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The Sparrow and the Hawk: Costa Rica and the United States during the Rise of Jose Figueres

The Sparrow and the Hawk: Costa Rica and the United States during the Rise of Jose Figueres

by Kyle Longley


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The Sparrow and the Hawk: Costa Rica and the United States during the Rise of Jose Figueres

Using Costa Rica as a example, Longley carefully examines the development of the successful relationship between a nonindustrialized country and the United States, revealing the complex forces at work in resistance and accommodation. 

During World War II and the immediate postwar era, both the United States and Costa Rica experienced dramatic changes. The United States assumed world leadership and the accompanying responsibilities; Costa Rica encountered far-reaching difficulties that culminated in the Civil War of 1948 and the rise to power of José Figueres. Longley examines why the United States supported Figueres and emphasizes the history and role of Costa Ricans, primarily the figueristas, in maintaining good relations in such a difficult era. Figueres implemented economic and political nationalism, which produced domestic and international tensions, and in spite of its rejection of similar policies in Guatemala and Iran, the United States supported Figueres against domestic and foreign threats.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817308315
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 01/28/1997
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Sparrow and the Hawk

Costa Rica and the United States During the Rise of José Figueres

By Kyle Longley

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-0831-5



Costa Rica and the Foundations of Cordial Relations with the United States

Of all the Central American republics," Charles Howland of the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations declared in 1929, "Costa Rica has been the most tranquil and progressive." "The government is the most stable and democratic," and "popular elections, although sometimes corrupted, represent in the main the desires of the people. ... Opinion finds free expression in the public press, and graft and bribery are less common than in neighboring states." Howland also noted that "the population is predominantly white, the number of small agricultural proprietors is unusually large, and the Republic prides itself on spending more money on her schools than on her army, and on having more school teachers than soldiers."

Positive perceptions of Costa Rica prevailed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States at a time when negative stereotypes dominated Americans' views of Latin America. A major factor contributing to this unique development was Costa Rica's evolution toward a democratic-capitalist nation. The colonial era laid the foundation for a society to mature in the postindependence period, a period characterized by a relative absence of infighting and foreign control of domestic industries. The movement toward a comparatively stable society continued into the twentieth century as suffrage, education, and the respect for basic civil liberties expanded. By World War II and the rise of José Figueres, many Americans extolled Costa Rica as a model for Latin America.

The myths and realities of the historical development of Costa Rica strongly affected U.S.–Costa Rican relations. The domestic stability and lack of foreign influence prevented the United States from intervening in Costa Rica's affairs. Common concepts of government and society also prevented misunderstanding between the two countries. A pattern of relations evolved characterized by San José's support for Washington in major international crises. In regional affairs, however, the Costa Ricans sought to maintain some independence of action. Disputes arose occasionally, but they never undermined Washington's belief that Costa Rica was a solid ally in a region where the United States often relied on tyrannical dictators to support its policies. This relationship was important because Figueres and his associates would benefit from the legacy of amicable exchanges.

The realities of Costa Rica's evolution toward a democratic-capitalist society included the comparative lack of development of repressive and divisive Spanish colonial institutions. Costa Rica's geography was important, establishing its economic potential, strategic importance, and demographic patterns. The discovery of gold initially sparked interest among the Spanish, but early attempts to find additional minerals failed. Subsequent explorers searched vainly for gold and silver, suffering heavy losses in the inhospitable jungles and high mountains. Discouraged, most conquistadors turned their attention elsewhere, although a few Spaniards continued to believe that Costa Rica possessed wealth. In 1564, Juan Vásquez de Coronado established the first permanent city at Cartago. Like his predecessors, he uncovered no riches, and the isolation and poverty of Costa Rica caused Spanish officials to show little interest in the colony throughout the colonial period.

The absence of an exploitable labor force caused further disinterest among potential settlers and the Crown. The indigenous peoples violently resisted subjugation by the Spanish. Destroyed by wars, disease, and miscegenation, native Americans had virtually disappeared by the turn of the nineteenth century. As a result, the encomienda system remained underdeveloped in Costa Rica. Instead, the Spanish relied on reducciones (small settlements) to pacify the Indians and provide a work force. This form was relatively ineffective, depriving them of the cheap labor they found in Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala.

The lack of wealth attracted few settlers, and those who did settle typically relied on subsistence farming. Even in the early eighteenth century, the bishop of Nicaragua observed that Costa Rican colonists lived "in naked paganism because of their abundance in the countryside. They go out to live there, leaving the cities and pueblos like desert." Trading occasionally occurred, with mule trains crossing the isthmus, and in several areas the harvesting of cacao and tobacco permitted some capital accumulation. Throughout the era, most colonists survived by growing their own foods and bartering for other necessities. Hard currency remained so scarce that in 1719 the Costa Rican governor, Diego de la Haya Fernández, complained that "the current money is the cacao bean, the silver real not being known at all at the present time anywhere." "In fact," he added, "the province has become so exceedingly impoverished that no one has been able to discover whence the country got the designation and title 'Costa Rica.'"

Economic conditions and the geographic isolation of the colonial era created the foundations for the establishment of a more democratic social and political order during the republican era. The shortage of labor and the land tenure system helped blur class lines. Many Costa Ricans owned some land (although often very small parcels) and manifested the pride associated with private ownership. In Costa Rica, unlike other parts of the empire, the economic system caused citizens to emphasize individualism over a group orientation, leading to a greater tolerance of others and an aversion to extremes in social and political affairs.

Costa Rica's poverty and isolation also undermined conservative Spanish institutions such as the Catholic Church. In many areas of the Spanish empire, the Church acted as a repressive force, fostering inequitable land distribution and social stratification. The Church remained weak throughout the colonial era because of Costa Rica's isolation from ecclesiastical power centers. Under the guidance of the archbishop of Nicaragua, parish priests were the only Church officials. The archbishop exerted little control, visiting only eleven times in the three hundred years of the colonial period, sometimes at intervals as long as thirty-three years. Local Church representatives never accumulated wealth or land and participated sparingly in political matters. Interchanges occurred typically when the colonists failed to remit their tithes. This pattern continued until 1850, when the Holy See finally created a diocese in Costa Rica. This absence of powerful religious institutions removed an issue that caused strife between conservatives and liberals in other Latin American nations during the postindependence era.

In addition to the realities of the Costa Rican experience, several myths developed regarding Costa Rica's social and economic development, myths that strongly influenced perceptions among Costa Ricans and foreigners. Some Costa Ricans clearly have exaggerated the notion that during the colonial era, small farmers with Jeffersonian republican values dominated. They have argued that the presence of this group made Costa Rica's evolution toward a democracy easier, although the dislocations caused by the coffee boom dissipated the impact. Recent research, however, underscores the idea that certain families gained more power in the colonial period, many descended from the original conquistadors. Nevertheless, the myth of a country of middle-class farmers remained an influential one in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, affecting domestic and foreign perceptions.

Another important myth from the colonial era was the leyenda blanca (white legend). The absence of a significant Indian population fostered a belief that Costa Rica was a racially homogeneous society, almost exclusively white. While census figures did not correspond with the concept, the notion of a dual society (one native, the other Europeanized) never developed, helping mitigate class and social conflicts that arose in other Central American states in the nineteenth century. The myth of the white legend also influenced foreign observers, who stressed the whiteness of the Costa Ricans, attributing much of Costa Rica's progress to the absence of an Indian population. In many ways, this idea and others increased the belief in the country's exceptionalism among Costa Ricans and foreigners.

The realities and myths of Costa Rica's colonial economic and social evolution directly influenced the development of its political culture. Poverty and remoteness undermined the authoritarian concepts and institutions that often accompanied Spanish rule. In Costa Rica, governmental service ensured few advantages. "Exercising power," Samuel Stone has noted, "did not endow its members with a sense of identity as a ruling class, for their status conferred little authority." The political structure remained relatively weak and nonintrusive. Although élites dominated, they possessed an ill-defined ideology and exerted only limited control.

The small ruling class of the original conquistadors and Spanish officials dominated the weak political structure during the colonial period, but some forms of mass participation evolved. Colonial representatives occasionally called an "open cabildo" to discuss important public matters, laying the foundation for civic interest in the republican period. When combined with other factors such as the leyenda blanca, the participatory rule helped place in Costa Rica's political consciousness a preference for consensus over conflict.

In the colonial era, poverty and the lack of strong political controls also undermined the development of the military, another institution that stymied democratic growth in other Latin American nations. The lack of mineral wealth and the small Indian population offered few enticements to soldiers to settle in the impoverished colony. On several occasions, the Spanish Crown tried organizing a military force to combat piracy and British interventions on the Atlantic coast, but the Costa Ricans resisted. Most of them lived in the meseta central safe from foreign incursions, and they wanted to avoid the heavy financial burden of an army. This absence of a military tradition significantly affected Costa Rica's political institutions. Although the military assumed more prominence in the republican era, it remained relatively unimportant as a political actor throughout most of the country's history, virtually disappearing after 1948.

Besides the local disinterest in the political system, the Spanish Crown devoted very limited attention to Costa Rica. The Audiencia of Guatemala periodically tried exercising dominion over the colony, especially in fiscal matters, but the country's isolation and the tendency of local Spanish officials to side with the Costa Ricans undermined centralized rule. Occasionally Costa Ricans demonstrated against Spanish rule, primarily in response to policies handed down by the leaders in Guatemala, but these acts were relatively few. Overall, the Costa Ricans readily accepted the "salutary neglect."

