To this day, Costa Rica has no army, navy or air force, no heavy weapons of… (Los Angeles Times )
On Dec. 1, 1948 — 65 years ago this month — Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledgehammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall at the nation's military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. Its imposing towers and massive gates had loomed over the capital city of San Jose since 1917, the country's premier symbol of military power and the home of the "Tico" military establishment.
Figueres was not just being a showman; he was announcing something truly extraordinary: Henceforth, Costa Rica would take the almost unheard-of step of renouncing its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he publicly handed the keys to the minister of education, announcing that Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and the nation's military budget would be redirected toward healthcare, education and environmental protection.
The political calculations that led to this dramatic event were doubtless complex, and they've been disputed ever since. It seems likely, for example, that Figueres was painfully aware that Costa Rica's military, like that of other Central American states, had been used to suppress domestic uprisings and undertake coups, especially against governments perceived to be left-leaning like his.
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But at the same time he was clearly aware of the "opportunity costs" associated with military spending, the simple fact that resources expended on the military could not be used to support domestic needs. Then as now, his decision to demilitarize created opportunities for Costa Rica to invest in butter instead of guns.
To this day, Costa Rica has no army, navy or air force, no heavy weapons of any kind. There are local police forces but no national defense force. When visiting dignitaries arrive in San Jose, they are never met by bands in military-style uniforms or uniformed national officials of any kind, because by law there are none; rather, foreign VIPs are met by schoolchildren wearing the visitor's national colors.
If you walk along a beach in Costa Rica and see lines of pelicans flying in perfect formation, consider it the Tico air force, out on maneuvers.
Most Americans — even among the many who travel to Costa Rica for an eco-vacation — have no idea that this country is demilitarized, even as they enthusiastically partake of the many benefits this decision has helped generate: democratic institutions, the remarkably healthy and happy population, and, not least, the fact that Costa Rica has been able to invest not only in its people but also in preserving about 25% of its land area in either national parks or biological reserves.
It has become fashionable of late to evaluate and rank the overall "happiness" of various countries. It's easy to be skeptical of such surveys. The results vary with the questions asked, not to mention divergent national styles when it comes to self-assessment. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that Costa Rica ranks No. 1 in the Happy Planet Index, No. 1 in the World Database of Happiness. It's consistently right up there with its wealthier counterparts despite a per capita gross domestic product of $7,390, 68th in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund in 2010.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to conclude with certainty that when it comes to various "happiness" measures, Costa Rica punches so far above its weight because it's been soldierless for 65 years, but the possibility is at least reasonable. In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias made the happiness connection, obliquely, when he spoke before the U.S. Congress.
"I belong to a small country," he said, "that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter.... Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbors. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed."
Arias was addressing Congress because of his role in negotiating peace in the Contra war in neighboring Nicaragua. The United States had employed strenuous economic and diplomatic arm-twisting in hopes of getting Costa Rica to rearm and join it in fighting the Contras. When that effort failed, the Reagan administration was greatly annoyed. But two months after Arias' Washington speech, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is no doubt that his success as a negotiator was achieved in part because he was able to deploy his country's neutrality as well as the moral authority generated by its commitment to demilitarization.