On Dec. 1, 1948 _ 65 years ago this month _ Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledgehammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall at the nation's military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. Its imposing towers and massive gates had loomed over the capital city of San Jose since 1917, the country's premier symbol of military power and the home of the "Tico" military establishment.
Figueres was not just being a showman; he was announcing something truly extraordinary: Henceforth, Costa Rica would take the almost unheard-of step of renouncing its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he publicly handed the keys to the minister of education, announcing that Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and the nation's military budget would be redirected toward health care, education and environmental protection.
The political calculations that led to this dramatic event were doubtless complex, and they've been disputed ever since. It seems likely, for example, that Figueres was painfully aware that Costa Rica's military, like that of other Central American states, had been used to suppress domestic uprisings and undertake coups, especially against governments perceived to be left-leaning like his.
But at the same time he was clearly aware of the "opportunity costs" associated with military spending, the simple fact that resources expended on the military could not be used to support domestic needs. Then as now, his decision to demilitarize created opportunities for Costa Rica to invest in butter instead of guns.