If you have never visited the tropical, Central American paradise that is Costa Rica than I highly recommend that you make it your next vacation stop. I have been twice, once with my wife, and again with my wife and infant child. I felt completely safe the entire time I was in the country, and was treated with kindness by the locals. The landscape is beautiful, the people are peaceful, and there has been no standing army since 1948.
After fighting a bloody civil war in 1948 that killed 2000 people, Costa Rica decided to abolish the army in December of that year. Despite all the conflicts that have occurred in Central America then, Costa Rica has managed to remain virtually untouched compared with its neighbors. Not having a standing military has contributed heavily to that peace.
As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of 20th century history knows, the United States has been a strong supporter of anti-communist governments in Latin America. Whether it was supporting Batista in Cuba, the Contras in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, Noriega in Panama, or providing the backing for Operation Condor, the United States has used the military dictators of Latin America to support their cronies in big business. Let’s see, what do you call it when the government and business work together to force their will on other people? Oh yeah, fascism. It’s called fascism.
So, while the US was funneling money to Latin American dictators to keep their populations in check, Costa Rica outlawed its military and established a democracy which proceeded, uninterrupted by coups, to the present day. It’s not that Costa Rica’s leaders didn’t work with the CIA, or take money from them. I am sure they did. But Costa Rica’s leadership didn’t have the luxury of having obedient thugs at their disposal to arrest people in the middle of the night and take them away to torture chambers. Neighboring countries did have that option, and they used it rather frequently. Not having a standing army also meant Costa Rica had to show a bit of humility in dealing with its neighbors. Instead of imposing sanctions, or engaging in saber rattling, Costa Rica has had to dialogue with its neighbors.
When you compare the history of Costa Rica from 1948 to the present day with its neighbors Nicaragua and Panama, you can’t help but notice how much more peaceful Costa Rica has been. Nicaragua is Costa Rica’s northern neighbor. The region of Guancaste actually broke away from Nicaragua in 1824 when the people of the area voted to become part of Costa Rica. In 1948, while Costa Rica was dissolving its army, Nicaragua was ruled by the Samoza family with backing from the United States. The Samoza family ran a classic banana republic dictatorship. During WWII they declared war against Germany, not so they could send troops to liberate Europe, but so that they could confiscate land from Germans living in their country. The dictatorship was a family affair, with the Samoza family making money from granting concessions to American firms, taking bribes from gambling and prostitution rings, and of course getting direct aid from the United States. All this corruption eventually led to a war within Nicaragua that lasted roughly two decades.
In Panama, Costa Rica’s southern neighbor, a military led coup ousted the elected leader in 1968. Shortly after that the military government instituted price controls, disregarded property rights by legalizing squatting, and began a policy of repression against any dissidents who were labeled “communist” by the government. The US supported the military dictatorship until General Manuel Noriega got uppity and forgot he was supposed to be a puppet. Then he was deposed by the US President George Bush in 1989. The US led invasion of Panama displaced some 5,000 people within the nation of Panama. This final act of military force convinced the nation of Panama that their neighbors to the north were onto something, and they abolished their military in 1990. The last 24 years without a standing military have been the most peaceful and prosperous in Panama’s history as well.
Compare the turmoil of Nicaragua and Panama from 1948 to the present with Costa Rica’s history over the same period. Costa Rica has had 14 presidential elections, and no coups, revolutions, or uprisings. Now it is true that Costa Rica did have a border war with Nicaragua from 1954 to 1955. It seems that Costa Rica’s President at the time was supporting the opposition party in Nicaragua, and this angered the country’s dictator, so they bombed Costa Rica’s border towns with American made P-47s. This caused Costa Rica to plead with the Organization of American States for support, and they agreed to sell Costa Rica four P-51 fighters for $1 each. However, the planes were never needed because the US placed pressure on Nicaragua to back down.
Imagine if Costa Rica had not involved itself in Nicaragua’s politics. Most likely, the problem would have been alleviated, and Nicaragua would never have bombed their country. But in spite of the fact that politicians in general have a hard time keeping their mouths shut, Costa Rica was spared further violence because the United States asked their Nicaraguan puppets to stop. You see it looks bad when one country invades a neighbor that has no army. States in general like to think they operate under some perception of benevolent authority. This gives even the worst States an incentive not to attack a defenseless neighbor. We see this demonstrated in WWII when the Nazis chose not to invade Lichtenstein, in part because they had no military and Hitler didn’t want to be seen as a bully. Mussolini also chose not to invade the Vatican City for similar reasons. I am sure the United States was upset at Costa Rica’s criticism of their neighbors, and their willingness to dialogue with openly communist States like Cuba, but because they had no military the US chose not to harm its reputation by allowing the Samoza government to continue its attack, similar to the way that Hitler and Mussolini did not want to risk damage to their reputation by attacking the army-less States on their borders.
This phenomenon has important implications. In the United States the ruling political parties are continuously arguing that even though they already have the world’s largest military, even greater sums of money must be spent on defense in order to protect US citizens. The argument goes that any decrease in spending will weaken the US position in the world and make the country susceptible to attack. But as we have seen, having the world’s largest military has only made politicians bolder. The aura of invincibility that comes from having a strong military has led them to make more alliances with foreign countries which has led to a greater number of conflicts with countries which posed no real threat to US Citizens. From Korea to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has been used to attack not defend. The result has been an erosion of civil liberties at home, and increasing threats to the lives of American citizens from terrorists angry about US Intervention. Often times these violent terrorist have been trained and armed by the United States government as part of defense spending.
It would appear that having a standing army has the opposite effect than the one promised by the politicians who advocate for it, a decrease in the safety of its citizens and an increase in violence and war.
Some might argue that countries like Costa Rica, Lichtenstein, and Panama are weak insignificant countries, and so maybe they can get away with not having a military because they are ignored by the greater powers. But as an Anarchist what could be better than being ignored and left alone by the State? Isn’t that the ultimate goal of all liberty-minded people, to be left alone to pursue our own interest without interference from the State? While Costa Rica is far from being a Stateless AnCap society it is closer to that goal than a lot of places. In addition to having no military, Costa Rican citizens and residents are allowed to own arms to defend themselves. This is a fact I can personally attest to because one evening while having dinner with a local he showed me the concealed glock that he carried for personal protection in the middle of the restaurant! Costa Rica also allows freedom of speech, and boasts a small police force of only 7,500 for its 3 million citizens. All of these things contribute to the peace and prosperity of this remarkable nation. As liberty loving people we can only hope that more countries will follow Costa Rica’s example by abolishing their military and allowing their citizens to protect themselves.