Early Democratization in Latin America:
Costa Rica in the Context of Chile and Uruguay

John A. Peeler

Prior to 1973, Chile and Uruguay competed for the title of the longest-standing or the most stable Latin American democracy. This paper will show that beneath important differences in the way democracy developed and functioned in these two classic cases lay fundamental similarities. Indeed it is no accident that both regimes fell to military coups in the same year.

I have previously (Peeler, 1985, 1992) compared Costa Rica with Colombia and Venezuela, as liberal democracies established later than Chile and Uruguay, and that survived the destruction of democracy in those two countries. That comparison is useful, but this chapter will make a case for also comparing Costa Rica with the two earlier democracies.


Chile's principal distinction in nineteenth century Latin America was the political stability that prevailed from the early 1830s until the Civil War of 1891, precisely during the era when most other Latin American countries were suffering prolonged political turmoil. Initially, Chile's political stability owed much to the relative cohesion of a strong agroexport oligarchy based on the productive estates of the Central Valley and allied commercial houses of Valparaíso and Santiago (Zeitlin and Ratcliff, 1988). Diego Portales, the hegemonic political figure from about 1830 to his assassination in an abortive coup in 1837, exemplified those interests, and indeed may have become involved in politics as a means of protecting his own commercial interests. Although Portales himself never held the presidency, his was the key impetus behind the establishment of lasting, strong state institutions that constrained the struggle for political power within legal channels for the better part of the century (Nunn, 1976, Ch. 3). In Latin America, only Brazil under the Emperor Pedro II matched Chile's political stability during this era. [1]

The Chilean regime also benefited after 1830 from consistent support from British investors and the British government, at a time when Britain was the undisputed dominant world power. British merchants and bankers were active collaborators with the Chilean ruling class in both agriculture and commerce (Loveman, 1988, Ch. 5). Moreover, British capital was deeply involved in the Chilean penetration of the nitrate fields of Peru and Bolivia, a development that led eventually to the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), in which Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia and took from those countries the provinces of Arica, Tarapacá and Antofagasta (Kinsbruner, 1973, Ch. 6; Loveman, 1988, Ch. 6).

The structure of politics before 1850 was, of course, highly elitist. The great landowners exercised tight control over the tenants and workers on their land, while suffrage restrictions based on property, education and, of course, gender, restricted voting to a small percentage of the population. The restricted franchise facilitated the control of elections by the national executive in alliance with local notables. Thus, under Portales and the series of ten-year presidents who held office after his death, the hegemonic leader was able to control the elections of several successive presidents through his control of the national executive.

The ruling elite began to fragment about mid-century, divided over the power and privileges of the Church, as well as conflicting economic interests. By about 1860, the first clearly defined political parties (Conservatives and Liberals) emerged, quickly followed by the Radicals (Scully, 1992, Ch. 2; Remmer, 1984, Ch. 1; Collier, in Bethell, 1993, Ch. 1). With this development, a tripolar party system crystallized in Chile for the first time. The tripartite pattern would persist through partisan realignments and even through the Pinochet dictatorship, reemerging with the opposition to Pinochet in the 1980s. In such a party system, the center party would tend to play a moderating role, occupying the presidency the majority of the time. According to Scully (1992; SA Gil, 1966), the Liberal Party played that role until 1912, the the Radicals from about 1920 to 1952; the Christian Democrats were the dominant center party from 1958 to 1973 (and have resumed that position as the opposition to the dictatorship reemerged in the 1980s).

Scully has shown that the principal cleavage underlying the party system prior to 1912 was the clerical-anticlerical issue, but with the political emergence of the middle and working classes in the late nineteenth century, the importance of class increased as the focus of conflict. Throughout the twentieth century, class conflict has been nakedly reflected in the Chilean party system to a degree unprecedented in Latin America (SA Petras, 1969). Broadly, Conservative-Liberal dominance up to 1920 may be seen as reflecting the hegemony of the traditional agroexport ruling class, hegemony increasingly under challenge after 1900 (by some interpretations, as early as the doomed presidency of José Manuel Balmaceda, 1888-1891. See Zeitlin, 1984; cf. Blakemore, in Bethell, 1993, Ch. 2; and Drake, in Bethell, 1993, Ch. 3). After 1920, the old ruling class only regained hegemony by military force from 1973 until the early 1980s. During the long era of Chile's democracy (1920-73), and especially after the consolidation of that democracy during the 1930s, the old ruling class protected its interests not by brute power, but rather by maneuvering within the tripolar party system and by astutely using the checks and balances of Chile's democratic Constitution of 1925.

The institutional balance between executive and legislative branches underwent important changes between 1890 and 1925. When the landowners who dominated Congress prevailed in the civil war of 1891, they imposed a parliamentary system that persisted until the election of Arturo Alessandri in 1920. The era of parliamentary government coincided with, and rested upon, control of elections by local notables, rather than the executive control that prevailed earlier. Alessandri presided over the drafting of the new constitution of 1925, with a stronger presidency, but also numerous checks and balances vested in the two houses of Congress (elected for staggered terms different from that of the President) and the courts (relatively insulated from political pressure.

The new constitution was not actually implemented until 1932, after seven years of military intervention that included the dictatorship of Carlos Ibáñez, and several other, short-lived military governments (Nunn, 1976; Ramírez Necochea, 1985; Drake, in Bethell, 1993, Ch. 3). After 1932, the Chilean democracy was maintained unbroken until its overthrow in 1973. It was characterized by a multiparty system with a broad ideological range, durable and well-institutionalized parties and interest groups, and moderate levels of mass participation. Women were enfranchised by stages in the 1930s and 1940s (first voting for President in 1952), while illiterates were only permitted to vote in 1970. The electorate was consistently divided into three roughly equal camps, right, center and left; none could capture a national majority alone, but each could win enough votes and congressional seats to protect its interests.

