COSTA RICA AND THE 1948 REVOLUTION
DECEMBER 7, 2001
ETHICS OF DEVELOPMENT IN A GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT TERM PAPER
By, Christopher Michael Lorenz
1948 proved to be a critical year in the history of Costa Rica. The National Republicans, who had held the majority of Costa Rica’s political power for decades, were finally voted out of the presidency during the 1948 elections. Not willing to give up their monopoly-like control of the Executive branch, the National Republicans used their strong influence in the Legislative Assembly to annul the February 8 presidential election of rival candidate Otilio Ulate of the Social Democratic Party. The country was thrown into bitter chaos, as both sides accused the other of vote tampering and electoral fraud. About a month after the annulment, José Figueres Ferrer, a prominent figure in Costa Rican politics and vociferous adversary of the National Republicans, decided that military action was necessary, and thus began his campaign to create his Second Republic of Costa Rica and restore his country to the political and economic prosperity he felt it was capable of. Figueres and his forces collected on his farm, “La Lucha Sin Fin,” in southern Costa Rica. The National Liberation Army, as they called themselves, slowly worked their way up the Pan American Highway, capturing small but important cities and ports with relative ease.
In Cartago, Costa Rica’s second-largest city located only twelve miles from the capital, Figueres’ forces met some considerable military opposition; however, the limited forces and supplies of the governmental forces quickly ran out, and Cartago fell into the hands of Figueres on April 12. Costa Rican President Teodoro Picado of the National Republican Party, realizing that defeat was inevitable, sent notice to Figueres that he was willing to come to a compromise; Picado did not want to be held responsible for what could turn into a long, bloody civil war.
Picado’s long-time political ally, Manuel Mora Valverde of the Communist-affiliated party Vanguardia Popular, had no intention of negotiating with Figueres. Mora’s forces had sealed themselves up inside the capital of San José, and were determined not to capitulate as quickly as Picado. As the target of many of Figueres’ criticisms about Costa Rica, Mora and his party were worried that a Figueres-led takeover might well lead to their expulsion from politics.
Two events occurred which pushed Picado and Mora into unconditional surrender. First, President Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua sent forces to occupy strategic points in northern Costa Rica. Somoza issued a statement saying that he was willing to counter any threatened invasion of his country, and was prepared to combat the forces of both Figueres and Mora, if necessary. Not wanting Nicaraguan forces to get involved in the political mess Costa Rica faced, Picado was forced to make a quick announcement about the state of the military affairs within Costa Rica in order to mitigate Somoza’s fears that the civil war and unrest would spill across Nicaragua’s borders. Picado assured Somoza that a peaceful resolution was imminent.
Secondly, Picado received information that United States naval forces were organizing in the Panama Canal. These forces would remain on standby, and would be ready to be transported into Costa Rica in the event that Mora’s forces -who by now had clearly been identified as Communists with Soviet ties by US intelligence sources- took any aggressive action towards occupying more territory.
The following day, Picado -low on supplies and without any other source of support- sent a letter to Mora and National Republican leader Rafael Calderón Guardia stating that “the attempt to hold San José would be futile and catastrophic.” Mora, facing the reality that now the United States was ready to act against him as well, gave in to Picado’s plea. On April 19, Picado and Father Benjamín Núñez, an eminent labor leader within Costa Rica, signed The Pact of the Mexican Embassy, ending the armed uprising. On the 24th of April, Figueres’ forces entered San José, almost six weeks after beginning their revolt in southern Costa Rica.
Despite the fact that this civil war alone was relatively small in scale-its duration was short and about two thousand casualties- its consequences have had lasting results on the country and the region as a whole. The private sponsorship of Figueres by the US has led to United States forces intervening in other politics and governments of Latin America, such as what was later seen in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. The strong ties that came about due to US aid helped to lift Costa Rica out of the economic instability that it had been facing in the years before the revolution. The new articles of the constitution rewritten by Figueres’ regime eliminated the fraudulent aspect of elections that had been an identifiable part of Costa Rica’s electoral processes in the past. The new constitution also abolished the army, and gave Blacks and women the right to vote. Costa Rica, once a country full of governmental fraud and corruption, became a respectable democracy of the West and a proud ally of the United States, as well as a model for other Latin American countries in how to properly establish democracy and successfully revitalize the economy.
