World Cups often throw up an intriguing minnow, but rarely one with a story as upbeat as Costa Rica’s

For the duration of its military-free status and its conspicuous success, Costa Rica stands almost alone

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Imagine a country that loved peace so much that it abolished all its military forces 65 years ago. It has lived happily without an army, navy or air force, and without wars, ever since. No other state in its region has such a consistent, unbroken record of stable democracy. Its pioneering conservation policies and protected national parks – 25 per cent of the total land – mean that it regularly tops global polls as the “greenest” nation on earth. By 2021, it aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country. Here, life expectancy betters that of the US, and a national health service as long established as Britain’s has delivered outcomes that soar above the average for its continent. Surrounded on all sides by strife and turmoil, it has – by and large – prospered in security and harmony.

Every time the World Cup comes around, curious neutrals – or even England fans primed for dismay by their squad’s hard-wired gene for underperformance – like to find a competing team to cheer from some appealing smaller nation. This quest for the noble underdog recurs as regularly as the botched penalty shoot-out. In Brazil, however, seekers after a vicarious source of loyalty and pride will have an acute problem. For this land of peace and plenty is Costa Rica. And its footballers will play England on 24 June.

Even the doomiest prognosticator will find it hard to see the Ticos (as Costa Ricans are called) prevailing against England in Belo Horizonte, or against their other rivals in Group D, Uruguay or Italy. So the plucky outsiders from a nation of hope may face an early exit. All the same, Costa Rica’s chance presence in the same group deserves to illuminate the non-football assets of a country that – niche eco-tourism aside – tends to lurk far below the European radar.

It’s not every World Cup that throws up an intriguing minnow with such an upbeat story to tell. After all, back in 1966, much of England (especially the North-east, where the team was based) went wild for dictatorial North Korea during its giant-killing run. In 1990, Cameroon – nobody’s idea of a beacon of human rights and environmental responsibility – took on the role of favourite “other” team. In more recent tournaments, one promising African outfit after another has vied to play this part, before the Soaring Vultures, Gliding Buzzards or whoever predictably crash to earth. Followers of the cross of St George who share a fondness for virtuous also-rans ought to pray for a collective death wish – or, at least, a timely norovirus – to strike Uruguay and Italy alike.

 

If the popular Epsy Campbell Barr – an economist of Jamaican parentage – had not given way to president-elect Luis Solis as candidate for the Citizens’ Action Party, then Costa Rica would, as the icing on its cloud forest cake, also have a black female head of state. It has already topped two successive league tables drawn up by the New Economics Foundation for a “Happy Planet” index. But nowhere on earth, and least of all in tropical Central America, will you find Utopia. Thanks to its position at what former president (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Oscar Arias called the “the waistline of the Americas”, much of the drug traffic into Mexico and the US does pass through Costa Rica.

Although Arias said that “we are between the producers and consumers and we can’t do a thing”, Costa Rica has, in fact, done plenty – even without an army. Police have dismantled more than 600 trafficking cells in recent years, while in 2012 more than 15 tons of cocaine were seized. The country’s geographical fate, plumb in the middle of the narco-highway that links the Americas, has attracted the cartels and so pushed up the homicide rate: to 8.5 per 100,000.

But compare that toll to nearby states, all their armed forces bristling with hi-tech weaponry: 91.6 in Honduras; 70.0 in Venezuela; 69.2 in El Salvador. (During the vicious civil wars of the 1990s – an affliction that Costa Rica entirely escaped – the El Salvador rate hit almost 140.) The US State Department does cite “the absence of a military” as one factor in the country’s vulnerability to narcotics in transit. But then Washington would – and all Mexico’s lavishly equipped forces have failed to stem the cartels’ savagery. Meanwhile, the brutal “Maras” street gangs that scourge the cities of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have failed to gain a foothold.

From Andorra to Kiribati, Mauritius to Monaco, various statelets and enclaves scattered across the map survive without armies. Other sovereign nations, such as Iceland, ostensibly maintain no standing forces but instead shelter under the umbrella of a military alliance – Nato, in this case – and offer it strategic and technical support. For the duration of its military-free status, and its conspicuous success, Costa Rica – a country fully independent since 1823 – stands almost alone.

Costa Rica’s history as a demilitarised zone began in December 1948, when President Figueres took a symbolic hammer to the walls of the army headquarters in the capital, San Jose. In a ceremony that really does sound utopian – and he had been inspired by the pacifism of H G Wells – he passed the barracks keys to the minister of education to prepare for its transformation into a museum. Shrewdly, Figueres had outlawed the Communist Party to appease the US – but then instituted many of the redistributive policies for which the Communists had called. Four decades later, as Nobel Peace Laureate, Oscar Arias could still celebrate the fact that “in my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter... Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbours. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed”.

One stalwart American champion of this unarmed outlier is David P Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He explains that the initial anti-military coup had the effect of pre-empting the familiar US‑backed subversion of any left-leaning government in its southern backyard. Figueres “was largely motivated by his own fear that a standing military would probably threaten his own populist government, especially since it would provide the US, acting via the CIA, with a convenient instrument to overthrow him (as has since been done, for example, in Guatemala and Chile)”.

I asked Professor Barash if being army-free had helped to create a kind of “halo” effect that enabled the country to pursue other progressive measures. He warns that “there is no way to know for sure what the country would have been like had it gone the traditional militarisation route of other countries” in the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, “the likelihood is overwhelming that it isn’t mere coincidence that Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate, best medical care, largest proportion of its land area preserved in national parks and reserves, etc, of anywhere else in Central America, and is, by many standards, a ‘first world’ country in a ‘third world’ geographic region”.

Are the people of Costa Rica proud that their nation has so spectacularly bucked the grim tend towards weaponisation in the Americas? “They are extraordinarily aware of it, and very proud.” Barash points out that, all the same, “very few Americans know of it… even including the large number of eco-tourists who visit Costa Rica on vacation, as well as even those who actually own homes or condos there”. But in a region plagued by civil strife and now cross-border drug crime, surely some anxious citizens must clamour to see the soldiers return. “There have been such calls, but they’ve been limited to a very small number of right-wing ultra-nationalist fringe groups: tiny in number and considered a laughing stock.” Meanwhile, says David Barash, “When my wife and I walk along a beach and see pelicans flying in close formation over the water, we note that it’s the Tico air force, out on manoeuvres!”

In this region above all, Costa Rica’s lonely stand merits a smart salute from overseas. Once, during the Hay Festival at Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, I saw Bob Geldof presented with a guitar fashioned out of decommissioned arms in honour of his humanitarian work – a poignant tribute, in a nation burdened more than most by the aftermath of mass violence committed by every brand of uniformed thug. Yet due west across the Caribbean from Cartagena lies a state that has at least made a long-haul effort to live out the words of the prophet Isaiah: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Besides, other people in Britain apart from thwarted football fans might want to investigate the Costa Rican exception. A country of about five million people, publicly dedicated to peace, and blessed with spectacular upland scenery that can attract the tourist dollar from around the world: after the September referendum, will Edinburgh want to twin with San Jose?

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