Find a Security Clearance Job!


Costa Rica Army

Costa Rica abolished its military forces in 1949 and since then has devoted substantial resources to investment in health and education. It is a country that has placed a high priority in investing in public education, including the university system, as well as technical and vocational training. Its population of 4.4 million people enjoys a literacy rate of 96% and a life expectancy of 79.3 years.

Costa Rica does not have a standing army or any military forces. It does, however, maintain a police security force to keep public order within its borders and surrounding territory. The operations of this security force are centered on day-to-day routine peacekeeping tasks. The countrys role in Central America is a neutral one, and Costa Rica is often referred to as the Switzerland of Central America.

Although it was first explored by Spanish conquistadores and although military men played an important role in the national leadership at several points during the nineteenth century, Costa Rica never developed strong marital traditions and was able to abolish its tiny army with broad approval of the country's citizens.

Costa Ricans attitudes toward the military were shaped during the Spanish colonial period when the soldiers' role was relatively unimportant. Few soldiers were garrisoned in this backwater of Spain's overseas empire because there was no large indigenous Indian population to subjugate for labor, and there were no important Spanish interests to protect. During much of the colonal period, a rudimentary citizens' militia could be called up to oppose troublesome Indians or bandits, but this could not be charaeterized as a standing army. The settler population was characterizd by a high proportion of yeoman farmers having local attitudes and interests and few links with the higher political, religous, and military authorities in Guatemala or Spain.

As in other Central American countries, military men sometimes played an important role in Costa Rican political life in the first decades after independence. It is significant to note, however, that Costa Rica's first head of state, Juan Mora Fern ndez, was not a soldier but a judge who had at one time been a primaryschool principal. Military authority rarely extended beyond the capital and was not easily imposed on the people.

An effort to introduce compulsory military service by Francisco Morazin, who had become chief of state in 1842 and who sought to restore the Central American Federation, contributed to a popular uprising and his execution within five months of taking office.

Costa Rican ambivalence toward the military was further displayed when the short-lived 1848 constitution abolished the army and replaced it with a national guard. The small army was reinstated the following year when officers supported a coup d'etat against the sitting president.

In the 1850's men looked upon life from a more romantic view-point than they did later. There was more sentiment, more singing of songs, and more writing of love verses to sweethearts; grace and gallantry lent a charm to society, as perfume enhances the beauty of the rose; the cavalier, with his plumes and ribbons, had not departed, and the music of the troubadour still tinkled amidst the sounds of revelry. Those were days when the ardor for adventure by land and sea was hot in the breasts of men.

William Walker was an advocate of slavery as an institution to an extreme degree - "the noblest and most excellent form of civilisation" as he called it. The army of Americans that established itself in the Republic of Nicaragua in 1855 under the command of General Walker was popularly regarded as renegades and marauders who went to Nicaragua solely to satisfy their greed for pillage and plunder, and derisively the name "Filibusters" attached to them.

Costa Rica, urged on by the English, and at least tacitly encouraged by the Secretary of State of the United States, had begun making hostile demonstrations; it was not until about the first of March 1857, however, that the intentions of Costa Rica were plainly shown. At that time her government formally declared war ostensibly against Nicaragua, but actually against the Americans in her service.

An army of 9,000 was quickly raised from volunteers of all social classes and mounted an expedition into Nicaragua. The Costa Rican army marched under the command of President Mora himself. The main body of the Costa Rican army soon arrived, and a drum-head court martial was convened for the trial of captive Nicaraguan prisoners, all of whom, including the wounded, were sentenced to be shot. This cruel sentence was immediately carried into execution. The Costa Ricans were about 3,000 strong.

On the 20th March, 1856, the Costa Rican army met the force which General Walker had detached under Colonel Louis Schlessinger, amounting to 207 men, composed of French, Germans, and Americans, and utterly routed them, Schlessinger himself being the first to set the example of flight: for this he was tried by a court-martial, and sentenced to be shot; but he avoided his fate by effecting his escape.

The siege of Rivas, which began January 27, 1857, and ended May 1 of that year, with the capitulation of General Walker and his army to Captain Davis of the United States sloop-of-war St. Marys. As a result of its contributions in the 1856-57 war against the North American filibuster, William Walker, the Costa Rican military became a widely popular institution for the only time in its history.

The army proved its worth in 1856, in taking an active part in the expulsion of the Walker filibusters who had invaded and conquered the neighboring Republic of Nicaragua. After the war a generation of military heroes became prominent in Costa Rican political and social life. The most powerful of these was General Tomis Guardia Gutitrrez, who dominated Costa Rican politics in dictatorial fashion from 1870 to 1882, contributed to the modernization and centralization of the society, and undercut the political dominance of the so-called coffee barons.

It was from the peon class that the Costa Rican army [of six hundred soldiers by 1910] was recruited. This is the most simply dressed civilized army in the world. A blouse and pair of trousers of blue dungaree was all there is of the uniform. Bare feet and any sort of head covering, repeating rifle and machete, completed this modest warrior. At the Plaza de Artilleria at San Jose were his cuartels (barracks); and there, while on sentry duty in his boxes, was heard his response to the officers of the guarda weird, musical sound made by the sentry tapping a keyed triangle in each box.

The peon made a good soldier in his native habitat, the military code making no fancy exaction upon his intelligence or his skill at arms. The blue and gold dress of the superior officers of the Costa Rican army was as elaborate and costly as the uniform of the private was plain and shoddy. It appeared to be worn daily, and exhibited on the street corner of San Jos more to impress the seitoritas than for any useful military purpose. The corsetted young men who were jammed into these rich uniforms so vivid a contrast to their surroundings in a town of 30,000 inhabitants were withal a fine and spirited lot of fellows, displaying the cockiness of the Prussian and the glorified suavity of the French officer.

In the late 19th Century the army was composed of all the citizens of the Republic, who owe military service between the age of 18 and 50 years. So said the law, but practically it was otherwise. Only the young men from the country were called, each in his turn, to pass two or three months in the cuartel, where they were given the rudiments of military instruction. This instruction was sufficient preparation for such guerrilla warfare as might enter Costa Rica if the country should ever cease to be in peaceful relations with its neighbors. Whatever upheavals may take place in Central America, Costa Rica would always be pretty safe from foreign invasions, thanks to her protected situation and the concentration of her population upon a plateau of difficult access and costing little to defend. In times of peace the number of soldiers of the standing army can be placed at 1,000. In case of interior revolution the armed force can be increased to 5,000 men, and in time of war Costa Rica could summon to arms from 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers.

By 1876 the standing army of Costa Rica is 500 men in time of peace, liable to be raised to 8,000 in time of war, excluding the militia. Costa Rica had a modification of the Prussian military system, and her male population between the ages of eighteen and fifty five was divided into three classes, all subject to military duty in time of war.

When Guardia and the other war heroes passed from the scene the military's importance in the national life diminished. With the exception of Federicos Tinoco Granados' brief dictatorship in 1917-18, the military remained firmly under civilian control, and democratic processes became well established by the early twentieth century.

Because it was an ally against Germany and Japan during World War II and was less than 400 kilometers from the strategic Panama Canal, Costa Rica received a limited amount of military equipment and some military training from the United States. Costa Rican forces saw oo action, however, and by regoional standards remained weak.

At the time of the Costa Rican civil war in 1948, according to then-president Teodor Picado Michaiski, "the army was ridiculously small, it did not surpass 300 men." Other accounts put the strength of the regular army as high as 1,000, but it was not a highly professional force. The officer corps was appointed by each presidential administration from among the ranks of its supporters, who were usually members of local elite groups with little or no military training or experience. When administrations changed, officers were formally promoted and then dismissed. Without a professional officer corps the army had little experience or institutional esprit de corps and was poorly organized and underdisciplined.

During the civil war and the election crisis that preceded it, the army, commanded by the president's brother, General Rene Picado Michalski, flagrantly displayed its partisanship and indiscipline. On numerous occasions during the election campaign, the army was accused of selectively enforcing the law in favor of supporters of former president Rafael Angel Calder6n Guardia, who was again running for president with the support of the Picado government. Several officers who supported Calderon's opponent, Otilio Ulate Blanco, were dismissed from the army during the campaign, but the government could not rely completely on its army because of the overzealousness of some of its members.

