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Foundation of the Modern State
Don Pepe became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica. He consolidated Calderón’s progressive social reform program and added his own landmark reforms: He banned the press and Communist Party, introduced suffrage for women and full citizenship for blacks, revised the Constitution to outlaw a standing army, established a presidential term limit, and created an independent Electoral Tribunal to oversee future elections.
On a darker note, Calderón and many of his followers were exiled to Mexico, special tribunals confiscated their property, and, in a sordid episode, many prominent left-wing officials and activists were abducted and murdered. (Supported by Nicaragua, Calderón twice attempted to invade Costa Rica and topple his nemesis but was each time repelled. Eventually he was allowed to return and even ran for president unsuccessfully in 1962.)
Then, Figueres returned the reins of power to Otilio Ulate, the actual winner of the 1948 election. Costa Ricans later rewarded Figueres with two terms as president, 1953–1957 and 1970–1974. Figueres dominated politics for the next two decades. A socialist, he founded the Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), which became the principal advocate of state- sponsored development and reform. He died on June 8, 1990, a national hero.
The Contemporary Scene
Social and economic progress since 1948 have helped return the country to stability, and though post–civil war politics have reflected the play of old loyalties and antagonisms, elections have been free and fair. The country has ritualistically alternated its presidents between the PLN and the opposition Social Christians. Successive PLN governments have built on the reforms of the calderonista era, and the 1950s and 1960s saw a substantial expansion of the welfare state. The intervening conservative governments have encouraged private enterprise and economic self-reliance.
By 1980, the bubble had burst. Costa Rica was mired in an economic crisis: epidemic inflation; crippling currency devaluation; soaring oil bills and social welfare costs; plummeting coffee, banana, and sugar prices; and disruptions to trade caused by the Nicaraguan war.
On July 19, 1979, the leftist Sandinistas toppled Nicaragua’s Somoza regime. Thousands of Nicaraguan National Guardsmen and right-wing sympathizers fled to Costa Rica, where they were warmly welcomed by wealthy ranchers sympathetic to the right-wing cause. By the summer of 1981, the anti-Sandinistas had been cobbled into the Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN), headquartered in Costa Rica, and the CIA was beginning to take charge of events. Costa Rica’s foreign policy underwent a dramatic reversal as the former champion of the Sandinista cause found itself embroiled in the Reagan administration’s vendetta to oust the Sandinista regime.
In May 1984, events took a tragic turn at a press conference on the banks of the Río San Juan held by Edén Pastora, the U.S.-backed leader of the contras. A bomb exploded, killing foreign journalists (Pastora escaped). A general consensus is that the bomb was meant to be blamed on the Sandinistas; the CIA has been implicated.
In February 1986, Costa Ricans elected as their president a relatively young sociologist and economist-lawyer, Oscar Arias Sánchez. Arias’s electoral promise had been to work for peace. Immediately, he put his energies into resolving Central America’s regional conflicts. Arias’s tireless efforts were rewarded in 1987, when his peace plan was signed by the five Central American presidents—an achievement that earned Arias the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
In February 1990, Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, a conservative lawyer, won a narrow victory. He was inaugurated 50 years to the day after his father, the great reformer, was named president. Restoring Costa Rica’s economy to sound health was Calderón’s paramount goal. Under pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Calderón initiated a series of austerity measures aimed at redressing the country’s huge deficit and national debt.
In March 1994, in an intriguing historical quirk, Calderón, son of the president ousted by Don Pepe Figueres in 1948, was replaced by Don Pepe’s youthful son, José María Figueres, a graduate of West Point and Harvard. The Figueres administration (1994–1998), however, was bedeviled by problems, including the collapse of the Banco Anglo Costarricense in 1994, followed in 1995 by inflation, a massive teachers’ strike, and antigovernment demonstrations. A slump in tourism and Hurricane César, which ripped through the Pacific southwest in July 1996 causing $100 million in damage, worsened the country’s plight. Ticos took some solace in the gold medal—the first ever for the country—won at the 1996 Olympics by Costa Rican swimmer Claudia Poll. And President Clinton’s visit to Costa Rica in May 1997 during a summit of Central American leaders heralded a new era of free trade.
In April 2000, a series of strikes by government employees erupted into the worst civil unrest since the 1970s, as an attempt by the government to break up the country’s 50-year-old power and telecommunications monopoly resulted in nationwide street protests that brought the country to a halt.
In April 2003, the Supreme Court voted to reverse the 1969 law barring presidents from running for office again within an eight-year period following the end of their single term. In spring 2006, the nation reelected former president Oscar Arias as president. His administration was considered less corrupt by far than predecessors, and perhaps more effective. Arias’s campaign in favor of the CAFTA treaty paid off when voters approved it in 2007.
The lingering 2008 rainy season was the wettest ever recorded, resulting in extensive flooding and landslides nationwide. When a moderate 6.2 Richter-scale earthquake shook the Poás volcano region on January 8, 2009, saturated hillsides gave way, destroying the village of Cinchona and killing dozens of people.
In March 2010, Arias’s hand-picked successor, Laura Chinchilla (his minister of justice and a former vice president), was elected in a landslide victory and took office as the country’s first female president. She promised new protections for the country’s national parks, including pursuing Arias’s goal of making Costa Rica the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021. On cue, the new Caldera Highway (Autopista del Sur) opened, permitting drivers to speed along, thus presumably getting better mileage. It has been plagued by problems, including in early November 2010, when severe rains caused landslides, flooding, and deaths throughout the central highlands.
In November 2010, the perpetual feud with neighboring Nicaragua over sovereignty of the Río San Juan turned ugly when Nicaraguan troops occupied Costa Rican soil, ostensibly to protect dredgers led by ex-Sandinista guerrilla Edén Pastora. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega refused to honor a decision by the Organization of American States that ordered Nicaragua to withdraw.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition