ESSAY: Costa Rica’s Extraordinary Peace Journey

“This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Dwight Eisenhower gave the world some extraordinary rhetoric — indeed, his words have the sting of ironic shrapnel, considering how little they have influenced the direction of the country and the world in the last six decades.

“These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953,” he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors nearly 64 years ago. “This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: Is there no other way the world may live?”

Even if Ike believed these words from the depths of his being, he didn’t inscribe them into national policy. These were the 1950s. The nuclear arms race was in full swing. We were playing Cold War with the Soviets and toppling governments we didn’t like (Iran, Guatemala, the Congo). Ike may have meant well, but he was the hostage of the very military-industrial complex he outed as he left office — which reduces “peace,” whatever that might truly mean, to a dream… to pie-in-the-sky idealism and the hostage of cynics.

What most people don’t know, however, is that when Eisenhower delivered his “cross of iron” speech, a tiny nation to the south had already been living those words for five years.

Yes, there is another way for the world to live. And Costa Rica is now nearly seven decades into what may be the most extraordinary experiment a sovereign nation has ever undertaken.

And this experiment is the subject of a fascinating documentary, A Bold Peace, co-directed by Matthew Eddy and Michael Dreiling, which is one of more than 30 films that are part of Chicago’s ninth annual Peace on Earth Film Festival, to be held March 10-12 at the city’s Music Box Theatre. It’s been my privilege to be part of this festival since its beginning — and I never cease to be awed by the scope and complexity of the subject matter on display at the festival.

A Bold Peace is definitely part of that complexity, as it tells the story of Costa Rica’s risky, extraordinary journey of living without a military — of transcending war and remaining (for 68 years and counting) an example of the future that is possible for the whole planet. Guess what? Contrary to what too many people continue to believe, aggressive dominance is not the key to survival, for nations or for individuals. Indeed, it’s just the opposite.
“Our best defense is to be defenseless,” former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias says at one point in the film. “Not having an army doesn’t make you weaker, but stronger… The political opinion of the world is our army.”

These are stunning words from a national leader. The whole idea of nationhood seems baptized in the concept of war, aggression and militarized “self-defense.” But something happened to Costa Rica in 1948: An opening in awareness took place, perhaps because of its leader at the time, Jose Figueres Ferrer, or perhaps because of some innate public will, or more likely it was the two factors in remarkable convergence. The country disbanded its army.

This is the story A Bold Peace tells: a quiet story of planetary significance, which begins, paradoxically, with an armed revolution that swept Costa Rica in 1948, in the wake of a disputed presidential election. Some 4,000 people died. Figueres led the revolution and took power, but here any similarity with other revolutionary movements ends.

Figueres stayed in power a total of 18 months. In that time, as the film points out, he accomplished several things: granting women and African-Caribbeans the right to vote, preserving and expanding the country’s social welfare system and, glory hallelujah, totally demilitarizing. He disbanded the armed forces, with full public support. The lack of a military is ingrained in the constitution and is part of the Costa Rican national identity. And after a year and a half, Figueres voluntarily stepped down from the presidency (though he was re-elected to that office twice in the coming years, in 1953 and 1970).

Part of the film’s impact is the clarity with which it explains, through numerous interviews, the complexity of Costa Rica’s peace journey and the courage required over the decades to sustain it. One of the interviewees described Figueres as “a victorious man who abolished his own army, surrounded by powerful enemies.” The U.S.-allied dictators of the Caribbean Basic hated him, including Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, who at one point challenged Figueres to a pistol duel at the border of the two countries. Figueres responded: “Grow up.”

But the cruelest challenges Costa Rica faced over the decades came directly from the United States. The film addresses these challenges in detail, beginning with Ronald Reagan and the U.S. proxy war with the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, who had overthrown Somoza. The Reagan administration had claimed a swath of Honduras for use as a military base and put enormous pressure on Costa Rica to give it the same access. Costa Rica resisted and wound up declaring neutrality, much to the chagrin of the United States and its proxy warriors, who could hardly fathom such comeuppance from this tiny country.

“We were not afraid. That’s a very important national trait,” Victor Ramirez, a former assistant minister under Arias, says in the film. “Paranoia… is one of the paradoxical traits of the powerful. The United States is a very good example of that. It’s a very paranoid country. They are so scared of everything. We had a very strong power just to the north of our country and we were not scared. We were not going to militarize our country.”

In 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, Costa Rica was again pressured to be part of the action, to join the U.S. “coalition of the willing,” and its president at the time momentarily succumbed, but public pressure forced her to pull out. And in 2010, when the Nicaraguan military invaded a Costa Rican island, the two countries eventually solved the dispute at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“If Costa Rica had an armed force, that would have been war,” Luis Guillermo Solis, current president of Costa Rica, says in the film.

Is there no other way the world may live?

A Bold Peace, which begins by quoting Eisenhower’s “cross of iron” speech, tells the remarkable story of war avoided, or transcended, again and again and again. Yes, there is another way for the world to live. By the film’s end, this way emerges not simply as possible, not simply as a curiosity, but as the model for the future. It’s time for the rest of the world to join Costa Rica on its journey.

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Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an award-winning Chicago journalist and editor.