As Costa Rica celebrates 190 years of independence on September 15th, it’s worth reflecting that in one of the most historically violent regions in the world, this country has had no army since 1948. If even a few other countries followed their lead, man’s ancient scourge of war would end.
Central America was united in independence in 1821, with Guatemala proclaiming the entire isthmus between North and South America free from Spain. In an echo of that day nearly 200 years ago, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica all celebrate independence on the same day, September 15th.
Few Costa Ricans had sought independence, and most were surprised by it. Prefiguring the peaceful character of the Costa Rican people, Ticos, as they came to call themselves, didn’t even know they had become independent until Spain notified them a month after the fact. That has to be one of the most harmonious liberations in human history.
On one hand, Costa Rica’s beginnings as a nation hearkened back to the city-states of Renaissance Italy, because before independence San Jose, Cartago, and Heredia were independent towns. On the other hand, there was a foreshadowing of the future of Europe, since initially Costa Rica was part of the Central American Federation.
Other than a bizarre attempt by an American named William Walker in 1856 to conquer the country and take slaves to Nicaragua to build a canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Costa Rica has known little outside interference.
(An intimation of the nascent spirit and character of Ticos is shown by one of their enduring heroes, a young drummer boy named Juan Santamaria, who died when the civilians of Costa Rica arose and threw the Yankees out of their country. Juan Santamaria has been of the country’s favorite national heroes ever since.)
Of the indigenous people in Costa Rica before the ubiquitous Spaniard Columbus first visited in 1502, little is known. The Mayans, Aztecs, and Olmecs apparently did not extend into present day Costa Rica, and when the Spanish arrived with their delusions of gold, grandeur, and groups of people to enslave, they found little to their liking. And so, fortunately for the people, Spain soon abandoned and forgot the country
As one writer pithily put it, “the prevailing idea in Europe and North America regarding the Central American Republics is that they are sunk in a state of somnolence and inertia, from which nothing can come.”
That’s simply false, at least where Costa Rica is concerned. Costa Rica is “peaceful and democratic, a neutral country between two countries, Panama and Nicaragua, known in the past for their violent revolutions. And yet Costa Rica has no military, no army.”
Besides providing the pivot away from repression and conflict endemic to the region through the efforts of Noble Prize winning Oscar Arias, Costa Rica is quietly demonstrating that there is another path to development and another way to relate to other states than through the mindset of militarism.
The idea of abolishing the army of one’s nation, as Costa Rica did in 1948, is as alien as abolishing war. We take war as a given, and even accept a state of war when it isn’t war at all, such with the “Global War on Terror.”
The question of whether humanity can end war has never been more urgent, and the prospect never more feasible. War is after all a state of mind before it’s a conflict between states (or ‘stateless actors’). To end war, we obviously have to look first within, not in the myriad political manifestations of conflict.
Tom Friedman, the author of “The World Is Flat,” says he is an “unabashed patriot.” When influential people proclaim such a thing, they are directly contributing to the continuation of war. Nationalism, and all forms of identification, whether religious, cultural, or economic, are inimical to living peacefully in the global society.
Is that the root cause of war? Yes, because if there were no identification with particular groups, there would be no war.
So why does identification go on? Why don’t people stop identifying with their stupid little groups, no matter how big they are? Most see that they aren’t giving them security anymore.
Is it because people feel they would have nothing and be nothing without their clans and countries?
Apparently. But it’s just the opposite in actuality. Being nothing is everything. Letting go, we don’t lose the last shreds of meaning, community, and tradition; we gain (or regain) our humanity.