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The Costa Rican Civil War of 1948: Seventy Years Later

The Costa Rican Civil War of 1948: Seventy Years Later

The Costa Rican Civil War lasted from March to April of 1948 and it was the most serious outbreak of political violence experienced by Costa Rica in the 20th century.

More than 4,000 people died, an estimated 7,000 people were driven to exile, and more than 3,000 citizens became political prisoners. These numbers, added up, represented almost 4% of the adult population at the time.

But how did all this come about?

The National Republican Party, founded by the supporters of Ricardo Jiménez in 1931 ended up becoming a majority party in the latter part of the 1930s, reaching its peak in the presidential election of 1940 where it captured more than 80 percent of the vote.

The main agent of that success was León Cortés. First as a minister in Ricardo Jiménez’ third and last administration (1932-1936), and later as president (1936-1940). Cortés oversaw an ambitious public works program (spending almost 30% of the national budget on it) in an effort to consolidate the support of the electorate.


By the end of the 1930s, the biggest electoral competitor of the National Republican Party, in the cities, was the Communist Party (Also known the “Bloc of Workers and Peasants). Founded in 1931, as well, this organization led by Manuel Mora, had a union base, a permanent newspaper (“Trabajo” or “Labor”), and a strategy to attract voters which consisted in systematically denouncing social problems.

Given the institucional limitations that democracy imposed, various anti-Communist sectors failed in their attempts to outlaw the Bloc.

Later, those sectors agreed that the best way to confront the party was to promote a social policy that improved the conditions of workers. The great banana strike of August-September 1934 was decisive in strengthening socially reformist anti-communist forces .

By 1938, the National Republican Party had split into two branches, one more liberal and secular, led by Cortés, and the other, more Catholic, led by Dr. Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia. The cortesistas agreed to support the candidacy of Calderón Guardia for the elections of 1940, provided the Calderón support the return of Cortes to the presidency in 1944.

Later on, the calderonistas reached an agreement with the archbishop Víctor Manuel Sanabria to repeal the liberal legislation which limited ecclesiastical influence in education, in exchange for the Church supporting the social policy with which the calderonistas intended to dispute the urban vote to the communists.


After winning the 1940 elections, the calderonistas began to consider how Calderón Guardia could extend his presidential term after 1944 or be re-elected that year. The conflict with the cortesistas did not wait and erupted in April and May 1941, when Cortés and his supporters left the National Republican Party and began to organize a new party. Since then they began a systematic attack on the government, accusing it of mismanagement and corruption.

In response to the social program of the calderonistas, the initial response of the communists was rejection and disqualification. They accused the government of appropriating projects (social security) originally proposed by their party and declared that the government's social policy was demagogic and lacked economic sustentation.

The communists’ attitude began to change towards September 1940, when they learned that the president intended to promote a labor code. They then began to draw nearer to the president, a move that was bolstered by the growing confrontation between cortesistas and calderonistas.

The process was made public in August 1941, when Calderón and Mora had a meeting, and a former communist congressman was appointed the director of a government program aimed at giving footwear to the country's schoolchildren. This closer relationship intensified political polarization in three ways.


First of all, there were tense relations within the National Republican Party because the communists supported the attempts of Calderón Guardia to stay in power (the main adversary that Teodoro Picado had to overcome on his way to the presidency was Calderón Guardia himself).

Secondly, by being dragged into supporting a government that was allied with the communists, Sanabria provoked a deep division within the clergy.

Finally, such an alliance facilitated that Costa Rican politics experienced an unprecedented ideologization, after the competition between cortesistas and so-called “caldero-communistas" was represented as a confrontation between democracy and communism, a dynamic that would be reinforced after 1945 with the onset of the Cold War.

In the end, Calderón Guardia's plans to stay in power failed, so Calderón Guardia and the communists had to support Teodoro Picado as a presidential candidate in 1944.

The triumph of Picado in that election was considered fraudulent by the cortesistas. However, an analysis of the demands for a nullification of these elections (produced after the elections) reveals that, even if all the objected votes had been nullified, Picado would still have won the election.

Despite the electoral controversy, both the government and the opposition had important social sectors interested in resolving the political conflict in a negotiated manner. 

Picado supported the drafting of an electoral code which gave more guarantees to the different parties. For his part, Cortés emphasized that the opposition should not resort to arms; at the same time, he indicated that he was willing to negotiate with Picado to designate, by way of compromise, a candidate for the 1948 election.

Hard liners

Within the opposition there was also a hardline sector, adversarial to negotiations with the government. Mainly made up of young professionals and intellectuals who had formed the Center for the Study of National Problems in 1940, and small to medium-sized entrepreneurs who in 1943 had formed the Democratic Action group. Those sectors founded the Social Democratic Party in 1945, whose leader was José Figueres. The political position of this group was strengthened by the unexpected death of Cortés at the beginning of 1946.

Unlike their associates within the opposition, the figueristas had a project to transform Costa Rica, but his main problem was that his electoral support was very small. Therefore, the only way they could achieve power, in the short term, was through a constitutional break.

Due to this, it is not surprising that the group was linked to a series of terrorist acts that shook the country since 1945, and that, long before the elections of 1948, began to prepare an armed insurrection.

For the elections of February 1948, the opposition chose the owner and director of the newspaper “El Diario de Costa Rica” Otilio Ulate as a candidate. Ulate’s triumph in the presidential vote would end up being nullified in March by a Congress dominated by calderonistas and communists.

The annulment gave the figueristas the necessary excuse to start an armed uprising, supposedly in defense of the suffrage.

However, once they won the war, Ulate was left to wait for a year and a half to assume the presidency, and the results of the congressional race of 1948, favorable for calderonistas and communists, were annulled. In addition, today it is clear that in the elections of 1948 there were irregularities that oblige qualifying Ulate’s victory, at least, as doubtful.

Today's fracture

Seventy years after the 1948 civil war, Costa Rica experiences a new political-electoral polarization, unprecedented in its religious dimension. The intention expressed by one of the contending parties of not respecting the rule of law has provoked a deep fracture in civil society.

That same party has also expressed its intention to attack the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and to discriminate against thousands of Costa Rican citizens based on sexual preference and not believing in the Christian faith.

In these circumstances, it is little surprise that, on this occasion, there has been almost no space in the public sphere to commemorate the anniversary of the armed conflict that laid the foundations of Costa Rica in the second half of the 20th century.

Attribution note: most of Molina's findings had been previously published in Spanish in the "Ancora" supplement of the Newspaper "La Nación" ten years ago. We asked the author for an update and his thoughts on the effervescent political polarization facing the country heading into the runoff presidential elections this April 1st.

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