The Right, composed of the Liberal and Conservative parties, was based largely in the countryside, where clientelistic control over peasants continued to provide a mass base to enable the upper class leadership of these parties to compete in democratic electoral politics. Thus a core economic and political interest of the Right was to avoid policies that would erode that control, policies such as agrarian reform or peasant unionization. The Liberals and Conservatives, normally allies since 1912, formally merged to form the National Party in the 1960s. The Center, dominated before 1960 by the Radicals, and subsequently by the Christian Democrats, was based on the urban middle class and working class. The interests of these two growing classes centered on the promotion of industrialization and a rising living standard, including expansion of government services. The Left, consisting largely of Communists and Socialists, had a mass base among urban and mining workers, and some members of the middle class. The ultimate objective of the Left was the socialist transformation of society, but in a more immediate sense, its core interests included maintaining and expanding space for labor organization, and expanding government services.[2]

This tripartite balance shaped the policy characteristics of the democratic period in Chile. The Center-Left Popular Front governments of the late 1930s and early 1940s promoted labor union organization and worker rights, and established an extensive social welfare system. But neither these governments nor those of the 1950s seriously attacked the vital interests of the Right. Specifically, no action was taken to enfranchise rural workers or to redistribute rural property. This moderation was not a result of explicit pacts or agreements among political forces, but rather of their calculated acceptance of a political order that assured them each a place while denying any sector the possibility of centralizing power. The formal constitutional structure served further to stabilize the democratic regime by virtually blocking any actor from amassing enough power to push through major policy changes (cf. Gil, 1966). Presidential terms were six years, with no immediate reelection. The entire chamber of Deputies was elected every four years. One third of the Senate was elected every three years, for nine year terms. Congress was chosen on the basis of proportional representation, while presidential elections were by majority, with the proviso that Congress elect the President from the two leading candidates if no one received an absolute majority. Judges were effectively insulated from direct political control.

The balance began to break down in the 1960s. The Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei, elected in 1964 with the support of the Right (and of a U.S. Government preoccupied with preventing another Left victory in the wake of the Cuban Revolution),[3] was more narrowly and exclusively partisan than its precdecessors, making little attempt to negotiate with its Right and Left rivals. Christian Democratic self-assurance was reinforced by Frei's unprecedented absolute majority, followed by capturing a majority of the Chamber in 1965. The Christian Democrats tended to ignore the importance of Right support in these two victories, using the power base thus obtained to push through their program aimed at taking electoral support from the Left while undermining the electoral base of the Right. The program included an extensive agrarian reform law (encouraged by the U.S. Alliance for Progress); moreover, the Christian Democrats and the parties of the Left began for the first time to actively organize the rural workforce. These two initiatives directly challenged the interests of the Right to an unprecedented extent, even as the Christian Democrats aimed directly at weakening the Left. Not surprisingly, both Left and Right responded with hostility to this Christian Democratic attempt to establish a lasting electoral dominance.

By 1969, the Christian Democratic gambit had failed. Without Right support, the DC lost its majority in the Chamber. In spite of growing support for Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity coalition on the Left, another Center-Right alliance proved impossible to achieve. In 1970, Allende won the presidency in a narrow victory in a three-way contest. His government, like Frei's, was committed to the Constitution, but also committed to bringing about major changes in the social and economic structure. Pressed for radical action by his more leftist supporters, and consistently obstructed by Center and Right forces occupying positions of power in Congress and the Courts, Allende had an ever-narrower constitutional ground on which to stand. However, when Popular Unity actually increased its share of the vote in the congressional elections of 1973, his opponents realized that they had no hope of removing him constitutionally. It was then that key Christian Democrats joined the Right in supporting a military coup. The procedural democracy that had for so long preserved a policy impasse could not survive the breakdown of that impasse.[4]


Uruguay's history during the nineteenth century was a notable contrast to the authoritarian stability of Chile though the two polities did share significant characteristics. Uruguay developed a strongly export-oriented pastoral economy, but its ruling class came to be more divided between pastoral and mercantile interests than was the case in Chile. The former tended to gravitate to the Blancos, the latter to the Colorados. Uruguay had some modest foreign investment, principally British, but it was not nearly so attractive to investors as Chile. Uruguay was highly attractive to immigrants from southern Europe in the late nineteenth century, and their population swelled Montevideo (Finch, 1981).[5]

The two traditional parties -- Blancos and Colorados -- that still dominate Uruguayan politics crystallized during the 1840s, the former basically conservative and based in the pastoral countryside, the latter liberal and rooted in Montevideo. The Colorados have been dominant on the national level almost from the beginning, but never destroyed the local bases of the Blancos. Thus, when elections were held, they were routinely controlled by local notables linked to one of the national parties, and ultimately by the sitting President acting in concert with his party. In this respect, nineteenth century Uruguayan and Chilean politics were alike. But whereas competing coalitions in Chile almost always resolved their disputes over power without resort to arms, in Uruguay civil war was frequent, culminating in the war of 1903-1904, the last attempt by one of the traditional parties to seize power by force.

The Uruguayans early developed the practice of the elite pact as a means of putting an end to an armed conflict. That is, the winning side (usually the Colorados) would agree to share the perquisites of office with the losers (typically the Blancos) on both national and local levels. Nationally, this entailed offering some ministries to the Blancos; locally, it meant that the national executive would forgo any attempt by the State to control the Blanco strongholds in the interior.

The structure of politics in Uruguay thus evolved in a manner quite distinct from that of Chile. The two party system contrasted markedly with the tripolar system of Chile. Instead of having a center party able to use its strategic position to moderate the system, the Uruguayans developed power-sharing pacts as a means of maintaining or restoring political stability. The clerical-anticlerical split that dominated Chilean politics in the last century also helped to define the two traditional parties in Uruguay. But whereas class conflict came to be directly reflected in the twentieth century Chilean party system, in Uruguay the traditional parties maintained their dominance, concealing and transmuting class conflict.

