This month Costa Rica observed a unique national holiday, Abolition of the Army Day. I will admit to some confusion about the celebration after I spotted a sign at my kids’ school announcing El Día de la Abolición del Ejército. Spanish has been generous to me with its English cognates, so I had no problem translating Abolición, but Ejército had me confused. Costa Rica was abolishing exercise? Was this in schools or at some larger level? And, why? After a closer look, I was relieved to learn we were celebrating the end of the nation’s military, not the end of P.E..
United States nationalism is frequently defined by militarism. Fireworks and veteran-dominated parades on the Fourth of July come to mind. But in the absence of a military, and particularly in this era of Brexit, Trump, and other ugly forms of nationalism, I’ve found myself wondering what defines Costa Rican nationalism. It’s been helpful to step back and look at the history that has shaped this humble nation.
Costa Rica received its independence from Spain in 1821. Like other Central American nations, Costa Rica had been part of the larger Captaincy General of Guatemala but with some notable differences. In spite of its name, in its early colonial history Costa Rica had few mineral resources and a very small indigenous population. With so little to exploit, this southernmost point of the Captaincy was poor and ignored by the colonial powers to such a degree that Costa Ricans never bothered fighting for their independence. In fact, Ticos received news of independence when a messenger, riding a mule, arrived in the Central Valley of Costa Rica almost a month after the official decision had been made in the colonial capital of Guatemala.
In this case, impoverished humble beginnings lead to admirable humble ends, and Costa Rica emerged as a relatively stable and egalitarian society, particularly given its lack of social stratification as compared to other Central American nations with their histories of haciendas and oppressive treatment of indigenous and mestizo people. In 1948, Costa Rica did face a brief civil war, lasting less than two months (and yes, the United States’ CIA, with its appalling record of intervening in much of 20th-century Latin American politics, did partially arm one side). Nevertheless, when fighting came to an end, the leader of the coup took a sledgehammer to the walls of the nation’s military headquarters, declaring the end of Costa Rica’s standing military. He then turned to the minister of education and handed him the keys, a symbolic recognition that Costa Rica’s military budget would, from that point onward, be spent on education and other human development expenses rather than on arms.
So, how does Costa Rica’s demilitarized history impact the nation that my family is calling home for the year? As with the visits by other dignitaries, when President Obama arrived in Costa Rica for a diplomatic visit, he was met on the tarmac by schoolchildren rather than by a military parade. In September, as part of Independence Day celebrations, our kids joined Tico children all across the country by participating in the last leg of running a torch from the old colonial capital in Guatemala all the way to their school’s soccer field. Once assembled on the field, older students shared messages about the nation, expressing their pride in peace, nature and the environment and in universal healthcare and education.
Later that night we joined the popular Desfiles de Faroles, in which children across the country paraded through their towns carrying lanterns, most of them homemade, wonderfully creative, and to my U.S. eyes, notably free of glorified violence or commercialism. Lanterns we admired included a shimmering castle made of reused plastic bottles, a soccer field (of course), a quaint countryside home and a cast iron stove decorated with a pot of miniature tamales.
The following day’s official independence parades were dominated by public school children dancing in fabulous billowing skirts, doling out arracache tacos and other culinary treats to the roadside audience, and playing in impressively well trained bands of musicians, some of whom were as young as my kids.
The other day I asked my Spanish teacher what makes a Costa Rican nationalist. The question gave him pause.
“Not being Nicaraguan?” I teased. The two countries share a rivalrous relationship, in spite of the fact that a tenth or more of the population of Costa Rica is Nicaraguan.
“Well, sure.” My teacher laughed. “We’re proud of our peace and our democracy,” which was his way of saying, unlike Nicaragua.
When I asked about the national anthem, which was written before the Costa Rican civil war and the abolition of the army, my teacher turned me instead to a song that he feels expresses “el sueño Tico,” or the Tico dream: Caña Dulce or Sugar Cane. Wandering through a Costa Rican pastoral setting replete with butterflies and a hummingbird, the singer lists his recipe for the good life: sugarcane, a cornfield, a beautiful wife and a pair of oxen. It’s no accident that the fortunate couple depicted in the music video do all the farm work themselves (servants aren’t part of the egalitarian Costa Rican dream), nor is it surprising that the couple is self-sufficient and seemingly socially isolated (Costa Ricans like their privacy).
The reality is that this unofficial national anthem and Costa Rican dream of owning a simple house and farm is increasingly out of reach for the average Tico because foreigners continue to flow into the country and buy up the most desirable land. But the song remains a portrait of a refreshingly humble nation and its equally humble ambitions. It’s nice to be in a country where the red, white and blue of the flag leave me feeling proud.
I’ll leave you with Caña Dulce.