Costa Rica: 70 years without an army

Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence

Jan 13, 2018

Without claiming a complete and error-free treatment, I will allow myself to share my observations as I got acquainted with this country:

  • a country with the happiest people on Earth (according to Happy Planet Index);
  • for already 70 years, a country that has no armed forces, neither conscripted nor under contract.

Recently, a preview of OSAC’s annual report for Costa Rica has come to my attention. It presented unfortunate data: Costa Rica ended 2017 with more than 600 homicides, a record annual high for murders in the country. For comparison, 600 homicides a year with the population of 4,8 million people (0.013%) is a lot, even higher than in Russia (0.006%). These questions arose immediately:

  1. Does this mean that the absence of armed forces for national defense does not influence the crime rate within the country?
  2. Does this also mean that Costa Ricans continue to be satisfied with their lives despite the high crime rates?
  3. Therefore, can we conclude that people’s well-being does not depend on the presence or absence of an army? Moreover, is it possible that a principal factor in their happiness is that they do not have to threaten their global neighbors, near and far, with weapons?

Let’s find out.

My only visit to Costa Rica took place in 2010 and was of a rather short duration, covering only the capital city and its suburbs, a number of national parks, and the Caribbean coast. Nevertheless, the subject of my interest was the everyday life of people in the absence of an army, and whether this whole idea of disbanding the army was a stunt or not.

First facts

After the end of the civil war in 1948, Costa Rica’s regular army was abolished by President José Figueres Ferrer with the goal of eliminating the “militarized spirit” of the country. Malicious tongues say the army was abolished only to prevent a coup d’état. Nevertheless, it would have been possible to lobby for a change or reversal of this decision any number of times during these seventy years. Even so, this principled Costa Rican policy of neutrality and absence of armed forces remains unchanged to this day. (In 2003, the Government announced its participation in peacemaking actions in Iraq, but the Constitutional Court found this decision illegitimate. As a result, at the request of Costa Rica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country was excluded from the members of the Coalition, and the no-army policy remained intact.)

How are sovereignty and order protected in Costa Rica today?

For those wishing to learn this question in detail, refer to the official site of the Ministry of Public Security Ministerio de Seguridad Pública (sp.)

Briefly, the National Guard and the police are charged with ensuring sovereignty and order. Their personnel are equipped and outfitted in accordance with the area’s potential threats and main sources of crime. Primarily, they carry out the tasks of:

  • localization of border-area tensions with Nicaragua;
  • interdiction of drug trafficking from the south to the north of the country;
  • maintenance of internal law and order.

These forces, of course, are nothing like integrated army or SWAT teams, but they form combat-capable units, performing continuous duty within the country and surveillance of its borders. Therefore, every adult Tico, even the most peaceful one, pays daily for legalized murder, and the widely advertised PURA VIDA (“pure life”) bears almost no relation to the provision of security.

Now — my personal observations

In Costa Rica, the crime rate is quite high. When you turn on the evening news, you will almost certainly stumble onto scenes of arson, robbery, street shootings, and their consequences. These are Costa Rica’s drug wars, as well as the results of the presence in the country of half a million Nicaraguan refugees, 90% of whom live and work illegally. Costa Rica’s proximity to its troubled Caribbean neighbors Haiti and Jamaica does not add order: Costa Rica’s seaside province of Limón is a very picturesque but often extremely uncomfortable and unsafe place.

In this beautiful country, saturated in green, literally every building resembles a prison: bars and barbed wire on all windows and doors, fields and plantations, in urban and rural areas, from one end of the country to the other.… It is said that this is typical for many Latin American countries, but somehow you do not expect this among the people of the most peaceful country of Latin America … you do not expect this at all. Yes, it’s passive protection, but still.

The second important point is the uniqueness of the country’s geographical position, and its abundance of flora and fauna, which are both the pride of Costa Ricans, and their headache. On the one hand, thanks to its flora and fauna (25% of the country’s territory are magnificent nature reserves), as well as mild climate and the two coasts, the Pacific and the Caribbean, Costa Rica is full of tourists from the USA the whole year round. This business is one of the main sources of state revenue that no one wants to lose, including common people (along with the sale of coffee and bananas, the main importer of which are the same States). However, the huge numbers of Americans, who fly in for vacations in Costa Rica almost every weekend, is a direct temptation to do violence for poor Ticos and emigrants. (Let’s say you make $20,000 in the US. Most would say that is not a lot of income, especially if you have a family… but it is 4-5 times (or more) what an average Tico earns <source>). This predetermines the need for reliable protection for the visitors.

This is one of the reasons why Costa Rica is considered one of the most tranquil countries of Central America — because of the constant American presence at all levels, visible and invisible. First of all, we are talking about military-police cooperation and periodic assistance in the form of arms supplies. According to some reports, the country’s external security is also provided by the US military protectorate. Although official documents do not confirm this, common sense suggests that, in the event of any serious external aggression, the country will have to seek help from the UN and its peacekeeping forces.

Now the conclusions

1. It is not reasonable to conclude that abandoning the army was the beginning of a process of full demilitarization and disarmament of Costa Rica that has continued with similarly bold steps. In fact, everything seems to be at a standstill. But, to be fair, it should be noted that there is no hint of military propaganda in the country. In the history of the state, only one military hero is glorified, Juan Santamaria. He threw a torch into the fortress of the enemy, thereby forcing them to retreat because of the fire.

2. Peace-loving nature of Ticos — This I can confirm! And I regret to say that people from numerous problematic places of the Caribbean basin take advantage of this. This is not usually said in so many words, but the roots of crime here largely grow in the migrant environment. If we talk about murders — 70% of them are drug-related..

3. I can not say that subsistence farming and households predominate or play any significant role in the country. PURA VIDA almost does not touch upon the subsistence economy. Far from cities, people mainly work on plantations of larger farmers. Eco-communities exist in abundance, but they consist primarily of American immigrants, “merging with nature.” Although, to be fair, there are reputed to be several really strong and autonomous communities, but I did not get to them.

4. Unfortunately, questions of faith were not a big interest of mine at the time, but it is impossible not to mention the numbers of crucifixes found everywhere. Piety (or, rather, deep respect for God) is perhaps one of the main features of Costa Ricans. However, the biblical adage “neither Greeks nor Jews” doesn’t really apply here; for the Ticos someone like me will always remain a big white “gringo,” regardless of the country they came from.

5. ABOVE ALL.The reason for peace and the high satisfaction with life, in my opinion, are not some special opportunities for self-realization, but rather modest demands and expectations of Costa Ricans. PURA VIDA is not about “how everything is clean here” (after all, 400,000 firearms in the hands of the population already implies that all is not right in the country). PURA VIDA indicates that people have other priorities: education, health, social projects, nature, children. For each of these points, Costa Rica is ahead of most of its neighbors in the region, and owing to a combination of subjective feelings of well-being, is invariably one of the highest-ranking countries in the world.