The last of the great partisan civil wars in Uruguay ended in 1903 with a Colorado victory. This time, though, the Colorado caudillo who became President, José Batlle y Ordóñez,[6] refused to offer the Blancos participation in his government. Instead, he pushed through reforms that created a modern, activist state committed to providing material welfare to all citizens, and to providing leadership and material support for the country's economic development. Batlle was among the most innovative, original political leaders in twentieth century Latin America, and the changes wrought during his two presidencies (1903-1907, 1911-1915) would decisively shape modern Uruguay. Batlle sought to use the benefits from these policies to build durable political support for the Colorados. This clearly held considerable danger for the Blancos, but the Uruguayan outcome was not a slide into renewed civil war.

One important reason for this relatively peaceful resolution lies in the other set of changes brought about by Batlle, changes in the organization of the national government and the party system. In 1913, with his social and economic program in place, Batlle proposed to replace the President by a collegial executive on which both parties might be represented. Influenced by the Swiss practice of a plural executive that avoided the excessive concentration of power in the hands of one man, Batlle proposed a similar structure for Uruguay. His motives have never been satisfactorily explained, but he may have thought that, at best, his own faction would predominate while his opponents would gain sufficient access to patronage to mute their opposition. At worst, he may have thought, a collegial executive would safeguard his reforms by its very immobility. He initially proposed such an executive as drawn entirely from the governing party, but his conservative opponents in both parties transformed the proposal to mandate representation of both major parties in the executive (i.e., coparticipation). The executive would be headed by a President and a National Council of Administration. The President, elected every four years, would control foreign relations and security, while the Council would supervise all other activeities of the State. One-third of the Council's nine members would be of the minority party, and one-third of the members would be elected every two years. The adoption of this constitution, in 1917, supplemented by another pact of 1931 that provided for the distribution of public sector jobs to both parties, effectively established a grand coalition style of government, before partisan conflict reached the point of threatening stability.

Another highly distinctive aspect of Uruguayan democracy originated during this period: the electoral system of the "double simultaneous vote." Each party has been from its origins an alliance of clientelistic factions; the electoral law not only recognizes, it reinforces this feature. Any faction within a party may run its own list of candidates in a general election; representation in Congress and local government is allocated to factions on the basis of proportional representation. The votes for all lists within a party are counted towards the total of the party in both legislative and presidential races; the leading candidate of the party receiving the most votes wins the presidency. This occasionally (e.g., in 1971) has had the effect of electing a President who did not personally receive the most votes, but it also has effectively maintained the electoral hegemony of the two factionalized parties.[7]

If most of Batlle's institutional reforms were left intact in subsequent decades, their nationalistic, social democratic spirit and intellectual integrity were lost. Batlle had been convinced that Uruguay must and could industrialize using its own capital resources, and that it was proper for the government, with a concern for the common interest, to lead that development. However, subsequent governments tended to see the reforms largely as a source of jobs; the bureaucracy tended inexorably to expand, with remarkably little concern or effort toward paying the costs of these programs. Batlle sought to move the country toward self-sustaining industrial growth, but little progress was made to that end after 1916. The country remained totally dependent on the exports of an agricultural economy that was permitted to sink slowly into decrepitude.

A political system premised on shared power for all established interests, on patronage rather than policy coherence, could discuss these issues at great length, but was not equipped to resolve them. Instead, when the nation's problems periodically reached crisis proportions, the usual response was to release pressure by changing the organization of the government, from collegial, to presidential, and back. Thus in the context of the world economic crisis of the 1930s, President Gabriel Terra, a Colorado (indeed, a Batllista) collaborated with sectors of the Blancos to reestablish a presidential constitution. Terra was in effect a dictator for ten years (1933-1942), but the presidential constitution persisted for another decade. In 1951, a resurgence of radical Batllismo led by Luis Batlle Berres (a nephew of the older Batlle) induced more conservative sectors of the Colorados (including the sons of Batlle y Ordóñez) to cooperate with the Blancos in pushing through a reestablishment of a form of plural executive, probably as a means of keeping Batlle Berres in check.

By the mid-1960s, economic stresses made themselves unmistakeably evident. Export production was stagnating, the State was growing, but without adequate means to finance that growth, standards of living were declining. In the face of these difficulties both the Right and Left gained strength, creating a steadily increasing likelihoood of political crisis. A presidential constitution was reestablished in 1966. The two party system was not working particularly well. A right wing Colorado Vice President (Pacheco) succeeded to the Presidency in 1967, and the fragmentation of the two major parties combined with the electoral system to produce, in 1971, a right wing Colorado successor (Bordaberry) who represented a small minority of the electorate. With strong commitments to impose order and discipline on the society, both Pacheco and Bordaberry tended to compensate for their lack of a popular mandate by increasingly authoritarian exercise of their powers. At the same time, facing increasingly serious economic stagnation, and a fiscal crisis of the State, there was a paucity of new ideas and a surplus of temporizing and buck-passing. Frustration at the evident inability of the government to confront these problems was manifested generally in an increase in strikes and agitation, and in the emergence of two major political movements.

The Tupamaro urban guerrilla movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s[8] sought to adapt the experience of the successful Cuban revolution to the uniquely urban setting of Uruguay, where there is no Sierra Maestra in which to take refuge, and oppressed peasants and rural workers are a small part of the population. The tinking was that the city itself and its workers would shield and support the guerrillas. the Tupamaros rejected the legitimacy of Uruguay's liberal democracy, following the Marxist revolutionary analysis that it was a fraud and a distraction for the working class, and that only a violent seizure of power could permit a true revolution, and hence the ultimate establishment of a genuinely democratic regime. The Tupamaros proved uncommonly adept at covert organization, and at carrying out propagandistic attacks embarrassing to the regime. But the Tupamaros alone never came close to the mass support that the Left had during the same period in Chile. They are better compared to the Chilean MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), primarily a cadre of underground cambatants with a network of covert supporters.

Alongside the Tupamaros emerged a mass-based leftist movement, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) challengng the traditional parties in the electoral arena. The Broad Front grouped together diverse social democratic, socialist and communist parties and factions, around a very general program of criticism of the status quo and a commitment to move toward socialism. It was thus quite similar to the Chilean Unidad Popular in its basic orientation and composition. But whereas in Chile the Communists and Socialists were mass-based parties with long histories, which had coalesced often for electoral purposes, their counterparts in Uruguay had never before attracted a mass base. Thus when the Frente Amplio gained eighteen percent of the vote in the 1971 elections, this was utterly without precedent.[9] The stability of the two party system in Uruguay was severely threatened.