So why was Figueres successful in 1948? Much of his strength stemmed from his ability to label the National Republicans and their leaders -Picado and Calderón- as Communists. Figueres was able to combine the political alignment of Calderón and Mora of 1942 with the anti-Communist sentiments of the United States, raising concerns in the United States that Communism was making its move on Costa Rica. Having rallied most all of the opposition behind him and his cause, Figueres encouraged his Social Democrats to escalate tensions with government sympathizers and openly accuse the government of political ineptitude. All this political commotion within Costa Rica was noticed by US officials, and with the constant accusations made against the government about their Communist ties by Figueres and the opposition, the US was, in many ways, duped into concluding that the political unrest of its neighbor-friend Costa Rica was due to Communist infiltration. When Figueres -a notorious anti-Communist- took military action against this Communist affiliated government, the United States had little problem in cutting its long-time support of the National Republicans.
To assess whether the economic boom and resultant political peace that occurred after the 1948 revolution are directly related to the Figueres revolution, or whether Costa Rica’s success and relative prosperity should be attributed to other factors that have come about in the post-revolution era, one must explore why the revolution occurred, and what was it about Figueres’ policies and ideas that allowed Costa Rica to become the rather prosperous Latin American country it is today, especially when compared to its neighbors.
There are two main aspects to examine in order to understand the revolution. The first is the Communist paranoia that grew throughout the United States once World War II ended and the Cold War with Soviet Russia began, coupled with the turbulent political and social scene of Costa Rica. After World War II, as Communism stretched into eastern Europe and North Korea was lost to Communist elections, the US started to adopt policies seeking to curtail Soviet influence on struggling and recently emerging countries. As the Monroe Doctrine developed from a simple Congressional address into a critical document of US foreign policy, the US became more concerned with the internal structures and politics of foreign governments, especially governments influenced by the new Soviet model. The US wanted to encourage other countries to follow their model of capitalism and democracy in the hopes of deterring Communist influence; Costa Rica was one such example. Because the US was caught up in trying to control the further spread of Communism, the US grew concerned about Costa Rica and its Communist ties, and wanted to make sure that Communism was not spreading into Costa Rica and Latin America. With the goal of stopping Communism, the suspicions raised by Figueres and the opposition groups in Costa Rica about the government’s affiliation to Communism caused the US to cut support of the National Republicans and allow Figueres to assume control.
The other aspect to examine is how the revolution and its consequences were able to address the social, economic, and political problems that were prevalent in 1948. Preceding administrations had tried to address the deterioration of the Costa Rican economy and the growing social awareness of working class rights, but they did not have the power or support to adequately administer their policies across the entire country. Also, Communist suspicions and the Vanguardia Popular distracted the populace and government from creating laws that would be effective in correcting socio-economic problems. The Figueres revolution provided the necessary medium that allowed Figueres to bring about the necessary changes at the governmental and constitutional level that would adequately supply the country with solutions to its various problems.
To begin to understand the revolution, one must first look into the changing foreign policies and the new US idea of a global Communist threat. The American people had channeled much of their energies into the war efforts of World War II. Once victory over the Axis Powers occurred, US foreign policy had to change to account for new potential enemies. The growing Soviet sphere of influence that had developed in Eastern Europe after 1945 became the subject of much US observation and analysis. Communism developed as the target of concern, for it was a rival economic system that did not parallel the US vision of open free international trade amongst capitalist economic modes. As the Iron Curtain became solidified and divided east and west Europe, combined with the fall of North Korea to the Communist Korean Workers Party and Kim Il Sung, Communist paranoia in the United States had sources from which to base the fears of a growing Communist threat.
Meanwhile, tensions in Costa Rica had been escalating since the formal announcement of the Mora-Calderón alliance in 1942. Calderón agreed to an alliance with Mora and the Vanguardia Popular in order to gain support at the working class level, which would help him push through his wage concessions and other labor laws, such as his Labor Code of 1943. Opposition groups were established which questioned this alliance; the two most notable groups were the Center for the Study of National Problems and Acción Demócrata. These two groups merged in 1945 to become a new political party, the Social Democratic Party, which was led by Figueres, and focused their attention on ousting the National Republicans from their dominant control over the presidency. However, the Social Democrats had little electoral strength, and therefore lacked the necessary power to win the presidency. Thus, they turned to propagandistic techniques, charging the National Republicans with being Communists and tampering with the 1944 presidential elections, which their candidate, Teodoro Picado, had won.
