Updated: Jul 21
Massive military spending around the world has citizens to raise the following question: wouldn't that money be better spend elsewhere? Costa Rica, located in Central America, abolished its military. It now has the highest living standards of any Central American country, by far.
Central America is one of the most dangerous places in the world. The countries making up this specific region are plagued by a wide range of issues, including insecurity, violence, drug trafficking, mass exodus, and an overall extremely hostile environment to democratic state building. One country, however, is an exception to this seemingly endless stream of chaotic, despairing countries: Costa Rica. Costa Rica is not just successful compared to Central American standards: according to the 2019 Economist Democracy Index, Costa Rica is categorized as a “full democracy” (Nations in which political cultures such as freedom and civil liberties are upheld) while the US sports the denomination of “flawed democracy” (country with free elections but weighed down by weak governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation). This success story is not due to extensive Costa Rican military dominance over its neighbours. Neither is it due to a situation in which communism achieved its unaccomplished supposed greatness, in which all of the country’s citizens live in equality and peace under a benevolent charismatic leader. Costa Rica is none of that. It is the result of an extremely rare occurrence in modern state building: the abolition of the military.
Costa Rica started off its history like any other Central American country. It was colonized by Spain, and had its native population decimated to the point where only 2 percent of Costa Rica’s population today is of Native descent. There is one special feature about Costa Rica: colonists mostly used it for agricultural development, due to the lack of gold Costa Rica -despite its name meaning Rich Coast- it suffered compared to its neighbours in the region. Then, it followed the normal pattern of Central American countries: a civil war between conservatives and liberals, and a first president, Juan Mara Fernandez, who “organized new towns, built new roads, published a newspaper and coined a currency”. From that point on, Costa Rica’s takes a seemingly “usual” path for Central American countries, but with a very different outcome. A man by the name of Jose Figueres Ferrer became president. Ferrer had an extensive history of revolt in Costa Rica, having instigated the 1948 coup d’etat in support of the newly elected president Otilio Ulate. After the coup, “a junta dominated by Figueres wrote a new constitution that, among other reforms, abolished the army”. Behind those seemingly good intentions, Figueres actually abolished the military to avoid being challenged and consolidate his power. This decision led to the future, arguably accidental, positive development of Costa Rica.
Now, how can abololishing an army be of any good to a country like Costa Rica? Does it not have dangerous neighbours to protect itself from? Are the most powerful countries in the world not the ones with the largest and strongest armies? The way Costa Rica went about addressing those concerns should be observed. First, Costa Rica strives to be “friends” with everyone on the diplomatic scene. It claimed its permanent neutrality in 1993, and says that if it is invaded by a foreign power, it would seek help from the OAS (Organization of American States) and the signatories of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (also known as the Rio Treaty). Although it may seem risky, as it does indeed put the country at the hands of the goodwill of its supposed allies, this technique worked especially well in 1955, when Costa Rica appealed to the OAS in order to fight the Calderonista. The latter, a guerilla led by Rafael Calderón Guardia, -a disgruntled former president of Costa Rica who tried to retake power- invaded Costa Rica through its border with Nicaragua. Material assistance from the US, allowed Costa Rica to successfully push back the invaders. Although there is no army, the “country has a police force of approximately 10,000 officers, as well as a Civil Guard consisting of 4,500 troops.”It also receives a large amount of support from the US military, as the US is heavily involved in Costa Rican anti-drug operations. As a matter of fact, “In July 2010, a fleet of U.S. warships and 7,000 servicemen arrived in Costa Rica”.
Let us now take a look at how Costa Rica is doing as a country. According to the Harvard Review, Costa Rica has had an economic growth of 4.8% per year, $2.2 billion worth of foreign investment in 2014 and a health care system that the WHO (World Health Organization) deemed better than that of the US. One of the statistics that is, in my opinion, the most important is the literacy rate in Costa Rica, which is around 95%, due to increased spending on education instead of the military. This is probably due to the fact that “In a report by the World Economic Forum in 2015, the Costa Rican education system was also ranked highest in Latin America.”. Combining this figure with freedom of the press is relevant as, according to Freedom House, “Costa Rica continues to enjoy a free press backed by strong legal and political institutions” and has a score of 17 on the press freedom score (0 being the best and 100 being the worst). The better a country is educated -in an environment where freedom of speech and freedom of the press is well respected- the higher the chances are of that same country have strong democratic institutions shooting through the roof.
There are indeed some challenges that come along with not having an army. Knowing that Costa Rica is located in a “strategic position as a transit zone for drug cartels,” this “has led to an increased presence of Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations in the country.”. The country has been struggling with increasing crimes in recent years. Indeed, “In 2017, Costa Rica broke the country’s record in reported homicides with 603 and a homicide rate of 12.1 per 100,000 individuals.”. The Costa Rican government, under its new president Carlos Alvarado Quesada, has just launched a program called “Creating Security”, which is based on the Medellin model, favoring cooperation between communities and federal actors in high risk areas. Even though not having an army may make it harder for the country to fight these increasing crime rates, from my perspective, the restoration of an army is not an adequate solution, considering all of the good the abolishment of the latter has done for this country.
The Central American countries do not really need a military, and figures and facts show that it is doing them more harm than good. Indeed, there is almost no risk of them being engulfed in an international war during which they would need to send a large amount of troops. The military is also costing the already corrupt governments money that could be spent elsewhere. The odds of an intra-state war between Central American countries is also relatively low, due to the drug wars and other internal problems each of these countries is facing. The creation of a police force, as well as support from the international community and, in particular, the United States is key. The latter has a keen interest in stabilizing the region, in order to limit the exodus of Central American countries’ refugees to the United States, as well as to make some advancement on the War on Drugs which has been lingering in part due to the extreme instability and non-cooperation of those countries.
My demonstration above aims to highlight a crucial element: the key for Central Americans to succeed is the following: they have to abolish their military. The benefits, if that were to happen, would occur in a “domino effect”. Demilitarization of Central America would lead to an increased cooperation between countries, allowing the creation of a solid common effort to fight the drug trafficking cartels. Furthermore, a demilitarized Central America, as seen in the example of Costa Rica, would entice the United States to participate in the fight against drugs. Socially speaking, it will lead to more money being available for education and health which in turn will lead to higher literacy rates, and hopefully, the emergence of solid democratic institutions. Those democratic institutions in turn will polish the country’s image, attracting foreign investors and boosting the country’s economy. This will lead to more international cooperation, and result in those countries being able to adopt Costa Rica’s stance of permanent neutrality, which I believe small countries in dangerous parts of the world should embrace.
Overall, Costa Rica is an example of how small countries in dangerous areas should be governed. Attracting foreign investment and being active as well as appreciated by many multilateral institutions are the only ways these states can have a chance at their long lost dream of a country providing basic needs for its citizens. One of the easiest ways to attract both foreign investment and allies is by creating a non-violent, safe, and educated state. Abolishing the military is the first step of the path to achieving such a dream.
By Timothy Motte
French student studying international relations at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was born in London, raised in Paris, and moved to the US my freshman year of high school. Along with my involvement with the AfterThought Group, I am actively pursuing Mandarin and Spanish. Very internationally oriented, my goal is to work for any multilateral international organization, geopolitical consultancy, or foreign policy think tank. I am planning on studying at SciencePo Paris, as well as Shanghai Fudan University my junior year. Open minded and hardworking, I always strive to understand each side’s point of view before giving my opinion on it.