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The decade of the 1940s and its climax, the civil war, marked a turning point in Costa Rican history: from paternalistic government by traditional rural elites to modern, urban-focused statecraft controlled by bureaucrats, professionals, and small entrepreneurs. The dawn of the new era was spawned by Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia, a profoundly religious physician and a president (1940–1944) with a social conscience. In a period when neighboring Central American nations were under the yoke of tyrannical dictators, Calderón promulgated a series of farsighted reforms, including founding the University of Costa Rica.
Calderón’s social agenda was hailed by the urban poor and leftists and despised by the upper classes, his original base of support. His early declaration of war on Germany, seizure of German property, and imprisonment of Germans further upset his conservative patrons, many of whom were of German descent. World War II stalled economic growth at a time when Calderón’s social programs called for vastly increased public spending. The result was rampant inflation, which eroded his support among the middle and working classes. Abandoned, Calderón crawled into bed with two unlikely partners: the Catholic Church and the communists (Popular Vanguard Party). Together they formed the United Social Christian Party.
The Prelude to Civil War
In 1944, Calderón was replaced by his puppet, Teodoro Picado Michalsky, in an election widely regarded as fraudulent. Picado’s uninspired administration failed to address rising discontent throughout the nation. Intellectuals, distrustful of Calderón’s “unholy” alliance, joined with businessmen, campesinos, and labor activists and formed the Social Democratic Party, dominated by the emergent professional middle classes allied with the traditional oligarchic elite. The country was thus polarized. Tensions mounted.
Street violence finally erupted in the run-up to the 1948 election, with Calderón on the ballot for a second presidential term. When he lost to his opponent Otilio Ulate (the representative of Acción Democrática, a coalition of anti-calderonistas), the government claimed fraud. The next day, the building holding many of the ballot papers went up in flames, and the calderonista-dominated legislature annulled the election results.
Don Pepe: “Savior of the Nation”
Popular myth suggests that José María (“Don Pepe”) Figueres Ferrer—42-year-old coffee farmer, engineer, economist, and philosopher— raised a “ragtag army of university students and intellectuals” and stepped forward to topple the government that had refused to step aside for its democratically elected successor. In actuality, Don Pepe’s “revolution” had been long in the planning; the 1948 election merely provided a good excuse.
Don Pepe, an ambitious and outspoken firebrand, had been exiled to Mexico in 1942. Figueres returned to Costa Rica in 1944, began calling for an armed uprising, and arranged for foreign arms to be airlifted in to groups trained by Guatemalan military advisors. In 1946, he participated with a youthful Fidel Castro in an aborted attempt to depose General Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.
In 1948, back in Costa Rica, Figueres formed the National Liberation Armed Forces. On March 10, 1948, he made his move and plunged Costa Rica into civil war: the “War of National Liberation.” Supported by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba, Don Pepe’s insurrectionists captured the cities of Cartago and Puerto Limón from calderonistas (the government’s army at the time numbered only about 500 men) and were poised to pounce on San José when Calderón surrendered. The 40-day civil war claimed more than 2,000 lives, mostly civilians.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition