Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2011

Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Filed under: Costa Rica,Ecology — louisproyect @ 12:30 am

(This is the third and last in a series.)

The Frommer’s guide to Costa Rica states:

Still, tourism is the nations true principal source of income, surpassing cattle ranching, textiles, and exports of coffee, apples, bananas, and Intel microchips. Over two million tourists visit Costa Rica year, and over half the working population is employed in the tourism and service industries. Ticos whose fathers and grandfathers were farmers and ranchers find themselves hotel owners, tour guides, and waiters. Although most have adapted gracefully and regard the industry as a source of jobs and opportunities for economic advancement, restaurant and hotel staff can seem gruff and uninterested at times, especially in rural areas.

Happily, the staff at the Ramada Inn my wife and I stayed at was warm and cordial, not seeming forced at all. I was there mainly to keep her company while she was at a conference in the hotel, but looked forward to a couple of day trips when she was available.

In front of Arenal volcano

We decided to go into the interior to see a live volcano at Arenal, a tour that included a few hours at a nearby spa called Tabacón that had hot baths fed by thermal underground springs. As it turns out, the volcano erupted in 1968 and wiped out the village that the spa now resided on. Although Costa Ricans are proud of their volcanoes, you can get much closer to them in Nicaragua if memory serves me right. On a tour in Sandinista Nicaragua, our group stood right on the rim of Masaya Volcano and watched the steam pouring out. It’s the only volcano in the Western Hemisphere that you can get so close to.

The ride from San Jose to Arenal is long and exhausting even though the scenery is beautiful. Along the winding mountain roads, the tour guide pointed out other attractions such as bungee jumping and paragliding spots. Since my knees go weak when I am in the observation towers of tall buildings, I made a mental note to skip these places if I came to Costa Rica again. Of considerable more interest were the canopy tours, an ingenious way to see the forest flora and fauna at the top of the trees. A cable extends from the top of a mountain all the way into a valley. You hook yourself to a harness attached to the cable and wend your way down getting a bird’s eye view of the continent’s (if not the world’s) most spectacular biodiversity display.

On the way to Tortuga Island

A few days later we went out to Tortuga Island off the Pacific Coast. You are on a bus for three hours and then on a boat for another hour or so until you arrive at this gorgeous and unspoiled island with a beautiful beach. The only problem with this day trip, as was the case with Arenal, is the amount of time it takes to get there and back. It is almost like going from New York to Boston to spend three or four hours walking around Cambridge. Cambridge is a beautiful and historic town but not one to be experienced in that fashion. To enjoy Boston and Cambridge, it is best to stay there for a few days. Same thing with Costa Rica. Once you get off the plane in San Jose, your best bet is to get transportation to a hotel or lodge near the Pacific or Atlantic coasts or in the interior.

If tourism is Costa Rica’s main industry, it is the “green” and “primeval” aspect that draws people. It is everything that Acapulco or Cancun is not. At least that is the selling point. It turns out that the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is becoming another playground for the super-rich just like other resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean. On our trip out to Tortuga, the tour guide showed me a map of the region and pointed to the area just north of where we were going. He said, with some degree of pride, that the hotels there were the favorite haunts of Angela Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio. I chuckled to myself as I recalled Stan Goff’s warning against the Pacific Coast. He advised us to go to the Atlantic Coast, which was not blemished by such hotels and was primarily the home of English-speaking people of African descent just like those in Nicaragua. The area is unspoiled, beautiful and rich in biodiversity. The problem, however, it is fairly remote and can be reached only by boat in most places, just as is the case with the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. From an economic standpoint, we can only assume that the small lodges that predominate in the East do not generate as much revenue as the multinational-owned hotels on the West.

Despite Costa Rica’s well-deserved reputation as a country committed to biodiversity and an ecotourism that respects that biodiversity, there are enormous pressures on the country to bend to corporate interests that put profits above nature, even if they are proclaiming their “green intentions”.

