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The Revolution of 1948:


Of the relatively little that might be known about Costa Rica beyond its borders is the fact that this tiny Central American nation is unique in having a functioning democratic system and no army. However, these conditions have only existed since 1949.

It is true that in Costa Rica the democratic tradition dates back to 1889, although direct voting for presidential candidates did not go into effect until 1910 and women gained the right to vote as late as 1953. Nonetheless, from 1821 to 1948, electoral fraud and coups d'état were a regular part of the local political reality -- witness to the fact is that in the 93 years between 1821 and 1914 there were a total of 92 political conflicts characterized by violence, albeit brief and limited in scope.

Many factors combined to create the political situation that resulted in the revolution, or civil war, of 1948.

Costa Rica's century-long economic dependence on a single export crop, coffee (bananas have never had the same direct influence on the national economy), inevitably tied the economy to the vagaries of an international market. Coffee prices had already been on a decline for several years when the worldwide depression hit in 1930. This resulted in a drastic reduction of both coffee and banana exports along with a severe drop in imported goods. Because most government revenue was then generated by taxes on imports, the depression also decidedly diminished state funds.

The economic conditions produced a serious social crisis marked by unemployment, food scarcities, lowered wages for government employees, and a general decline in the standard of living to which Costa Ricans had been accustomed. The growing proletariat had already been making increasingly vehement demands for better working and living conditions prior to the onset of the depression, and thus the stage was set for the inception of the Costa Rican Communist Party in 1931. Several strikes by urban workers and by thousands of banana plantation workers in the Atlantic lowlands in 1934 demonstrated the power of this new political force and sent a clear signal to the traditional ruling class elite.

The government was obliged to take a more active role in social and economic problems. Banking had traditionally been controlled by foreign capitalists and the local coffee oligarchy, but in 1936, the state intervened in this area with the creation of the National Bank of Costa Rica and the General Superintendent of Banks, designed to exercise certain controls over the private banks. Previously, in 1933, a federal institute had been created to establish prices paid for coffee by the coffee mills and to regulate relations between the independent growers and the mills.

The end of a seventy-year period of governmental liberalism and laissez-faire was being heralded. At the same time, a generational change was taking place in the national political arena and, in 1940, Dr. Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia was elected president with an overwhelming 85% of the vote. His ambitious platform, however, was limited by the federal fiscal deficit and a new period of difficult international economic times brought on by World War II.

Nevertheless, during his four years in office the University of Costa Rica was founded (1940), the Seguro Social -- a national health care program -- was created (1941), the "Social Guarantees" were amended to the Constitution (1942), and the Labor Code was enacted (1943). History will perhaps best remember Dr. Calderón for having promoted the Social Guarantees which include the right to work, minimum wage, an 8-hour work day, a 48-hour work week, paid vacations, the right to unionize and to strike, social security, and the formation of the Labor Courts to litigate disputes between workers and employers.

Despite the sweeping popularity that brought him into office, by the second year of his presidency Calderón was beset by critics from all sides. Those wielding economic power were not enamored of many of the social reforms, the communists were not in favor of legislation that instituted religion classes in public schools, and nearly everyone opposed the government's handling of the country's economic problems. To make matters worse, accusations of corruption were frequent.

Among the many critics was a politically unknown farmer/businessman, José Figueres Ferrer, who, during a radio program on July 8, 1942, denounced the government's economic policies and claimed that it had given in to the Communist Party. Incensed by his oratory, the government had him arrested and deported to Mexico. However, that was not to be the end of Mr. Figueres.

It was not until a year later that the government of Calderón Guardia actually did form a pact with the Communist Party in hopes of assuring a victory in the 1944 Presidential elections. Both groups had a mutual interest in preserving the social reforms that had recently become law, and it is thought that perhaps Calderón, being aware of the decline in his popularity, imagined the communists could be useful with their capacity at organizing and mobilizing masses of people.

The election campaign of 1944 was marred by numerous violent confrontations between followers of the Calderón/communist coalition, known as "The Victory Block," and those of the León Cortés Democratic Party. Cortés had been president from 1936 - 1940 and was running for reelection against Teodoro Picado, the man picked by Calderón to succeed him. By an ample margin, Picado was declared the winner, although the opposition party denounced that the results were tampered.

Attempting to placate the opposition, Picado instituted several reforms aimed at improving public finance and, most importantly, promoted the creation of the Electoral Code which included the formation of the Electoral Tribune, supposedly a politically neutral organism charged with safeguarding election results and eliminating fraud.