Initially, the charges made by Figueres and the Social Democrat’s candidate, Otilio Ulate, were quelled by US ambassador to Costa Rica Hallet Johnson. Johnson, a strong proponent of Calderón and Picado, initially dismissed the idea that there was any real connection between the Vanguardia Popular and Soviet Union or any other international Communist organization, stating that “the members of the Vanguardia Popular can not… be accurately described as Communists” during his first year (1945) as ambassador.
However, as American agencies directed their attentions to locating possible Communist outbreaks after the end of World War II, increasing scrutiny was put upon Calderón and Picado and their connection to the suspicious Mora. As early as 1945, the FBI had labeled the Vanguardia Popular as the “Communist Party of Costa Rica,” and claimed that the Vanguardia Popular was allied with other Latin American Communists. Johnson, feeling pressure from the changing foreign policy back home in the US, quickly changed his views on Mora and the Vanguardia Popular and went on record, claiming that Mora was “an opportunist and an admirer of the Soviets.” Johnson’s successor, Walter J. Donnelly, used his first official press conference to address Communism, calling it “a threat to all the people of America which…was necessary for all governments to combat.” These statements did not bode well for Picado and the National Republicans.
The 1944 elections, which were filled with voter fraud and abuse, convinced Figueres and the Social Democrats that the government would never peacefully be removed by an opposition candidate. The elections therefore accumulated into a series of constant riots and street brawls between ulatistas and calderonistas that made international headlines. The US state department responded to these violent actions by putting the blame on the Communist infiltration of the country. Social Democrats saw how the US responded to the fear of Communism, and played it out to the extreme. El Diario de Costa Rica, the national newspaper owned by Ulate, began printing repeated articles that Calderón and Picado were Communists. The United Fruit Company sponsored these allegations by paying for ad pages in El Diario that claimed the Communist-government connections to be true. These reports excited the fear that Communism might spread into a country of the western hemisphere and drove US officials to become quite concerned with the Vanguardia Popular. Costa Rica became the subject of extreme scrutiny and governmental evaluation by the US as rumors began to surface that a Communist plot was developing. Due to Costa Rica’s relative closeness to the US, US officials felt this Communist development had to be crushed at all costs.
US agencies had already begun looking into the possible Communist influences surfacing in Latin America. A document issued by the CIA entitled “Soviet Objectives in Latin America” pointed the finger directly at Costa Rica as the main source of Communist development: “With the possible exception of Costa Rica, no Latin American Government is today publicly cooperating with the Communists.” Naturally, US concern grew stronger that Mora was gaining too much control in Costa Rica, and his Vanguardia Popular was defined as “an international movement hostile to Western democracies.”
To make things worse, the Vanguardia Popular underwent a reorganization process in 1947. Its new platform called for constitutional reform, the nationalization of electric plants, railroads, and seaports, industrial development, and a Latin American economic integration that would counter the economic power of the US. The party also chose to issue “an official declaration of adherence to the [Soviet] Comintern, coupled with a verbal attack on the United States.” Mora was also documented to have met with other prominent Communist leaders of Latin America in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other locations. Mora was undoubtedly strengthening his international ties. The Vanguardia Popular’s paper, Trabajo, also started publishing articles and featured stories from the Soviet Union and Spain, documenting the successes of Communism in those respective countries.
The US responded to these statements by cutting military support to Picado’s government. The Costa Rican government had for years been reliant upon the US for weapons, training, and supplies, and had no other strong source from which to obtain military support. The US also went further in preventing Somoza of Nicaragua from selling Picado arms once the revolution in 1948 began. Meanwhile, the US paid no attention to the stockpile of arms that had surfaced in Guatemala after the attempted revolt in the Dominican Republic fell through. These weapons and other supplies were undoubtedly being collected by Figueres and his supporters for revolutionary forces.
