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by Larry Gambone

Costa Rica is well known for abolishing its military and for its environmental consciousness. Almost as well known were the social and political reforms which made it for many years the envy of Latin America. All of this should be of interest to libertarians, anarchists and pacifists. Perhaps some lessons could be learned from both the successes and failures of the Costa Rican experience.


Costa Rica was the Cinderella of the Spanish Empire. Its mountainous terrain did not allow for vast haciendas and the absence of a Native population to enslave meant that feudalism did not develop. (Not that there weren't any Native People to begin with, it's just that most of them died of European diseases) Instead, a very sparsely settled colony of small farmers evolved, most of whom came from the same region of Spain - Andalusia - and interbred with the few remaining Natives. Even as late as independence (1824) there were only 65,000 Costa Ricans in a few widely dispersed and almost completely autonomous villages. Poverty and a lack of rich land owning hidalgos gave rise to a strong egalitarian ethic. Small, egalitarian communities demanded a more tolerant and consensual approach in social and political affairs. The lack of class and ethnic conflict created a society where people tended to resolve disputes in a non-violent manner.

With the introduction of coffee growing in the 1850's, the small farmers began to prosper and a middle class began to develop. This middle class began to borrow liberal and democratic ideas found in Britain, the USA and Chile. In certain ways, Costa Rica mirrored the situation in New England and 'English' Canada, rather than what was normally found in Hispanic America.

Costa Rican society manages to thus combine a high degree of individualism with an egalitarian ethic. Within the small towns and old neighborhoods a strong sense of community still pervades. This is a culture that values mutual respect, politeness and 'getting along' with other people. Society functions largely through informal networks of relatives, friends and neighbors. Formal mutual aid exists in the very large number of agricultural and financial co-ops, community centers, professional, religious and ethnic associations. There are more than 100 groups dedicated to preserving the environment alone. Ticos (nickname for Costa Ricans) hate violence, conflict, intolerance, and fanaticism, hence, except for a brief period, ideologies such as Leninism, fascism and armed struggle have gotten much less support than any where else in Hispanic America. There is a definite cultural preference for consensus and rational compromise. Even though most Ticos are white collar or service workers a strong identification still exists with the farmer and the artisan and the healthy values associated with these groups.


Inequality increased during the first four decades of the 20th Century. In part, this was a result of the growth of a 'coffeeocracy', a class of middlemen and exporters and the development of the vast banana plantations under United Fruit. A social reform current arose among the middle class and the Communist Party began organizing the banana workers. In 1940 a Costa Rican version of FDR, Dr. Calderon Guardia, was elected President. Calderon ruled in a coalition with the Stalinists and managed to enact a few minor reforms. This move angered the coffeocracy. But the rich weren't the only ones upset. The anti-Stalinist left led by Jose Figueres feared that Calderon had the makings of a future caudillo, felt his reforms were demagogic and didn't go nearly far enough.

By the 1948 election, the country was in turmoil. It was widely believed that Calderon had stolen the election. The Anti-Stalinist left had been mobilizing for some time and the aftermath of the election brought about an armed revolt. They led a populist uprising against Calderon, the CP, the Army and Anastasio Somoza who backed the Calderonistas. Everyone who disliked the government and the Stalinists, no matter what the reason, joined the Populist National Liberation Movement. After a brief but fierce conflict - 2000 people killed - the Army and Calderon were defeated and the Liberationistas swept into power.

There were no firing squads and no revenge-seeking hidden under a hypocritical call for 'justice'. The CP was banned, but there was no attempt to persecute the opposition. The Army was disbanded and its headquarters became the new National Museum. The state budget going to the military was given over to health care and education. A national health care and education system was set up - the most advanced in Latin America.

The power of the presidency was reduced and a system of checks and balances introduced to avoid any future caudilloismo. In 1955 Calderon, backed and armed by his pal, Somoza, invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua. A 60,000 member militia immediately organized and with air cover provided by the OAS, the counter-revolutionaries were driven out. The militia disbanded and there were no executions of Calderonistas.


The initial burst of reforms were well received, in time even the rich supported them, for a healthy and educated population benefited everyone. The middle class increased from 10% of the population to 30% in 25 years. Costa Rica was stable and prosperous, some 3 to 5 times wealthier than its neighbors. Furthermore, 80% of families are homeowners and life expectancy is 76 years. These are the standards of a developed and not an underdeveloped society. Social and external peace, democracy and a lack of corruption are among the most important factors allowing a country to develop economically and socially. And while Costa Ricans are poor by our North American standards, you don't need much to live in a hot climate.

Without rent-racking landowners, corrupt officials and health and education taken care of, life really isn't so bad, though it isn't exactly Scarborough South. However, a problem soon arose which was to in part undermine these successes. The temptation existed to use the now-nationalized banks and state agencies as a means of staying in power. Not with dictatorship, but in the form of legal corruption familiar in Canada with the Liberal Party, that is buying votes and creating a client base with tax payer's money. Sadly, this temptation was not resisted.