Any advance that might have been gained towards smoothing over differences with the opposition was nullified, however, by the changes made to the tax laws in December of 1946. Both small agricultural and industrial producers as well as those with large capital were equally vocal in their discontent over having to pay higher taxes, especially the agricultural exporting class that was long accustomed under the liberal regimes to not having their activities taxed.

Meanwhile, in 1944, José Figueres had returned from exile committed to forming the "Second Republic" and a year later created the Social Democratic Party. Six months later, this party entered into an alliance with the León Cortés Democratic Party and the National Union Party, led by Otilio Ulate, who was later elected as the party nominee for the presidential election of 1948. Their platform centered on free elections and anticommunism. The Victory Block's candidate was Dr. Calderón Guardia who aspired to a second term in office.

The months leading up to the elections on February 8, 1948 were filled with tension and frequent acts of violence perpetrated by members of both major political forces. The level of conflict escalated from that of the elections four years earlier with the inclusion of terrorist attacks on newspaper companies, radio stations, and even important political figures, including Calderón himself. And, of course, both sides alleged that the other party intended to rig the election results.

Officially, Otilio Ulate outpaced Calderón by 10,000 votes, but the Victory Block garnered a greater number of seats in the legislature than did the National Union Party. Calderón Guardia refused to acknowledge the defeat. Also, the day after the elections, a fire of suspicious origin destroyed many of the ballots. It seems that the Electoral Tribune was not very successful in its first trial by fire.

By majority, the members of the Electoral Tribune declared Ulate to be the President-elect, pending confirmation by the Legislative Assembly. Calderón petitioned the legislature to nullify the results, which they did (the majority of representatives were members of the Victory Block party), although they ruled that the legislative position results were valid.

That was the spark that ignited the fuse which had been set years ago. On March 12, 1948, word reached San José that a band of revolutionaries led by José Figueres had taken over the town of San Isidro del General in the southern part of the province.

The revolution lasted for five weeks with sporadic fighting in which Figueres' troops, self-proclaimed as the National Liberation Army, proved victorious over the badly organized and poorly directed Costa Rican army. In fact, much of the defense of the government was provided by armed communist party members. However, the government was reluctant to give them enough material support to be truly effective, and on April 19, the government of Teodoro Picado opted to surrender to Figueres.

The "Second Republic": The Figueres-Ulate Pact was signed on May 1, 1948 giving Figueres 18 months to govern the country without a legislature before turning over power to Ulate. Amazingly, in the context of Latin American politics, this pact was fulfilled on November 8, 1949.

During those intervening 18 months, the Government Council presided by Figueres instituted many profound changes. Among these were the nationalization of the banking system, the establishment of a 10% capital goods tax, the prohibition of the Communist Party, the abolishment of the country's armed forces, and the creation of the Costa Rican Electric Institute (I.C.E.). Not all of these measures were met with pleasure by all sectors of the population.

Despite its reformist intentions and promises made at the end of the revolution, the temporary government was characterized by a very authoritarian style and even embarked on a veritable witch hunt against members of the Calderón and Picado governments. On December 10, 1948, the exiled Dr. Calderón and his supporters invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua. With the aid of the Organization of American States, this overthrow attempt was squelched.

The Government Council also drew up a proposed new Constitution to be ratified by the National Constitutional Assembly, elected in January of 1949 for just this purpose. This assembly rejected the Council's draft and set about writing its own version based on the nation's previous Constitution of 1871. The new Constitution of Costa Rica, which maintained the Social Guarantees established under the presidency of Dr. Calderón Guardia, was ratified on November 7, 1949.

As evidenced during the mere year and a half that José Figueres held power over the decision-making process of the country, the government would become a much more active player in the nation's economic and social affairs. The period from 1950-80 can be typified by unprecedented growth of the public sector, the modernization and diversification of the country's economy, and the accumulation of a tremendous national debt.

With the expansion of government services and the proliferation of state institutions, the number of public employees rose from slightly more than 15,000 in 1949 to nearly 130,000 by the year 1979. On the positive side, Costa Rica now possesses better health and education systems and more infrastructure, particularly roads and electrification, than most other Latin American nations. The cost of this has been the creation of an unwieldy and often ineffective bureaucracy, along with the dubious distinction of having the world's second largest per capita debt in 1980.



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