In 1995 Grupo Situr, a Mexican company that clearly sought to build something like Cancún but with “environmentalist” pretensions, initiated a huge project on the Gulf of Papagayo. They referred to their plans as Ecodevelopment, even though they began cutting down trees, draining mangrove swamps, building roads without permits as well as beginning construction far too close to the beach. The end result has been hotels like the Four Seasons that charge $500 per night, golf courses, marinas, polo fields and all the rest of the nonsense that would attract Leonardo DiCaprio, a typical Hollywood environmentalist.

Around the same time plans were announced for “Green Luxury” at Playa Grande, another Pacific coast town. The most hyped feature was the installation of yellow lights all around the development. Supposedly the local turtles were averse to normal lighting but cool with yellow.

The main architects and financiers were Heydar Ghiai and Sons, an Iranian firm that had been one of the shah’s favorites. The son Yves assured Martha Honey (whose excellent book “Ecotourism and Sustainable Development” this post relies on heavily) in an interview that “We are the only group of developers really caring about the environment in Costa Rica”.

It turned out that the yellow lights were just as bothersome to turtles as regular lighting. More importantly, Playa Grande is the nesting ground of leatherback turtles, whose yearly pilgrimage to the white sandy beaches coincides with the tourist busy season. As tourist season kicked in, illegal collection of eggs grew out of control.

When a long-time defender of the leatherbacks tried to get the area around Playa Grande to become a national park with all the protection of wildlife that entailed, the Ghiai’s used their influence to proceed with almost no restrictions.

When my wife and I were trying to decide on a Pacific coast day tour, Manuel Antonio National Park was in the running against Tortuga Island. Stan Goff had recommended the park that was near beaches and a rainforest. I was intrigued to discover that tourists were advised to stick to the paths in the wooded areas since they contained the notorious Fer de Lance and Bushmaster snakes, whose bite can kill you within an hour or so.

Frankly, the water in the nearby town of Quepo and around the park was probably more dangerous than the snakes since both lacked sewage systems and allowed refuse to be dumped directly into the sea. Like American parks in the Rocky Mountains, Manuel Antonio has a huge number of visitors each year putting a strain on its ability to maintain a healthy ecosystem. This is one of the main contradictions of ecotourism obviously. In order to generate revenue, the parks have to attract tourists.

As much as I respect what the authorities are trying to do in Costa Rica, I am pessimistic. The economic pressures on the country are immense. In the mid-80s an economic crisis led to the same kinds of privatization and austerity programs now being forced on the Greeks. The White House, seeking an ally in the region, against Sandinista Nicaragua, used a carrot and a stick approach to line the country up against the FSLN. This meant shoveling aid on the country mostly calculated to foster Cancún type hotels while privatizing utility companies, etc.

It would be a great tragedy if economic pressures forced Costa Rica to retreat to the point where its amazing biodiversity began to diminish. As the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica points out:

With a land area of only 51.100 km2 (0.03% of the planet’s surface) and 589.000 km2 of territorial waters, Costa Rica is considered to be one of the 20 countries with greatest biodiversity in the world. Its geographic position, its two coasts and its mountainous system, which provides numerous and varied microclimates, are some of the reasons that explain this natural wealth, both in terms of species and ecosystems. The more than 500,000 species that are found in this small country represent nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide. Of these 500,000 species, just over 300,000 are insects.

As we slouch toward Bethlehem in the 21st century, the struggle to preserve flora and fauna against the relentless drive for profit, mounted more and more often in the name of ecology, the connection with the broader struggle for peace and social justice will become inextricably linked.

June 5, 2011

Costa Rica notes, part 2

Filed under: Costa Rica — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

One of the reasons I was anxious to see Costa Rica with my own eyes is that the country was hailed throughout the 1980s as an alternative to Sandinista Nicaragua. Liberals and social democrats always held up Costa Rica as being within Nicaragua’s grasp rather than the socialist model embraced by the FSLN leaders.

There was something seductive about this argument given the two countries’ obvious similarities. Both had an abundance of volcanoes that erupted periodically, spilling natural fertilizers into the soil. Both were endowed by natural beauty, an asset that clearly could have benefited the tourist industry. One imagines that this model might have been in the back of the FSLN leaders’ minds despite their lip service to Cuba. With their go-slow attitude toward agribusiness, some Marxists often accused them of being sell-outs. Perhaps they always considered development along Costa Rican lines as a contingency. Unfortunately, the animosity of Washington condemned them to follow a path much more like Haiti’s.

Costa Rica enjoys the reputation of being the Switzerland of Central America, a nation that is democratic, egalitarian and pacifist. In other words, it is the polar opposite of Nicaragua, as well as every other country there. Why? While this image promoted heavily by Costa Rican bourgeois historians doesn’t take into account the brutal commonalities that exist between banana republic Costa Rica and banana republic Honduras, there is still some truth to it.

Unlike Guatemala, colonial Costa Rica had a relatively small number of indigenous peoples at the time of Spanish rule. Those who were there rose up against the Europeans, but were decimated by superior arms as well as diseases from which they lacked immunity. It was also remote from the colonial capital in Guatemala. This created a “modest and rustic life” according to historian Carlos Monge Alfaro. The yeoman farmer who flourished in Costa Rica became a pillar of bourgeois democracy, so the argument goes. The oxcarts they used to transport coffee beans became a symbol for the country, whose likenesses can be seen in souvenir shops all around the country.

This view of rural egalitarianism is quasi-mythical according to Marxist historians. There was much more income discrepancy than formerly known and there was extensive military rule. Yet the bourgeois version of Costa Rican history exists as an actuality in dialectical tension with the Marxist critique. For example, one of the military dictators, Tomas Guardia, who ruled in the 19th century, promoted public education and abolished capital punishment.

With a smaller Indian population than the other Central American countries, the colonial rulers were less reliant on a military apparatus to control the natives who the temerity to resist slave labor. A smaller military, therefore, is rooted in the peculiarities of Costa Rican history.

Costa Rica received its independence peacefully from Spain in 1821. It had to make a decision whether or not to join the Mexican empire. Costa Rican conservatives favored this, while bourgeois republicans resisted it. Costa Rica did finally join with Mexico, but its relationship was much looser than one that was desired by the conservatives.

The conflict between the gentry and the democrats was not resolved, however. In 1821 the democrats took power after a brief struggle. They instituted structural reforms such as a sound judicial system. Most importantly, they resisted the temptation to build a standing army. They instead created a citizen’s militia which, according to Alfaro, had “honest citizens, peaceful laborers, artisans and workers who devote themselves to honestly and constantly to their private tasks…and who have no aspiration beyond fulfilling their domestic duties and defending the State when the law calls them.”

The most important factor in the evolution of Costa Rican society, however, was the cultivation of coffee. Costa Rica spearheaded the production of this agricultural commodity. What was important about coffee cultivation is that required free rather than servile labor, as well as a market in land. Coffee’s introduction in Central American in the 1870s to 1890s was associated with liberal reforms that broke the back of the church and the landed gentry.

Coffee growing is highly capital and labor-intensive. The conditions of production are inimical to the semi-feudal relationships that existed in colonial Central America. “Free” labor and “free” soil were required in exactly the same way that the north required them prior to the American Civil War.

A good description of pre-coffee Central America can be found in Robert G. William’s “States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America”. Williams is also the author of “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”, a book that explores the contradictions of cattle ranching in Central America. He says this about coffee:

After independence, the Central American landscape was divided into large landholdings held by private individuals and by the church, communal lands held by Indian communities, municipal lands held by townships, and ‘tierras baldias’, unoccupied lands that were under the official jurisdiction of higher-order state institutions. None of these forms, even large landholdings in which vast areas were left idle, were naturally conducive to a rapid conversion to coffee, and in many places people held strongly to their traditional practices regarding land rights. As coffee became more profitable, a struggle over land rights began, and public institutions at various levels, from the township to the department and, finally, to the national state, became involved. The way that state institutions at these various levels intervened in the land question differed from time to time and place to place, greatly influencing the coffee boom, the turbulence of the transition, and the ultimate structures of landholding with coffee.

Clearly the “liberalizing” coffee bourgeoisie needed a proletariat to work its farms. Labor was in short supply since much of it was attached to traditional land holdings. Overthrow traditional relationships in the countryside and not only do you “liberate” labor, you also free up land for capitalist exploitation. This, of course, was the sort of thing that occurred in Scotland and Ireland in earlier centuries. Ideologists like John Locke embraced these changes, as did liberal ideologues in Central America. It is useful to keep in mind that liberalism historically doesn’t mean Roosevelt’s New Deal. It means thoroughgoing and consistent support of capitalist property relations in town and countryside. Republican values– democracy, separation of church and state–were important, but only as a way of maintaining the free flow of labor and land.

While coffee-dominated agriculture led to upheavals in the rest of Central America, in Costa Rica–with its weak colonial institutions and small indigenous population–it did not lead to an immediate proletarianization of the peasantry or violent reaction from conservative forces.

Most importantly, since small farmers held most of the good coffee-growing land in the central part of the country, the income distribution was more equalized. The capitalist class in Costa Rica, unlike the rest of Central America, derived its wealth from processing and marketing coffee rather than through farming. These were the underlying class realities that gave Costa Rica its exceptional character.

An odious character by the name of Paul Berman used to write viciously anti-FSLN pieces during the 1980s in the Village Voice, a liberal newsweekly in NYC. He always used to hold up Costa Rica as a positive alternative to Nicaragua as if it was up to the Sandinistas to model themselves on a state whose peculiar social and economic realities had evolved over a hundred year period.

Costa Rica’s coffee bourgeoisie adopted a liberal political program that was in line with the needs of free land and labor in the 19th century. Early on they also decided to attack the semi-feudal privileges of the Catholic Church. The state they created was modernizing and secular. This was easier to achieve in Costa Rica than in the rest of Central America because the population was sparser and this allowed the formation of small proprietor coffee farming. As long as land in the interior was plentiful, a substantial rural petty-bourgeoisie could develop.

Another important element of the particularism of the modern Costa Rican state and society was the events surrounding the Presidency of Rafael Calderon in the 1940s. Calderon was a Roosevelt-styled reformer who won the election in 1942 and proceeded to institute a number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a first for Central America. Like Roosevelt, he instituted many of these measures from the top down and had no intention of allowing the working-class or peasantry to go beyond the boundaries this caudillo had set.

He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica. The CP had a substantial base among banana plantation workers and under the influence of the popular front threw its full support behind Calderon in the same way its sister party supported FDR.

Calderon’s development model was based on export agriculture and for the most part had a goal to undermine the power of the traditional oligarchies. While Costa Rica’s bourgeoisie was not as vicious as El Salvador’s, it still had no intention of allowing full-scale agrarian reform.

Calderon’s paternalism and his development model alienated much of the country’s emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export agriculture. Furthermore, Calderon, like many of Central America’s traditional caudillos, was corrupt. The corruption was not as blatant as Somoza’s but it was just enough to anger the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

The most politically advanced members of this modernizing middle-class started a think tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948 that was sharply anti-imperialist. It viewed Calderon’s export-oriented model as ceding too much to the United Fruit Company and other foreign companies. They produced studies that fed into popular discontent against Calderon.

They could be properly called “petty-bourgeois nationalists”, a formulation that perhaps could have described large numbers of Sandinistas in the 1980s. They believed that Costa Rica’s main problem was domination by foreign and domestic capital, without accepting those aspects of Marxist theory that posited the working class as the class that was best suited to exercise power.

This group became allied with a faction within the powerful Democratic Party of Costa Rica called Democratic Action that was led by Jose Figueres. Figureres’s group joined with the urban middle-class professionals in the Center for the Study of National Problems and created Costa Rica’s Social Democratic Party in 1948. This party also attracted the support of many of Costa Rica’s oligarchs who were nervous about Calderon’s populism and his Communist Party support.

When the anti-Calderon forces lost the elections in 1948, they launched a civil war that targeted many CP members. Martial law was declared and the junta threw its support to the Social Democratic rebellion. The civil war, while bloody, was inconclusive. The two factions eventually made peace and formed a coalition government. The contending class forces in the civil war were incapable of achieving victory and led to a stalemate. The contradictions between them remained unresolved for the next several decades.

