The Honorable Exception

Without a successful prior revolution, especially a real “bourgeois” revolution, democracy is a sham and an empty word.[1]  In Central America, only Costa Rica had a successful one.  But it was the exception.  In many other countries in that region, democratic revolutions were thwarted by the United States.  During the cold war, the US was driven by a fear of its values when others made them their own.  Now that America is closing its doors to immigrants who are in search of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness denied to them at home, it might become an enemy of its founding principles.

At the Southern border of the United States, many refugees seek asylum, or simply “jump the fence.”  Those –legal or illegal—who are detained are subjected to a demeaning treatment.  The government of the US, like other Western governments captured by nationalist and populist parties, has tried to turn the refugee plight into a so-called security emergency in order to energize its political base. The emergency is largely manufactured: net migration across the southern border is at historic lows.[2]  In the American case, most of the refugees are mothers and children from Central America, escaping the murderous conditions of their home countries, in particular Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The former flow of undocumented males from Mexico has diminished significantly, due to improving conditions in Mexico and deteriorating conditions in the United States.

I will now ask a simple question: in the “wave” of new migrants, how many Costa Ricans have been detained or “processed”?  To my knowledge, none.  The following question is why?  The answer is also simple: in contrast to its neighbors, Costa Rica is not a failed state from which people seek to escape.  In comparative terms it is more prosperous, more egalitarian, subject neither to guerrilla warfare nor military repression.  In fact, Costa Rica is a haven for American retirees, and a preferred site of eco-tourism, patronized by travellers who appreciate sustainability and conservation.  Costa Rica also has a functioning democracy, and though subject to many economic and social problems, like other more developed countries, it has found a niche in the club of the more peaceful and happy ones.  In fact, this Central American country often behaves like a Nordic one.

In many ways Costa Rica has been at the forefront of policy initiatives that qualify the small country for the status of “advanced.”  It is one of the 22 oldest democracies.  It was the first country in the world to abolish the armed forces in 1949, funneling money normally spent on defense into education. It established free public education and healthcare, and made investments in national parks to protect the environment and preserve biodiversity.  In 2017 it achieved the world’s record for the most consecutive days of running the national electric grid with only renewable energy: 300 days. It has been ahead of Denmark and Sweden in this respect.  At the present, Costa Rica has officially embarked on an ambitious program of getting rid of carbon emissions, in accordance with the Paris agreement on climate change and the UN agenda on sustainable development.  Like Norway, Costa Rica replaced coal-fired power plants with hydroelectric and geo-thermal power.  Our climate will not be damaged by emissions from Costa Rica.  Unfortunately, as with the Nordic countries, its impact is more by example than by real effects on the global atmosphere, because of the small size of the nation. 

This leads me to a question: What is the social origin of such long-term thinking and rational approach?  The conditions for such sustainable and rational public policies are these:  a set of profound social reforms; a consolidated democracy; prolonged political stability; significant equality; and civil peace.  These in turn, cannot be achieved without a long process of social development (as in Scandinavian countries) or a successful democratic revolution, in the case of younger nations.

Paradoxically, Costa Rica owes its exceptional trajectory to the United States  –not to America’s support, but to its confused neglect.  The little country was lucky enough to escape the “anti-communist” solicitudes of the superpower, which –amazingly—let the 1948 democratic revolution of Costa Rica stand, and did not intervene to destroy it.  The reasons are many and some are accidental.  Among these, the Costa Rican revolutionists managed to deflect American anti-communism against the corrupt regime they sought to overthrow and away from themselves.[3] 

Such would not be the fate of unfortunate Guatemala, where a similar process was peremptorily reversed with a military coup sponsored by the CIA. [4] In comparison, the results were outstanding. [5]

In Costa Rica, after the 1947-48 revolution (known as “the civil war”) caused 2,000 deaths, the country embarked on an uninterrupted history of democratic and socio-economic advance, up to the “eco-friendly” and peaceful nation of today.  In Guatemala, the overthrow of democracy, the ensuing reaction, insurgency, and repression caused a prolonged conflict that has claimed 200,000 dead.  In other neighboring Central American nations like Honduras and El Salvador, without democratic revolutions but with strong intervention from the United States, anarchy and the failure of states give the civilian population no other option than fleeing from the murderous gangs (including police forces) that today occupy center stage.  These are the caravans that pass through Mexico and threaten to swamp the border between that country and United States.  And that is why there are no Costa Ricans among the refugees.

