The "FDR" of Costa Rica: The Life and Times of Dr. Calderón Guardia
Privileged Lives and Radical Presidencies
“Ever since I left for Europe to study in Belgium –center of civilization and emporium of culture– I couldn’t put out of my mind the idea that the pain and misery of my people needed a remedy. Not one extracted from the hatred of classes or from violence — for this would be a product of injustice which would breed a thousand more injustices and never achieve peace among the different classes — rather, one of harmony born out of an effort to perfect our democratic institutions."
-Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia. San José, Costa Rica. September 1942
Texas University historian H. W. Brands couldn’t have had a better title for his book on FDR: “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
But as a Costa Rican, when I hear the words “traitor to his class” or “radical presidency”, the first name that comes to mind is not FDR’s. It’s the name of former Costa Rican president: Doctor Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia.
Saving The System
Even though both FDR and Dr. Calderón Guardia would be labeled as "socialists" or "communists" by their detractors, in fairness, it could be said that their policies were directed at protecting liberal, capitalist democracies through the "perfection" of democratic institutions without resorting to the extreme measures implemented by the communist regimes or the fascists dictatorships at the time.
While FDR went to Harvard and then Columbia, Rafael Ángel learned his own father’s trade. He left Costa Rica to study medicine at The Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and then returned to Costa Rica to work as a surgeon and physician before jumping into the political arena.
Both FDR's presidency and Calderón Guardia's would prove to be revolutionary, working within the democratic system.
Historian Howard Zinn would argue that these reforms were aimed at keeping the system at bay in order to prevent a "workers revolution". Dr. Calderón Guardia's sympathizers would argue that his social legislation (especially that aimed at providing universal healthcare) stemmed from his education in Belgium and his experience as a practicing surgeon and physician in the poverty-ridden third world country of Costa Rica.
While there was no "violent revolution" in the United States following FDR's presidency or even after the democrats finally lost the White House to Eisenhower, Costa Rica would endure an incredibly violent Civil War in 1948 which resulted in 4,000 deaths.
However, this “revolution” would not be one led by workers. As I shall detail later on. Rather, one led by the anti-communist insurrectionist José Figueres Ferrer.
WWII: Allies in the Americas
During the 1930s and 1940s, Costa Rican was mostly an agricultural economy with its main exports being coffee and bananas. A "Banana Republic" as was dubbed in those days.
The Costa Rican “Oligarquía Cafetalera” or Coffee Oligarchy largely controlled policy and held strong political clout throughout the 1900s and beyond. Fortunes were made by Costa Rican businessmen during the second half of the 1800s when Costa Rican coffee was exported first and had major success in the international markets.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany were the major destinations of Costa Rican exports. This created important business ties with the Costa Rica "coffee oligarchy" and the intellectual elites, some of whom were educated in the Weimar Republic and after Hitler assumed power, the Third Reich.
Main Destination of Costa Rican Exports 1930-1940
Costa Rican attitudes towards Germany during the 1930s were far from hostile. It is important to note that prior to Hitler's ascent, Germany was arguably the pinnacle of western culture.
On January 23, 1937 the German Ship SMS Schleswig-Holstein docked in Costa Rica and was greeted by Costa Rican officials. Some businesses with German ties flew the swastika flag as a greeting sign outside their buildings including one together with the Costa Rican flag.
With the political backing of the Costa Rican elites and an energized constituency of people who responded to the doctor's benign reputation for being a generous physician who frequently offered free consultations and gave prescriptions with medicine included to the poor. Dr. Calderón Guardia won the election of 1940 with 84% of the vote.
Presidential Election Results by Political Party 1940
A figure no Costa Rican politician had ever achieved nor has since been matched to this day.
Shortly after being declared president-elect, he visited the White House in March with his first wife, Yvonne Clays Spoelders.
By September 1940, FDR went on record saying that there was "complete cooperation between Costa Rica and the United States" in the defense of the Americas.
FDR would also be "non committal" on potentially setting up a base in Cocos Island. An island which is part of Costa Rican territory and is located 600 miles northwest of the Panama Canal and about 5,000 miles southeast of Hawaii.
Even though Costa Rica had an army of about 500 soldiers in 1940, it would side unequivocally with the Allied Powers of the World when Calderón Guardia declared war on Imperial Japan on December 8, 1941 (a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) and it would declare war on Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on December 11, 1941.
"These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. ... In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike."
- FDR Acceptance Speech for the Renomination for the Presidency, Philadelphia, Pa.
June 27, 1936
"Those workers, sunk in misery, without the slightest protection against the contingencies of age, disablement, sickness, and death; moved me, to both a profound pity, and a feeling of natural rebelliousness. ... They are victims of an injustice, and they are far from being a burden to elements or social groups that have employed their strength and have taken advantage of their economic activity".
-Dr. Calderón Guardia
San José, Costa Rica. September 1942
The University of Costa Rica was established in 1940 with the signing of Law N° 362. The purpose of the institution was to provide higher education to the people of Costa Rica. An opportunity that was previously and almost exclusively available to those who had enough money to study abroad. As Dr. Calderón Guardia himself at the Catholic University of Leuven.
Social Security: Costa Rica’s Universal Healthcare
The Costa Rican Social Security Administration (Caja Costarricense del Seguro Social) was founded on November 1, 1941. The ambitious legislation pushed by Dr. Calderón Guardia aimed to provide a universal healthcare and pension system, financed by an agreed upon tripartite contribution made by: 1) employers, 2) employees, and 3) the state.
