Costa Rica’s peace dividend: How abolishing the military paid off


On Dec. 1, 1948 — 65 years ago this month — Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledgehammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall at the nation’s military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. Its imposing towers and massive gates had loomed over the capital city of San Jose since 1917, the country’s premier symbol of military power and the home of the “Tico” military establishment.

Figueres was not just being a showman; he was announcing something truly extraordinary: Henceforth, Costa Rica would take the almost unheard-of step of renouncing its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he publicly handed the keys to the minister of education, announcing that Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and the nation’s military budget would be redirected toward healthcare, education and environmental protection.

The political calculations that led to this dramatic event were doubtless complex, and they’ve been disputed ever since. It seems likely, for example, that Figueres was painfully aware that Costa Rica’s military, like that of other Central American states, had been used to suppress domestic uprisings and undertake coups, especially against governments perceived to be left-leaning like his.


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But at the same time he was clearly aware of the “opportunity costs” associated with military spending, the simple fact that resources expended on the military could not be used to support domestic needs. Then as now, his decision to demilitarize created opportunities for Costa Rica to invest in butter instead of guns.

To this day, Costa Rica has no army, navy or air force, no heavy weapons of any kind. There are local police forces but no national defense force. When visiting dignitaries arrive in San Jose, they are never met by bands in military-style uniforms or uniformed national officials of any kind, because by law there are none; rather, foreign VIPs are met by schoolchildren wearing the visitor’s national colors.

If you walk along a beach in Costa Rica and see lines of pelicans flying in perfect formation, consider it the Tico air force, out on maneuvers.

Most Americans — even among the many who travel to Costa Rica for an eco-vacation — have no idea that this country is demilitarized, even as they enthusiastically partake of the many benefits this decision has helped generate: democratic institutions, the remarkably healthy and happy population, and, not least, the fact that Costa Rica has been able to invest not only in its people but also in preserving about 25% of its land area in either national parks or biological reserves.

It has become fashionable of late to evaluate and rank the overall “happiness” of various countries. It’s easy to be skeptical of such surveys. The results vary with the questions asked, not to mention divergent national styles when it comes to self-assessment. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that Costa Rica ranks No. 1 in the Happy Planet Index, No. 1 in the World Database of Happiness. It’s consistently right up there with its wealthier counterparts despite a per capita gross domestic product of $7,390, 68th in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund in 2010.


It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to conclude with certainty that when it comes to various “happiness” measures, Costa Rica punches so far above its weight because it’s been soldierless for 65 years, but the possibility is at least reasonable. In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias made the happiness connection, obliquely, when he spoke before the U.S. Congress.

“I belong to a small country,” he said, “that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter.... Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbors. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed.”

Arias was addressing Congress because of his role in negotiating peace in the Contra war in neighboring Nicaragua. The United States had employed strenuous economic and diplomatic arm-twisting in hopes of getting Costa Rica to rearm and join it in fighting the Contras. When that effort failed, the Reagan administration was greatly annoyed. But two months after Arias’ Washington speech, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

There is no doubt that his success as a negotiator was achieved in part because he was able to deploy his country’s neutrality as well as the moral authority generated by its commitment to demilitarization.

Costa Rica is not alone in having abandoned militarism, although its demilitarized compatriots are either firmly in protective relationships with larger states (Costa Rica is presumably sheltered by the U.S., but only under the loose ties of the Organization of American States), or they are barely countries at all (being closer to city-states or tiny, isolated islands), or they have only recently proceeded down the path of demilitarization. (Some nations are sometimes thought to be demilitarized but are not. For example, Sweden and Switzerland are neutral but armed.)

By my reckoning, these are the world’s demilitarized political entities: Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa. In Central America and the Caribbean: Costa Rica, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In Europe: Andorra, Iceland (a NATO member), Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City. And, in the Pacific Ocean: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

It may be significant that with the exception of the Vatican, all these entities are democratic. In addition, few have been subjected to foreign attack or coercive military threats. In 1989, Panama, which then had an army, was invaded by the United States, and in Haiti, a military strongman was deposed in 1994 by the threat of U.S. military force. The demilitarization of Panama and Haiti is probably too recent to be considered fully successful, although both countries warrant more attention in this regard than they have received.

Unfortunately, in no cases (including that of Costa Rica) are data available comparing civilian populations’ happiness or subjective well-being before and after being demilitarized.

It is unrealistic to expect that the United States will ever abolish its armed forces. Indeed, war can become a national habit and militarism a way of life. But so can peace and demilitarization, as the case of Costa Rica shows, and as Dr. Seuss has affirmed: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

The Ticos have chosen, and for them at least, it works.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. He and his wife, who have a home in Costa Rica, are writing a book about its demilitarization and its happiness.