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Like the War Between the States in America ...

Travel, Vacation and Adventure Guide to Costa Rica

Give peace a chance. ~ John Lennon, 1940-1980

Like the War Between the States in America, Costa Rica’s War of National Liberation in 1948 defined the nation. No single, simple cause made the country’s men and women take up arms. In Costa Rica’s war, one man, Don Pepe (José) Figueres, became the symbol of the conflagration in much the same way Abraham Lincoln did in the US.

Figueres, a true compassionate conservative, is a legendary figure in Costa Rican history and is termed the “Grandfather of Costa Rica.” Selfeducated in Boston, he returned to Costa Rica in the 1920s with an idealistic, utopian vision for his country’s future. The profits from his farm, La Lucha Sin Fin (Endless Struggle), were used to benefit the local community. But he stayed out of politics until 4th of July riots denouncing the San Pablo attack erupted in San José. On the radio, Figueres criticized Calderón as unable to govern and insure public order. He was promptly arrested and exiled to Mexico, where he used his time to plan a revolution against what he and others considered a corrupt regime.

With opposition from the coffee oligarchy and a shaky alliance with the Communist Party, the 1944 election of Calderón’s hand-picked successor, Teodoro Picado, was particularly violent and fraudulent. Things got worse in 1948 when Picado’s term ended and new elections were announced. Calderón himself ran against the opposition candidate, Otilio Ulate. Although Ulate apparently won handily, out-going President Picado negated the results because of charges and counter-charges of fraud. Ulate was arrested and one of his advisors assassinated.

Figueres marched from his farm toward San José with 600 volunteers to unseat a government he felt had lost all credibility. But the army and police forces prevented a repeat of Costa Rica’s quick, one-day inter-city war after independence. This modern conflict would take 44 days and exact a much higher loss of life. Despite an invasion in the north by Nicaragua to support Calderón, Figueres’ forces captured Cartago and Limón and forced the government to surrender. Bullet holes around the turrets of the National Museum in San José are visible reminders of the 2,000 deaths in this short, but sad, civil war.

Besides the abolition of the army, a source of continual pride today in Costa Rica, Figueres’ temporary term also granted suffrage to women and extended citizenship to all people born in Costa Rica. This was particularly beneficial to the people of the Atlantic region, many of whom had previously been denied the rights of citizenship. Don Pepe Figueres was twice elected president, the last time from 1970-1974. He died a national hero in 1990.


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