Under these conditions of a paralytic regime confronted by increasingly insistent demands for radical change, the Armed Forces were drawn ever more into the political arena. Influenced by the new doctrine of national security that had become current in Latin America since the Cuban Revolution, many officers were losing patience with the seeming inability of the democratic regime to cope with what they saw as serious threats to national security. In Feburary 1973, faced with a series of military mutinies demanding economic and social reforms as well as the suppression of the Tupamaro insurgency, and finding himself unable to mobilize civilian support for the democratic regime, Bordaberry accepted the establishment of a military National Security Council that would, in effect, supervise his exercise of the Presidency. The "slow-motion coup" culminated five months later when Bordaberry closed the Congress after it refused to lift the immunity of a member accused by the Armed Forces of complicity with the Tupamaros. Three years later, the Armed Forces dispensed with their civilian façade and instituted a direct military dictatorship.

One of the great issues of democratic theory concerns how to combine political equality with economic equality, in order to approach true equality of power. And if democracy is indeed to be liberal, it must do this without sacrificing individual liberty. During its first democratic era, Uruguay came closer than any other Latin American country to achieving all three ends: political equality, economic equality, liberty. Yet Uruguay never really left behind the clientelist politics of the nineteenth century, and clientelism came to permeate the liberal and democratic structure of the modern polity. Batlle's nationalist vision became a ritual, and the nation a cow to be milked.

The pathology of democracy in Uruguay was thus markedly different than in Chile. While democracy in Chile was an arena for open class struggle, the traditional parties in Uruguay blurred class conflict by establishing clientelistic political ties. They were unable to adapt to liberal democracy by opening themselves and the system to new ideas and visions. The parties, and the polity they created, became so fragmented and immobilized that an effective response to crisis was impossible. Yet ironically, it was these same ties of clientelism and habitual loyalty that enabled the traditional parties to reemerge as dominant political actors in the transition of the 1980s.


After independence, Costa Rica was less subject to turmoil and civil war than Uruguay, but slower to establish political stability than Chile. Costa Rica's initital economic foundation, like those of the other two countries, was agricultural export. Costa Rica was among the first Latin American countries to commit itself to coffee export, and by 1850, that crop had become the key to transformng what had previously been the weakest economy in Central America, into its strongest. After 1850, coffee enabled a rather clearly defined (Stone, 1975), if weak, ruling class to consolidate its power and to stabilize the state, well in advance of the other Central American countries (Gudmundson and Lindo-Fuentes, 1995, Ch. 1). [10]

Unlike either Chile or Uruguay, Costa Rica was slow to develop clearly defined, durable political parties, even in the minimal sense of the relatively stable elite factions of Liberals and Conservatives that came to dominate politics elsewhere in Central America. The great Liberal-Conservative cleavage did affect Costa Rica, but those of Liberal persuasion prevailed in the 1880s without ever needing to institutionalize a durable party. The Church, linchpin of conservative thinking in the last century, was relatively weak in Costa Rica,[11] and a self-conscious Conservative Party never formed. Instead, Costa Rica witnessed a series of personal hegemonies (Peeler, 1985, Ch. 2) that lasted nearly to the middle of the twentieth century. Within the basic political economy of dominance by an agro-exporting capitalist class, the political process consisted of a series of conflicts between identifiable personalist factions within that class. These factions struggled for control of the state in a clearly defined cycle repeated several times over the period from Independence to 1948. In general, the use of force tended to decrease, while elite bargaining and clientelism became relatively more important in the twentieth century.

These hegemonies were maintained principally through the personalistic links of family and clientele. In the countryside, the economic power of the more important coffee growers and exporters was used to control the mass of the population, smallholders, tenants, and laborers. And in the nineteenth century, the urban population was of little importance.

The dictatorship of Tomás Guardia (1870-1882) marks a watershed both politically and economically for Costa Rica. By initiating the country's first railroad, and thereby laying the basis for a banana export sector, Guardia sowed the seeds that would dilute the economic primacy of the large coffee growers and exporters, and link Costa Rica more directly to the world of international investment. At the same time, the very success of coffee led to a marked diversification of Costa Rican society, including the elite. The people who inherited power from Guardia were quite different in many ways from the coffee planters and exporters who had previously controlled the government. The wealth from coffee had promoted urbanization, improved communication, and education at all levels. As Stone (1975) has shown, the ruling class was undergoing a process of differentiation, with some moving away from the coffee industry toward professional careers. Political leadership increasingly came from this latter sector after 1882.

The changes wrought by positivist liberalism in the 1870s and 1880s accentuated tendencies already present in the vague liberalism which was the Costa Rican mainstream since the consolidation of independence: (1) intensification of liberal economic policies; (2) intensification of efforts to limit the influence of the Church; (3) increased emphasis on education;[12] (4) increased emphasis on the appearance of republican respectability, or the maintenance of constitutional order in political processes. These changes led directly to the first popular political mobilization in Costa Rica in 1889, when liberal President Bernardo Soto sought, in the usual manner, to assure the election of Ascensión Esquivel as his successor.[13] The first round of voting by a restricted electorate showed strong support for the opposition candidate, but supporters of the ruling party seemed prepared to hold on to power by force. In response, opposition strategist Rafael Yglesias mobilized popular support which compelled the recognition of the electoral victor

Costa Ricans commonly cite this episode as the beginning of Costa Rican democracy. This is stretching a point. It is true that popular mobilization for the first time frustrated an attempt to impose continued hegemony. It is also true that the opposing sides were better organized as parties, and were more ideological, than had been the case before. On the other hand, the electorate was still a small fraction of the population, and the election was indirect. The crisis of 1889 was a triumph of the principle that the opposition could win power by electoral means, but Costa Rica was certainly not yet a democracy. One sign of that was that the country's political history continued to be marked by a succession of hegemonies, of which the first was that of Rafael Yglesias (1890-1902). That is, the incumbent president could often determine his successor, even after 1889. Even when the world economic crisis of 1900-1903 rendered Yglesias politically vulnerable in 1901, rather than accept political defeat or forceful overthrow, Yglesias negotiated with his Republican Party opponents, gaining agreement on a mutually acceptable successor (none other than his old adversary from 1889, Ascensión Esquivel).

