Modern History of Costa Rica
MODERN HISTORY OF COSTA RICA: 1948 to Present
The so-called revolution—in reality a civil war—of 1948 marked the entry of Costa Rica into the modern era. It caused a temporary hiccup in the tranquil march of democratic elections and was only the second such break in a 20th century that saw turbulence worldwide.
Although not particularly savage as civil wars go, it so shocked Costa Ricans that Ticos would kill their countrymen for any cause that it propelled the country into vigorous advocacy of peace and democracy that continues today. From this trauma was born a unique nation.
Most historians agree that the party in power, under President Teodoro Picado, rigged the election of 1948. When the ballots were counted, it appeared that, despite ballot-stuffing by both major parties, candidate Otilio Ulate of the opposition had won. But the ruling party, following a tradition of weak and corrupt democracies of Latin America, nullified this election. Although not a candidate, Jose (don Pepe) Figueres long critical of the ruling party, had gaining political strength rapidly. From his hacienda near Cartago, he sent out a call to arms.
Figueres, with many contacts throughout Latin America, called on backers of democracy and formed a ragtag army of sorts, poorly equipped and sharing only a common language. The Costa Rican Army—all of 500 soldiers strong—was not much better off and many stayed home, ignoring the call to put down the insurgents. The Figueres force suffered few setbacks and the civil war lasted only a few weeks. Ulate, a newspaper publisher and no soldier, had fled into exile and a military junta headed by Figueres ruled the country. Ulate, offered the presidency, demurred, saying, “I won’t govern without a constitution.”
The resulting 1949 constitution contained a number of innovations: a unicameral congress (the Legislative Assembly), rights measures such as giving resident foreigners the same rights as native-born Costa Ricans, two vice presidents for orderly succession and, most importantly, the institution of an independent, apolitical Supreme Elections Tribunal to conduct elections and as a watchdog during campaigns. After approval, Ulate assumed a truncated term and is chiefly known for the conciliatory tone of his administration.
During the junta, Figueres made two decisions that were to assure his place in Latin American and even world history. Faced with the embarrassing position of having two armies—the tiny regular army and the former rebels—awaiting assignment to military posts—and having no budget for either, he had a happy inspiration: He would eliminate the military unilaterally, as he later admitted in an interview with the English-language weekly, The Tico Times. Costa Rica had never had a military caste system, such as exists in Argentina and Chile, and its army was too small to offer any resistance to foreign aggression, so the solution was logical.
He was also a vociferous proponent of democratic government, so he handed over the reins to Ulate, making him the only 20th century junta chief, other than Kemal Ataturk of Turkey in 1923, to step down voluntarily. (One should remember that, during his era, the majority of Latin American nations were under dictators backed by the military. The Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua lasted 42 years before being overthrown.) Figueres went on to win two succeeding free elections and became Latin America’s most successful politician.
Economic changes were under way, as well. The country had been basically agrarian, depending on coffee and bananas for foreign exchange. But during Figueres’ final term in the 1970s, the government began to more actively court foreign investment. Tourism rose, aided by such pioneers as Costa Rican Expeditions and Calypso Cruises and, in the 1990s, replaced coffee as the No. 1 revenue generator. It was not until early this century that export of electronic components replaced tourism in that role.
The second event with the most impact of the century was the near-collapse of the economy. Rodrigo Carazo of the (Social Christian) Unity Party had won the presidency after Daniel Oduber’s term and inherited a nation in debt to foreign banks. He was depending on coffee exports to keep up payments when, in 1980, the international coffee price dropped through the floor while fuel prices soared. President Carazo had been dealt a bad hand but he also played it badly, ignoring the advice of his genius finance minister, Leonel Baruch, and vainly trying to control inflation by spending the nation’s gold reserves. (As The Tico Times expressed it at the time, “Costa Rican presidents had been borrowing as if there was no tomorrow—but tomorrow came.”) Order was not restored until Luis Alberto Monge (National Liberation Party) won the 1982 election and negotiated with the creditor institutions. Meanwhile, the colon had gone from 6.62 per dollar to 80 per dollar. Thereafter came a series of mini-devaluations that saw the colon creep up to more than 500 per dollar in 2006.
The third benchmark event was the Nicaraguan Revolution in the late 70s and its turbulent aftermath that put Costa Rica on the edge of a boiling Central American cauldron for more than a decade. First, the tyrannical 42-year-long Somoza dynasty was toppled by a revolution of the communist Sandinista movement, while President Carazo looked the other way, although the Sandinistas used Costa Rican territory for base camps and transport of supplies. Almost immediately after the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua, the CIA mounted a covert Cold War counter-revolutionary effort, again using “neutral” Costa Rica for bases of the anti-Sandinista movement, the so-called Contras.
This left an uncomfortable Monge treading a tightrope between strong right- and left-wing sentiments that divided Costa Rica. At that time, the country had two police forces under two separate ministries, the Public Security police and the Rural Guard, an effort of Figueres to make sure that the guns were not all controlled by one minister. Monge appointed a right-winger (a pro-American anti-communist) as head of the Rural Guard and the other a left-leaning minister for the urban police. When it became obvious that the Rural Guard was aiding the Contras, he called in the resignations of both ministers and switched the balance between right and left. The desperate president even tried to convince the unicameral congress to approve a constitutional amendment making Costa Rica neutral in all conflicts, so he could point to this to excuse his avoidance of involvement in Nicaragua’s civil war. Then he could tell the U.S. State Department and the CIA, “Look, my hands are legally tied.” But this ploy did not prosper, due in part to the right-wing deputies of his party. Being dependent on U.S. foreign aid to resolve his economic crisis, this master politician was squeezed unmercifully.
When Monge turned over the reins to young, dynamic Oscar Arias, he had been battered both by heroic efforts to solve the economic crisis and the country’s brief brush with leftist terrorism, the result of Central America’s agony spilling over into a still-stable Costa Rica. President Arias, realizing that the civil wars were hurting not only El Salvador and Nicaragua but the economy of the whole region, mounted a “peace offensive” that was later (1987) to earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. (Guatemala, in the throes of a 30-year-long murderous civil strife, largely ignored by the U.S. public and press, also benefited from Arias’s diplomacy.) He was accused of neglecting his country’s domestic needs and once complained that the English-language publication The Tico Times was the only Costa Rican media organization backing his peace plan.
A fourth turning point was the jailing of two former presidents, Rafael Angel Calderon and Miguel Angel Rodriguez, on charges of alleged corruption in 2004. No matter what the outcome of their trials, the message left by their televised arrests and incarceration was that the public was fed up by politicians and their often-shady activities. A third ex-president, Jose Figueres (son of the illustrious “don Pepe”) was in Europe during this period and refused to return to this country to defend himself against suspicions similar to those that landed Rodriguez and Calderon in jail (later remitted to house arrest.) Note: They remain accused only and their cases have yet to come to trial.
Public disaffection with both major parties was reflected at the polls in the 2002 elections as a fragmentation of political power divided the congress into several small parties without a clear majority. President Abel Pacheco (Social Christian Unity) found this an overwhelming obstacle in his efforts to get his bills passed in the Legislative Assembly and largely gave up the fight during his final year in office. Arias, able to run for re-election after a Supreme Court ruling that the law barring re-election was unconstitutional, did better but still must search the cracks in congress to find a majority.
**Article from the archives of the American-European Real Estate Group**