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Sequestration, Costa Rica Style

Worried about sequestration? We might take a tip from Costa Rica.

The Costa Rica air force, out on maneuvers
As Americans await the resolution of their sequestration drama, it might be instructive to consider another country that fully sequestered one aspect of its national budget: Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is one of only a few countries that has literally no military forces, relying entirely on “national police,” its Fuerza Publica, which handles internal security, border patrol, and so forth. It does not possess any heavy arms (artillery, tanks, etc.); neither does it fund a navy or air force. Although there are a handful of other states that also lack any military, these tend to be either isolated islands (Grenada, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands) or tiny enclaves surrounded by other, larger protective states (Andorra, Lichtenstein, Vatican City). None of these are fully independent states, directly contiguous with a land mass occupied by other countries who have not “sequestered” 100% of what would otherwise be their military budgets.

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It may be coincidental that as a result of their total military “sequestration,” Costa Rica is able to provide health care and education for all Ticos (the word Costa Ricans use when referring to themselves). Similarly, it may be coincidental that of all countries, Costa Rica has successfully set aside the largest proportion of its land area in national parks and biological reserves (more than 25%). And it might also be a coincidence that Ticos consistently rank among the happiest people on earth, a distinction they share with an altogether different array of countries whose per capita incomes are significantly higher: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Holland, Finland, and so forth.

Although these correlations might indeed be only coincidental, logic suggests otherwise. The current threat of budgetary sequestration in the U.S. involves mandatory cuts of around 10% across a wide range of discretionary spending, totaling about $1.2 trillion, about half of which is to come from reductions in the Department of Defense budget (exempting salaries for military personnel). Considering the “plight” of those happy, demilitarized Ticos to our south, maybe our problem isn’t that military sequestration might occur, but that it won’t be nearly large enough.

How and why did Costa Ricans achieve their constitutionally mandated, complete military sequestration? On December 1, 1948, Costa Rican president José Figueres Ferrer signed legislation that permanently abolished his country’s military in the immediate aftermath of a small but lethal civil war – generated by a disputed presidential election - that killed almost 2,000 Ticos. To dramatize the change – which was indeed dramatic on its own - Figueres himself took a sledge hammer and demolished a wall of the Cuartel Bellavista, which had previously been headquarters for the Costa Rican army.

This action didn’t result from a sudden epiphanic onslaught of Gandhian pacifism. Rather, President Figueres – who had assumed power as a result of the brief civil war – was protecting himself from a possible coup or counter-revolution on the part of the existing military. He may well have done the right thing, albeit for the wrong reason.

A similar pattern of military sequestration – this time regarding a particular type of weapon – occurred in early 17th century Japan, once again for “selfish” rather than altruistic or pacifist reasons. The Japanese had been early adopters of gunpowder firearms shortly after being contacted by musket-bearing Portuguese traders in the year 1543. There followed several decades of gunpowder-based warfare, notably against the Koreans and Chinese during the Imjin War of the 1590s. Then, following unification of the Japanese home islands in the early 17th century, the newly ascendant Tokugawa shogunate banned the manufacture and use of all firearms – not because of a new-found fondness for peace but rather, in an effort to solidify the power of the feudal samurai class. Even as the Colt revolver was seen as the “great equalizer” – and thus, desirable - in the American West, the Japanese shogunate sought to prevent such “equalization,” which would have made high ranking samurai warriors unacceptably vulnerable to any commoner with an itchy trigger finger. From the 17th until the late 19th centuries, gunpowder-based weapons were effectively sequestered, so that Japanese warfare stayed medieval and – partly as a result - its society remained feudal in nature. As the Russo-Japanese War (not to mention the Second World War), was to show, modern weapons eventually became not only acceptable, but a source of Japanese national pride and - to a limited extent - success in modern times.

Costa Rica’s successful modern military sequestration, combined with its widespread happiness, leads to numerous questions. Are Ticos unusually happy because they have been able to abolish their military? Or were they able to abolish their military because they are so happy? Has their sequestration succeeded because they can rely on the military forces of other, neighboring countries? Probably not, if only because their relations with both Panama (to the south) and Nicaragua (to the north) have been rather rocky; moreover, the government of then-president Oscar Arias successfully resisted arm-twisting from the Reagan Administration, which sought to re-militarize Costa Rica and engage Tico soldiers in its pro-Contra crusade against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Tico demilitarization has been, if anything, a thorn in the side of Costa Rica’s relations with the U.S.

There are other factors operating in Costa Rica, none of which are readily exportable: A history largely devoid of genocide against its aboriginal inhabitants, the paradoxical benefit of lacking natural resources that might otherwise have led to substantial and violent European colonization, a long-standing national culture of tolerance and quedar bien – getting along via compromise, instead of violence. And of course, Costa Rica does not have “interests” – political, economic and military – around the world that, in the case of the United States, make for a foreign policy that not only intervenes regularly in the affairs of other countries, but also engenders the lethal animosity of others. The U.S. will never sequester its military to the extent that Costa Rica has done. But we might nonetheless take some lessons from this small, happy country.

David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist, is professor of psychology at the University of Washington, currently on sabbatical leave in Costa Rica. His most recent book is Homo Mysterious: evolutionary puzzles of human nature (2012, Oxford University Press).

David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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