Once Figueres’ forces began their revolt after the annulment of the 1948 presidential elections, the US had positioned themselves to deny any support of the weakened Picado government and, if not aid, at least acquiesce to Figueres and his supporters. Figueres had been identified by US officials as strictly pro-American and clearly anti-Communist, as Figueres’ statement of April 17 points out. He and Ulate were the natural choice of the United States, as Ulate had been courted by the US as early as 1946 and questioned about his loyalty to the democratic cause of Costa Rica, and Figueres had already petitioned the US for support. Fearing that a Communist uprising in Costa Rica could spill into other Latin American countries, and believing Figueres’ and Ulate’s accusations of a greater Communist plot within Costa Rica, the US consented to Figueres and his revolution that had, as one of its main objectives, the elimination of Communism and the Communist Party in Costa Rica.
Once Figueres gained control, the legislation he passed regarding social reform for his Second Republic of Costa Rica was not that much different from Calderón’s proposals. In fact, David LaWare believes that Figueres’ social reforms were more or less the same as Calderón’s Labor Code of 1943, only Figueres had gained the power with which to enact the laws upon the whole country with the complete support of virtually all the country. Furthermore, both of these leaders’ programs were in many cases exactly like the ones Franklin D. Roosevelt passed during the Great Depression that helped lift the US out of its own economic slump and social decline it had faced in the 1930s.
The main objective of the US, nonetheless, was fulfilled when Figueres formally outlawed the Communist Party in Costa Rica. Figueres continued to improve on the situation of the working classes, modifying the existing labor laws to a point where they could be properly implemented. Figueres also restructured the electoral process through a revision of the constitution, creating the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which maintained the integrity of future elections and erased electoral fraud. He weakened the power of the Executive considerably, which would help guarantee against presidential corruption. Figueres also addressed the social and political problems of the country by enacting important amendments to the constitution and critical additions to existing labor laws.
Why weren’t the policies and programs of previous presidents successful? The answer lies in the fact that there was no proper structure in place in Costa Rican politics and constitutional processes that would have allowed for large-scale changes in the workings and operations of the country. The revolution provided the necessary means to radically rework the whole political foundation of the country, not just pass laws on the frameworks of prior policies that were themselves unsound and full of inconsistencies.
Furthermore, the politics of pre-1948 Costa Rica became caught up in the debates over whether Communism was as prevalent in Costa Rica as many claimed it was. As the government struggled to shake the Communist labels it was being accused of, it became distracted from focusing on the actual social problems of the country, and in the process alienated the general populace. The government entangled itself with the everyday debates of the people of Costa Rica, and thus lost its ability to govern the country properly. The remedy required to cure the government of its infatuation with Communism and set straight the nation as a whole could not be found without a radical rechanging of Costa Rica. José Figueres and his Junta Fundadora provided the antidote by ushering in extreme new policies written into the new laws and constitution that could not have been possible without total revolution.
A rather interesting aspect of the revolution not explored in this paper was the role of the Church in the revolution. This is not due to neglect, but rather to the fact that the Church did not play an important role during the revolution. Neither the National Republicans nor the Social Democrats had the official backing of the Church; the Church did its best to stay out of the politics surrounding the Communist allegations and subsequent revolution. This does not mean that the Church has not had much influence within the country; on the contrary, the Catholic Church has been an intricate part of Costa Rica since colonial times, and it continues to be an important aspect of Costa Rican life today.
Costa Rica’s success today can be seen in multiple aspects, especially when compared to its neighbors. 94.8% of children over the age of 15 can read and write in Costa Rica; only 65.7% of Nicaraguans meet similar qualifications. Approximately one half of all Nicaraguans are below the poverty line; Costa Rica’s population has roughly one fifth below the poverty line -a high percentage, but small when compared to Nicaragua-. Nicaragua’s GDP is $13.1 billion compared to Costa Rica’s $25 billion. Costa Rica’s other bordering neighbor, Panama, has a GDP of $16.6 billion, and over one third of its population is below the poverty line. Unemployment in Costa Rica is a very low 5.2% compared to Nicaragua’s 20% or Panama’s 13%; the United States’ unemployment rate is not much better at 4%. Clearly, Costa Rica has had a much higher level of success economically than its neighbors.
