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For many Costa Ricans, business as usual

Anybody looking for an outpour of emotion today from Barack Obama’s inauguration probably could do better elsewhere than Costa Rica.

For many Costa Ricans it seemed to be another day of business as usual.

Back in October, in the late days of the election campaigns, a Gallup poll said only one-third of Latin Americans believed the outcome of the U.S. elections was relevant to their country.

Several conversations with Ticos today suggested some detachment still looms, although, as the global crisis persists, a new interest in the leader up north may be growing.

One reason voiced repeatedly for some of the indifference is the knowledge gap about what Obama has in mind for the region as a whole, let alone Costa Rica.

A commentator on television's Channel 7 this morning described the president's policies for Latin America as "vague, at best," during continuous coverage titled "A Great Historic Day."

Later, as Obama's speech approached, Channel 7 aired text across the bottom of the screen, saying, "Latin America is not a priority for Obama." Then the continuation of the thought appeared: "However, he says he will fight for democracy in the region."

The patrons and employees of a corner restaurant that was showing the coverage gave each other confused looks. A waitress, Jaqueline Malegro, threw up her arms and said, "Well if he doesn't care about us, forget him!"

However, she wouldn't admit to apathy. "(The United States) has the power, they have the money... of course it's important to us who's president there," she said.

A San Jose cab driver, when asked what he thought of the inauguration of Obama, at first just shrugged, saying, "I can't give an opinion on that, I haven't been following it."

But, after a pause, the taxista, who said he only uses his last name, Carrillas, reconsidered. "I don't know if the United States can handle someone like that right now, with all the social programs he has planned, considering the economic problems of today," he said.

It seemed he had read this morning's daily La Republica, which devoted seven pages to a special edition about Obama's inauguration "amid the worst economic bad patch in 80 years." The front-page headline said, "American dream awaits hero for historic crisis," next to a half-page photo of Obama reaching out toward the reader, with the caption kicker, "Hopeful."

It seems the caption was referring to the business and trade leaders whose interviews featured inside the special edition.

"Obama is bringing back confidence and optimism to the U.S. population. We hope it's contagious and generates greater productivity, and that countries like Costa Rica can benefit," Gabriela Llobet, director of the Costa Rican Investment Board, told La Republica.

Rival daily La Nación, which until now has gushed with opinion pieces and coverage of the newly elected U.S. president, curiously shoved today's big event in the corner of its front page, opting instead to feature a large portrait of a little known hero in local intellectual circles who recently won a cultural prize. The daily, however, gave center stage Sunday to Obama's "Special journey," as it called the momentous train ride into D.C. And during today’s ceremony, the daily little to hide its buzz in the social networking website Twitter, where it posted text in Spanish of snippets of Obama's speech minute-by-minute.

Bloggers clamored too, seeming to be focusing scrupulously on the details of the Obama speech. “Obama left-handed… who woulda thought? A lefty in the White House?” muttered one Twitter-user Fernando Francia over the micro-blogging site.

Journalist Amelia Rueda also followed closely, posting themes mentioned in Obama’s speech. She also “tweeted” about a Costa Rican journalist in the United States who told Rueda, “I have always felt foreign in the United States, but this time I felt included, American.”

U.S. expats I spoke to were overjoyed by the change in leadership back home. Karin Kreider, director of sustainable agriculture at the environmental NGO Rainforest Alliance, invited coworkers to her home to watch the event, which took place at 10:30 a.m. Costa Rican time.

"I am so excited," said Kreider, who has lived here with her family for four years. "I feel more motivated to go off and do good things for the world now," she said, thanks to the United States' renewed "sense of global responsibility and interest in the world."

In Kreider's experience, Costa Ricans are in fact interested. "(Costa Ricans) feel that it's a historic event, not just for North Americans, and that it has an impact on the rest of world," she said.

Her 8-year-old son could not contain himself either, she said. “He came home yesterday after school saying ‘guess what tomorrow is, it’s the day we get a new president!’”

But for the Costa Rican waitress, the new leader of the superpower to the north still has to prove himself. Malegro said, “We just have to wait and see if there will be any change. We don’t know anything yet.”