Back on December the first of 1948, The President of Costa Rica, José Figueres, made a powerful speech, and right after, he took a big sledgehammer and made a hole on the Costa Rican military headquarters, called Cuartel Bellavista. It’s impressing towers and enormous gates had loomed over San Jose, the Capital city, since 1917, it was the military symbol of Costa Rica.
The president was not showing off; he was informing the nation about something daring and quite revolutionary (Especially at the end of World War II and beginning of the Cold War); Costa Rica was renouncing forever to have armed forces.
At the end of the ceremony, he, in front of everyone, he gave the keys to the Minister of Education, telling the citizenship that the Bellavista was converting into a National History Museum and all of the money for military purposes would go directly towards healthcare, education and environmental protection.
The political implications that lead Costa Rica to the event were really complex, and they have been disputed ever since. It seems, likely that Jose Figueres was surprised due to domestic uprisings and undertake coups, especially against the government.
At the moment, there was a quite unique opportunity to do this. The old army of the country had been dissolved beacuse of a civil war and coup, and the new army was not yet totally formed. There were no carrier militaries, or people who would be unemployed. The momet was perfect!
The president was also aware of the opportunity costs associated with military spending, the fact the resources expended on the military could not be used to support the local needs.
Now, that decision to demilitarize has created lots of opportunities to invest in the previously mentioned instead of guns.
Up to this day, in 2016, Costa Rica has no army, neither navy or air force, and no heavy arms of any type.
There are really good police forces, but we don’t have – or need – any national defense force.
What you will see when you arrive
When visiting Costa Rica, and arrive in San Jose, you never met any bands in military-style uniforms or national officials of any type, because by law there are none; Even in the protocolary acts, foreign government visitors are met by schoolchildren wearing paper flags of the visitor’s country.
Most of the tourists who visit Costa Rica have no idea that the country has been demilitarized even as they actively partake of the many benefits in this decision; democratic institutions, incredibly healthy and happy population, and, not least, the fact that Costa Rica has been able to invest, not only in education but also to create a strong an quite big National Parks System (About 25% of the land is either national park or biological reserves.)
Costa Rica as the happiest country
It has become fashionable to evaluate the overall “happiness” of various nations.
It’s easy to be skeptical of such reviews. The results changes with the questions asked, not to mention different national styles when it comes to self-assessment.
Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that Costa Rica ranks No. 1 in the Happy Planet Index. It’s consistently right up there despite a per capita gross domestic product of $7,390, 68th in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund in 2010.
(The Happy Planet Index measures: sustainable wellbeing for all. It tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives. )
It is problematic, maybe impossible, to accomplish this with certainty, when it comes to various “happiness” measures, Costa Rica punches so far above its weight because it hasn’t had and army, up to this point, for 68 years, but the possibility is at least reasonable.
In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias made the happiness connection 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.”
The president was addressing Congress because of his part in negotiating peace in the Contra war in Nicaragua. The United States had employed strenuous economic and diplomatic arm-twisting in hopes of getting Costa Rica to have weapons again and join it in fighting the Contras. When that effort failed, the Reagan administration was greatly irritated. But two months after Oscar Arias’ speech, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is no doubt that the 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.
Peace is not only a much happier state of mind… it is also convenient! Economically, socially and individually. Peace is good business for a country!
Now… All that looks good… But what will happen if you get invaded?
Well! We have! Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica in 2010, taking an island in our border with them… What we did? basically go to an International Court and discuss it there. Finally, La Hague Court gave us the right to the island.
Like you would do if your neighbor decides to take part of your back patio… You would go to court right?
The fact is that, as our grandparents used to say “The less you have, the less you worry about“. Costa Rica CAN live without an army. We don’t have oil and open sky mines are forbidden by law in the country. No gold, no precious stones, no oil… Why would someone invade us?
The fact is that the main reason to have an army in several countries is to use it against their own people when they are angry because of injustice, hunger, or terrible life conditions.
The fact is that for decades now complete generations of Costa Ricans never knew what is an army, how does it look like, how does it feel to have soldiers. And we do not want to change that. the very few Costa Ricans that ever come out with the idea of getting the army back are seen like lunatics by the majority.
The fact is that other countries have followed the example, Panama ahd Haiti, amongst others.
Once, a client asked me, at the airport arrival (While waiting for more passengers to come out) “What would you say makes is the one thing that makes Costa Rica unique from the rest of the World?” Despite our incredible nature diversity, of our unparalleled beauty, of our volcanoes and rainforests, my answer was, without a doubt “The fact that we don’t have an army”.
Peace allows us to have the rest of things… and to enjoy them.
Written by Alain Vega and Olga Sáenz for 2Costarica Travel. For comments or more information, please write to email@example.com or call our Toll Free Number: 866-799-2147