Currently, Costa Rica is still a fervent and strong ally of the United States and maintains open and friendly relations with the US. Although it does not possess the strength or resources to aid a superpower such as the United States, Costa Rica has supported each foreign policy of the US. Costa Rica has continued to give vocal support in the fight against terrorism, and has pledged that it will do what it can to prevent terrorist groups from Costa Rica. Fortunately for Costa Rica, it has not witnessed firsthand any recent acts of terrorism, but it is nevertheless poised to aid the US if needed or called upon.
Through these previous analyses, the question can be answered of whether Costa Rica’s unusual success should be attributed to the 1948 revolution and Figueres’ amendments to the constitution, or whether Costa Rica’s prosperity lays in some other unexplored area. It seems more than obvious that the laws and reforms produced by the outcome of the Figueres revolution are the reasons why Costa Rica has seen the prosperities and successes of the post-revolutionary period through present-day. As James L. Busey put it:
She [Costa Rica] is among the most democratic republics of the hemisphere. The experience of Costa Rica suggests that it is not so much economic resources as patterns of economic and social organization [that resulted from the 1948 revolution] that provide keys to the realization of individual prosperity and freedom.
Ameringer, Charles D. Don Pepe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
Bell, John Patrick. Crisis in Costa Rica: The 1948 Revolution. Austin: Capital Printing Company, 1971.
Busey, James L. “Costa Rica: A Meaningful Democracy.” Political Systems of Latin America. Ed. Martin C. Needler. Princeton: Van Norstan Company, Inc., 1964: 113-128.
LaWare, David. Labor and the Costa Rican Revolution of 1948. Austin: The University of Texas, 1990.
Lehoucq, Fabrice Edouard. “Class Conflict, Political Crisis and the Breakdown of Democratic Practices in Costa Rica: Reassessing the Origins of the 1948 Civil War.” Journal of Latin American Studies February 1991: 37-60.
Longley, Kyle. The Sparrow and the Hawk. Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1997.
Miller, Eugene D. “Labour and the War-Time Alliance in Costa Rica 1943-1948.” Journal of Latin American Studies October 1993: 515-541.
Molina, Iván. The History of Costa Rica. Ed. Steven Palmer. Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1998.
The Costa Rican Revolution of 1948 can only be understood when one looks at US feelings towards Communism, the US’s changing foreign policies in relation to Communism, the ability of Figueres to sell his labels of Calderón and Picado as Communists to the US, and what actually occurred as a result of the revolution. Figueres would not have been successful if he hadn’t gained US support by accusing the National Republicans of being Communist sympathizers. This only occurred because the US had as its main objective the elimination of Communism. When Figueres decided to take up arms, the US had no choice but to support him over Picado. Yet once Figueres gained power, he implemented and adopted policies congruent to those both Calderón and Picado had tried to enact. The main reason why these policies weren’t passed by Picado or Calderón was because Figueres and his opposition were creating such a national disturbance that the government was virtually handcuffed, and the proper structure was not in place to adequately implement any sweeping reforms. Finally, the revolution, with its radical associations, adequately gave Figueres and Costa Rica as a whole the ability to change what badly needed to be fixed. La Lucha Sin Fin is Spanish for “The Endless Battle”
 Bell, John Patrick, Crisis in Costa Rica, p. 150
 Longley, Kyle, The Sparrow and the Hawk, p. 44
 Longley, p. 45
 Longley, p. 50
 Bell, p. 54
 Longley, p. 60
 Bell, p. 51
 Miller, Eugene D., Labour and the War-Time Alliance in Costa Rica 1943-1948, p. 529.
 Bell, p. 59
 Longley, pp. 73-74
 Molina, Iván, The History of Costa Rica, pp. 93-94. See also Bell, pp. 136-139.
 This statement by Figueres says, in summary, that if Communists continued to resist, his forces would march on San José, and that “no concessions would be made to conflict with the anti-Communist policies of the United States” (Bell, p. 149).
 LaWare, David, “Labor and the Costa Rican Revolution of 1948,” pp. 2-3. In his essay, LaWare argues that both Calderón’s and Figueres’ policies on social development were virtually identical, and differed really only the subjects of Communism and labor parties, and proper implementation.
 Longley, pp. 21-22
 Data taken from the CIA’s website at
 Busey, James L., “Costa Rica: A Meaningful Democracy,” p. 113