We all go to Costa Rica to see the exotic wildlife, but few stop to think a bit more about the background of this laid-back and peaceful country. There are a few facts you may or may not know, but will perhaps allow you to view the country’s attractions in a new light:
Costa Rica doesn’t have an army. In 1948, after a short and bloody conflict following disputed elections, the victorious opposition leader, Jose Figueres, made a fiery speech in which he announced to the world that the National Army was officially abolished. He then proceeded to bash a hole in a stone wall at the military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. This building today houses the National Museum.
This was a pragmatic decision, though, not a flower-power induced one. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, peace has been a key feature of Costa Rican national identity where there is a culture inclined to civilian rule and peaceful conflict settlement. Most importantly, the awareness that the resources expended on the military could be put to better use by supporting domestic needs; better to invest in butter than guns.
So where does the budget go? Education, healthcare and environmental protection. Costa Rica has the highest levels of literacy in the region, with one quarter of the national budget allocated to education; the entire population is eligible for free medical care and the country’s wealth is better distributed amongst all social classes than elsewhere in Central America. There are police forces, but no national defence force. There are no military parades when dignitaries visit the country, but schoolchildren wearing the national colours.
And the environment? 25% of the land area is preserved in either national parks or biological reserves and the country has set itself the ambitious target of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2021. Part of the millions it saves goes towards this. We don’t know whether it will succeed, but it is certainly doing a good job so far.
There is also the country’s standing on high moral ground, which allows leaders to declare that “...today we threaten no-one, neither our own people nor our neighbours. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed.” This was ex President Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. A year later he created the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which lobbies for gender equity and equal opportunity and peace and security. Also, a number of agencies promoting human rights have established headquarters in the capital San José, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.
Has this made Costa Rica a fairer country? Given all the above you could say yes. The benefits have definitely helped create a country with democratic institutions and remarkably healthy and, some say, happy population. The latter is for the “Ticos” (locals) to say, but doing a bit of research you will find that the country ranks as number 1 in the Happy Planet index. Granted, it’s a bit vague if you think about what exactly constitute “happiness” and perhaps ambitious to derive this happiness to the fact that the country is demilitarised; it is, nonetheless, telling that the local greeting is “Pura Vida” (Pure Life).