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Costa Rica: The Revolution of 1948, A Cause and Effect Analysis

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Costa Rica: The Revolution of 1948, A Cause and Effect Analysis

By, Louie Matrisciano

In a region that has been plagued by long and turbulent civil wars, the peaceful and reformist outcome of Costa Rica’s Civil War differs greatly from its neighbors. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua all suffered extremely long and painful dictatorships (The Civil War of Costa Rica). The Costa Rican revolution lasted for five weeks with sporadic fighting in which the National Liberation Army, led by Jose Maria («Don Pepe») Figueres Ferrer, proved victorious over the badly organized and poorly directed Costa Rican army. In fact much of the defense of the government was provided by armed Communist party members. However, the government was reluctant to give them enough material support to be truly effective, and on April 19, the illegitimate government of Teodoro Picado decided to surrender to Figueres (Costa Rica: Since Independence & Baker). The country’s forty-day Civil War in 1948 resulted in an affirmation rather than a negation of democracy. Democracy is not only the type of government of Costa Rica, but it also the source of tremendous pride in a country that brags about having more teachers than policeman and not having a standing army since it was abolished in 1948 (Costa Rica: Government and Politics).

The popular myth suggests that Figueres, a 42 year old coffee farmer, engineer, economist and philosopher, raised a «ragtag army of university students and intellectuals» and stepped forward to topple the government that had refused to step aside for its democratically elected successor. In actuality, Figueres’s revolution had been planned for some time, and the 1948 election merely provided a good excuse.

Figueres had been exiled to Mexico in 1942, the first political outcast since the Tinoco era, after being seized halfway through a radio broadcast denouncing Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, who had been the president of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944. Figueres formed an alliance with other exiles and returned to Costa Rica in 1944. He began calling for an armed uprising and arranged for foreign arms to be airlifted to groups being trained by Guatemalan military advisors. (Baker). The elections of 1944, marred by serious charges of fraud against the Calderón government, were won by a Calderón loyalist, Teodoro Picado. After the mid-term elections of 1946, the opposition successfully demanded effective control of the electoral tribunal as a condition for participation in the 1948 presidential elections. Calderón was seeking to return to the presidency, against a unified opposition behind the candidacy of conservative newspaper publisher Otilio Ulate (Peeler). Officially, Ulate outpaced Calderón by 10,000 votes, but Calderón’s Victory Block Party gained a greater number of seats in the legislature than did the National Union Party. Calderón refused to acknowledge the defeat. Also, the day after the elections, a fire of suspicious origins destroyed many of the ballots (Costa Rica: Since Independence). When the election results showed Ulate the victor, Calderón petitioned the legislature to nullify the results, which they agreed to do because most of the members in the Assembly belonged to Calderón’s Victory Block Party (Costa Rica: Since Independence). Thus, the Calderónista majority in the legislative Assembly voted to annul the election on grounds of fraud (Peeler).

When President Picado, at the urging of Calderón, declared the election of Ulate fraudulent and refused to step down from his office, Figures saw the perfect opportunity to launch the attack that he had been planning for so long (The Civil War of Costa Rica). On March 12, 1948, word reached San Jose that a band of revolutionaries led by Jose Figueres had taken over the town of San Isidro del General in the southern part of the province (Since Independence). The brief civil war, which had been supported by the dictatorial governments of Guatemala and Cuba, resulting from this uprising was the bloodiest event in the 20th century Costa Rican history with more than 2,000 dead (US State Department & A Brief History of Costa Rica). The Civil War was camouflaged as a reaction against the violation of a democratic process, but it was much more than that. After the revolution, the negotiations that led to the establishments of liberal democracy are best seen as beginning in the crisis of 1948. As it became clear that Figueres had the upper hand in the civil war, several groups pushed for a settlement. The Calderónistas wanted to retain legal status and their foothold in organized labor. Figueres’ conservative and business allies, backers of Ulate, wanted the latter President without having to depend on the bayonets of Figueres. The Social Democrats wanted the way cleared for creation of the new social democratic order envisioned in their program. Figueres himself, in addition to these programmatic concerns, seemed intent on total military victory that would leave him free to act (Peeler). The Diplomatic Corps served as negotiators in the signing of a peace treaty, in which the president’s followers surrendered in exchange for the pardoning of their lives and the respect of their properties (The Civil War of 1948). Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia was exiled from Costa Rica, but the government of Calderón had great importance for the Costa Rican society and the credit he deserves for the social reform cannot be ignored (Costa Rica: People). Calderón’s enlightened policies included land reform, a guaranteed minimum wage and progressive taxation (Brief History of Costa Rica). As President from 1940-44, he founded the University of Costa Rica (1940), which is still a landmark in the progress of public, higher education. Calderón also established the country’s social security system, called the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (1941), which is still functioning. He also passed important bodies of law that guaranteed basic rights for workers and for all citizens alike (Caught between a World War and Civil War). However, on December 10, 1948, the exiled Calderón and his supporters invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua. With the aid of the Organization of American States, this overthrow attempt was put down (Since Independence).

Figueres became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica (Brief History of Costa Rica). The Figueres-Ulate Pact was signed on May 1, 1948 giving Figueres 18 months to govern the country without a legislature before turning power over to Ulate (Since Independence). The pact with Ulate was not strictly necessary, for Figueres and the Army of National Liberation had a complete monopoly of military force. Moreover, the United States was not inclined to intervene since they were part of the negotiations to exile Calderón. Calderón’s efforts to regain control of the country in December of 1948 only rallied further support for Figueres. In short, Figueres could have done anything he wanted, including establishing a personal dictatorship (Peeler).