In order to mediate between themselves, they made a decision to suspend warfare and co-exist within parliamentary forms. They also decided to dissolve the army since they calculated that it could be counted on as a reliable ally to either faction. This act was unprecedented in Central American history. The irony, not at all understood by liberal critics of the FSLN is that it required a bloody civil war to result in the abolition of the armed forces of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica managed to avoid the deep-going conflicts that marked the rest of Central America in the post WWII era largely because both factions eventually accepted Calderon’s welfare state model. This model allowed the bourgeoisie to coopt popular struggles. It has remained a successful co-optation strategy as long as export agriculture remained viable. In my next post I will take a look at the economic problems faced by Costa Rica that threaten its exceptionalism.


May 30, 2011

Costa Rica notes, part 1

Filed under: Central America,Costa Rica — louisproyect @ 10:57 pm

The Unrepentant Marxist in a pleasant locale in San Jose

About halfway to Costa Rica a week ago Sunday on a nonstop TACA Airbus, we ran into some turbulence that lasted a good hour or so. During the worst of it, my wife clutched my arm and said that she hoped the plane would not go down. In my all-so-knowing manner, I told her that most accidents occurred during taking off and landing. She replied that planes do go down in severe turbulence. Not wanting to prolong a stressful conversation, I changed the subject.

After we arrived at our room in the Ramada Inn, about 15 miles from San Jose, I connected my Macbook to the hotel’s excellent wireless network to check my mail and browse through the usual websites, including The Daily Beast.

There I read a story that made my blood run cold. Apparently my wife was referring to an incident in which turbulence brought down an Air France plane over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Brazil to France on June 1, 2009, just about two years ago. An aviation expert by the name of Clive Irving wrote:

It took only four-and-a-half minutes from the moment that the pilots of Air France Flight 447 attempted to fly the airplane manually to the moment when it hit the ocean, falling at the huge velocity of nearly 11,000 feet a minute. The picture of those four-and-a-half minutes as disclosed Friday by French investigators confirms key points:

The Airbus A330 flew into storm-generated turbulence at its cruise altitude of 35,000 feet;

The three instruments relaying the airplane’s speed to its flight management computers and pilots were giving conflicting and false readings;

With the autopilot disengaged and the pilots attempting to regain control the airplane gyrated wildly and then soared from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet, reaching a fatal stall condition in which the wings were no longer able to provide lift—at one point the nose pitched up to the extreme angle of 40 degrees and at the same time the wings were rolling violently from side to side;

When the emergency began the captain was not on the flight deck but resting. The crisis was being handled by two copilots. The captain reappeared on the flight deck one and a half minutes after the copilots took over manually but was unable to save the situation.

Now I could rationalize all this to myself by looking at it statistically. That’s one accident in two years. In 2010 there were 9,413,000 departures from American airports. Out of all these, there were only 26 accidents and none of them were fatal.

When I was coming back to New York yesterday, I read the superb new biography of Bobby Fischer written by Frank Brady. Brady recounts that after beating Spassky in 1972, Fischer received all sorts of lucrative offers to capitalize on his fame. When a car company offered him a car for life and hundreds of thousands of dollars if he appeared in a commercial, he turned them down. His reason? He said that there were 56,000 fatalities involving auto accidents the previous year and that he did not want to be associated with such an ad campaign, even if he drove their car (he actually was an owner.)

As air-tight as all this logic is, there is nothing more stressful than sitting in an airplane hurtling along at 600 miles per hour 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean as violent air currents toss it around as if it were made of paper. This is not to speak of the uncomfortable seats and the general feeling of confinement. The problem, of course, is that it is simply not feasible to take a bus to Costa Rica. But I am slowly reaching the point where I will fly only when absolutely necessary.

