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Memories of harder times in Costa Rica

The death of a controversial former president has jogged memories of Costa Rica's worst economic crisis.

Family and friends of former Costa Rica President Rodrigo Carazo attend funeral services in Escazu, near San Jose, Dec. 10, 2009. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Marta Gomez has served plenty of meals over the decades. When she was in her 20s, the single mother looked after her own daughter and son and the more than a dozen foreign exchange students who lived with them.

When the crisis of the 1980s hit Costa Rica, feeding her full house wasn't so easy.

"I had to do everything to keep up appearances so that the food was the same. That was very hard. I worked magic," said Gomez, now a doting grandmother at 58.

The passing last week of Rodrigo Carazo Odio, Costa Rica's president from 1978 to 1982, jogged the Ticos' memory of those days — times that seemed far from the psyche of a nation recently voted the happiest people on the planet.

Today Costa Ricans boast education and health care levels that are the envy of the region. And, though the social gap may be growing, this country enjoys slimmer class disparities than many of its neighbors.

But during the Carazo administration, the inflation rate soared from 6 percent to nearly 100, Costa Rica's currency crashed, debt skyrocketed, credit froze, basic food became scarce and unemployment reached at least 9.4 percent, while underemployment was probably much higher. These were not the happiest of times for Costa Rica.

Offices and cantinas have been abuzz about Carazo, who died Dec. 9 at age 82 of complications from open-heart surgery. But Ticos seem to struggle for words to characterize the president posthumously, sometimes staying barely within the characteristic Costa Rican politeness to remember a man who bore some of the blame for the country's worst economic crisis in memory.

Gomez did not mince words.

"I used to talk really badly about our president; I had very bad words for him and I used to curse him," she said, allowing a glimpse of her youthful disaffection. But Gomez noted that with time, and faced with the current crisis, she has tempered her opinion.

"I was young. Now, in my maturity, I understand that [the economic crisis] wasn't his fault."

Many Ticos would not be so generous. Luis Mesalles, president of the Academia de Centroamerica, a San Jose economic think tank, this week described the Carazo years as a troubling combination of "bad circumstances and bad management."

The external circumstances were clear: coffee, which had been flying high at an international price of $350 per 100 pounds, plummeted; oil prices, which had been relatively low, began to soar.

Domestically, the Costa Rican currency, the colon, fell from 8.60 to the dollar to nearly 45.