As leader of the revolutionary junta, he consolidated Calderón’s progressive social reform program and added his own landmark reforms: he banned the press and the Communist Party, introduced suffrage for women and full citizenship for blacks, revised the Constitution to outlaw a standing Army (including his own), established presidential term limit and created an independent Electoral Tribunal to oversee future elections. Figueres also shocked the elites by nationalizing the banks and insurance companies, a move that paved the way for state intervention in the economy (Baker). After ruling eighteen months, the Junta fulfilled its agreements of reinstating the people’s choice for a leader, Otilio Ulate. Ulate didn’t even belong to Figueres’ party, but the latter respected the democratic election by the people of Costa Rica, and willing stepped down from power (Costa Rica: Government and Politics). That Figueres undertook and honored the pact seems to reflect a commitment by him to the principles of procedural democracy, independent of his commitment to the substantive program of the Social Democrats (Peeler). This episode in Costa Rican history illustrates a pattern established by most of the Presidents of the country: out of fifty three leaders, only three have been military men and six can be considered dictators. Most Latin American countries can’t affirm the same fate (Government and Politics). Costa Ricans later rewarded Figueres with two terms as president, in 1953-57 (winning the first election under the new constitution {U.S. State Dept.}). and 1970-74. Figueres dominated politics for the next two decades. A socialist, he used his popularity to build his own electoral base and founded the Partido de Liberacion National (PLN), which became the principal advocate of state sponsored development and reform (Baker).

The one called «Don Pepe» died in 1990 a national hero, his death set the scene for social and economic progress that would earn Costa Rica the reputation as a peaceful and stable island of democracy in one of the world’s most politically unstable, and often war torn regions. When civil war broke out in neighboring Nicaragua, Costa Rica was drawn reluctantly into the conflict, its northern zone being used as a base first for Sandinista and later for «contra» forces. In 1986, a young lawyer called Oscar Arias Sanchez was elected president on the platform of peace (Brief History of Costa Rica). The product of a country that abolished its army in 1948, President Arias has consistently work for peace in the region, convinced that negotiation, not war, is the best means for assuring peace. The «Arias Plan» calls on the five Central American states to work towards democracy; to assure freedom of the press and of political organization with free and open elections. It also requires them to pledge to limit the size of their armies. For his efforts he was awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to establish a peace treaty with his civil war torn neighbors. (Press Release).

In the Spring of 1997, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about demilitarization in Central America. His speech focused on the repercussion of war and the necessity of demilitarization. He told them how «younger individual in poor societies, very much equal in terms of intelligence, ability and motivation, do not have access to academic institutions such as those in the developing world.» Arias continues to advocate education and vehemently believes too many countries sacrifice education to fund armies. At the first speech in a three part series at MIT, he cited the United States as one of the biggest offenders. «The U.S. contributes one third of all global military expenditures,» Arias said. «There is no doubt that the people of the United States would greatly benefit if these funds are dedicated toward improving their educational systems and promoting scientific research instead of building an arsenal.» Arias blamed poorly funded education systems for slowing developing nations’ economies. He also said that if schools do not train students to compete in the global economy, the country’s technological and economic growth will suffer (McLaughlin). Currently, Arias has taken to the streets with his backers, who have financed a private, nationwide referendum to support ending the ban on second terms for presidents of Costa Rica, in hopes of getting another shot at the presidency. He is currently prevented by the constitution from becoming president again. According to the referendum’s organizers, 130,00 Costa Ricans voted in the non binding poll, with 88 percent favoring Arias, who retains wide popularity in Costa Rica (Nuñez).

As one of the effects of the Revolution of 1948, the demilitarization of Costa Rica stands as one of the most striking in a region where conflict has deep roots. Costa Rica’s capacity to do violence to its citizens and to other states must be among the lowest in the world. Its abolition of the death penalty in 1878 and prohibition of a standing armed force in 1949 were benchmarks in the effort to limit state violence and increase expenditures on social programs. In a public ceremony rich with symbolism, the army commander-in-chief handed the keys to his headquarters to the minister of education who promptly converted it to a museum. Costa Rica’s non-military tradition, however, does have its opponents within the nation. There is a substantial pro-military sentiment that was used extensively by the Reagan government in its efforts to militarize Costa Rica. Resistance to those efforts marked a low point in US-Costa Rican relations. A disquieting recent trend is a follow up effort by the U.S. to paramilitarize Costa Rica by enlisting it in the so-called «War on Drugs» (Common Security). However, as of April 13, 2000, the United States has notified the Costa Rican government that it will quit its intentions of using Costa Rican city of Liberia’s airport as an anti-drug base, a source from the Public Security Ministry disclosed. American Authorities decided to operate from a Salvadorian airport. It was preferred to make use of El Salvador’s Comalapa airport where the U.S. reached an agreement for the next 10 years (Xinhua News Agency).

Works Cited

Costa Rica: Since Independence AP Worldstream, 03/14/2000: Former President Wins own Referendum on Reelection; Rivals Scoff by Eric Nuñez (Ebscohost)
Costa Rica, Section 2, A brief history provided by the U.S. Department of State.
Democracy’s Guerilla [sic] by Christie McLaughlin
A Brief History of Costa Rica Toward Common Security in Central America
Costa Rica: History: Caught Between a World War (1939) and a civil war (1948)
Costa Rica: People: Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia (politician)
Costa Rica: History: The Civil War of 1948
Costa Rica: Politics: Our Democracy: An Overview
Early Democratization in Latin America, Costa Rica in the Context of Chile and Uruguay by John A. Peeler
Costa Rica Handbook by Christopher Baker
Oscar Arias Sanchez Press Release
Xinhua News Agency, 04/13/2000: U.S. Refrains From Base Establishment in Costa Rica (Ebscohost)

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