In the next three decades, the Republicans and their principal leader, Ricardo Jiménez, gained increasing predominance, though neither Jiménez nor his party ever exercised the level of political control exercised by Yglesias. Indeed, Yglesias continued to play an important political role after 1902, running for president several times. But Jiménez was without doubt the most important politician in Costa Rica between the beginning of his first presidential term in 1910, and the end of his third term in 1936. During this era, politics gradually became less elitist with the implementation of direct elections, rising literacy, and the emergence of local gamonales , or political chiefs who typically were not drawn from the national economic and social elite (Stone, 1975, pp. 223-226).

The limits of this liberal, elitist republic were indicated by the fate of several political challenges to the hegemony. The first challenge was posed by President Alfredo González Flores (1914-1917), who confronted the massive disruption of trade caused by World War I. He attempted to deal with the fiscal crisis caused by lost revenue from import and export taxes by proposing an array of taxes on wealth and income.[14] Most elements of the political elite (with the notable exception of Ricardo Jiménez) responded to this attack on their property by supporting a military coup by the Secretary of War, Federico Tinoco.

The Tinoco dictatorship (1917-1919) was strongly conservative in orientation, and had a strong base of support among the larger coffee growers and exporters (a sector with strong economic ties to Germany, a principal market for coffee exports). The regime was ousted by a combination of mass protests, elite conspiracy, and United States pressure. Jiménez and his supporters were in a good position then to regain their earlier dominance, because most of his rivals had supported the dictatorship.

Indeed, Jiménez was elected President for the second time in 1924, in the first election involving a competition for the popular vote in the modern sense. This election also saw a clear ideological spectrum, as Jiménez' liberal Republicans were opposed by the conservative Agricultural Party and by the Reformist Party, emphatically Social Christian in orientation. The Reformist Party, led by a former priest, Jorge Volio, was the first party to appeal explicitly to the working class. The popular election of 4 December 1923 yielded the following totals (Oconitrillo, 1982, p. 80):

Ricardo Jiménez (Republican) 29,238 42.3%

Alberto Echandi (Agricultural) 25,758 37.3

Jorge Volio (Reformist) 14,063 20.4

TOTAL [15] 69,059 99.0

Lacking an absolute majority, the decision fell to Congress, half of which had been elected at the same time, while the other half had been elected two years before. The Reformist Party held the balance of power, and at length struck a deal with Jiménez that permitted his election. The deal, however, also allowed Jiménez to blunt the Reformist challenge and to coopt some elements of the Reformist program. The party would never again be a major player on the Costa Rican political scene.

The next dozen years saw Jiménez alternate with Cleto González Víquez in the presidency,[16] in what would prove the last hurrah of the two old caudillos. Although they usually were political adversaries, they shared the broad liberalism that defined the times, and had always related to one another with respect. Their political dominance of the Liberal Republic was never undisputed; quite the contrary, Jiménez in particular usually provoked intense opposition, as was the case in the election of 1932, when it fell to President González Víquez to suffocate a rebellion by the principal losing candidate, thereby assuring Jiménez' succession.

The 1930s, in Costa Rica as elsewhere, were a time of economic and political crisis. Signs of political change were evident as early as 1932, with the organization of the Communist Party and its leadership of an important strike of banana workers, an initiative that earned them the lasting loyalty of that sector of the working class. But the crisis did not become acute until after the inauguration of President Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, in 1940. Calderón had been an establishment politician, working his way up through loyal service to his predecessors and patrons. But once in power, Calderón proved a highly innovative leader, and emerged as the new Republican caudillo.[17]

Calderón was then faced with the hostility of much of the old political elite of which he had been part, and especially of the most conservative sectors composed largely of the big coffee growers. In his search for a way to consolidate his power over the opposition of his old comrades, Calderón turned to a populist strategy. He sought to gain the loyalty of the working class. In this he was strongly influenced by his close friend, Archbishop Víctor Sanabria, and by Catholic social doctrine. To provide the workers with tangible benefits that might attract them to his cause, he formed an alliance with the Communist party, whose highly organized membership and cadres provided a ready political apparatus.[18] Using the Republican majority in the Assembly, he pushed through several innovative laws, most notably an advanced social security system and a new labor code very favorable to unions. In classic clientelist style, he then sought to use the new government programs and benefits to cement political support for himself.

His clear intent to consolidate and perpetuate himself as a political boss, as well as his communist alliance, made his conservative opponents (grouped in the Democratic Party and led by Calderón's predecessor, León Cortés Castro) all the more militant and desperate. Opposition also developed from a different quarter: the moderate left. The Social Democratic Party emerged from an alliance between socialist intellectuals and a left splinter of the Democratic Party led by José Figueres. The Social Democrats objected to the political abuse of Calderón's reforms, though they supported the reforms in principle. More broadly, they condemned the increasingly open corruption of the calderonista regime. Finally, they rejected Calderón's alliance with the Communists, with whom the Social Democrats were competing for control of oorganized labor.

The elections of 1944, marred by serious charges of fraud against the Calderón government, were won by a Calderón loyalist, Teodoro Picado. After the mid-term elections of 1946, the opposition successfully demanded effective control of the electoral tribunal as a condition for participation in the 1948 presidential elections. Calderón was seeking to return to the presidency, against a unified opposition behind the candidacy of conservative newspaper publisher Otilio Ulate. When the election results showed Ulate with the victory, the calderonista majority in the Assembly voted to annul the election on grounds of fraud. Figueres, meanwhile, had been building an armed force at his farm in southern Costa Rica; he marched on San José demanding the resignation of the government and the recognition of Ulate as constitutional President. After a short, bloody war, Calderón, Picado and the Communist leadership negotiated a surrender and were allowed to leave the country. José Figueres and the Army of National Liberation were masters of the scene.