Meanwhile, the reaction of the current American administration has been both truculent and ham fisted, ranging from imprisonment, the separation of children from their parents, and the housing of refugees in what could be described as concentration camps.  As the inflow does not seem to stop, the president of the United States has threatened with closing the border altogether, an action that, if undertaken, will have deleterious consequences of an economic as well as humanitarian kind.  As the destination of 80 percent of Mexico’s exports and workplace of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, the United States has plenty of leverage to apply pressure via the border, although the US would suffer too. The idea seems to be to forcefully outsource to Mexico the task of blocking the immigration and to absorb the refugees instead. 

The rejection of immigrants as undesirables, though repulsive, is more understandable in the European context, where it is rampant today –in Hungary, Italy, the UK, France, and in several other countries, even in Germany, where right-wing populism is on the rise.  These countries, which historically have produced emigrants and have not experienced immigrants, and which have a long tradition of ethno-nationalism and fascism, seek to close their borders and to blame all ills on foreigners.  The pursuit of ethnic purity, intimately associated with persecution, was the very process that expelled millions of “impure” Europeans from their homelands in search for a better life in the Americas. Historically, the U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, among others, have welcomed economic migrants and political refugees.

In the United States, as in other countries of the Americas, the experience was the exact opposite of Europe. The country was settled and developed by immigrants, so much so that when president Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to address a pseudo aristocratic and nativist organization –the Daughters of the American Revolution—he told them “We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions –bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality.  Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities.”  Although he did not, he could well have addressed them with the mocking phrase “My fellow immigrants,” as some suppose.  Roosevelt was simply restating the very principle of the American promise since the very days of its foundation.  The abandonment of this basic principle under nationalist populism can arguably be construed as a tragedy.  Nobody stated the grandeur of the promise and the dangers of its betrayal better than the greatest American poet.  In this respect, it merits quoting Walt Whitman at length:

“America must welcome all –Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not—all, all, without exceptions: become an asylum for all who choose to come.  We may have drifted away from this principle temporarily but time will bring us back.  The tide may rise and rise again and still and again after that, but at last there is an ebb –the low water comes at last.  Think of it –think of it:  how little of the land of the United States is cultivated—how much of it is still utterly untilled.  When you go West you sometimes travel whole days at lightning speed across vast spaces where not an acre is plowed, not a tree is touched, not a sign of a house is anywhere detected.  America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people –the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers.  Dare we deny them a home –close the doors in their face—take possession of all and fence in and then sit down satisfied with our system—convinced that we have solved our problem?  I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure –such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be.[6]

As someone who lives in America and believes in this promise, I witness in despair the unfolding of such tragedy in our days.


[1] This is the thesis of the classic comparative study by Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

[2] For an analysis see Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “The Self-Fulfilling Crisis of the Policy at the Mexican Border,” The New York Times, April 3, 2019, p. A9.

[3] For an account of these paradoxes, see https://elespiritudel48.org/costa-rica-and-the-1948-revolution/

[4] En 1984 I had the honor of meeting in New York Guatemala’s “father of democracy”:  Juan José Arévalo (1904-1990) who gave me a copy of his last book on his student days in Argentina.  He was a democratic president who managed to finish his term despite 32 coup attempts.  His successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by another, more definitive coup.  In 1956 Arévalo published a famous account of this tragedy in a book titled El tiburón y las sardinas.  See https://www.voltairenet.org/article124974.html

[5] On the strategic errors of American intervention, see https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/world/americas/an-apology-for-a-guatemalan-coup-57-years-later.html

[6] From Walt Whitman Speaks:  His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, edited by Brenda Wineapple: The Library of America, 2019.

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