The system still exists to date and deductions are outlined in each companies’ payroll. It was also designed to provide the population with insurance that covered disablement, old age, and death (or IVM as it is known in the country, meaning: invalidéz, vejéz y muerte).
Dr. Calderón Guardia is also remembered for appointing a communist as the director of a government program aimed at giving footwear to the country's schoolchildren in an effort to prevent and eradicate diseases from direct contact with the ground.
Seven years after FDR passed the law that would create the social security administration, Calderón Guardia created a version of this system for Costa Rica in 1941.
The Code of Labor (Código de Trabajo) was passed on September 15, 1943. Like the Wagner Act of 1935 the Code of Labor and the "Social Guarantees" protected worker's rights to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.
By examining Title III, Section III concerning the "Social Guarantees" the laws guaranteed a worker's right to strike, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday with a 48-hour work week, a recognition of overtime hours with a 50% increase in payment from the base salary, paid vacations with no less than 2 weeks per 50 weeks of continuous work, and other specific regulations for employment relations.
The social reforms were backed by two unlikely allies. The Communist party of Costa Rica led by Manuel Mora Valverde and the Catholic Church in the figure of Monseñor (Monsignor) Sanabria in 1942. While the Catholic Church did regard communism with skepticism, they felt a need to express there was no contradiction between the “Social Guarantees” and the church’s teachings.
Unions grew in number in the United States. Which caused critics of the Roosevelt administration to say that he “tolerated communism”. And out of his policies, several interest groups which had some sympathy for FDR’s measures, aligned into what was later referred to as “The New Deal Coalition”.
Similarly, Dr. Calderón Guardia lost support among the business class because of his progressive social reforms. Especially from those with strong business ties to Germany. In turn, his policies made it possible to secure voting blocs from reformist catholics, workers, and communists.
Among the critics of Dr. Calderón Guardia’s administration was the group known as the CEPN “Centro de Estudio para los Problemas Nacionales” (or The Center for the Study of National Problems). The self-identifying social-democratic group was created in 1940 and after the Civil War of 1948, its members would find a home in Figueres’ “Liberación” party. Including future president (1974-1978) Daniel Oduber Quirós.
Internment Camps and The "Black List"
As a war-time measure, Constitutional Guarantees in Costa Rica were suspended after a “heated four hour debate in Congress” on on December 10, 1941 (the decree was not overturned until 1945 in the Picado Presidency after the surrender of Imperial Japan).
As historian Howard Zinn noted in "A People's History of the United States" FDR signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942 which gave the army the power: "...without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast—110,000 men, women, and children—to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions" (Kindle Edition p. 416).
Something similar happened in Costa Rica.
Historian Jacobo Schifter notes in his book "Costa Rica 1948: Análisis de Documentos Confidenciales del Departamento de Estado", Calderón Guardia's government didn't hesitate to put in place the guidelines of an anti-fascist Memorandum for Latin America produced by the State Department in 1942. The administration created a board for the "custody of property" which proceeded to confiscate the assets of people whose names appeared on a "blacklist" sent by the United States. The list of names was known as the "Lista Proclamada" (Proclaimed List).
A construction of internment camps was presided by the Calderón Guardia administration. It even bragged about the conditions of the camps in the press, stating these were “very well conditioned” and could “accommodate” up to 400 people in an area surrounded by three electrical wires.
As a result of these war-time measures: Germans, Italians, and even Spaniards (who were thought to be sympathetic to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco or "franquistas") had their assets confiscated and their liberty impeded. Politically, these developments were met with strong reactions by the opposition accusing the president of being an "authoritarian".
"Fifth Column" Fears
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the "fifth column" as: "a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders".
Anti-German sentiments in Costa Rica reached its peak in June 1942. The United Fruit Company (UFCO) owned a ship called the “San Pablo” and it used to dock in the Caribbean port of Limón, the furthermost Caribbean province of Costa Rica and through which imports were brought in and most of the Banana exports were shipped away.
On July 2, 1942 the UFCO’s ship which was carrying a cargo of bananas, was torpedoed by a submarine as it lay docked in the port of Limón, killing more than 20 people.
Disregarding wild claims which allege that the UFCO blew the ship up themselves in order to get the Costa Rican government to target the Niehaus company since it was a German competitor to UFCO (people connected with the Niehaus company would have their assets confiscated and some were interned and then deported to the United States after this event) the most likely explanation is that it was sunk by a German submarine.
On July 4, 1942 (bear in mind that this is the United States’ Independence Day) the anti-german, anti-italian, and anti-spanish sentiment manifested itself in a mass demonstration organized by the “Comité de Unificación Anti-totalitaria” (Committee of Anti-totalitarian Unity) in San José. Inviting all Costa Ricans to gather in a parade at 5pm.
Marchers carried banners which read “It’s not just Hitler now, it’s all the Germans” demanding “revenge” against the “fifth column”.
The parade soon turned into a riot. Protesters stoned the windows of places like the “Musmanni” bakery, the “Siebe” jewelry, and the “Casa España”. The “Diario de Costa Rica” reported that 76 people were wounded and 123 buildings were stoned.
The government was criticized, alleging that policemen were not able to disperse the march until 10pm when machine guns and revolvers were fired at the sky. The “Diario de Costa Rica” reported that authorities were overwhelmed by the crowds and some couldn’t stop the stoning so they stood next to the businesses to avoid further looting.
In the Costa Rican Congress, communist leader Manuel Mora demanded: “we ask for arms and we ask for a cleansing of the traitors in the official spheres”. Calderón Guardia reassured him, delivering possibly his most incendiary reply ever, stating that the “beautiful parade" moved him deeply and that the “fifth column will be exterminated”.
