical education and in part to collaborate personally in a movement for social justice, I idealistically joined a volunteer program and headed off to Costa Rica. My assignment was to teach English and environmental education in Río Frío, a cluster of plantation settlements carved out of the rainforest a couple of hours north of San José.

Based on what I had heard and read about the country, I was somewhat relieved that it was actually Costa Rica to which I was travelling. Costa Rica, as many had told me, was a peaceful and tranquil oasis in Latin America. I was not likely to be abducted, as development workers had been in Colombia; I was not going to witness the extreme and widespread poverty of a Nicaragua or an El Salvador.

Indeed, my very first trip into Río Frío seemed to reinforce my preconceptions. As I bounced along in the bus (certainly noticing the río but failing to understand how anything in these steamy lowlands could earn the adjective frío), I was greeted by a series of brightly coloured billboards. As I passed each new settlement, I read a message that was some variation of “Welcome to Farm 6: We are solidaristas, producing and exporting as we work in peace and harmony.” At that time, I did not know who or what solidaristas were, and I suppose I was a bit suspicious about the cheerful Dole company logos with their rays of sunshine bursting forth beside the slogans. Overall, however, I was naively reassured by those signs and their declarations.

Soon after, I witnessed the difficult living conditions the solidaristas (members of a certain labour organization) often endured on the plantations: the planes flying overhead and dropping yellow clouds of pesticides that floated far beyond their intended targets, the crime, the prostitution, the diseases among workers. Many of my students were the children of plantation workers and, as I got to know them and their families, I saw at first hand the poverty and exploitation that are part of agribusiness and a banana-oriented economy. This was clearly another Costa Rica: another side to the presumably pacific and prosperous nation that many refer to as the “Central American Switzerland.”

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