Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 5, 2011

Costa Rica notes, part 2

Filed under: Costa Rica — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

One of the reasons I was anxious to see Costa Rica with my own eyes is that the country was hailed throughout the 1980s as an alternative to Sandinista Nicaragua. Liberals and social democrats always held up Costa Rica as being within Nicaragua’s grasp rather than the socialist model embraced by the FSLN leaders.

There was something seductive about this argument given the two countries’ obvious similarities. Both had an abundance of volcanoes that erupted periodically, spilling natural fertilizers into the soil. Both were endowed by natural beauty, an asset that clearly could have benefited the tourist industry. One imagines that this model might have been in the back of the FSLN leaders’ minds despite their lip service to Cuba. With their go-slow attitude toward agribusiness, some Marxists often accused them of being sell-outs. Perhaps they always considered development along Costa Rican lines as a contingency. Unfortunately, the animosity of Washington condemned them to follow a path much more like Haiti’s.

Costa Rica enjoys 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 Nicaragua, as well as every other country there. Why? While this 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.

Unlike Guatemala, colonial Costa Rica had a relatively small number of indigenous peoples at the time of Spanish rule. Those who were there rose up against the Europeans, but were decimated by superior arms as well as diseases from which they lacked immunity. It was also remote from the colonial capital in Guatemala. This created a “modest and rustic life” according to historian Carlos Monge Alfaro. The yeoman farmer who flourished in Costa Rica became a pillar of bourgeois democracy, so the argument goes. The oxcarts they used to transport coffee beans became a symbol for the country, whose likenesses can be seen in souvenir shops all around the country.

This view of rural egalitarianism 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.

With a smaller Indian population than the other Central American countries, the colonial rulers were less reliant on a military apparatus to control the natives who the temerity 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. In 1821 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, according to Alfaro, 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 in land. Coffee’s 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 that 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”, a book that explores the contradictions of cattle ranching in Central America. He says this about coffee:

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.

Clearly the “liberalizing” coffee bourgeoisie needed a proletariat to work its farms. Labor was in short supply since much of it was attached to traditional 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 in earlier centuries. 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-dominated 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 conservative forces.

Most importantly, since small farmers held most of the good coffee-growing land in the central part of the country, the income distribution was more equalized. The capitalist class 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.

An odious character 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.

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 also decided to attack the semi-feudal 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 proprietor 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 America. 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 a goal to undermine 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.

The most politically advanced members of this modernizing middle-class started a think tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948 that was sharply anti-imperialist. It viewed Calderon’s export-oriented model as ceding 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”, a formulation that perhaps could have described large numbers of Sandinistas in the 1980s. They believed that Costa Rica’s main problem was domination by foreign and domestic capital, without accepting those aspects of Marxist theory that posited the working class as the class that was best suited to exercise power.

This group became allied with a faction within the powerful Democratic Party of Costa Rica called Democratic Action that was led by Jose Figueres. Figureres’s group joined with 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. The contending class forces in the civil war were incapable of achieving victory and led to a stalemate. 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 liberal critics of the FSLN is 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 both factions eventually accepted Calderon’s welfare state model. This model allowed the bourgeoisie to coopt popular struggles. It has remained a successful co-optation strategy as long as export agriculture remained viable. In my next post I will take a look at the economic problems faced by Costa Rica that threaten its exceptionalism.



  1. One of the best books on modern Costa Rica is “Peasants Against Globalization
    Rural Social Movements in Costa Rica.” His focus is on the peasant reaction to neoliberal reform instituted after Costa Rica suffered from its own debt crisis in the early 80s. It’s also one of the best sources on CR’s student revolutionary left, which has sent dozens of cadres to rural regions like Guanacaste. Initially they wanted to kick of a Cuban style revolt, but ended up becoming leaders of the rural farm movement after their orginizations fell apart.


    Comment by aa — June 6, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  2. Don’t welfare programs typically involve some co-option of popular movements?

    You Trotskyite types scream when the neoliberals dismantle the welfare state, but you sneer at the sell-out social democrats, the New Dealers (or Pepe Figueres types) who actually constructed the crappy old welfare states we depend on. Sure, It may be true that the era of welfare capitalism is over, but that’s another issue.

    Real-existing politics is always a game of strategic concessions. We can’t afford to sit around waiting for some imaginary revolution. I need my healthcare now.

    Comment by AJ — June 9, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

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