San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Tico History

Costa Rica's leftist surge isn't new

With all due respect to Agence France Presse, the left-right polarization in Costa Rica isn’t altogether unprecedented.

In 1948, Communist Party leader Manuel Mora was the head of the government army that faced José “Pepe” Figueres’ National Liberation Army. The alliance between Mora, Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia’s populist Republican Party and Catholic Church Archbishop Victor Manuel Sanabria was an only-in-Costa Rica phenomena that produced the Social Security System and the country’s labor code, but also set up the Civil War with the onset of the Cold War.

An orthodox Marxist, Mora didn’t believe that Costa Rica, a nation of campesinos with no industrial proletariat could produce the class-based dictatorship of the proletariat envisioned by Karl Marx.
Mora nonetheless seized the opportunity, along with Calderón, to make the reforms against the wishes of Costa Rica’s entrenched plutocracy.

One of the most telling questions directed to José María Villalta in the last debates was the one from a journalist who asked how he justified the alliance the Broad Front Party made with other parties from the political right in the Legislative Assembly. Villalta pointed to the Calderón-Mora-Sanabria pact as a precedent for his Broad Front Party alliances.

Despite the outcome of the 1948 Civil War, Costa Rica’s communist forebears have the respect of many in Costa Rica. Mora is a Benemérito de la Patria (National Hero), an honor bestowed by the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly, and another communist figure from that era, the writer Carmen Lyra, was also named Benemérita de la Patria and graces Costa Rica’s ₡20,000 note.

For several generations Costa Rica’s social peace has been based on the “handshake at Ochomogo,” where Figueres and Mora met to agree to the peaceful surrender of San José to end the Civil War, and where Figueres assured Mora that he planned to expand, not roll back, the social programs initiated by Calderón Guradia.

While the Communist Party was banned and its leaders forced into exile for a period, Mora eventually returned and led the party to victories for one or two congressmen per presidential term, who served as a third force that held the governing party to its social justice promises. That proved to be a remarkably stable formula which saw Costa Rica safely through the Cold War with no meaningful armed opposition.

Mora stuck to his orthodoxy in opposing armed conflict in Costa Rica following the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, to the chagrin of some in the Communist Party, which split over the disagreement in tactics. The three-party formula began to come apart once the welfare state began being chipped away little by little, piece by piece, starting with the presidency of Luis Alberto Monge in the context of the Reagan revolution and the assault on big government in climes north and south.

But the rise of the Broad Front Party and also the strength of anti-free-trade Citizen Action Party candidate Luis Guillermo Solís is evidence that a great many Costa Ricans expect their government to play a large role in securing economic well-being. It just may be as Tico as gallo pinto.

And by the way, the ruling National Liberation Party is still a member of Socialist International.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, I interviewed Manuel Mora and asked him if he thought socialism was dead. He replied, “Are poverty and inequality dead? As long as there are poverty and inequality there will be socialism.”

José María Villalta may prove him right.

Formerly a reporter and assistant editor at The Tico Times, John McPhaul is a freelance writer who lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Excellent article. Manuel Mora is indeed considered a Costa Rican hero, and this timely reminder of our history serves to balance some of those AFP stories that appear ignorant of it. Thanks John.

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It’s funny (and a little bit sad too) that a non costarican/english speaker can easily understand this, but must of ticos just can’t, they rather stick to labels, stereotypes and myths instead of thinking a little bit. I have serious doubts about our education system. great article btw.

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And while you’re at it, remind your readers which Costa Rican helped Fidel Castro with arms for his fledgeling revolution…Pepe Figueres

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US citizen are so stupied when it comes to any change. Let Costa Rican run its own country. US citizen come to Costa Rica and buy big houses and steal all the land from the poor that should first have the right to the land before US citizens. Right wing system of goverment only help rich never the poor or Middle class. Right wing system hate the poor and worker who keep everything working. Shame on the comments that say Solis is a Communist.Right wing system that help the small percent to keep control over everyone thats Fascism. Vote who is going to help the poor and middle class. Stop Fascism from control of the poor and middle class.

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Steve M.

Great article, John. Excellent point about Mora’s alliance with Calderon and the church, showing that you can’t easily peg the left in Costa Rica to leftists in Nicaragua, Cuba,Venezuela, etc. It’s another good example of Tico “idiosincracia”

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John W.

Good reminder, but I don’t like the implication that Villalta and Solis are communists. They are far, far right of Mora.

Villalta and Solis are both good candidates, although I prefer Solis. I would encourage fellow ex-pats to do their research and consider which candidate best fits with Costa Rica’s historical traditions of environmentalism, economic security, and education. Solis best represents respect for those values.

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John – What are you doing in PR anyway? Isn’t it time to come home to the place you know so well?

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Speaking as someone raised on the horrors of Fidel Castro that bestowed my family, I feel that Ticos should show their distaste for communism.

Seeing Venezuela destroy itself, we should look to countries like Chile which serves as a beacon of hope for Latin America. Part of this is flatly rejecting the evil of Marx.

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I’m sick of hearing comments about Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua, none of these countries have nothing is common with Costa Rica, other than the Caribbean sea.

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John McPhaul

I think a lot of Ticos do reject Marxism. After all Pepe Figures’ revolution had a strong anti-communist element. But the legacy of the Calderon-Mora-Sanabria pact combined with the present strength of left of center candidates show that many Ticos favor a strong government hand in the economic and social policies.

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John McPhaul

I should add that the PLN was the quintessential “big government” party. Figueres being among the “democtatic left” in Latin America along with Benancour in Venezuela, MuNoz Marin in Puerto Rico and Haya de la Torre in Peru. It wasn’t until the severe economic crisis of the 1980s and the series of IMF “Structural Adjustment” programs that the PLN started moving toward the “neoliberalism.”

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Chile? Try getting sick or get educations for your kids there…then you will be broke…no thanks lets do it the tico way…

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