The riots and looting incident prompted farmer and businessman José Figueres to broadcast a provocative speech against the government on the radio on July 8, 1942.
He was detained and later deported to México where he began to associate with members of the revolutionist group known as “La Legión Caribe” (or The Caribbean Legion).
Figueres would return to Costa Rica in 1944 and begin to reinsert himself into the political arena within the ranks of the Partido Social Demócrata (Or Social Democratic Party) and Leon Cortés’ Partido Demócrata (or Democratic Party).
Traitors To Their Class: Enemies and Hatred
"We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred."
- FDR speaking in Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936.
Both FDR and Calderón Guardia where hated by their respective "economic royalists".
As H.W Brands notes regarding FDR: "His enemies excoriated him as a communist and damned him for disregarding property rights and violating the canons of the capitalist marketplace... The wealthy denounced him for having betrayed the class of his birth." [p.11].
Dr. Calderón Guardia would also be labeled as a "communist" by the oligarchs and the opposing political class. Massive opposition to the legislation passed came from oligarchs, employers (who deplored the "Social Guarantees" as being excessively generous to the working class), and intellectuals who deemed Calderón Guardia's development of a welfare state as financially unsustainable.
The support of the Catholic Church in the figure of Monseñor Sanabria and the leader of the Communist Party Manuel Mora for this legislation, also lent itself to allegations by the Opposition that the government had “given itself” to communism. To some in the opposition, as far as they were concerned, "calderonistas" and "comunistas" were one and the same. The Republicano candidate for the presidency of 1944 Teodoro Picado Michalski, Calderón sympathizers, and communists were lumped together in a popular term and referred to (with a disparaging intent) as "caldero-comunistas".
Public finances deteriorated significantly, amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, the naval blockade of WWII prevented Costa Rican exports from reaching its main European destinations.
Former president León Cortés and Dr. Calderón Guardia had a falling off after the latter refused to support Cortés' son Otto to be re-elected President of Congress after having served in the first year of Dr. Calderón Guardia's administration (Otto Cortés would eventually return to the Presidency of Congress in 1954 with José Figueres' first democratically elected government).
The schism within the Republicano party reached its peak when Cortés launched his presidential bid for the election of 1944 running on the self-proclaimed social-democratic “Partido Demócrata” (or Democratic Party) founded on June 10, 1941.
Skepticism towards León Cortés' sympathy for Germany was also a factor in the split. While it is generally accepted that Dr. Calderón Guardia wanted to rid himself of the influence of his predecessor, there was no question of his support for the Allied Powers during WWII.
Fearing his legislation could be reversed by adverse republicanos finding common ground with already antagonized sectors, Calderón Guardia backed the president of Congress of his administration: Teodoro Picado Michalski.
Picado Tries to Save the First Republic
The Second World War was far from over by the time Costa Rica held elections in February 1944.
It would be another four months when the Allied troops made their landing on Normandy under heavy fire by German-occupied France on D-Day June 6, 1944. The prospect of having German sympathizer León Cortés back in the presidency was not welcomed by the American press.
A piece published in the magazine shortly after Cortés’ unexpected death just two years after an election he could’ve won (Cortés died of a stroke on March 3 1946 at the age of 63) revealed general sentiments towards the former president.
Time would get a series of letters denouncing its use of the term "fascist minded" to describe him. The following exchange entitled: "Cortes: "Fascist-Minded?" was published on April 8, 1946.
In the March issue of your estimable publication appears a brief reference to the death of Mr. Leon Cortes Castro, in which it is stated that this illustrious ex-President of my country was a man of fascist tendencies. Nothing could be farther from the truth. . . .
No President of Costa Rica has been a fascist, nor could any Chief Executive of my country ever sympathize with the totalitarian nations, because every one of Costa Rica's statesmen is educated in the school of traditional Costa Rican democracy. . . .
H. H. BONILLA Consul General of Costa Rica New York City
. . . Leon Cortes Castro has fought totalitarianism bitterly. Overstrain fighting such organizations killed him. . . .
AMADO JIMENEZ ROSABAL San Jose, Costa Rica
... That stupid label was only a dirty political trick of the Communists and other President Calderon supporters. ... It all began in 1941, when Cortes broke off with his long supporter and follower, Dr. Calderon, who, a short time later, embarked in a complete partnership with Communists. . . .
ALBERTO F. CANAS San Jose, Costa Rica
TO WHICH TIME MAGAZINE RESPONDED:
aware that many sincere democrats supported the late President Leon Cortes Castro, still believes it fair to call him fascist-minded: 1) he accepted political support from a large group who adopted fascist trappings; 2) one of his chief advisers was the German Nazi Max Effinger, who was shipped to the U.S. for internment after Pearl Harbor; 3) he sent his son and political lieutenant to school in Germany and never repudiated the son's enthusiastic reports on Hitler.—ED.
Guillermo Vargas Hoffmeister somewhat corroborates the third point made in the response in his book "La guerra de Figueres" (Figueres' War) when he noted that Otto Cortés was very impressed to have shaken the Führer's hand on a trip to Germany, so much so that he (jokingly?) stated that he didn't want to wash it off [p.18].
Teodoro Picado was of Polish descent. He spoke three languages as a child (Spanish, Polish, and French). Later on, he learned English and German. He served as Secretary of Education in the Ricardo Jiménez administration (1932-1936), was elected to Congress in 1940 running on the "Republicano" ticket, and was elected President of Congress three times during Calderón Guardia's administration. A position which allowed him to play a major role in the Social Legislation passed in the administration.