The negotiations that led to the establishment of liberal democracy are best seen as beginning in the crisis of 1948.[19] As it became clear that Figueres had the upper hand in the civil war, several interests pushed for a settlement. The calderonistas wanted to avoid the destruction of their reforms and of their political position. The communists wanted to retain legal status and their foothold in organized labor. Figueres' conservative and business allies, backers of Ulate, wanted the latter declared President without having to depend on the bayonets of Figueres. The Social Democrats wanted the way cleared for creation of the new social democratic order envisioned in their program. Figueres himself, in addition to these programmatic concerns, seemed intent on a total military victory that would leave him free to act.

The Church and the U.S. Embassy worked actively to promote a settlement. Archbishop Sanabria's position was basically that a way must be found to stop the bloodshed. The U.S. position was more complex and profoundly ambivalent (see Schifter [1986]). The United States was increasingly concerned about the Communist presence in the Picado and Calderón governments, but on the other hand, Calderón had been a highly reliable ally in World War II, and was furthermore a close friend of Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza, another faithful U.S. ally. However, Somoza was temporarily at odds with the U.S. over the Nicaraguan presidential succession. The United States also distrusted Figueres' close alliance with President Juan José Arévalo of Guatemala, a reformer already viewed with suspicion in U.S. government circles (compare Schifter with Schlesinger and Kinzer [1982] on this period). Figueres' strong anticommunism recommended him, but his advocacy of extensive reforms elicited some uneasiness. He was not well-known to U.S. policymakers. Thus the United States was dealing with conflicting cues (indeed, the State Department and the Ambassador were not always of the same persuasion), in a situation that was not perceived as central to U.S. interests. It is thus not surprising that as the crisis heated up in the late 1940s, the U.S. did not come down strongly on either side. Finally,with the advent of civil war, and the reduction of the alternatives to Calderón (and the Communists) or Figueres, United States policy crystallized in favor of a negotiated departure of Calderón. The U.S. Ambassador, along with the Papal Nuncio, was critical in arranging such an agreement in the final days of the war, thus averting an assault on San José itself.

On 1 May 1948, having entered the city with his army a week earlier, Figueres signed a pact with Otilio Ulate, providing that the latter would assume office within eighteen months, and that the country would be ruled by a provisional junta in the meantime. The Junta would be responsible for holding an election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, and would have authority to rule byin the interim. Figueres, as President of the Junta, thus received extensive provisional powers, which were used, for example, to abolish the Army, to nationalize banking, and to endow the State with the authority to guide the economy. These and other measures were intended to lay the groundwork for the social democratic program of restructuring society. This plan was frustrated when the Social Democrats' neglect of popular organization led to their defeat in elections for the Constituent Assembly, which yielded a strong majority for Ulate's conservative Unión Nacional. The innovative draft constitution proposed by the Junta was rejected in favor of amendments to the existing document, including the enfranchisement of women. These changes ratified most of the innovations decreed by the Junta, but the Social Democrats nevertheless fell short of leading a thorough transformation of Costa Rica.

The pact with Ulate was not strictly necessary, for Figueres and the Army of National Liberation had a complete monopoly of military force; moreover, the United States was not inclined to intervene. An attempt by Calderón to invade from Nicaragua merely rallied support behind Figueres. In short, he could have done anything he wanted, including imposing a personal dictatorship. That he undertook and honored the pact seems to reflect a commitment by Figueres to the principles of procedural democracy, independent of his commitment to the substantive program of the Social Democrats.

The Figueres-Ulate Pact of 1948 was an agreement that served to regulate competition, within a liberal democratic framework, between the two major sectors of the victorious opposition. From 1948 until the mid-1950s, Calderón and his supporters were outside the political process, twice trying to overthrow the government through invasions from Nicaragua. Only with the election of 1958 did Calderón reintegrate himself in the political process, accepting the institutional framework and party system that had taken shape. Calderón joined the loose conservative coalition that was evolving to oppose the National Liberation Party (which had been built up by Figueres after the Junta left office in 1949 and which led Figueres to victory in the 1953 elections). As of 1958, then, the transformation begun in 1948 was extended to include the principal loser of the civil war. Even then, there was no explicit agreement or pact defining the terms of Calderón's reintegration. The nature of the commitments made during 1948-49 did facilitate the later incorporation of Calderón, in that his key institutional innovations (Social Security in particular) were left intact, even if stripped of calderonista staff. Calderón was always able to gain political credit among potential voters for his establishment of Social Security. The decisions of 1948-49 thus laid the basis for civil political competition by minimally satisfying not only the victors, but also the most important vanquished, Calderón. In contrast, the Communists and other left parties, constitutionally outlawed in 1949, were not permitted unrestricted electoral participation until 1970.[20] The constitutional proscription of communist parties was finally officially lifted in 1975. (See Oconitrillo [1982], Salom [1987].)

The liberal democratic regime in Costa Rica since 1949 has displayed a high level of stability based on the interaction of a strongly presidential political system with proportional representation in congressional elections.[21] Although the regime is based on the terms of the Figueres-Ulate pact, unrestrained -- but civil -- competition between the PLN and its opponents has been the rule. Coparticipation in the government by the opposition has not been characteristic. Control of the presidency has tended to alternate between the center-left PLN and a gradually consolidated anti-PLN coalition of the center-right, now called the Party of Social Christian Unity (PUSC): seven presidents since 1949 have been PLN, five have been from the anti-PLN sector. The PLN has normally held at least a simple majority in the Legislative Assembly, but the PUSC did achieve an absolute majority under President Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier (1990-1994). Parties of the Left have not exceeded five percent of the vote since 1949.

