How Costa Rica Avoided Cold War Violence

Costa Rica has sometimes been called “the Switzerland of Central America” because of its stable government and economy.

In fact, Costa Rica is the 13th happiest place in the world, just a few spots behind Sweden and other European countries famous for their generous welfare states.

In 1948, a civil war broke out in Costa Rica. The war was fought between the country’s Communist Party and a National Liberation Army lead by José Figueres. Figueres won the 44-day war and became Costa Rica’s provisional president. He then began making key decisions that would help Costa Rica avoid the same fate as its neighbors and set up a stable democracy.

Because in the coming decades, the country’s neighbors in Central America wouldn’t be so lucky. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador all had political conflicts during the Cold War that drew in the United States and set the stage for the instability facing those countries today.

Today, Costa Rica is still benefiting from the decisions the government made during these early years of the Cold War. In fact, this Latin American country, whose name means “Rich Coast,” is the happiest country in the region, according to a 2018 World Gallup World Poll.
And the country has remained proud of its progressive tradition on issues like the environment, human rights, and democracy.

But how did Costa Rica escape the corruption, instability, and violent political struggles that have plagued many Latin American countries during and since the Cold War, and emerge as the region’s “happiest” country?