Aside from being a candidate who would ensure the permanence of the social legislation passed in Dr. Calderón Guardia's presidency, his maximum task would be to do everything within his constitutional power to preserve the constitutional order of the country and avoid armed conflict at all costs.
Election of 1944: Total Votes for President by Candidate
The elections of 1944 were met with allegations of fraud by the Opposition. Part of the allegations stemmed from Picado's comfortable victory by achieving 65% of the vote against Cortés' 35%.
Multiple forms of tampering and voter fraud were commonplace in the Costa Rican democratic process. In response to the allegations and the increasing intensity of the Opposition, President Picado responded by creating the "Tribunal Nacional Electoral" (National Electoral Tribunal) or TNE for short.
A move which aimed to separate the administration of ballots from the executive branch and run as an independent entity. This institution would later be the model for the more its more robust version that has guaranteed free and fair elections after the Civil War, the "Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones" or "Supreme Elections Tribunal" TSE, for short.
The Opposition, however, was not content. Some sectors even considered that the only way to stop the so-called "caldero-comunistas" from being in power was to resort to violence. Among those was José Figueres who began planning a coup at least as early as April 1947. And had at least publicly manifested that the government should "disappear" as early as 1942 in the radio broadcast which had him detained.
After León Cortés died in 1946, the Opposition proceeded to regroup around the figure of Otilio Ulate, owner, and director of arguably the most widely read newspaper at the time: “El Diario de Costa Rica”.
Meanwhile as early as April 1947, Figueres began to plan a coup with what would become his National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional).
After workers went on strike in the famous "Huelga de Brazos Caídos” (or Strike of Fallen Arms), according to Guillermo Vargas Hoffmeister's book "La guerra de Figueres" or "Figueres' War", Figueres convened in Alajuela with his militants and told them the following:
"That son of a bitch Calderón Guardia must be physically eliminated. It's a question of moral sanity, and as such, one can't even think about it for a moment because its a duty of good costa ricans to eliminate that "doctorsillo" (little doctor)"[p.194].
- José Figueres Ferrer
“The marriage survived, but love and trust were gone. She forgave Franklin and they continued to live together, but their relationship had changed. Independent and increasingly self-confident and outspoken, Eleanor was now her own person. For her, the Lucy Mercer affair was a watershed.”
-“FDR” Jean Edward Smith. Kindle Edition Location: 3,572.
Both Dr. Calderón Guardia and FDR had uneasy marriages while in power. At some point, both of them were faced with the possibility of divorce.
While FDR and ER’s marriage survived, Dr. Calderón Guardia and his first wife Yvonne Clays Spoelders, lawfully separated from her husband after his presidency.
We separated here in Costa Rica at the end of the presidency. Nothing more. And then Rafael Angel did not want to stay here because he had a very compromised situation. We made a judicial separation, nothing more. We did not really get to a divorce and he wanted to leave a year and a half to see if the situation between us could be fixed.
-Yvonne Clays Spoelders interview in “El otro Calderón Guardia” by Guillermo Vargas Hoffmeister p.55
Rafael Ángel married his second wife Maria del Rosario Fournier Mora on June 6, 1947. She would flee the country with her husband in 1948 and live as an exile in Mexico where she raised their three children before re-establishing her family in Costa Rica in the mid 1960s.
“I returned to Mexico, to my home, my children, and my domestic duties. For me, this was like a sweet repose from a long and hard fatigue. It was like returning to Paradise. A month later my husband came back, and slowly he dissolved his bitter deception; by my side and with our children.”
Maria del Rosario Fournier Mora “Notes for a Biography” San José, Costa Rica 1986 p.45
Smoke if you got 'em
Jean Edward Smith's book "FDR" features a quotation by Secretary of Commerce and one of FDR's closest advisers Harry Hopkins. Observing his president and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference he noted: "[Stalin, like Roosevelt, was a chain-smoker], but ever under control." Kindle Edition. Location: 12,818.
Even though Dr. Calderón Guardia was a surgeon and physician, he also did smoke. And by family accounts, he stopped when he suffered a heart attack sometime in his 50s and resorted to chewing gum for coping with the nicotine withdrawal.
It was no coincidence that the 22nd Amendment was enacted after FDR had gone on to win four presidential elections. The amendment was proposed in 1947 and was ratified in 1951. Which stated, among other details, that "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice".
"But the war did come, Roosevelt did run, and the Republicans were barred from the White House for another dozen years. By then Social Security had developed a huge constituency, one so great that Dwight Eisenhower remarked that any president or party would have to be crazy to tamper with the system Roosevelt had created."
- "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" by H.W Brands. p.820 Kindle Edition.
FDR's health declined rapidly in 1945. He eventually died on April 12, leaving Vice President Harry Truman in charge of the post-WWII order. And when the Democrats finally lost to Republican General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, he didn't "tamper" with FDR's progressive legislation.
In a similar fashion, Figueres preserved the legislation achieved during Calderón Guardia's presidency. This was in the aftermath of his successful coup d'état following the elections of 1948. Figueres himself would go on to expand the role of the state by nationalizing banks, creating a state monopoly for electricity production with the ICE ("Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad" or Costa Rican Institute of Electricity), and with the Constitution of 1949 women were finally granted the right to vote.
In the context of the Cold War, the United States expanded its military budget. Favoring what Eisenhower dubbed "the military-industrial complex" meanwhile Costa Rican politicians would brag about their country's "peaceful tradition" after the events of the 1940s.
