By Elias D León
It has been several weeks since I returned from Costa Rica where I interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after returning to Montreal, I encountered way too many memories floating around my brain, which developed one by one thanks to my 12 weeks once in a lifetime experience at what, I call, one of the most exotic and colourful places on Earth. In this first blog post, I will offer some of my reflections and impressions about my time in Costa Rica representing McGill Law at the OAS’ principal judiciary organ that promotes and protects human rights across the Americas.
Latin America’s Flavours: Returning to my Roots
On May 3, 2017 at 6:58 am I woke up in my flat in Montreal thrilled to embark on a journey that I thought would bring me back to the continent of my origin: Latin America. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was nervous, scared, anxious, or just happy. Perhaps a combination of all. Since the political turmoil in Venezuela got out of control, I have not been back to Latin America. I knew Costa Rica would be very different from Venezuela, in terms of political stability, proper access to food, health-care, water (from what my folks would call ‘luxurious goods’ currently non-existent in my homeland, regrettably). However, I was very curious to land in the International Airport of San Jose to discover how similar this small country in Central America would remind me of Venezuela in a particular way. I don’t mean returning to my “real” roots, rather I mean returning to the continent that brings together rich cultures, tasteful gastronomy, vibrant social life, and a devotion for hard work in trying to become a better person every day – that’s what made me think this opportunity was all about: returning to a country that would make me feel, more less, back in Venezuela since, as of today, I cannot seem to be able to do this.
As soon as I arrived in Costa Rica’s capital, my good friend Natalia and her friends picked me at the airport and drove to her house to meet with her family. Immediately, I felt just as if a friend from childhood picked me up in Caracas to then have a home-cooked meal. As the days progressed, I was lucky enough to meet several locals who welcomed me with wide-open arms and invited me to countless journeys with the objective to discover Costa Rica’s diverse biodiversity, the “pura vida” style, appreciation for environmental stewardship, and most importantly, the beginning of new friendships, which is how they take pride in being good Costa Ricans hosts. Interestingly, I also met several Venezuelans. In fact, there were so many Venezuelans who have recently arrived in Costa Rica as political refugees that, overtime, it really felt like returning to my roots (and this time I mean it literally). However, I have to admit, I was sad (and possibly upset) to learn from each Venezuelan’s story about how they had to leave everything behind overnight – including their families, loved ones, professional careers such as practices in medicine, the law, business, and engineering. They all seemed to have to start from zero and worked as Uber drivers or blue collar positions in order to make just enough Colones (Costa Rican currency) to eat, pay a shared room in a flat, and save enough so they could send money for their families who could not escape the current dictatorship Venezuela is facing.
My 89 days in Latin America were extraordinary. These twelve weeks allowed me to reflect upon and cherish all opportunities Canada had given me until now, but this visit also made me feel proud to belong to a continent with such a unique culture. People there are hard-workers, warm, loud, funny, great sense of humour, love to go dancing or to share “arepas” or “gallo pinto” during a lunch break, devoted to faithful groups, constantly staying active through physical activities, and so much more. I am lucky to know we, as Canadians, can do all of these things in Canada as well, but there was something unique about being able to do all of these things over again in Latin America, just like I used to during the first fifteen years of my life in Venezuela.
The Inter-American Court: From exchanges of Conversations with Human Rights Violation Victims to the President of the Court
One of the biggest assets of working at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is definitely the people you meet. As for all of us in the legal profession is social, the nature of the work is grounded on a wide range of different personalities whom you work with and interact at many different levels. Yes, you certainly get to work with some of the brightest and most respected human rights jurists across the Americas. But you also get meet, talk, interview, and listen to the very people who travel hundreds of miles to a architecturally colonial style white house in the historical neighbourhood of Los Yoses, which serves as the premises of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. For confidentiality constraints, I cannot disclose details, but what I can share is my reflection on how powerful the words I exchanged with some of the victims of human rights (who were going to testify during court hearings in the cases I was assigned to) were and how much they motivated me to do my work better in my office at the Court. Most of the time I would be speechless to learn from what they had to say. Other times, I felt powerless by not being able to ‘do more’ or ‘try to assure them that everything was going to be okay’ – when in fact I knew that some of these victims had to return to their home countries, the next day of the court hearing date, where they would sometimes be prosecuted either by volatile governments or organized-crime groups.
Most of the time however, I learned a great deal from the lawyers in my team, fellow law clerks, and most certainly, the lawyers whom I shared my office with. The great advantage about working in such an active and collegial working environment is that each lawyer was from a different country, whose parcour was significantly unique from one another. I remember nourishing excellent friendships with lawyers from Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Uruguay, and even Germany. Some of them have done human rights law for 20+ years while others were corporate lawyers who decided to make the transition from business law to human rights law in their mid-level careers. I learned something valuable and unique from each person. At work, we would engage in very transsystemic dialogues doing comparative legal analysis on contemporary issues as climate change, refugees asylum, international security, and same-sex marriage. On a more inter-personal level, we would discover each other’s national gastronomy, customs, traditions, and culture. This special aspect of the Inter-American Court constantly made me think of the fond memories I have working in diplomacy being posted in few different cities. I just think it’s the perfect work environment for any McGill Law student seeking to discover new cultures and ontologies.
Pura Vida: Beyond a Destination to Gain a Superb Summer Legal Experience
So you may be wondering what Pura Vida is. Well, it’s a phrase that essentially encompasses how “ticos” look at the world. It’s how they look at life-work balance, social relationships, family, communication, and frankly anything. Instead of saying buenos días Costa Ricans enthusiastically say “Hey, PURA VIDA!” Instead of apologizing for not submitting a work deadline on time, they say “pura vida.” Instead of responding “I’m good, how are you?” they say “Pura Vida!” This was certainly a highlight in my journey in Costa Rica – and was consistently a joke we had between everyone who wasn’t a Tico in the Court. The point is that Costa Rica is probably one of the countries with the happiest people and as a McGill Law student who had just finished 1L, I certainly took the opportunity to learn from this ‘pura vida’ way of life to think more about work-life balance. I learned that it is important to really make the effort in being patient when something does not happen as quickly – or as efficient in North American parlance. It’s important to take this type of 12-week culturally enriching experience to step outside of our comfort zone or incredibly busy lifestyles to meditate, do yoga, breathe fresh air, take different types of risks – less so professionally inclined and more so learning a different sport like surfing. All to say that the “pura vida” outlook on life, which every Costa Rican seem to experience on a daily basis – and indeed, every staff attorney or law clerk at the Inter-American Court – taught me that you experience the fabric of a place by immersing yourself in the flavours, sites, and sounds of a destination. In my opinion, this is when you have fully experienced Costa Rica and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the way it’s meant to be. Different for everyone, but yet extraordinary for all.