Despite the presence of tropical flora all through the Ramada Inn, each with signs indicating the Latin name as if you were touring a museum, my general sense was that of being in the same kind of hotel I have stayed in a dozen times or more when I was getting computer training in the 80s and 90s in places along Route 128 around Boston or in the outskirts of Washington, DC. These hotels are generally located in the suburbs to save money and have absolutely nothing to offer except a clean room, air conditioning and a restaurant. Like its counterparts in the U.S., the Ramada Inn was across the street from a shopping mall that had a food court. If you were looking for a tipica Costa Rican meal, you had to look elsewhere. All you could get there was Burger King, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.

Fortunately, the hotel offered free breakfast that included lots of local fruits and gallo pinto, a rice and bean combination that was served with any meal, including breakfast. I had eggs and gallo pinto each morning and was in heaven. This was the kind of dish that I used to have in Nicaragua in the late 80s and grew to love, just as I developed a great affection for grits in Houston a decade or so earlier.

Gallo pinto is considered the national dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica and means “spotted rooster”, words meant to convey the appearance of red or black beans in a bed of rice. Rice and beans, of course, tend to be the fare in poverty-stricken nations where the cost of meat is prohibitive.  This does not mean that it is not delicious. Like grits, a humble dish that is based on corn, it can be truly soul-satisfying when prepared right. And so it was at the Ramada Inn.

Costa Rican gallo pinto

On our first night at the hotel, my wife and I took a bus into San Jose to check things out. The Frommer guide says:

At first blush, San Jose comes across as little more than a chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people. The central downtown section of the city exists in a near-constant state of gridlock. Antiquated buses spewing diesel fumes and a lack of emission controls have created a brown cloud over the city’s sky. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and claustrophobic, and street crime is a serious problem. Most visitors seek the sanctuary of their hotel room and the first chance to escape the city.

This jibes with the advice I got from Stan Goff before going down:

Get out of San Jose if you can. I think SJ is boring. Best way to travel is by bus. Get a cab and ask for the “terminal” (tear-mee-NAHL) at the “Coca Cola” (no shit, a zone called the Coca Cola). Buses there leave every half hour for pretty much anywhere. If you want to go to the Atlantic coast (highly recommended), ask the cabbie to take you to Terminal Caribe (not far from the other bus station).

Stan and his wife had been living in Grecia, Costa Rica, a mid-sized town north of San Jose, until recently when her father’s failing health forced them to relocate to northern Michigan. When I asked Stan why he chose Grecia, he told me that it was a question of ecology. All of Costa Rica is on the leading edge of environmentalism and Grecia is apparently on the leading edge of the leading edge.

I recommend that you take a look at Stan Goff’s blog post on Grecia, which is a model of social analysis and personal narrative. It starts off with an epigraph from Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite scholars:

Sugar – the short biography of a commodity

26th August 2010, 07:40 am by Stan Goff

The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.

— Sydney Mintz, “Sweetness and Power”

In Grecia, Costa Rica, where I now reside, the mountains are checkered with vast coffee and sugarcane fields. The cane has long leaves like corn. It rattles in the wind, and the fields go dark then light again as clouds pass over.

I had my first taste of raw cane in Vietnam, when a local man offered me a stick to pacify my imperial hatred. I still love cane, like a child, the crisp biting off, the chewing out of the melony sweetness, and spitting the bagasse. I still carry the guilt that man’s kindness stamped on me.

Nicaraguans work the cane fields here in Costa Rica. 90 percent of the laborers are Nicaraguans. Nicaragua is Costa Rica’s poor neighbor, and like the US – where our poor neighbors from Mexico and Central America are employed to lower the wage floor – Nicaraguans are the grunt workers. Like the Hispano-Latinas that work in the US, the Nicaraguans here – some working only for food – are reviled by their hosts.

It’s the one ugly aspect of Costa Rican society that contaminates a people otherwise cordial and peaceable in my experience, this national emity against los Chochos.

People seem compelled to strip away the personhood of a lower caste, much as I stripped away the personhood of Vietnamese, because I was obliged by circumstance to control them. It inoculates us from responsibility. We are no longer our bothers’, or sisters’, keepers.

Full: http://www.feralscholar.org/blog/index.php/2010/08/26/a-few-things-about-sugar/

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