A claim which deserves a closer examination and it begins with the coup d'état of 1948.
WWII Ends: Nazis Fall, Red Scare Rises
“Present indications are that Rafael Calderon Guardia, with the support of the Vanguardia party and the Communist leaders, will be elected President in February, 1948. While he has openly solicited their backing, he tries to allay the fears of anti-Communists by saying that he is doing so for political expediency and that he “never has been, is not, and never will be a Communist”. The fact is, however, that he is aligned with them and in doing so has contributed to their standing and influence in Costa Rica.”
San José, October 9, 1947.
After the Yalta Conference which took place from Feb 4 to Feb 11 of 1945, FDR was reportedly looking much weakened from his declining health.
He would pass, while still in office, two months after that meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.
The international stage was much more forgiving of the alliance of Dr. Calderón Guardia’s administration and the communist party. After all, the USSR and the USA were allies against the Nazi War Machine.
But those feelings quickly changed as the beginning of the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the United States would lead to proxy wars across the world.
To many in Costa Rica, the idea of Dr. Calderón Guardia returning to the presidency was a different prospect than when he first ran in 1940. The opposition would gather around newspaper owner Otilio Ulate who exploited a reductionist narrative which would fit into José Figueres view of the Doctor: that he was no different from a communist and he had to be eliminated.
The Fall of the Republic
In long frank conversation April 5 Foreign Minister speaking in name of President Picado expressed bewilderment at US attitude which inexplicably appears unfriendly to government Costa Rica. Personalizing he alleged Picado administration, like previous Calderon, had expelled Germans at our request although due close family ties with influential Costa’s occasioned President serious embarrassment [sic]. When government which did US this favor now desperately needs arms finds US blocks efforts every turn, Figueres got “tons” arms munitions from Guatemala and persistent but unverified rumors getting others from Panama.
San José, April 6, 1948
Historian Jacobo Schifter notes in his book "Costa Rica 1948: Análisis de Documentos Confidenciales del Departamento de Estado" how the President of Guatemala at the time, Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951) supported Figueres with weapons.
Figueres had started to entertain the idea of a military crusade to "end the dictatorships of Central America” at least since 1943. In Mexico, he met with Nicaraguan exile (and Somoza regime opposer) Rosendo Argüello Jr. and both agreed on an armed solution for the countries in the region and started purchasing weapons [p.150].
Juan José Arévalo, sympathizing with feelings of Central American independence from the United States, pushed for the signing of the “Pacto del Caribe” (or “Caribbean Pact”) in December of 1947. Which defined a military alliance that would “be an enterprise of redemption to be initiated in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Santo Domingo”. Whose purpose would be to “sweep” each one of the three “dictatorships” to achieve the “reconstruction” of a Central American Republic.
According to Schifter’s findings, the American Embassy in Costa Rica had knowledge that Figueres had been purchasing weapons since at least the 3rd of July of 1947.
It’s also worth remembering, that although war measures taken during Dr. Calderón Guardia’s administration hurt civil liberties and confiscated properties; he was in fact democratically elected in 1940.
The Costa Rican Civil War of 1948
The covers of the two most widely read newspapers at the time for February 10th painted a heavily divided country. While Ulate’s “Diario de Costa Rica” featured himself on the cover as “President Elect” as a headline, “La Tribuna” led with “More than 100,00 citizens were suppressed of their right to vote because of proved maneuvers of the Electoral Registry”.
The results were puzzling. Both for the Presidential Election (made public in February) and for Congress (made public in April).
Total Votes for President by Political Party
Perhaps the most striking thing about these numbers was the salient disparity in the results for “diputados” (Congress) and those for “presidente”.
Total Votes for Congress by Political Party
How could one reasonably explain to the public opinion that by adding up the total number of votes cast for Republicans and "Vanguardia Popular" combined in the congressional race: the result was a victory over The Opposition by more than 11,000 votes; and yet they had lost the presidency by nearly 10,000 votes?
Supposing the elections were free and fair: was there a split vote? At a time of such unmistakeable political polarization? It didn’t take hardline skeptics to infer that something had gone awry.
Assessing the validity of these results is still challenging for many historians (for a carefully calibrated analysis of the numbers, the writer of these lines recommends you check out Stuffing the Ballot Box: Fraud, Electoral Reform, and Democratization in Costa Rica - Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics).
For now, suffice to say that the consensus and the most obvious conclusion was: multiple forms of electoral tampering and voter fraud. Congress, largely controlled by the Republicanos, annulled the presidential election on March 1st, while the results for the congressional election were still being determined.
This was Figueres’ moment (excuse? final justification?) for the armed solution that would bring about the “Segunda República”. Figueres’s first “proclamation” from his headquarters at Santa María de Dota (dated March 23rd) gives insight into his thinking and demonstrate how far from peaceful his intentions were. Figueres called for people to commit acts of vandalism (terrorism?) against what he called the “usurping government”:
HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY OF
FIRST PROCLAMATION OF SANTA MARIA DE DOTA
Are you doing what you can for the victory of liberty?
The National Liberation Army is fighting brilliantly in the theater of war.
You can effectively help the patriotic plight by putting sticks and stones on the roads, cutting telegraphic and telephone lines, surprisingly cornering political headquarters and reserves, trying by all means to disrupt and dismember the usurping government.
Are you doing what you can?