Costa Rica's political culture also influenced its interaction with other colonies and countries. In dealing with the Spanish Crown, the Costa Ricans deferred on most issues. Independence was thrust upon them, not actively sought. In regional and domestic affairs, however, they maintained positions that best served their interests. They voiced their concerns about matters that directly affected them, resisting attempts by Spanish officials in Guatemala to interfere in their lives. This pattern of relations carried over into the postindependence era, when Costa Rica continued yielding to stronger powers, primarily the United States, on major international questions, while retaining relative freedom of action in the region.

The colonial experience implanted into the country's political culture an aversion to centralized government and an emphasis on negotiation and consensus over conflict. Costa Ricans viewed government less as a vehicle for personal gain and power than was common elsewhere in Central America. Some people gained more power from advantages of birth or from their wealth, but the political system remained comparatively impotent. The relative weakness of the conservative political institutions of the Spanish colonial era, including the military and the Church, allowed democratic institutions to develop in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Costa Rica's historical development during the colonial period influenced its evolution after independence in 1823. The basic forms of political, economic, and social institutions were in place, allowing the evolution toward a capitalist democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were problems of race, economic disparity, and social stratification, but they were relatively finite when compared to other parts of Central America. While unresolved dilemmas of the era caused the country to take a slow, winding path toward a stable society, the foundations for democratic development existed in the 1820s.

Political disputes were commonplace during the early republican period as Costa Ricans struggled to decide their political, economic, and social paths. Costa Rican élites constructed a limited democracy, but the class stratification of the colonial era and the rise of the coffee oligarchy undermined democratic development. The government held elections frequently, but few presidents finished their terms because of constant pressure from competing groups. The upheavals typically consisted of coups and remained relatively bloodless because of an absence of public interest in politics. The long and destructive struggles that plagued other Latin American countries never afflicted Costa Rica, allowing democratic evolution to continue throughout the nineteenth century and reducing the core powers' rationale for intervention.

Domestic politics and economic expansion preoccupied the country from midcentury to 1900. Some additional political instability accompanied the appearance of the coffee oligarchy in the 1850s. Many coffee barons were descendants of the original conquistadors who had accumulated some capital during the colonial era. They strengthened their position on the revenues generated by coffee exports to Europe, successfully promoting government policies such as low tariffs and the construction of transportation and communication facilities that guaranteed the success of their crop. Well into the twentieth century, the coffee oligarchy played a crucial role in Costa Rican society, although the rapidly expanding farmers on the peripheries and the emerging merchant and finance sectors began counterbalancing the coffee élites.

The expanded reliance on export agriculture and the subsequent concentration of land and production facilities generated some discontent. Economically, however, a shortage of labor sustained relatively high wages. The displaced farmers and smaller producers who needed supplemental income became comparatively well-remunerated laborers on the larger coffee plantations. To sustain a stable work force, most patróns maintained good relations with their laborers. The landowners stayed closer to their lands, and absentee landlords were few. They knew the names of their workers and attended community functions such as weddings and festivals. In contract disputes, management dealt directly with the laborers and rarely utilized force. All these factors reduced militancy among the workers, limiting the conflict and repression that later exploded into social warfare in other Central American states during the twentieth century.

An increased foreign presence also accompanied the growth of the coffee industry. British bankers provided the capital to support the expansion of the industry and brokered a large percentage of the Costa Rican crop. The oldest commercial bank in Costa Rica was the Banco Anglo Costarricense, chartered in 1863. Although the British played an important role, Costa Ricans retained control of many of the production facilities. When combined with the domestic tranquillity of Costa Rica, the relatively small foreign influence limited international meddling in domestic affairs. Competition between the major powers never developed as it did in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean Basin nations. When U.S. industries became more prominent at the turn of the century with the arrival of Minor Keith and the United Fruit Company (UFCO), Costa Rica was politically and socially stable and relatively free of outside domination, reducing Washington's rationale for intervening.


Excerpted from The Sparrow and the Hawk by Kyle Longley. Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


1. The Switzerland of the Americas: Costa Rica and the Foundations of Cordial Relations with the United States,
2. Laying the Foundations of Change: The United States, President Rafael Angel Calderón, and the Rise of José Figueres, 1940–1944,
3. The Times Are a-Changing: The Emergence of Problems between the Picado Administration and the United States, 1944–1948,
4. The First Latin American Battleground of the Cold War: The U.S. Response to the Costa Rican Civil War of 1948,
5. The First Time Around: The Costa Rican Junta and the United States, 1948–1949,
6. The Calm before the Storm: The Presidency of Otílio Ulate and the Rise of the Partido Liberación Nacional, 1949–1953,
7. Resistance and Accommodation: The United States and the Nationalism of José Figueres, 1953–1957,
8. Oftentimes the Tail Wags the Dog: Trends in Relations between Costa Rica and the United States during the Rise of José Figueres,

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