Project Costa Rica: Costa Rica's Journey to a Peaceful Society

Country eliminates its standing army

by April Stanley

Photo courtesy of the Arias Foundatio
(Photo courtesy of the Arias Foundation)
In 1948, José Figueres abolished the standing army
of Costa Rica. This famous picture depicts Figueres
in the symbolic action of destroying a portion of the
military barracks.

In 1948, Costa Rica became the first country in the modern world to constitutionally abolish its standing army. This act is in total contrast to the malicious dictators who propagated guerrilla warfare and militarism that was characterized in most of Central America during this time. The abolition of the army, along with social reforms, was the end result of an armed revolution. The 1948 rule by a military officer, a time period known as a junta, did not contribute to the region's strife, but further affirmed the country's dedication to democracy.

It all started with the tense atmosphere during the 1948 election. At the polls, conservative newspaper publisher Otilio Ulate defeated Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia of the Victory Block Party, who had served as president from 1940-1944. However, the Congress, which was dominated by Calderón supporters, refused to accept the legitimate results.

This sparked the urgent need for a peaceful negotiation, which was attempted for 11 days but ended when a renegade member of the elite, José Maria Figueres Ferrer, saw his opportunity to seize power and ignite a revolution. In March, Figueres rose up in arms against the military, marking the start of the Civil War of 1948.

The armed conflict lasted five weeks and resulted in the death of some 2,000 people. This was the worst incidence of political violence Costa Rica had ever experienced and accounted for the country's bloodiest event in the 20th century.

The "Army of National Liberation," led by Figueres, defeated the Costa Rican army, and Figueres held power through what turned out to be the 1948 junta. The two men signed the Figueres-Ulate Pact in May, which allowed Figures to legally rule and ensured a peaceful transition of power to Ulate, the legitimate victor of the election. The pact granted Figueres power to govern without a legislature as long as he agreed to hand over power to Ulate after 18 months.

With military force at his disposal, Figueres had power to act according to his own interests and could have easily exploited his power. Instead, he banned the Communist Party, gave women the right to vote, granted black immigrants full citizenship, and established a presidential term limit. Figueres nationalized the banks in order to promote economic diversity and eliminate coffee grower's control over the banking system. For decades, the elite coffee growers had dominated Costa Rican society and economy. Figueres also created The Supreme Electoral Tribunal. This was to oversee election matters in order to avoid another fraud, as had occurred in 1944.

During the junta of 1948, other significant changes took place. The most famous was the constitutional abolition of the standing army. Figueres not only broke up the army, but made a constitutional ban to ensure the democratic future of Costa Rica. This constitutional ban also made the abolition legitimate and prevented successors from holding power by military force. This act sharply distinguished Costa Rica from its neighbors and placed Costa Rica on the world stage as a progressive country dedicated to peace.

After the army was abolished, the military funds were transferred to the education and healthcare budgets. As a symbolic gesture during a ceremony in 1948, the army commander-in-chief presented the keys of his headquarters to the minister of education. Soon after that transfer, weapons were replaced by books, and the building was converted into a school.

The former military headquarters are now the National Museum of Costa Rica, an impressive presentation of many stages of Costa Rican history. In front of the former army headquarters is Plaza de la Democracia (Democracy Plaza) which was dedicated in the 1980s during a ceremony in which former President Oscar Arias stated, "Here, reason defeated force. Here, the fearless tolerance enjoyed by a people without arms was born. Here, the soldier became a teacher; the rifle that once hung over his shoulder became the book now held in his hands."

As agreed upon in the Figeres-Ulate Pact, the 18-month rule came to an end in 1949. Figueres honored the pact and showed his commitment to democracy by peacefully handing power over to Ulate. In 1951, Figueres organized the National Liberation Party which continued to pursue efforts that would promote social welfare. After the 1953 election, the National Liberation Party extended housing subsidies and free medical care. It also nationalized insurance, utility services and the railway.

The army abolition came from military overthrow of the government, which could have been devastating to Costa Rican democracy and people.

Instead, this event has contributed to Costa Rica's peaceful reputation and has influenced leaders to encourage negotiation and rely on reason, rather than force when faced with conflict.

Former President Rodrigo Carazo Odio comments that, "Costa Ricans have cultivated a civilized spirit, a spirit opposed to militarization and violence. Armed with this spirit, the people are capable of seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts and respecting the rights of others." He states that this respect has survived and flourished because "education has fostered such an attitude and because in the absence of [military] weapons with which to impose an idea, the only weapon left is reason."