When I was in Binghamton back on November 13, I went to the Bundy Museum to see the documentary A Bold Peace. It chronicles the nearly 70-year “history of Costa Rica’s dismantling of their military & redirecting their resources towards education, healthcare, & the environment,” earning the country the #1 spot on the Happy Planet index.
In 1948, Costa Rica dissolved its military. The country’s priorities changed from weapons of war to an ambitious social program that included free medical care and education. But it did not come easily.
Rafael Calderon was elected in in 1942 and instituted a number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a first for Central America. “He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica.” But he was paternalistic and corrupt, and he ticked off the country’s emerging middle class.
Costa Ricans turned to Jose Figueres, “the founder of a think-tank called the ‘Center for the Study of National Problems’ in 1948. It was sharply anti-imperialist and thought that Calderon’s export-oriented model ceded too much to the United Fruit Company and other foreign companies.”
Later that year, “after Calderon lost the election to a candidate backed by Figueres, the legislature dominated by Calderon’s party overturned the results—thus leading to a civil war that cost the lives of 2,000 Costa Ricans.” Eventually, Figueres took power.
Costa Rica’s anti-military stance did not go well in the United States and its allies in the region. Several times over the years, the US tried to suck Costa Rica back into the fold, notably in the 1980s, when President Óscar Arias fended off Ronald Reagan’s desire to use the country as a base for the American counter-revolutionary attack on Nicaragua.
The enormous pressures put on Costa Rica to “get with the program” has meant agreeing to dubious free trade deals, which has meant “Walmart stores replacing locally-owned small stores and five star hotels springing up everywhere to lure tourists.”
Still, the notion of putting more money in butter rather than guns has made most of the average Costa Ricans, who seeming are inherently antipathetic to conflict, to live as the largest nation without a standing army.
A Bold Peace was a very informative film. The audience discussion afterward focused largely on whether the 102-minute film could have been trimmed. Of course, by only focusing on the positive aspects, but director Matthew Eddy wanted to show the whole complicated history, warts and all.
I recently read that Costa Rica runs 300 days on renewable energy, which shows that at least part of the progressive agenda remains.