You said a thousand times that you will not allow a new mockery of the popular will, you have sworn that you are willing to contribute to the formation of a new Costa Rica. Keep your promises and oaths now. Do not use the pretext that you do not have weapons. In the humblest kitchen there is a “raspadulce”, in every country house there is a “chuzo”, in every home there are scissors, and in the heart of every man and woman of Costa Rica there is a hero.
Do what you can, be it much or little, to support the army now, and to have our triumphal entry ready and prepared for all the peoples of the country.
We are going; Soon, very soon, we will arrive.
Help us from afar and repeat this promise that must be spread from chest to chest like a divine conflagration.
We will found the Second Republic.
Santa María de Dota, March 23, 1948
JOSE FIGUERES FERRER
Commander in Chief of the Army of National Liberation
Even though the "official history" of Costa Rica, as some would have you believe, that the case for Figueres' justification for the violent resolution largely rested on it being the only way of returning the presidency to the "rightful winner" of the 1948 presidential elections Otilio Ulate, there was no indication that the Figueristas planned on doing the same for the "rightful winners" of the Costa Rican congress. Rather, an entirely different fate awaited them.
“Figueres and forces entered San José orderly fashion early morning hours today. Streets now patrolled traffic directed military police. Some firing evening April 23 apparently connection search for arms.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In statement published today Figueres states regrets certain steps taken by force of circumstances created impression intend install military dictatorship stating nothing more removed from temperament and inclinations leaders liberation movement. Added army has not terminated labor consolidating order necessary before taking political and civil measures.”
San José, April 24, 1948—10 a. m.
For a day-by-day breakdown of the armed conflict I recommend Juan Diego López' book "Los cuarenta días del 1948" (The forty days of 1948).
At the end of his book, he sums up the following: the communist party (Vanguardia Popular) was outlawed and their members were jailed and assassinated, the confederation of workers (CTCR) and all of its affiliate worker unions were dissolved, the "Partido Republicano Nacional" was dismantled and its leaders were persecuted and exiled; approximately 3,000 people became political prisoners, 7,000 were exiled, and the total death toll of the civil war was estimated somewhere between 2,000 and more than 4,000 people [p.312].
This is how, as López would state, the contradictions of the decade of the 1940s in Costa Rica were violently resolved. Even on the day of the “Victory Parade” when Figueres’ forces entered San José, Costa Rica witnessed horrific violence. As “La Prensa Libre” reported that the Jewish Synagogue was burnt to the ground by “enraged crowds”.
"I remember when they burned the synagogue, since it was the day of my Bar Mitzvah. Dad took me so that I could see the synagogue in ruins. He looked at me and said: "This is how Judaism will end some day anywhere outside of Israel"."
-Luis Burstin | Extract from an interview from March 6th 1979. Published in Jacobo Schifter’s "El judío en Costa Rica" (The Jew in Costa Rica)
Figueres would go on to create the "Junta Fundadora de la Segunda República" (or the Founding "Junta" of the Second Republic) and remain in power for 18 months before handing it over to Otilio Ulate. And after clearing the political arena, the "Ejercito de Liberación Nacional" (National Liberation Army) would find its more democratic iteration in the "Partido Liberación Nacional" (National Liberation Party) founded by Figueres in 1950 to compete for the elections of 1954.
“Figueres, with his Messiah complex and volatile personality, believes himself to be the man to save the repressed peoples of Latin America and has spoken out clearly against the “dictator” governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
-Memorandum by the Director of the Office of South American Affairs (Atwood) and the Deputy Director of the Office of Middle American Affairs (Neal) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Holland)1
[Washington,] July 22, 1954
Dr. Calderón Guardia was declared "traitor to the fatherland" by law on December 15, 1949. The plaques that were placed on the public works built during his administration were removed. And a “new nationalism" was born out of the figure of Figueres and “La Junta” of the Second Republic.
After wiping out the opposition parties, Figueres' new political party, "Liberación Nacional" would extensively dominate Costa Rican politics in the latter half of the 20th century (and arguably, still to this day) in all three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.
“In Costa Rica the system established under the leadership of José (Don Pepe) Figueres after the 1948 coup remains in place. It has always provided a warm welcome to foreign investment and has promoted a form of class collaboration that often “sacrificed the rights of labor,” Don Pepe’s biographer observes, while establishing a welfare system that continues to function thanks to U.S. subsidies, with one of the highest per capita debts in the world.”
-Noam Chomsky, “Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies” p.155
Aftermath, Exile, and the Failed Counter-revolution
“Just what will happen to the members of the Caribbean Legion remains problematical. Their public disbandment may only be a concession to opposition which has always been present with regard to their activities and the possible interference of Costa Rica in the affairs of its neighbors.”
San José, November 29, 1948
“Some of the revolutionary leaders, intoxicated with gunpowder and victory, in a first moment tried to ignore the elections of February 8. That's true. Had that fact been perpetrated, said the speaker, he would have faced those who did so. But then those leaders reflected coldly, they realized the popular feelings, they changed their attitude.”
-Rodrigo Facio as quoted in Act #36 of the National Constituent Assembly
March 15, 1949
President Picado worked to prevent an armed solution to Costa Rica’s problems. Some would criticize that he was “slow to act” and could’ve squashed Figueres’ armed rebels if he had chosen a military solution, including that of asking for help from the international community sooner.
Historian Jacobo Schifter examines conversations held between Picado and the American Ambassador to Costa Rica in his book "Costa Rica 1948: Análisis de Documentos Confidenciales del Departamento de Estado" which details how Picado was frustrated with the United States’ unwillingness to sell weapons to his government and even “block” attempts from Costa Rica to purchase weapons from other nations.
