Tag Archives: Jose Figueres

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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Abelardo Cuadra – Mercenary or Freedom Fighter

Today I came across an interesting bit of information while writing about the role of Nicaraguans during the Costa Rican civil war of 1948. It involves the ever-changing allegiances of Abelardo Cuadra, a Nicaraguan who fought against Augusto Sandino, later plotted to assassinate Anastasio Somoza García, and managed to fight for and against the Caribbean Legion. Although it is not quite clear whether he was an idealist or an opportunist, Cuadra’s story highlights the paucity of both ideological and national boundaries in the post-war Caribbean.

Much of what we know about Cuadra comes from his memoir, Hombre del Caribe (1977), in which he recounts his numerous exploits. As a young man, Cuadra was a member of the Nicaraguan Conservative party, which largely represented the country’s elites, and left school at the age of 22 to fight for them during the 1926 civil war. During the Sandino Rebellion, Cuadra served as a second lieutenant in the Guardia Nacional in the Segovias, Sandino’s home department, and later aided in the plot to assassinate Sandino. However, he was not unswervingly loyal to Somoza García. Cuadra believed Somoza García had corrupted the ideals of the Guardia and conspired to assassinate the jefe director in 1934 and 1935. Both attempts failed and Cuadra was sentenced to death, which was later reduced to exile. It was while in exile that Cuadra found like-minded individuals committed to removing Somoza García and the region’s other dictators from power.

After having lived in exile in Costa Rica, Cuadra traveled to Cuba in 1947 and joined with other Caribbean exiles planning an invasion of the Dominican Republic. As discussed in a previous post, following World War II democratic and dictatorial forces battled over the ideological future of the Caribbean. Towards the end of 1947, a group Caribbean democrats conspired to launch an invasion of the Dominican Republic from a small island off the coast of Cuba. Their goal was to oust the Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo. Ultimately, the invasion never materialized, but this group of revolutionaries constituted what, less than a year later, would become the Caribbean Legion. With the Dominican invasion canceled, Cuadra returned to Costa Rica, however it would not be his last encounter with the Caribbean Legion.

In 1948 Jose Figueres, an exiled landowner and future president of Costa Rica, launched what he termed a “war of national liberation” to free his homeland of what he saw as a communist and autocratic government. Figueres secured the support of many democratic exiles, including those involved in the failed invasion of the Dominican Republic, as well as many Nicaraguans fighting under the promise that after its liberation Costa Rica would become the springboard in ousting Somoza García. It was this group of exiles that journalists first labeled the Caribbean Legion. However, the term soon came to cover all of the region’s revolution-minded democratic exiles, which leads us back to Abelardo Cuadra.

Because he had served with and shared many of the ideals of the Caribbean Legion, it would be easy to assume that Cuadra fought for Figueres in the Costa Rican civil war. However, Cuadra proves to be a more complex figure than we might imagine. Cuadra related that at the beginning of the conflict Figueres’ men approached him about joining their struggle. However, he declined the invitation and instead allied with the government forces. Cuadra said that he could not justify joining the revolutionaries because he believed that Figueres’ cause served the nation’s elites, and he preferred to fight for the poor of Costa Rica. Cuadra could not reconcile the fact that the forces “organized to fight against military dictatorships, such as Trujillo and Somoza, came to Costa Rica to overthrow a government that had authored many social programs” and done much to help unions and the poor. Ironically, by allying with the government, Cuadra would be fighting on the same side as the Somoza regime, which supported the Costa Rican government. Apparently, Cuadra’s distaste of Somoza García was not enough to push him into Figueres’ camp. Despite the rhetoric of the antidictatorial struggle, Cuadra saw the government, and not Figueres, as the true advocates of social justice in Costa Rica. Cuadra, at least in his own words, fought for the people of Costa Rica.

During the civil war, Cuadra led a column of government troops against Figueres’ forces, battling against Nicaraguans and other Caribbean nationals that he had considered his brothers in arms less than a year before. Ultimately, Figueres’ forces won the civil war, and Cuadra fled to Venezuela, where he taught high school classics. In 1979, following the success of the Sandinistas, he quickly became a vocal critic of the regime. Like many moderate Nicaraguans who fought to remove the Somozas from power, Cuadra became disillusioned with the apparent lack of democratic reform under the FSLN and voiced his opposition.

Cuadra, like many historical figures, is inherently more complex than we might assume. According to his own memoirs, his varying allegiances represented a commitment to democratic principles and social justice. However, sometimes the most flattering pictures we paint are of ourselves. It is unclear whether Cuadra was an idealist or an opportunist: a mercenary or a freedom fighter. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What Cuadra’s story does reveal is the paucity of the region’s national boundaries and the ambiguity of the ideological line separating the democratic and dictatorial camps. Cuadra, like many Caribbean exiles, moved freely from one country to another with relative ease, highlighting the weakness of the region’s national boundaries. Also, his ability to travel back and forth between political camps points to the ill-defined ideological tenets that underlined each movement. Survival motivated the dictators, while those opposed to them varied in their commitment to democracy. There were those who sought to create a Central American republic based on high democratic ideals and others who viewed democratic structures and institutions as the rightful tools of the elites. What united the opposition was their hatred of the dictators. With such varying and ambiguous ideals, it proved easy for someone like Cuadra to move back and forth between factions. He could be both a mercenary and a freedom fighter.


Abelardo Cuadra, Hombre del Caribe: memorias (San José, Costa Rica : Editorial Universitária Centro Américana, 1977)

Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile (Miami: University of Miami Press, 1974).

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Duel Across the Border: Somoza’s Challenge to Figueres

On January 11, 1955 a group of roughly five hundred Costa Rican expatriates entered Costa Rica with the intent of ousting the then president Jose Figueres. For two weeks the insurgents fought government troops in northern Costa Rica until the Organization of American States intervened and put an end to the violence. Although he denied it, the insurrectionist force had received substantial support from the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. The previous spring the dictator had survived an assassination attempt and the Guardia Nacional – the Nicaraguan security forces loyal to Somoza – had defeated a small insurrection of Nicaraguan exiles that originated in Costa Rica. Somoza had also just aided in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz, so seeking revenge and emboldened by his recent success in Guatemala the Nicaraguan dictator sought to remove another of his regional rivals, Figueres. Not only did Somoza supply the Costa Rican insurgents, he also provided use of his air force, which strafed and bombed targets in northern Costa Rica. Knowing that Somoza was the principal benefactor of the attacking forces, Figueres lambasted the Nicaraguan dictator in the press calling his relatives a “family of gangsters.” Somoza, who spoke fluent English and was known for his love of English curse words, responded by calling Figueres a “damn liar”and challenged Figueres to a duel at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border.

Figueres declined the invitation to duel, stating that Somoza was “crazier than a goat in the midsummer sun.”

Ultimately the crisis was defused by the intervention of the United States. Hoping to improve its image after the Guatemalan coup, the United States quickly stepped in and negotiated an end to the crisis, however tensions between the two countries remained high even after the assassination of Somoza the next year.

Although Somoza was the main aggressor against Costa Rica and Figueres, he was aided by the other dictatorial regimes of the Caribbean. Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican, Castillo Armas of Guatemala, and Marcos Perez Jiménez of Venezuela also provided resources or support to the 1955 insurgency. Along with Somoza, they represented a regional alliance bent on securing their own regimes and sniffing out any form of opposition be it democratic or communist. In 1957 Trujillo hatched a plot to assassinate Figueres and bring down one of the regions strongest voices for democracy. The plot failed but extraterritorial violence of the Caribbean dictators continued for decades to come.


Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile: The Antidictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945-1959 (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1974).

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