Bull By The Horns
Globocops / STANDING ARMIES
As in most Central American capital cities the grandest building in the centre of San José is the army barracks. It is now the National Museum. Among its most prominent exhibits is the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize won by President Oscar Arias for helping to bring peace to Costa Rica's warring neighbours.
Melania Ortiz, the director of the museum, says: 'We have a place that promotes knowledge, enjoyment and research. I think we are reflecting what we have been doing during these 50 years.'
On 1 December 1948 President José Figueres abolished the army on this spot. 'The army hands over the keys to the barracks, to be converted into a cultural centre,' he said. 'We are the sustainers of a new world in America. Little Costa Rica offers its heart and love to civilian rule and democracy.'
His rhetoric was met with silence by the invited diplomats and journalists, recalls Henrietta Boggs - Figueres' wife at the time - in her book Married To A Legend.
'Why aren't they applauding?' she asked Francisco Orlich, Minister of Public Works.
'Almost all the Latin Americans here represent countries governed by military dictators,' he replied. 'The armies maintain them in power. They think that Figueres, by doing this, is showing that he is crazy.'
What seems crazy today is that no other country - except neighbouring Panama, under some constraints after the invasion by the US in 1989 - has followed such a simple and successful example.
Under 'Don Pepe' (Figueres' nickname) barracks did indeed become schools and museums, books replaced weapons. The defence budget was transferred to the Education Ministry in its entirety. He promised a bench for every child and a bed for every sick person. Costa Rica is now democratic, relatively rich and regularly makes the top 50 of the UN Human Development Index.
These would be notable achievements anywhere. But Costa Rica is not just anywhere - it's in the middle of a murderous region wracked by war and outside meddling. Its neighbours Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala fought civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s that killed hundreds of thousands, while Honduras and Panama succumbed to military rule. In each case the oligarchy and the US backed the army against its own people.
Costa Rica sometimes had to walk a tightrope. Insurgents used bases inside its borders to launch attacks on Nicaragua, first against the Somoza family dictatorship then against the left-wing Sandinistas. The US pressured the country to accept the training of its police force by military instructors. The Costa Rican Government even contracted Mossad - the notorious Israeli intelligence service - to instruct its anti-terrorism police. Human-rights abuses grew. But President Oscar Arias maintained the country's neutrality and used its unique moral force to help settle regional conflicts.
Costa Rica's history explains in part the lack of violence. The few indigenous people who lived here when Spanish settlers arrived in the 16th century were quickly slaughtered or driven off their land. So there was no Indian labour to work the haciendas in feudal bondage - Spanish immigrants had to use their own hands. The lack of mineral wealth meant that few adventurers were attracted to the region. The country did not even need to fight for its independence. When Mexico liberated Guatemala, Costa Rica joined the short-lived Central American Federation, without a fight, in 1821. Uniquely in the region, its first rulers were civilians.
The arrival of coffee in the mid-19th century created large estates and a bigger wealth divide. By the end of the century US banana companies became important too, with their plantations on the Caribbean coast. The élite divided between liberals and conservatives and made the army a significant political player. For almost half the years between 1824 and 1899 the country was under military rule. The dictatorial Tinoco brothers held sway as recently as 1919.
The lead-up to the 1948 civil war reads like an improbable thriller with an incredible twist in the tale. Between 1942 and 1948 conservative President Rafael Angel Calderon, backed by the coffee barons and the Catholic Church, formed an alliance with the Communist Party. Calderon's Government created a welfare system and worker-protection laws.
Figueres, a coffee grower, led anti-Communist but reformist forces that rebelled after Calderon won the 1948 election by fraud. Some 2,000 people died in the short burst of fighting that followed. Figueres triumphed and ruled through a junta for 18 months. He destroyed all his potential opponents - the unions, the Communist Party and the armed forces. But then he nationalized the banks and introduced wealth taxes. He gave women and Caribbean immigrants the right to vote. The party he founded, the National Liberation Party, won elections in 1953, after which he nationalized insurance, all utilities and the railway. The Party later extended social security, free medical care and housing subsidies.
Figueres argued that only by abolishing the army could democratic institutions grow strong. 'Arms have given us independence, laws will give us freedom,' he said.
Rodrigo Carazo Odio, ex-President of Costa Rica and the UN Peace University, says: 'Whereas others have come to depend on arms, we have learned to live unarmed. The fundamental difference between Costa Rica and other Latin American countries is that Costa Ricans have cultivated a civilized spirit, a spirit antithetical to militarization and violence, capable of finding peaceful solutions to conflicts and respectful of the rights of others. This respect has survived and flourished for two reasons: first, because education has fostered such an attitude; and second, because in the absence of weapons with which to impose an idea, the only weapon left is reason. Today, people such as myself have become fully convinced that a country that organizes an army becomes its own jailer.'
Costa Rica still has problems with Nicaragua, its northern neighbour. In 1998 a century-old dispute flared up over the use of the San Juan river, which marks the boundary between the two states. Two years of patient negotiations followed and the dispute was settled without recourse to arms or threats. Costa Rica is, significantly, the only country in the region not to have been invaded or used as a base by the US.
The peace dividend has been used wisely. While other Central American countries spend up to five per cent of their national income on defence, Costa Rica spends it on education. Its state healthcare system is one of the best outside the developed countries.
'We really did spend the money on schools and health,' says Boris Segura, an economist. 'Armies are a waste of money. It's that simple.'
A skilled workforce and low taxation have made Costa Rica attractive to international companies. Intel has built a big computer-chip plant and others have administrative headquarters here. From the 1970s onwards Costa Rica also skilfully exploited its position as a peaceful nation to attract tourists. It now receives more than one million a year - the biggest single source of revenue after computer chips.
The paramilitary police are far from perfect. They cracked down heavily during protests against the privatization of electricity and telecommunications in March this year. But they are far better than their counterparts in other Central American countries. In Guatemala the UN has charged the police with responsibility for dozens of murders and cases of torture. In Honduras they frequently use street children for target practice.
Ex-President Rodrigo Carazo Odio believes his country has a unique role to play in the world. 'Violence is in large measure a result of culture,' he says, 'and to reduce violence one must reduce all of the contributing causes. This cannot be achieved by decree, treaty or imposition. It can only be achieved as a result of a process that may take centuries to accomplish, but that is what a country like Costa Rica has the obligation to suggest.'
is Panama correspondent of The Financial Times.