The National Liberation Movement became the National Liberation Party and began to abandon its populism, becoming a social democratic party and joining the Socialist International. Paradoxically for a populist movement, the state became ever more centralized, until it became the least decentralized government in Latin America. The state extended its tentacles everywhere, until by 1980, it held 60% of the economy. These state companies became models of over-staffing and inefficiency. An agency to aid the poor consumed 80% of its budget in salaries. The nationalized railroad took 10 days to deliver a box car in a normal 5 hour trip. It took months to get a phone and a year to get a license plate. Laws and regulations abounded, and seemingly every aspect of Costa Rican society was covered by a rule. All of this was paid for by loans, and in 1980 the pile of loans was too high, the house of cards collapsed, the value of the Colone decreased rapidly and Costa Ricans lost 40% of their income. The state was forced to make cut-backs, and like in Canada, these cuts came not at the expense of the bloated state bureaucracy, but from education, health care and assistance for the poor. Crack cocaine came in from Panama and crime became a problem, heretofore almost non-existent. Costa Ricans lost their exuberance and become highly critical of their governmental system. However, there was no violence or bitter hostility. Today, life is somewhat better, but Costa Rican social democracy is no longer a given and while no mass-based alternative has arisen, there is a good deal of ferment. One interesting tendency is a growing pressure to both limit and decentralize government.


Tolerance, opposition to censorship, a preference for consensus, rational compromise and non-violent resolution of conflict are essential libertarian traits. So too, individualism, mutual aid, environmentalism and community consciousness. All of these are found in large measure in CR society. But these are not the only libertarian traits. There are two Costa Ricas, one is the official one as proclaimed by the government, the other is real, existing society, which tends to ignore the former. There is a kind of Great Refusal by the people. They will only obey the State's rules and laws if they make sense, if they don't make sense, they are ignored. This is so unlike Canada where the population tend to be such statist ass-kissers. There is no income tax in CR, for the people refuse to pay.

The city of San Josť has been trying to get rid of street sellers for 50 years, but can't since it is impossible to enforce. Booze is sold everywhere in the small towns even though technically a liquor license is required. There are, like back home, a host of idiot building regulations and bylaws, but nobody bothers with them. The police are ignored and people deal with criminals themselves. Everyone is armed, yet the murder rate is low.


The Revolution of 1948, no matter what the later developments, was unique in its wisdom and humanity. Compare it to the blood baths, corruption and tyranny of the Mexican, Russian, Communist Chinese, and (Stalinist) Cuban revolutions. The idea of gathering together all the opposition to Calderon and not getting bogged down in secondary issues was a masterpiece of strategy. Anyone with experience on the left will be aware of how rare such strategic thinking is. Of course, the Communist United Front is in some ways based upon this method, but it is not genuine, people are used and liquidated, for the various groups making up the coalition are not valued in and of themselves (Unlike the Populist coalition). Wisdom was not limited only to internal matters. Dismantling the military helped improve foreign relations and set a positive example for CR's warlike neighbors.

Rather than attacking the United States like a demented mouse biting a tiger, (like that bloodthirsty clown, Castro) the Revolutionaries loudly proclaimed their animosity to totalitarianism. Costa Rican hostility to Stalinism pleased the Gringos and so the Revolution was free to make its radical reforms. The wisdom and humanity of the Revolution lay in its Populist nature, expressing the traditions of the people and not the Rationalist abstractions of an intellectual elite or the delusions of a megalomaniacal dictator.

What does Costa Rica teach us?

1. It can be done. Radical changes can be brought about if the overwhelming majority want it. Nor need one create a climate of animosity and fear internally or externally because of these changes.

2. You really don't need the military.

3.Social change must be rooted in the liberatory aspects of the history, culture and values of the people. Ideas brought from outside ( and the failure of Marxism in North America is but one example) will not take root in a soil unprepared for them. Far better to ignore the ideological fads imported from Paris, Moscow or whatever exotic place and concentrate upon the life you find around you. This also means a realist approach to other societies less blessed. Cultures that are overwhelmingly authoritarian are very unlikely do much more than duplicate their misery. The freest societies today are those who were freest 100 years ago. Freedom and peace grow from freedom and peace. A repressive and militaristic culture can be overcome, witness Japan and Germany, but it takes a tremendous effort and a need to be honest about the failings of one's society, something unlikely where nationalism is strong.

4. Real, fundamental change can only come about by uniting all the people who favor these changes and weakening and dividing those who reject them. This unity comes about through support for a limited number of general yet meaningful goals, and not some vastly detailed program. Such programs only serve to divide people.

5. People can resist government and its ever-expanding laws and regulations. Once enough people do, it becomes impossible for the state - within the framework of democracy - to impose its arbitrary rules, and thus a free space opens.

6. Is 'development' in the 'developed world' sense of the term what people really need? If people have enough to eat, have access to health care, education and culture, is a North American middle class lifestyle what they should be striving for? Furthermore, aren't internal factors; history, culture, political system, ethics, among the most important determining factors of development? There has been far too much emphasis on the effects of foreign investment - even though these can cause severe dislocation - than on the internal factors, like those that have worked in Costa Rica's favor. Back to Archive