In August 1947 an army colonel and Calderon supporter, feeling that the president was too soft on the opposition, attempted to assassinate Picado. Ulate gained a surprising victory in the elections of February 1948, but the military strength of the opposition was even more startling to the government.

After the congress annulled the results of the election, the forces of Jose Figueres Ferrer and his Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrata) launched what Figueres called the War of National Liberation from his form south of Cartag. Figueres, who had been exiled to Mexico by Calderon from 1942 to 1944, had made the "Pact of the Caribbean" to gin the inancial, material, and manpower support of insurgents from other Central American countries in his exot to overthrow Costa Rica's government. Members of the so-called Caribbean Legion provided invaluable training and leadership to some 600 young men ("all persons of some culture" according to Figueres) who had treked to his farm to volunteer. During the Civil war this force, well trained by Costa Rican standards, was augnmented by several hundred Caribbean Legeonaires and more Costa Rican volunteers. Supplied by air from Guatemala and Cuba, they used guerilla tactics,

Figueres' Army of National liberation was quickly able to rout government forces sent to oppose them, surround San Jose, and obtain a settlement. In May 1948 the Founding Junta of the Second Republic was inaugurated as the interim national government with Figueres at its head. The civil war had lasted only a few weeks but had cost some 2,000 Costa Rican lives, a tragedy for a small country that had prided itself on its peaceful, democratic traditions. Combatants had included, in addition to the national army and the Army of National Liberation, some 3,500 urban and rural workers loyal to the pro-government PVP, as well as 500 to 600 troops from neighboring Nicaragua sent by Somoza Garcia to oppose Figueres' rebels. At the conclusion of hostilities, the functions of the regular army were taken over by members of the Army of National Liberation while its Caribbean Legion component was established at barracks in San Jose and a camp at one of Figueres' farms

There was some speculation that the military would be reestablished as a small, well-paid, highly trained professional force composed of veterans from the national liberation force. Without forewarning, however, in a speech on December 6, 1948, Figueres announced that the army was no longer needed and would be disbanded. "It is time," he stated, -for Costa Rica to return to her traditional position of having more teachers than soldiers." The army was to be replaced by a small national police force limited strictly to internal security functions and a small rural guard.

The Nicaraguan-supported invasion by several hundred calderonistas on December 10, 1948, immediately tested the country's commitment to demilitarization. Costa Rica, however, was still under arms; the liberation army was largely intact, and several hundred Caribbean Legionnaires were still encamped in the country. The government immediately appealed to the signatories of the Rio Treaty for assistance against the invaders. The calderonistaa withdrew after Nicaragua cut off its assistance when it became clear that they could not muster popular support among Costa Ricans.

Costa Rica's pre-civil war military had been notoriously ineffective; to perpetuate it would have been a waste of resources. On the other hand, a better trained and equipped professional force could have constituted a potential threat to the government as coups in 1948 against fledgling democracies in Venezuela and Peru demonstrated. This was particularly true in Costa Rica because most of the leaders of the Army of National Liberation who would be expected to be prominent in a national army were political conservatives who had been more interested in fighting the civil war to rid the country of communist influences than to support Figueres' brand of democratic socialism. This danger was soon highlighted in April 1949 when Minister of Public Security Edgar Cardona Quiros, a disgruntled liberation army colonel and member of the junta, attempted a coup against Figueres that cost several lives. When the threat was extinguished, Figueres took personal command of the army and presided over its disbandment.

On November 7, 1949, a constitution was proclaimed that made the abolition of the armed forces the law of the land. Article 12 of the document states:- "The Army as a permanent institution is proscribed. For vigilance and the preservation of public order there will be the necessary police forces. Only through continental agreement for the national defense may military forces be organized; in either case they shall always be subordinate to the civil power; they may not deliberate or make manifestations or declarations in individual or collective form."

Join the mailing list