Costa Rica

It is useful to examine exceptions to the rule in order to rid oneself of cliched thinking. By studying Japan, we study a nation that avoided the same fate as colonized China or India. What were the class relations that made this possible? Marxism is stretched to the limit when it looks at such exceptions since preconceived notions have to go out the window.

Costa Rica, another such exception, has the reputation of being the Switzerland of Central America, a nation that is democratic, egalitarian and pacifist. In other words, it is the polar opposite of every other country there. Why? While this is the image promoted heavily by Costa Rican bourgeois historians doesn't take into account the brutal commonalities that exist between banana republic Costa Rica and banana republic Honduras, there is still some truth to it.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some observations drawn from the excellent "Costa Rica Reader" edited by Mark Edelman and Joanne Kenen. This book is a model for Marxist scholarship. Every country in the world should have such a reader. It combines analysis by bourgeois and Marxist scholars and revolutionaries in a very readable format. I would love to see something like this for India, China and Japan.

Colonial Costa Rica was poor in resources and underpopulated with indigenous peoples and Europeans. It was also remote from the colonial capital in Guatemala. This created a "modest and rustic life" according to bourgeois historian Carlos Monge Alfaro. The yeoman farmer who flourished in Costa Rica became a pillar of bourgeois democracy, so the argument goes.

This view is quasi-mythical according to Marxist historians. There was much more income discrepancy than formerly known and there was extensive military rule. Yet the bourgeois version of Costa Rican history exists as an actuality in dialectical tension with the Marxist critique. For example, one of the military dictators, Tomas Guardia, who ruled in the 19th century, promoted public education and abolished capital punishment.

Costa Rica did have a smaller Indian population than the other Central American countries. This meant that colonial rule was less reliant on an extensive military apparatus to control the natives who the impudence to resist slave labor. A smaller military, therefore, is rooted in the peculiarities of Costa Rican history.

Costa Rica received its independence peacefully from Spain in 1821. It had to make a decision whether or not to join the Mexican empire. Costa Rican conservatives favored this, while bourgeois republicans resisted it. Costa Rica did finally join with Mexico, but its relationship was much looser than one that was desired by the conservatives.

The conflict between the gentry and the democrats was not resolved however and broke out in open violence in 1821, when the democrats took power after a brief struggle. They instituted structural reforms such as a sound judicial system. Most importantly, they resisted the temptation to build a standing army. They instead created a citizen's militia which had "honest citizens, peaceful laborers, artisans and workers who devote themselves to honestly and constantly to their private tasks...and who have no aspiration beyond fulfilling their domestic duties and defending the State when the law calls them."

The most important factor in the evolution of Costa Rican society, however, was the cultivation of coffee. Costa Rica spearheaded the production of this agricultural commodity. What was important about coffee cultivation is that required *free* rather than *servile* labor, as well as a market for land. Its introduction in Central American in the 1870s to 1890s was associated with liberal reforms that broke the back of the church and the landed gentry.

Coffee growing is highly capital and labor-intensive. The conditions of production are inimical to the semi-feudal relationships that existed in colonial Central America. "Free" labor and "free" soil were required in exactly the same way as the north required them prior to the American Civil War.

A good description of pre-coffee Central America can be found in Robert G. William's "States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America". Williams is also the author of "Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America", the book I cited in my post on the contradictions of cattle-ranching in Central America. His work is a model for Marxist political economists. He says:

"After independence, the Central American landscape was divided into large landholdings held by private individuals and by the church, communal lands held by Indian communities, municipal lands held by townships, and 'tierras baldias', unoccupied lands that were under the official jurisdiction of higher-order state institutions. None of these forms, even large landholdings in which vast areas were left idle, were naturally conducive to a rapid conversion to coffee, and in many places people held strongly to their traditional practices regarding land rights. As coffee became more profitable, a struggle over land rights began, and public institutions at various levels, from the township to the department and, finally, to the national state, became involved. The way that state institutions at these various levels intervened in the land question differed from time to time and place to place, greatly influencing the coffee boom, the turbulence of the transition, and the ultimate structures of landholding with coffee."

While Williams focuses on the question of land usage, it is not to hard to deduce the other side of the equation. The "liberalizing" coffee bourgeoisie needed a proletariat to work its farms. Labor was in short supply since much of it was attached to tradtional land holdings. Overthrow traditional relationships in the countryside and not only do you "liberate" labor, you also free up land for capitalist exploitation. This, of course, was the sort of thing that occurred in Scotland and Ireland around the same time. Ideologists like John Locke embraced these changes as did liberal ideologues in Central America. It is useful to keep in mind that liberalism historically doesn't mean Roosevelt's New Deal. It means thoroughgoing and consistent support of capitalist property relations in town and countryside. Republican values-- democracy, separation of church and state--were important, but only as a way of maintaining the free flow of labor and land.

While Coffee agriculture led to upheavals in the rest of Central America, in Costa Rica--with its weak colonial institutions and small indigenous population--it did not lead to an immediate proletarianization of the peasantry or violent reaction from the conservative forces.

Most importantly, since most of the good coffee land in the central part of the country was held by small farmers, the income distribution was more equalized. The capitalist classs in Costa Rica, unlike the rest of Central America, derived its wealth from processing and marketing coffee rather than through farming.

These were the underlying class realities that gave Costa Rica its exceptional character. In my next post, I will take a look at Costa Rica in the age of imperialism.

A Social Democrat by the name of Paul Berman used to write viciously 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.

Last time 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.

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 American. 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 goal to underme 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'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 enough to anger the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

This 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, however 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 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.