Costa Rica Disarmed Democracy


At one point in its history, Costa Rica produced more bananas than any country in -the world, but it is far from being a "banana republic". Army less, democratic, conservation-minded-people in many developing countries are fighting for what Costa Rica has had for years. How did this come about?

Costa Rica acted progressively long before that was the general trend. The establishment of free, obligatory, tax-financed education in the constitution of 1869, the elimination of the death penalty in 1882, and the abolition of the army in 1948, all testify to Costa Rica's unique character and vision, and all laid the groundwork for the present social order.

Historically, Costa Rica has almost always remained uninvolved in the conflicts that have shaken her sister republics. John L. Stephens, a North American archaeologist who visited in 1840, mentioned even then that Costa Rica was an island of tranquility compared to the rest of Central America . Although the national character tends to ignore or imagine itself above the problems of its neighbors, president Oscar Arias (1986-90, 2006-) took a decisive and responsible role in waging peace, especially in relation to Nicaragua . His unflagging efforts to bring warring parties to the conference table won him the 1987 Nobel Prize. At the same time, many Costa Ricans resented his concentration on international issues and wished he would pay more attention to the economic problems at home.

Family trees show that 75% of the leading figures in Costa. Rica's history were descended from only four conquistadores and, of course, their indigenous consorts. The native people of Costa Rica were never completely dominated by the Spanish colonizers, so the class divisions that exist to this day in other Latin American countries were not developed to the same degree. The few indigenous groups not decimated by war and disease moved away to isolated mountain regions where they still live. Costa Rica's poverty and isolation led colonial families to fend for themselves, establishing more egalitarian values than in other Latin countries.

When it was discovered in the 1830's that coffee grew well in Central American highlands and fetched a high price in European markets, the powerful elites of most of the newly-independent nations on the isthmus forced campesinos from the land in order to make large coffee plantations. Not so in Costa Rica . Small farmers were encouraged to grow coffee and sell the beans to central beneficios or processing plants, owned by wealthier farmers who would prepare the beans for export. Thus rich and poor participated together in the coffee-growing process, each small farmer caring for his bushes in a personal way. Coffee plants demand a lot of attention, and Costa Rican coffee has always been known as one of the finest on the international market. The beneficio policy gave stability and importance to the small farmer, and allowed him to grow subsistence crops for his family.

The development of the educational and electoral systems during the late 1800's provided the basis for a participatory democracy. By the end of the 19th century, political violence began to decrease and the budget of the police force began to exceed that of the army. When the victorious forces of the 1948 civil war decided to constitutionally abolish the army, a defacto situation that had been developing from the beginning of the century was legally ratified.

For Costa Ricans, abolishing the army had several functions: it inhibits the formation of a military group capable of gaining autonomy; it frees public funds for development; it makes elections the only route to power; it establishes Costa Rica's neutrality in the region; a country which is militarily weak cannot be attacked without provoking international condemnation of the aggressor; it shows the illegitimacy of armed opposition to a state which has renounced the use of force.

The pragmatic thinkers who brought about the abolition of the army recognized the United States as the dominant superpower of the region, and their ally and friend. Implied in the abolishment is the belief that the US would come to Costa Rica's rescue if it were attacked. During the years of Sandinista arms build-up in Nicaragua, many Costa Ricans longed for the United States to invade and put an end to the regime. president Arias faced as much internal opposition to his peace plan as he did external. In fact, it was not until he won the Nobel Prize in 1987 that his critics started to let up a bit. Similarly, the vast majority of Costa Ricans lauded the US invasion of Panama. So in this case, disarmament does not imply pacifism. Costa Ricans, by nature, seek to avoid conflict, so being armyless fits in with the national character. But more practically, abolishing the army just means the removal of a force that, allied with powerful economic interests, has wreaked havoc on democracy in developing countries for centuries.

Costa Ricans view the military as an encumbrance to their political and social life as well as to the public budget. They prefer to channel their national resources to health and education. Because of their nationalized medical and social security systems, Costa Rican health is on a par with that of industrialized nations. In an attempt to ensure the well-being of future generations, 27% of Costa Rica's territory is legally set aside as national parks, biological reserves, forest reserves and buffer zones, wildlife refuges and Indian reserves.