Since 1949, the dominant Costa Rican elites have generally shown an understanding of how to maximize their scope for autonomous action relative to the United States.[22] Costa Rican foreign policy is consistently pro-American, regardless of the party in power, and every Costa Rican government since 1948 has been anticommunist. The Costa Rican commitment to democracy is a prominent feature of the country's self-image, and is stated in liberal terms that are congenial to U.S. ears. The relatively strong Costa Rican state has generally been administered with reasonable efficiency, and the economy has been managed to avoid the worst pitfalls such as hyperinflation. The result has been that Costa Rica has usually been regarded as a friend by the U.S., but not one requiring extensive control. The country has had access to modest amounts of U.S. aid and international loans on a routine basis, and has not had to be bailed out on an emergency basis. This overall history of prudent competence has afforded the leading Costa Rican elites with enough maneuvering room to maintain the strong welfare state, and state control of banking and insurance, even though these features are in some tension with U.S. conventional wisdom.

The twin crises of the 1980s (the Third World debt crisis, and the Central American revolutions) were different in character, but similar in intensity, to the crises that destroyed the democracies of Chile and Uruguay in the previous decade. That Costa Rica's democracy survived is thus worthy of attention in this comparative analysis.

The escalation of the U.S. confrontation with the Sandinistas made Washington pay more attention to the region, and rendered Costa Rica, as Nicaragua's southern neighbor, strategically important. The result was that Costa Rica got more aid than it might otherwise have gotten, cushioning the effects of the debt crisis. On the other hand, the country's ruling elites were under much more U.S. pressure, on several issues, than was customary. On strategic issues, the Reagan Administration virtually required Costa Rica to tolerate contra bases on its soil, and to facilitate the counterrevolutionary struggle in other ways. Even more problematic to the fundamental character of the Costa Rican democracy, Washington pressed Costa Rica to expand and militarize its Civil and Rural Guards (the lightly armed forces Costa Rica maintains in lieu of an army). The government of Luis Alberto Monge (PLN, 1982-86) proved highly amenable to these pressures, while Monge's successor, Oscar Arias (PLN, 1986-90) was more resistant. The Arias government resisted U.S. strategic pressure on two fronts, internal and external. Internally, shady operations resulting from Monge's concessions were exposed, and treated as in conflict with Costa Rica's constitution, or with its neutral and peaceful foreign policy. For the most part, they were shut down. This was the fate, for example, of contra bases and the airstrip on land of the American CIA collaborator, John Hull. Externally, the principal strategy of Arias aimed for an autonomous Central American peace settlement, which was finally concluded in 1987 after the U.S. had been diplomatically outmaneuvered (Rojas and Solís, 1988). The diplomacy of the Arias Peace Plan is an excellent study in how small powers can exercise substantial autonomy relative to great powers.[23]

The emergence of the Third World debt crisis in the early 1980s[24] increased Costa Rica's dependence on U.S. aid and vulnerability to U.S. pressure, as the country, like many others, found itself unable to service its debt. The major source of credit in such emergencies is, of course the International Monetary Fund, which, as always, insisted upon steps to increase government revenues, reduce expenditures, and reducel barriers to trade. Additionally, under Reagan Administration influence, the Fund in the 1980s has specifically pressed for privatization of government-owned enterprises, and reduction in government regulation of the economy. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) also administered a substantial program directly, because of Costa Rica's strategic importance, and insisted on essentially the same conditions. The implications for Costa Rica's welfare state and government-directed economy were serious. The pressure was intense to privatize banking and insurance, to open the medical system further to private practice, and to reduce budgets for health, social security and education. The two PLN governments of the 1980s dragged their feet as much as they could on these changes, giving ground only as far as necessary to secure IMF or AID funds. The conservative government (1990-1994) of Rafael Calderón Fournier (Party of Social Christian Unity, PUSC) was more enthusiastic about such changes, but still proceeded cautiously because of the popularity and necessity of the services being threatened. The current PLN government of José María Figueres has again accepted the broad outlines of neoliberalism while attempting to preserve as many social services as possible. In general, since 1982, Costa Rican elites have had to accept a substantial reduction in social services, and a significant shrinkage of the government role in the economy, because the state simply lacked the necessary resources, and could not borrow what it needed to maintain them. Nevertheless, it is striking that the social democratic state still exists in recognizable form, in spite of over a decade of neoliberal pressure. In economic policy, as in strategic policy, the Costa Rican elites have had substantial success with a strategy of bending to pressure in order to avoid being broken.


Notwithstanding the many and obvious contrasts among these three pioneers of stable democracy in Latin America, they shared some basic similarities. First, it is clear that all evolved into true liberal democracies in the conventional sense of universal suffrage, free and competitive elections, and respect for civil liberties. All became democracies while retaining the strong presidency, patterned on the United States constitution, which has been characteristic of Latin America since independence. It is also clear that none were characterized by anything close to true popular sovereignty, except in the most basic sense of periodic elections. In these features they were neither more nor less democratic than other liberal democracies of the twentieth century, notably those of the North Atlantic area.[25]

Democracy evolved in each case directly out of the predemocratic political heritage of the nineteenth century, and of course had its roots in the economic and social structure. Not surprisingly, the three developed quite distinctive institutional arrangements and discourses.

Uruguay's democracy evolved as a direct continuation and adaptation of the traditional bipartisanship of Colorados and Blancos. Led and challenged by Batlle, the Colorado and Blanco elites learned how to mobilize, pacify, and guide a mass electorate, while instituting an electoral system that encouraged dissidents to remain within the traditional parties, and made difficult the successful emergence of alternative parties. The remarkable welfare state, implanted by Batlle and retained by his successors, came to be seen by political leaders as a massive payoff for the electorate, while the latter increasingly came to see the benefits as an entitlement. Both attitudes have roots in predemocratic clientelism. The practice of coparticipation, so typical of Uruguayan democracy, also has ample precedent in the nineteenth century as a means of ending civil conflicts.[26]

The distinctive tripolar party system, so characteristic of democratic Chile prior to 1973, has been shown by Scully (1992) to have roots in the mid-nineteenth century (SA Remmer, 1984). The basic dynamic of Right and Left orbiting around a moderating center party was established as early as the 1860s, continued through the era of Radical dominance (1932-1960), and into the Christian Democratic heyday of the 1960s. The pattern may be in the process of reasserting itself in the post-Pinochet era (see Oppenheim, 1993).

