Costa Rican Exceptionalism, part 2

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Wed May 29 19:41:08 MDT 1996

A Social Democrat by the name of Paul Berman used to write vicious
anti-FSLN pieces during the 1980s in the Village Voice, a liberal
newsweekly in NYC. He always used to hold up Costa Rica as a
positive alternative to Nicaragua as if it was up to the Sandinistas to
model themselves on a state whose peculiar social and economic
realities had evolved over a hundred year period. I always meant to
examine Costa Rica in more depth but hadn't gotten around to it until
the "man called Wei Lin" brought it up.

In my last post I described how Costa Rica's coffee bourgeoisie adopted a
liberal political program that was in line with the needs of free land
and labor in the 19th century. Early on they decided to attack the
semifeudal privileges of the Catholic Church. The state they created
was modernizing and secular. This was easier to achieve in Costa Rica
than in the rest of Central America because the population was sparser
and this allowed the formation of small propriertor coffee farming. As
long as land in the interior was plentiful, a substantial rural petty-
bourgeoisie could develop. This created a fertile bed for the growth of
liberal and secular politics.

Another important element of the particularism of the modern Costa
Rican state and society was the events surrounding the Presidency of
Rafael Calderon in the 1940s. Calderon was a Roosevelt-styled
reformer who won the election in 1942 and proceeded to institute a
number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a
first for Central America. Like Roosevelt, he instituted many of these
measures from the top down and had no intention of allowing the
working-class or peasantry to go beyond the boundaries this caudillo
had set.

He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and
the Communist Party of Costa Rica. The CP had a substantial base
among banana plantation workers and under the influence of the
popular front threw its full support behind Calderon in the same way
its sister party supported FDR.

Calderon's development model was based on export agriculture and for
the most part had no goal to undermine the power of the traditional
oligarchies. While Costa Rica's bourgeoisie was not as vicious as El
Salvador's, it still had no intention of allowing full-scale agrarian
reform. Calderon merely wanted to throw some crumbs from the table to the

Calderon's paternalism and his development model alienated much of
the country's emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more
modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export
agriculture. Furthermore, Calderon, like many of Central America's
traditional caudillos, was corrupt. The corruption was not as blatant as
Somoza's, but it was just bad enough to aggravate the urban

The most politically advanced members of this modernizing middle-
class started a think tank called the "Center for the Study of National
Problems" in 1948. This think tank was sharply anti-imperialist and
thought that Calderon's export-oriented model ceded too much to the
United Fruit Company and other foreign companies. They produced
studies that fed into popular discontent against Calderon.

They could be properly called "petty-bourgeois nationalists", the
formulation a list member used to falsely categorize the Sandinistas.
They believed that Costa Rica's main problem was domination by
foreign and domestic capital, but they did not accept Marxist
theory at all.

This group became allied with a grouping within the powerful
bourgeois Democratic Party called "Democratic Action". Its main leader
was one Jose Figueres who was also a petty-bourgeois nationalist.
Figureres's group joined with the the urban middle-class professionals
in the Center for the Study of National Problems and created Costa
Rica's Social Democratic Party in 1948. This party also attracted the
support of many of Costa Rica's oligarchs who were nervous about
Calderon's populism and his Communist Party support.

When the anti-Calderon forces lost the elections in 1948, they
launched a civil war that targeted many CP members. Martial law was
declared and the junta threw its support to the Social Democratic
rebellion. The civil war, while bloody, was inconclusive. The two
factions eventually made peace and formed a coalition government.
Neither of the contending class forces in the civil war were capable of
achieving victory and the contradictions between them remained
unresolved for the next several decades.

In order to mediate between themselves, they made a decision to
suspend warfare and co-exist within parliamentary forms. They also
decided to dissolve the army since they calculated that it could not be
counted on as a reliable ally to either faction. This act was
unprecedented in Central American history. The irony, not at all
understood by superficial Social Democrats like Village Voice writer
Paul Berman, was that it required a bloody civil war to result in the
abolition of the armed forces of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica managed to avoid the deep-going conflicts that marked the
rest of Central America in the post WWII era largely because
Calderon's welfare state model was eventually accepted by both
factions. This model allowed the bourgeoisie to coopt popular
struggles. It has remained a successful counter-revolutionary strategy
for some decades, but could break down in the 1990s as export
agriculture-based economies continue their downward slide. Just as
Sweden has begun to attack the welfare state measures that defined it,
so has Costa Rica. What the political consequences of all this will be is
difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Costa Rica's exceptionalism is
not permanent.

Louis Proyect

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