Picado designated vice-president Santos León Herrera as interim president while the Civil War was raging. After the results of February 8th were known, both sides would engage in conversations in hopes of resorting to a peaceful outcome.
On March 31st Dr. Calderón Guardia and Otilio Ulate agreed to let Julio César Ovares to assume the presidency for 2 years and then hold a new election.
There was precedent in Costa Rican history. And it wasn’t that far back. It happened in the election of 1913.
Neither of the two most-voted-for candidates in the 1913 election, Máximo Fernández Alvarado nor Carlos Durán Cartín achieved absolute majority; they both agreed on a third party to be sworn in by Congress. That’s how Alfredo González Flores served as President of Costa Rica during WWI.
Dr. Calderón Guardia and Otilio Ulate wanted to achieve something similar with Julio César Ovares.
But this plan would be contrary to Figueres’ armed solution in the already active insurrection which began on March 12th. After Picado put Herrera in charge, Herrera would be president from April 20 to May 8th when he conceded to Figueres.
Dr. Calderón Guardia, Manuel Mora, and Teodoro Picado fled the country.
On December 1st 1949, Figueres decided to disband the Costa Rican army in a symbolic act of hitting one of the stones of the Cuartel Bellavista (or The Bellavista Fortress) which would eventually become what it is today, a popular tourist attraction in the center of San José now known as the “Museo Nacional” or National Museum.
Some within the ranks of the Caribbean Legion did express feelings of betrayal and disillusionment when it became clearer that Figueres wasn’t planning on continuing a “liberation” of the other Central American nations. Among those: Rosendo Argüello Jr. who somewhat bitterly titled his 1955 memoir “By Whom We Were Betrayed… And How”.
Others within Figueres’ ranks would go even further.
Figueres’ Minister of Security at the time of the Junta, Edgar Cardona Quirós, gave a speech in a favor of the disbandment of the army. However, just four months after the dissolution of the army, Cardona himself organized a coup against “La Junta”.
Time Magazine would state that Figueres was “preparing to transform the army into a national police force” when this happened. Even though Costa Rica supposedly had no army, the report said: “Figueres opened up across the city's roofs with more guns than Costa Ricans knew they had. The staccato poc-poc of tommy guns mingled with the belch of mortars and the harsh slam of 50-calibre machine guns.”
Cardona tried to take over the Bellavista Fortress. Figueres labeled this act as “treasonous” and in the popular Costa Rican vernacular the incident became known as the “Cardonazo”.
The “Cardonazo” was successfully stopped. “La Prensa Libre” reported on April 3rd that the incident left six people dead and 30 wounded. The motive? According to “La Prensa Libre” Cardona was vehemently opposed at the idea of “La Junta” giving up its power to Ulate.
Even though Costa Rica had disbanded the army, one of Figueres’ most ardent supporters and passionate fighters, Frank Marshall, would create the paramilitary group known as the “Unión Cívica Revolucionaria” (or Civic Revolutionary Union). Marshall’s would remain active for decades and even go on to be inscribed as a political party on the 17th of January 1957.
It was no coincidence that Marshall became Orlich’s Minister of Security when Orlich won the presidency for the constitutional term of 1962 to 1966.
"Though the media are free from censorship or state terror, "in practice, however, Costa Ricans often can obtain only one side of the story, since wealthy ultraconservatives control the major daily newspapers and broadcasting stations”.”
-Noam Chomsky, “Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies” Appendix V :“The U.S. and Costa Rican Democracy”. p.455
“Somoza still hates Figueres and wishes that his good friend Calderón Guardia were running Costa Rica.”
-Time Magazine: “Costa Rica: Attack that Failed” Monday, Jan. 31, 1955
In January 1955, Costa Rican counterrevolutionary forces led by Captain Teodoro Picado Jr. and backed by Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza “invaded” Guanacaste, one of the northern provinces of Costa Rica.
Frank Marshall’s Unión Cívica was reanimated and fought in Guanacaste against the counterrevolutionary forces. But what ultimately destroyed them were four F-51 Mustang fighter jets purchased by the Costa Rican government.
Time Magazine reported that these were sold by the U.S. “not for the reported $1 a plane but for $5,500 apiece—still a bargain for planes that cost $75,000 each to build.”
The change in the United States’ attitude towards the Figueres regime had clearly changed. Evidenced by the fact that Figueres quickly secured war equipment when he faced a military challenge. This was not the case for Teodoro Picado. Since he was “blocked” multiple times by the United States to buy weapons to fight Figueres’ insurrectionist forces in 1948.
The 1951 West Point Graduate and Commander-in-Chief of the counterrevolutionary forces Captain Teodoro Picado Lara (former president Teodoro Picado Michalski’s son) was killed in Guanacaste on January 15th 1955. The forces would then retreat to Nicaragua. His father, Picado Michalski, would eventually die in exile in Managua, Nicaragua five years later on June 1, 1960.
Meanwhile, after fleeing to Nicaragua and eventually settling in Mexico, Dr. Calderón Guardia got a job as a medical consultant for the Secretaría de la Salud Pública (Public Health Administration of Mexico) and for PEMEX (Mexican Petroleum) specifically working with people with disabilities.
A Polarized Press and a Revised History
The animosity between Ulate’s “Diario de Costa Rica” and “La Tribuna” was well documented in the events leading up to the Civil War of 1948 and its aftermath.
After the war ended, the Figuerista journalist Alberto Cañas Escalante would write the book “Los ocho años” (The Eight Years) outlining the “official history of the victors” of the Costa Rican Civil War.