Costa Rica also owes the distinctiveness of its party system to the survival of patterns with roots in the nineteenth century, long before the establishment of democracy. We noted the nineteenth century pattern of personal hegemonies, and how it was extended and adapted to a broadened electoral and direct popular elections. Calderón Guardia was the last such personal hegemon (1940-48). Nevertheless, the democratic regime itself, since 1949, has functioned as a depersonalized joint hegemony of the centrist parties, in the sense that the electoral system is so structured as to virtually guarantee victory either to the PLN or to its principal center-right opponent.[27]

Another predemocratic feature that Costa Rica has carried forward and adapted to democracy is the very bipolarity of its party system. As we noted, the Liberal-Conservative split was less important in Costa Rica than in the rest of Central America (and certainly less important than in Chile and Uruguay). But it had enough currency to establish a bipolar pattern. Beginning in the 1880s, and becoming clearly established in the era of Ricardo Jiménez (1910-1936), we see a pattern of a dominant party with considerable organizational stability, opposed in successive elections by a shifting, unstable aggregation of parties and cliques held together only by opposition to the dominant party. During the 1920s and 1930s, Jiménez and his Republican Party confronted such an ill-organized opposition. When the opponents could unite on a single candidate, the Republicans could be beaten, but division in the opposition would assure a Republican victory. This is the same pattern as has prevailed in democratic Costa Rica, wherein the PLN has assumed the role of the dominant party, and its opponents struggled from 1949 until about 1980 to form a stable party (the PUSC). See Oconitrillo (1982).

Liberal democracy evolved in each case out of a civil oligarchy in which political elites developed customs of political contestation, a political grammar, as it were. This is in accord with Dahl's (1971, 1989) argument that democracy is more likely to be stable if contestation is established before inclusion.

These three regimes evolved into democracies in the early twentieth century as they proved able to absorb and coopt substantial expansions of the suffrage without so altering the balance of political power as to provoke rebellion by major interests. This expansion of the polity only took place after a prolonged crisis as conservative sectors resisted democratizing attempts to expand participation. Only with the resolution of these crises was it possible definitively to stabilize liberal democracy, as parties and leaders emerged that were able to manage the transition.[28]

In Chile, the crisis began with the election of Arturo Alessandri in 1920, and ended when he returned to the presidency in 1932, with the new constitutional and political order firmly in place.[29] The authoritarian interlude of Terra in Uruguay (1933-1942) was a conservative attempt to impose order in the wake of Batlle's reforms by reestablishing a strong presidency. Finally, the crisis of 1940-1949 in Costa Rica was directly provoked by Calderón's populist attempt to incorporate the working class.[30]

The following table shows total votes cast in selected elections before and after the respective crises, as a percent of the national population. The most obvious feature of the data is Chile's much lower rate of participation until women voted for president for the first time in 1952. By contrast, the advent of female suffrage in Costa Rica (1953) and Uruguay (1934) is associated with a much smaller increase.

Table 1


Country, year     Total vote   Est. Population     Percent       
                  197,000      3,785,000 (1920)    5.2           
                  260,895      4,075,000 (1925)    6.4           
                  343,892      4,504,600 (1932)    7.6           
                  443,898      4,923,400 (1938)    9.0           
                  955,102      6,561,600 (1952)    14.6          
Costa Rica                                                       
                    69,059       418,000 (1923)    16.5          
                  107,866        670,164 (1940)    16.1          
                  190,768        976,736 (1953)    19.5          
                  318,676      1,758,800 (1930)    18.1          
                  518,000      2,135,013 (1946)    24.3          
SOURCES: Acevedo (1936), pp. 271-271; Ameringer (1982), p.     
7; Loveman (1988), pp. 233, 236; Migone (1940), p. 51);        
Oconitrillo (1982), pp. 80, 131, 165; Pende (1952), pp.        
91-92; Remmer (1984), p. 84; Weinstein (1988), p. 4.           

All three systems remained politically stable for so long because each was structured to maintain social and economic stability. Those regulating structures varied according to the historical background of each case, but all contrived to protect the basic distribution of resources under which the regime had arisen. That is, each had a centrist policy bias, a proclivity to avoid radical departures. A key component of the centrist bias was a capacity to either coopt or marginalize the Left: it was in all three cases part of mainstream politics (this came late in Costa Rica), but in no case could the Left implement its policy agenda without endangering the stability of the democratic regime.

The Right, representing established property interests, was stronger than the Left in each case, but the very achievement of a political system that institutionalized free, competitive elections, universal suffrage, and respect for civil liberties, tended to undermine the clientelist base of rightist power, and thus was resisted in all three cases. Thus in all three cases the Right retained a srong political voice, but had lost the ability to rule alone. Only by terminating the democratic regime itself could the Right regain its former dominance.

The centrist bias represented an explicit (Uruguay and Costa Rica) or implicit (Chile) compromise at the level of competing political elites that reflected a balance, or status quo, in the society as a whole. Such compromises functioned to reduce to tolerable levels the uncertainty that is inherent in democracy. Przeworski (1991, pp. 36-37) notes that durable democracies have developed institutions "that reduce the stakes of political battles," producing governments "strong enough to govern effectively but weak enough not to be able to govern against important interests." In each of these three cases, the major elite protagonists and their constituencies had assurance of some electoral success and of capability to block assaults on their most basic interests. Correspondingly, none could expect to impose their will without compromise.

The prominence of equilibrium and compromise in these three cases was aided by the relative weakness of ideological cleavages, as distinct from conflicts of interest and competition for power and office. Even in the Chilean case, where a clear and broad ideological spectrum existed, prior to the Allende period the principal actors on both Right and Left showed themselves more concerned with the pursuit of office, and with the give and take of the political process, than with ideological consistency.

These three early democracies in Latin America were genuine liberal democracies, and as such profoundly innovative within their historical and cultural context. At the same time, each was profoundly rooted in its own traditions, and in the broader culture and history that make Latin America unique. All three regimes were decisive steps forward for their peoples, yet each was constituted to privilege order over justice. Had it been otherwise, they would not have lasted so long.


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