Even without an army, finding the money to pursue goals of social justice and ecological balance has become well-nigh impossible. Costa Rica is fighting an uphill battle against her tremendous deficit, the largest per capita in the world. The International Monetary Fund demands austerity from a government whose bureaucracy employs 20% of the workforce. The developed countries pump in millions of dollars of aid, but the largest chunk of the country's budget almost one third--goes to service the same foreign debt!

Costa Rican currency is worth about one twelfth of its value ten years ago, and is devaluated monthly. A respectable middle-range salary is still under US$300 per month, and the national average is about $200 per month. Recent studies show that the average family has to spend $125 per month on food alone. A third of Costa Rican families are below poverty level.

Despite all this, Ticos, rich and poor, actively support their democracy. On election day they honk horns, wave party flags, dress up in party colors, and proudly display their index fingers dipped in purple indelible ink to show they have voted. The Communist parties, which have played an important role in Costa Rican history, won less than 1% of the vote in the last election.

Even with the enthusiasm that turns their election day into a national fiesta, Costa Ricans are skeptical about politics and politicians their roots are still in the soil and in the unity of their families. Babies are the acknowledged rulers of the household.

Mothers' Day is one of the biggest national holidays.

Foreigners complain that it is hard to make deep friendships here because family ties are so strong.

The united family that made it possible for early poverty-stricken farmers to survive is perhaps still the real basis of Costa Rican stability.

At the same time, women are a solid 50% of the workforce, and are rapidly increasing their numbers as doctors, lawyers and government officials. Dr. Victoria Gaffon became the first woman Vice-President of the Republic in 1986, and Dr. Rosemary Karpinski the first woman president of the Legislative Assembly.

Costa Ricans' love for the beauty and freedom of their country is almost palpable. At 6:00 pin each September 14, the eve of their Independence Day, everyone drops what they are doing to sing the national anthem. In comer stores and homes across the country, everyone joins in. It's a rousing hymn in tribute to peace, hard work, and the generosity of the earth, but it also warns that if these things are threatened, Costa Ricans will it convert their rough farming tools into arms", as they did when William Walker tried to invade in the 19th century.

Now Costa Rica faces another kind of invasion. The increasing popularity of "eco-tourism" has opened the country to a huge influx of visitors, attracted to her incredible ecological diversity. Convinced that the "clean industry" of tourism will be a source of much-needed foreign exchange, the government is offering incentives for large tourism projects that will provide hotel rooms to keep up with the demand. No one is listening to the voice of the campesino who still has not been paid for his land which was made part of a biological reserve, or the dairyman who cannot afford to buy more pasture for his animals because the price of land has gone up due to foreign and local speculation, or the coastal dweller that suddenly finds there's no room on the bus to town because it's filled with surfboards. A more serious threat is the kind of touristic development which regards local people as a pool of potential maids, waiters, gardeners and laundresses, and nothing more. The traditional values of the small independent farmers who are the backbone of Costa Rican democracy could be lost in the process.

On the other hand, most Costa Ricans are proud to share the beauty of their land with visitors, and know how to make foreigners feel at home. Some programs are trying to incorporate native skills into tourism and ecology: young men who were raised hunting turtles are now being trained to help visitors understand the ancient ritual of turtle nesting; sharp-eyed campesinos are learning to be taxonomists in the national parks; men and women from the dry Guanacaste region are reviving the ancient pottery-making techniques of their ancestors; indigenous women from Talamanca have written a book to explain their beliefs about conserving the forest and its wildlife.

Even though the campesino and the oxcart are powerful symbols in Costa Rican life, almost half the population of the country now lives in urban areas. Cramped housing developments cover the fertile soil of the Central Valley. As happens everywhere, the city dwellers quickly forget their roots. Hopefully, visitors like you will take time to meet rural people and learn to value their knowledge, cultures and lifestyles, as well as supporting the small businesses they have created.

written by Beatrie Blake Anne Bcher

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