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Costa Rica: Demilitarization and Democratization  

John A. Booth

An isolated Spanish frontier settlement with little or no significant mineral wealth, exportable crops, or exploitable indigenous population, colonial Costa Rica had only a rudimentary military. After independence in 1825, the population expanded and diversified as coffee cultivation generated growing wealth. Competing factions of the emergent coffee bourgeoisie fought to control the emerging state using elite-linked military officers to seize ruling power. Modernization and an external threat from Nicaragua and U.S. freebooters at mid-19th century led nation-building leaders to invest heavily in the army. Victorious in the 1856–1857 National War in Nicaragua, the military attained maximum size and power from 1870 to 1920 while oligarchic factions disputed ruling authority via fraudulent elections and coups d’état. Integration into the world economy deepened with banana production after 1890. Subsequent recessions and wars generated domestic economic inequality and a growing labor movement demanding reform. Civilian rule in the early 20th century was interrupted by the military regime of Federico Tinoco (1917–1919), whose atrocities led his civilian successors to almost dismantle the army. When a civil war erupted in 1948 against the divided, Communist-allied reformist government of the 1940s, the rebels defeated the army. The victorious National Liberation junta and new constitution abolished the army in 1949. Costa Rica committed to a police-based security model, nonaggression toward neighbors, and reliance on international alliances. Meanwhile, elites, spared the menace of military disruption, developed a successful electoral democratic regime. This has contributed to seven decades of political stability and allowed Costa Rica to invest successfully in economic development and its citizens’ welfare.