Cañas would be Figueres’ Minister of Culture. He would participate in the creation of the publishing houses “Editorial de Costa Rica” and the “Editorial Universidad Estatal a Distancia”, the School of Communication at the University of Costa Rica (which included journalism), the National Theater Company, and play a major part in the creation and dissemination of the newspapers: “Excelsior” and “La República”.
Alberto Cañas, José Figueres, and Francisco Orlich were also some of the first financial backers of what would become the dominating newspaper in Costa Rica in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond: the diario “La Nación” which, from its inception in 1946, served as an anti-calderonista outlet.
The “Segunda República” was also created through architecture. After Figueres ran virtually unopposed in the election of 1954, at the end of Ulate’s agreed upon term (imposed?), he ordered the “Palacio Nacional'“ (National Palace) to be demolished. This was the building where Congress used to session.
León Cortés was posthumously awarded the “Meritoriousness of the Fatherland” recognition by La Junta on January 26th, 1949. The highest award in the nation of Costa Rica. And a committee paid for a bronze monument of the former president to be placed outside the “La Sabana” airport in 1952. The statue still stands to this day. The old airport building is now the Museum of Costa Rican Art.
The Return of the Doctor
Even after the failed counterrevolution of 1955 and years of character assassination carried out by his enemies, Dr. Calderón Guardia would prove, once again, that he had a powerful constituency.
While in Mexico, a short film was made of him in calling on his followers to vote for Mario Echandi Jiménez and not for Figueres’ friend, and fellow Liberacionista, Francisco Orlich. The short film was distributed in Costa Rica and followers got a chance to see the Doctor on screen again.
Mario Echandi was the son of Alberto Echandi, Dr. Calderon Guardia’s former Minister of Foreign Relations. Mario would follow in his father’s footsteps and also become Minister of Foreign Relations but serving under Ulate’s Presidency. This made him a more conciliatory figure between “ulatistas” and “calderonistas” especially after the Civil War of 1948.
Mario Echandi promised that if he won the election of 1958, he would allow Dr. Calderón Guardia to return to Costa Rica.
Echandi did in fact defeat Francisco Orlich for the presidential term of 1958-1962 which meant Dr. Calderón Guardia could finally return to his homeland.
The Doctor would eventually run one last time for president as a “Republicano” in the election of 1962. Faced against, not only Figueres’ old friend Francisco Orlich from Liberación, but also, his old foe Otilio Ulate; who ran on the Unión Nacional (National Union) ticket.
Presidential Election of 1962 by Political Party
The election of 1962 would confirm at least three things. The first, that Liberación had successfully amassed the largest constituency in the aftermath of the Civil War. The second, that Dr. Calderón Guardia had the second largest constituency in the country. And thirdly, that Calderón Guardia's constituency was almost three times the size of that of Ulate's.
Therefore, in order to defeat Liberación, an alliance of former political enemies would have to be made by the “ulatistas” and “calderonistas” if they hoped to win the presidency from Liberación.
This would happen for the election of 1966 when the unlikely allies agreed to support economist José Joaquín Trejos for the presidency.
Trejos would narrowly defeat CEPN member and Liberacionista Daniel Oduber (Oduber would not run again in 1970, stepping aside and making way for Figueres’ reelection bid that same year, but Oduber eventually did become president from 1974 to 1978).
Even though Liberación lost a few presidential elections in the 20th century, it was still the major political party of Costa Rica with the most number of seats in Congress. Something that wouldn’t change until the 1990s.
Death and Legacy
"I will pass, but my most useful work will speak for me. That which seeks to remedy injustice and which translates into peace and liberty. … Even though Calderón Guardia will close his eyes to earthly light tomorrow, the loyal and thankful heart of the working classes of Costa Rica will speak for him.”
-Dr. Calderón Guardia San José 1970
FDR is widely remembered as the president who defeated both Hitler and overcame The Great Depression. He still ranks among the most popular presidents in the history of the United States. But Dr. Calderón Guardia's image was subjected to probably the most powerful and personalized smear campaign after his adversaries rose to power.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)
List published in 2015.
We learn about presidents, battles, and dates. The impression too often perpetuated in history books and in popular culture is that you have to be a president, someone special, or White to have an important idea or to achieve major accomplishments. This is an idea that disempowers citizens and should not be propagated further."
- Ava Duvernay as quoted in "A People's History of the United States". Kindle Edition. [Loc. 630]
Neither FDR nor Dr. Calderón Guardia could have achieved their reforms without their "mandates". The achievements of their legislation would have gotten nowhere if these weren’t embraced by the people.
Both men’s policies confirmed that the imperfect liberal democratic system could be perfected from within; with the continued support of their constituencies.
The 1940s were decisive years for the future of civil liberties and the role that states should play in people’s lives. The West (and really the world) could’ve fallen into the hands of totalitarianism.
Actors like FDR and Dr. Calderón Guardia managed to enact social legislation, create institutions which democratized power and helped the general population achieve living wages in order to have their basic needs met.
Perhaps the most significant question that the events of the 1940s in Costa Rica leaves us with, (and in particular, the contrasting characters of Dr. Calderón Guardia and Figueres) is, when it comes to means to achieving an end:
Should it be reform or revolution?
Most of the facts can be verified thanks to the work done by Costa Rica’s Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas (SINABI) http://www.sinabi.go.cr in compiling newspapers of the era and the declassified materials and correspondence available through the United States’ Office of the Historian https://history.state.gov.