The Year Santa Claus Skipped Costa Rica

Today I came across a memorandum of a telephone conversation between William Tapley Bennett Jr., a U.S. official in the State Department’s Division of Central America and Panama, and the U.S. ambassador in Costa Rica, Nathaniel Davis. The conversation, dated December 12, 1948, concerned an invasion of Costa Rica by a force originating from neighboring Nicaragua. During the conversation Bennett inquired about the situation in Costa Rica. Davis replied that San Jose seemed normal, however “the football game scheduled for this afternoon has been cancelled and Santa Claus will not arrive as planned.” It is unclear whether Davis’s comment was facetious, or whether an appearance by Santa Claus had been canceled. What is clear is that the situation concerned U.S. officials in Costa Rica enough to place their holiday activities on hold.

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Hostilities between Costa RIca and Nicaragua had existed since the previous spring, when Jose Figueres, leading an army of Costa Ricans and Caribbean exiles, ousted the regime Rafael Calderon (see the Abelardo Cuadra post for more information on the Costa Rican civil war). This troubled the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, for two reasons. First, he was an ally of Calderon. Second, Figueres was very public in his desire to see Somoza removed from power. In order to remedy both of these problems, Somoza began conspiring against Costa Rica. On December 9, 1948 a small group of insurgents, under the leadership of Calderon, invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua. Figueres, who had disbanded the Costa Rican military on December 1 and therefore lacked the significant means to defend his country, called on the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate the invasion. The event quickly became an international incident because many suspected, and rightfully so, that Somoza Garcia was behind the invasion. Despite Nicaraguan help, the invaders failed in their invasion, largely because the popular support they had hoped for never materialized. The force itself was so small that the Costa Rican police force, along with cobbled together militias, were sufficient to contain the invasion. The OAS ultimately ruled against both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, condemning both countries for housing exiles bent on overthrowing the government of the other. Although relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica remained tense for at least another decade, I’d like to believe that Santa Claus was able to return to Costa Rica in 1949.

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