San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Former Soldiers Celebrate Abolition of Army

WHEN Roberto Güell decided toinvite his former enemies of war to join hisorganization of retired soldiers, it wasn’tthe first time he realized their differencesweren’t worth fighting over.The first time came after the Battle ofTejar during Costa Rica’s civil war of1948. More than 200 men were killed inthis battle, southwest of Cartago, and whenGüell and his fellow soldiers were orderedto bury the bodies of the dead, they foundthey could not distinguish between theirmen and those of their enemy.“Everyone had their regular clothes on,and they looked the same. So we had tobury everyone together. After being sodivided, we had to unite the men, and burythem together,” said Güell, president of theNational Association of Ex-Combatants,which is participating in next week’s celebrationof the 56th anniversary of the abolitionof Costa Rica’s Army on Dec. 1.“WE always wanted a country thatdidn’t require the use of arms to move forward.Arms don’t bring culture. They don’tbring education. They don’t bring food tothe people,” explained 76-year-old Güell,who at age 18 was a commander in the revolutionaryarmy.“(The reason for the war) was a lack ofintelligence, and a lack of the spirit of conciliation.So the war arrived, and there mayhave been good intentions. But they werewrong. The war could have been avoided,if there had been more willpower,” he said.Approximately 600 soldiers died inCosta Rica’s civil war, which lasted just overfive weeks. Although a small number incomparison to the wars of other countries,these deaths were significant consideringCosta Rica’s population was only 600,000 atthe time, Güell pointed out. Including civilians,the death toll was more than 2,000.THE war erupted after the elections of1948, when former President Rafael ÁngelCalderón Guardia (1940-1944) lost hissecond bid for President. He claimedfraud, ballots went up in flames (preventinga recount) and the Calderón-dominatedlegislature annulled the election results.Ten days later – March 10, 1948 – a revolutionaryarmy led by José “Pepe”Figueres fought back.But even during the 40-day lapse ofbellicosity in the country’s tradition ofpeace, the spirit of peace pervaded, accordingto Güell.“I was one of the people who watchedthe prisoners,” he said. “We treated themhumanely and we shared a lot of time. Wewould talk, and many of them ended saying,‘why are we fighting, we are all patriots.We are equal.’We were really fightingfor the same thing – our country.”After Figueres’ men won, he declaredan end to the country’s military, and formallyfollowed up with the declaration inthe 1949 Constitution.NOW that the battle lines have beenerased, and Costa Rica’s army has been abolished,the soldiers who once faced off in battleare again fighting for a common cause.The purpose of the Association of Ex-Combatants is to fight and lobby for “values,human rights and dignity, and publicliberties,” Güell said.Many of its more than 2,500 members,in chapters around the country, remain fiercesupporters of the men for whom they originallyfought – Calderón and Figueres, whowent on to become President on three occasions(1948-1949, 1953-1958, 1966-1970).“Costa Rica had two great leaders, Dr.Calderón Guardia and Dr. Figueres. Thereare no other leaders of this epic who havedefined modern Costa Rica,” Güell said.CALDERÓN’S legacy includes theestablishment of minimum wage, paidvacations, unemployment compensation,progressive taxation, socialized medicine,codifying workers’ rights and founding ofthe University of Costa Rica.Figueres consolidated Calderón’ssocial reforms and added his own, includinggiving suffrage to women and blacks(1949), creating the Supreme ElectionsTribunal, nationalizing banks and insuranceand, the cause for next week’s celebration,outlawing the army.“This is the beautiful thing, thatFigueres didn’t arrive and destroy thebeautiful (legacy) of Calderón. But still,we are critics of each other and supportersat the same time,” said Güell, a father ofsix, grandfather of 12 and great-grandfatherof three.IN regular monthly meetings, associationmembers determine how to pressurethe government to support the causes theyfeel fit the ideals of the famed leaders –from opposition to foreign oil explorationto fighting for labor rights.“Our goal is to maintain honesty in theadministration of the country and to maintainthe institutions of the state in service tothe people,” Güell said.One of the biggest offenses the associationis now battling is the recent corruptionscandals in Costa Rica – particularly painfulbecause accusations have been made againstthe sons of two of their leaders.Rafael Angel Calderón Jr. and JoséMaría Figueres – who were also Presidentsof Costa Rica, from 1990-1994 and 1994-1998, respectively – are both alleged tohave received questionable payments inconnection with government contractswith private companies.Calderón Jr. is in preventive detentionin the penitentiary La Reforma, andFigueres, who is in Switzerland, agreedlast week to return to Costa Rica inDecember to testify before the LegislativeAssembly (TT, Nov. 19).“MORE than 50 years later, many ofthe values we fought for, on both sides, arebeing challenged. So we are fighting forthem again,” Güell said.A celebration of the abolition of CostaRica’s army, led by President AbelPacheco and featuring cultural performances,is scheduled for Dec. 1 at 11 the National Museum in San José.

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