Costa Rica: 70 years with no army

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Without attempting for completeness and correctness, I will allow myself to share observations from meeting this country:

  • with the happiest people on Earth (according to Happy Planet Index)
  • with absence of army for already 70 years – not conscription, and not under contract.

Recently, the preview of the annual report of OSAC has came to my attention. It presented unfortunate data: Costa Rica ended 2017 with more than 600 homicides, a record-high for annual murders in the country. For comparison, 600 homicides a year with the population of 4,8 million people (0,013%) is a lot, almost a much as in Russia (0,019%). The questions arose immediately:

  1. It turns out, that the absence of armed protection of external sovereignty does not influence the crime rate within the country?
  2. It turns out, rather high level of criminality does not change life satisfaction of nationals?
  3. And, does it conclude from 1. and 2. that the well-being of people does not depend on presence or absence of army? Moreover, is it possible, that the main component of their happiness is that they do not have to threaten with weapon their global neighbors, close and distant?

Let’s find out.

My visit to Costa Rica took place in 2010 and was of a rather short duration, covering only the city with suburbs, a number of national parks and the Caribbean coast. Nevertheless, the subject of my interest was the everyday life of people in the absence of army, and whether all the idea of disbanding army was a stunt or not.

First come facts.

After the end of civil war in 1948, regular army in Costa Rica was abolished by the President José Figueres Ferrer for the purpose of elimination of “militarized spirit” of the country. Nevertheless malicious tongues say it was made only to prevent a coup d’état, any changes could be repeatedly lobbied within the 70 years passed since the decision was made. Conversely, the principled position of military neutrality of Costa Rica and the absence of military forces remained unchanged till today (including the situation of 2003, when the Government claimed it’s participation in peacemaking actions in Iraq, but the Constitutional Court found such decision illegitimate. As a result, at the request of MFA of Costa Rica, the country was excluded from the members of the Coalition).

How is the safeguard of sovereignty and order provided in Costa Rica today?

For those wishing to learn this question in details, the reference to the official site of the Ministry of Public Security: Ministerio de Seguridad Pública (sp.)

In a few words, it is the National Guard and the police, personnel, who is equipped and outfitted accordingly to potential threats and main sources of crime of the area. Primarily, they carry out the tasks of:

  • localization of border-area tensions with Nicaragua;
  • interdiction of drug trafficking from the South to the North of the country;
  • maintenance of the internal law and order.

These forces, of course, are far from integrated army or SWAT/SOBR teams, but they form combat capable units, performing constant duty within the country and surveillance of their borders. Therefore, every adult tico, even the most peaceful one, pays daily for legalized murder, and the widely advertised PURA VIDA (“pure life”) bears almost no relation to provision of security.

Now – my personal observations.

In Costa Rica, the crime rate is quite high. By turning on the evening news, you will almost certainly stumble onto the scenes of arson, robbery, street shootings, and their consequences. These are drug wars, as well as the results of the presence in the country of half a million Nicaraguan refugees, 90% of whom live and work illegally. Sea neighboring with troubled Haiti and Jamaica does not add order: the nearest province of Limon is a very picturesque, but often extremely uncomfortable and unsafe place.

Generally, in beautiful, drowning in the green Costa Rica, literally each building resembles a prison: bars and barbed wire on all windows and doors, lands and plantations, in urban and rural areas, everywhere and all over… It is said, it is typical for many Latin American countries, but from the population of the most peaceful country of LA, you do not expect this at all. Yes, passive protection, but still.

The second important point is the originality of the geographical position of the country and the abundance of flora and fauna, which are both the pride and the headache for Costa Ricans. On the one hand, thanks to its flora and fauna (25% of the country’s territory are magnificent nature reserves), as well as mild climate and the two coasts – the Pacific and the Caribbean, Costa Rica is almost all-the-year-round full of American tourists. This business is one of the main sources of state revenues that no one wants to lose, including common people (along with the sale of coffee and other bananas, the main importer of which are the same States). However, the high presence of Americans, who fly for the vacations in the CR almost every weekend, is a direct temptation to do violence for poor ticos and emigrants (Let’s say you make $20,000 in the US. Most would say that is not a lot of income, especially if you have a family… but it is 4-5 times (or more) what an average Tico earns). This predetermines the need for their reliable protection.

This is one of the reasons why Costa Rica is considered one of the most tranquil countries of the Central America – because of the constant US presence at all levels, visible and invisible. First of all, we are talking about military-police cooperation and periodic assistance in the form of arms supplies. According to some reports, the country’s external security is also provided by the US military protectorate. Although official documents do not confirm this, common sense suggests, that, in the event of any serious external aggression, the country will have to seek help from the UN and its peacekeeping forces.

Now the conclusions.

  1. It is not worth thinking that abandoning the army is the beginning of the process of full demilitarization and disarmament of Costa Rica, which continues with the same bold steps. In fact, everything seemed to be at a standstill. But, for the sake of justice, it should be noted that there is no hint of military propaganda in the country. In the history of the state, there is only one military hero glorified, Juan Santamaria. He threw a torch into the fortress of the enemy, thereby forcing him to retreat because of the fire.
  2. Peace-loving nature of ticos – I confirm! And I regret to say, that people from the numerous problematic places of the Caribbean basin benefit from it. This is not customary to say, but the roots of crime here largely grow out from the migrant environment.
  3. I can not say that subsistence farming and households predominate or play any significant role in the country. PURA VIDA almost does not touch upon the subsistence economy. Far from cities, people mainly work on plantations of larger farmers. Eco-communities exist in abundance, but they consist primarily of American immigrants, “merging with nature”. Although, for the sake of justice, it has been said about several really strong and autonomous communities, but I did not get to them.
  4. Unfortunately, I was almost not interested faith at that moment, but it is impossible not to mention the amount of crucifixes found everywhere. Piety (or, rather, deep respect for God) is perhaps one of the main features of Costa Ricans. However, “neither Hellenes, nor Jews” here, most likely, will not work: for the ticos you will always remain a big white “gringo”, does not matter from which country you arrived.
  5. ABOVE ALL. The reason for peace and the high satisfaction with life, in my opinion, are not some special opportunities for self-realization, but rather modest requests and expectations of Costa Ricans. PURA VIDA is not about “how everything is clean here” (after all, 400 thousand firearms in the hands of the population already allude that it is not all right in the country). PURA VIDA is about that people have other priorities: education, health, social projects, nature, children. For each of these points, Costa Rica is ahead of most of its neighbors in the region, and by a combination of subjective feelings of well-being is invariably one of the first countries in the world.

All the said above is only my personal impressions, it may contain errors in details and does not pretend to be complete. If you have more detailed information on any issue, share it in the comments or by the mail.

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