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Friday, June 2, 2023

Juan Santamaría Day passes peacefully, but highway woes not forgotten

This Friday’s celebration Juan Santamaría Day in Alajuela stood in sharp contrast to the violent protests that interrupted the event last year over the troubled San Ramón highway concession. In fact, nobody protested at all. Instead, school children fidgeted in plumed marching band uniforms and historical costumes in the Alajuela sun, and government leaders spoke in the shadow of the statue of the beloved Costa Rican folk hero they were honoring.

Juan Santamaría Day, held every year in April, commemorates the Costa Rican victory in the Battle of Rivas in 1856 against the U.S. citizen William Walker and his mercenary army. According to legend, a poor drummer boy named Juan Santamaría set fire to a barracks where Walker’s troops were staying. Walker’s forces sustained heavy loses because of the fire but the act cost Santamaría his life.

Last year on the holiday, throngs of protesters angry about high tolls proposed for the San Ramón-San José highway concession prompted security officials to cordon off President Laura Chincilla’s traditional address behind barricades. Later that day, some protesters attacked the car of National Liberation Party (PLN) President Bernal Jiménez, smashing the windshield as he attempted to drive away. There were no injuries reported.

Facing sustained protests over the tolls and perceived conflict of interest within her administration, Chinchilla announced that the government would annul the road concession to the Brazilian contractor OAS in April 2013. In March, the government settled with OAS, agreeing to pay the contractor $35 million in damages.

Chinchilla opted out of giving the address this year, sending Vice President Alfio Piva to speak for her. The president, meanwhile, is visiting the most remote place in Costa Rica, Cocos Island, which is over 300 miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean, to review a recently installed radar station.

Top PLN lawmaker Fabio Molina from Alajuela criticized last year’s protesters and perceived obstructionism against the Chinchilla administration’s proposed projects in his speech Friday.

“Voices, generally unions and demagogic groups, say that there’s an act of corruption behind this and they’re going to fill their pockets with money. This is all false and the most false of them all is the San Ramón concession,” he told The Tico Times.

“I hope the new government will let us work. When there’s a big project, let us do it! Let it be supervised, that it go through the comptroller, but let’s not get tripped up on scoring political points,” he added.

Onlookers and marchers were both happy to see the celebration return to a more relaxed atmosphere. But dancing and music aside, few shed tears for the canceled concession.

“[Protests last year] had nothing to do with the event. It’s a civic event that has nothing to do with politics or complaints. There are a lot of children and families here. It wasn’t the time or the place. It was very sad because it was scary to march with all the protesters,” said Monica Pizarro, a teacher in Alajuela.

“I hope that the incoming government does things right from the start and takes the time to research, because we can’t be giving away money to anyone right now,” Pizarro added.

Rolando Mora Mejías, 48, a taekwondo instructor, also expressed his frustration with the protests last year but added that paying OAS millions in damages was wrong.

“It’s throwing money away. We workers work hard and supposedly there’s no money to pay us more, but the money ends up in the hands of the rich,” he told The Tico Times.

A joint meeting in March between the Foro de Occidente, a citizen group opposed to the OAS concession, the University of Costa Rica’s School of Civil Engineering (Lanamme) and the government set out basic terms for the belated highway project. The group estimated the initial costs of the road project at over $478 million.

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