Monday, December 17, 2007

The Evils of Free Trade (Or: Why I Have No Internet Access)

So, I really have no interest in writing a manifesto on the pros and cons of free trade. This isn’t that kind of blog. And God knows, I’m certainly no expert, and I know it’s a complicated issue. But this is more of a personal anecdote. It’s 9:00 p.m. and the boys are in bed. I’m at my brother’s house. P just arrived, on no sleep for the last 24 hours, so he’s in bed. My brother has been working early morning shifts, so he’s in bed. My SIL is at the beach on a work retreat for a couple of nights. My mom’s reading the paper. So it’s just me and my computer--no Internet--in a very quiet house. It’s lovely, actually, and though I’d normally probably be online, I’m just sitting here writing this, which I will post later, and drinking my rum and Coke. I have no translations to do, so I’ll read for a little while and go to bed early.

In Costa Rica, there is one large state-owned company (read: monopoly) that provides all telephone, cell phone and DSL service. You need it, they’re it. They’re also the power company. Since my brother lives in a remote enough area that he can’t get cable, DSL is his only choice for Internet service, which means going through them. No choice. He’s called and been told he’s not close enough to one of their sites. He’s pointed out that his next-door neighbors have DSL. They’ve told him they’ll look into it. Repeat those last three sentences on an endless loop for a couple of years.

So if you Google CAFTA, you’ll get much better information than I could give you. My simplified version is, Costa Rica was the last holdout in the region, and a couple of months ago the country held a referendum on free trade. This was an incredibly contentious issue and it was all people could talk about for a long time. You were either really, really for it, or really, really against it. According to my family, it was the kind of thing you couldn’t bring up at dinner with your friends if they held the opposite view and you wanted to remain friends. Opening up the telecommunications market is a big part of the deal, and although the phone/power company is a dinosaur and hideously inefficient, they’ve managed to convince a good segment of the population that the company is our “national heritage.” Don’t let the foreigners in, or sell off the country. Patrimonio nacional. I first learned that phrase in that context, which kind of cracks me up. Anyway, the referendum passed, by a very narrow margin. Both my brother and SIL voted for it.

My SIL works at a local hospital, and after the referendum, one of her patients—who also has an important position in the phone/power company—brought it up with her. He couldn’t believe she had voted for it and started joking with her. “How could you vote for that? I can’t believe you would do that. Bad for the country.” After a little while, she’d had enough and told him, “Do you really, really know why I voted for it? Because I’m not sure that you do.” So she told him about the years of calling and calling and trying to get DSL, and apparently, he was contrite and kind of mortified. He told her to bring in the paperwork and give it to him. She said, no, really, you don’t have to do that. He insisted that he would personally take care of things and promised her they would have DSL the following week. Finally, she agreed and took him all the paperwork.

I laughed when I heard that story. But that was a couple of months ago, and obviously, my brother and SIL still don’t have DSL. So last night I asked my SIL to tell me the rest of the story.

Nothing ever came of it, she said. She heard him complaining in the hall one day recently about how all people ever do is ask him for favors. She snarked back something about how maybe people shouldn’t make promises they don’t intend to keep. Now he avoids her like the plague.

Next up: No, Really, You’re Next On the Waiting List
(Or: Trying to Get a Cell Phone—A Two-Year Adventure. My mother’s story. But hey, she has DSL, so maybe she should just shut up already.)

ETA: Obviously, I'm now online. And I do have to admit that those four days without access to the Internet or my cell phone were pure bliss. I took a quick break and ran to an Internet cafe for a quick look at my e-mail, and it was back to reality, which I didn't really want.

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