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Costa Rican merchants and bankers strike for electoral reform (Huelga de brazos caidos), 1947
In July 1947, Costa Ricans related to the opposition political coalition launched a strike to protest the perceived partiality of the government in upcoming Presidential elections, and to call for the reversal of electoral and tax reform laws that had been enacted in 1946. Specifically, the strikers wanted assurances that measures would be taken to prevent electoral fraud. The strike was called a "huelga de brazos caidos" ("strike with arms at your sides") to emphasize that it was meant to have a nonviolent character (see "El Salvadorans bring down a dictator, 1944").
Electoral reform was a contentious issue in Costa Rican politics beginning in 1946. Two years prior, Teodoro Picado was elected to the presidency in elections that many Costa Ricans denounced as fraudulent. Picado did, however, propose a new electoral law after his election. The reform was supported by a coalition of communists (Partido Vanguardia Popular) and Picado’s Partido Republicano Nacional. The law created a bipartisan Tribunal Nacional Electoral, taking the power to oversee elections and count results out of the hands of the presidency. The law also strengthened protections for a secret ballot process in all Costa Rican elections. Among the opposition, a coalition of social democratic parties, however, these reforms did little assuage their fears of fraud, especially since these reforms would likely have led to further electoral victories by the Partido Vangaurdia Popular, who were at this time joining with Picado to enact tax reform opposed by some of the social democrat’s constituencies.
The Costa Rican Congress had passed this tax reform the previous December. The law changed the method of tax collection and made rates more progressive, both of which were attempts to increase the share of taxes paid by wealthy Costa Ricans and reduce the tax burden on poorer peasants. A coalition, made up mainly of wealthy landowners, financiers, and industrialists, of those opposed to the reform began a campaign in opposition to the new laws.
The opposition to both of these measures coalesced in early 1947 to nominate Otilio Ulate Blanco, a prominent and outspoken opponent of the economic policies of the Picado government, as their presidential candidate to run against former president Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, the predecessor and presumed successor of Picado. Various popular demonstrations and violent acts occurred in the tensions that existed in the ensuing months, as rhetoric on both sides was heated, with the opposition particularly forceful in its denunciation of government partiality in upcoming elections and the influence of communists in the governing coalition. In late March, protests of certain actions by the electoral commission led to a forceful police crackdown. Later that month, a San Jose military barracks was bombed. Street fights between supporters of the candidates were common, and in many of these instances, members of the military, officially acting as peacekeepers, entered the fighting on the side of pro-Calderon protesters. This led further to the perception that the government, and specifically the military, had taken sides under Picado’s leadership.
In July 1947, this opposition intensified. On July 19, Costa Ricans began demonstrating in earnest in the old capital of Cartago. The next day, government officers precipitated a clash with these protesters in Cartago, using tear gas and beating protesters; violence resulted, and multiple people, including some police officers, received bullet wounds from the clash. Angry at this violent response to demonstrations, the opposition organized a march for the next day. At the same time, the federation of university students, who had their own grievances with the Picado government, voted to enter the protests. The marchers directly disobeyed a warning by Picado and a part of the electoral code that prohibited marches in the lead-up to the 1948 presidential election. They occupied the Plaza Soledad in San Jose, blocking and harassing official cars. By this time, five people, reportedly protesting students, had already been killed in violence relating to the protests.
At the end of the march, presidential candidate Ulate called for a strike, which was soon approved by the opposition leadership and began on July 23. The proclaimed purpose of the strike was to pressure President Picado to appoint neutral government ministers and heads of the army and police, as well as to get assurances of fairness in the presidential elections. News of the strike traveled in national newspapers so that the campaign soon spread farther down the Costa Rican Central Valley from its origination in San Juan. In response to Ulate’s call for a strike, shop-owners, bankers, the electric company and the Northern Railways company closed, instituting what effectively became a lock-out. It was estimated that these closures caused the disruption of two-thirds of the normal business throughout the country. Additionally, supporters of the opposition took to the streets to distribute literature and pressure businesses that remained open to join in the strike. On the first day, police and other government forces killed eight people were reported killed and many others wounded with rubber bullets.
The day after the strike began, as business in San Juan and other cities came to a halt, the government sent police, military troops, and tanks to try to forcefully reopen closed shops. The government also closed down radio stations that had been opposition sympathizers. Additionally, as the protests grew larger, others, especially laborers, bananeros (banana farmers), and dockworkers, traveled from around the country to San Jose to demonstrate in support of the government. A portion of these counter-protesters aided the police in controlling the opposition strikers. The communist party also became involved when it brought in its shock brigades, originally intended to protect party leaders and meetings from threats. These brigades looted shops that had closed in deference to the strike, and occasionally committed acts of violence against protesters. Newspapers sympathetic to the opposition protesters, especially “El Diaro de Costa Rica,” owned by opposition candidate Ulate spread the word daily about arrests of prominent Costa Ricans to discredit government actions against the opposition protesters. The presence of these pro-government protesters was used to raise the specter of communist involvement in the government.
On the 28th, people crowded the streets, many in support of the government, demonstrating against those businesses that remained closed as part of the strike. Widespread looting of closed businesses occurred with little government intervention to enforce order.
On August 2nd, over six thousand women, led in part by educator Emma Gamboa, marched in San Jose, calling for guarantees of electoral fairness in the upcoming election. Members of the military were called and were only able to disperse the crowd after blacking out the city’s electricity and by repeatedly firing shots into the air. Many women reported being injured and having to crawl long distances through the mud to escape harassment or arrest.
The following day, negotiators for both sides met and discussed a possible resolution to the strike. An agreement was reached and the strike ended on the next day. The resolution was widely seen as a defeat for the government. Picado gave Ulate authority to appoint members of the Tribunal Nacional Electoral. Since the Tribunal Nacional Electoral was the final voice in matters relating to election administration, this concession helped convince the opposition that the upcoming elections would be free and fair. Additionally, Picado pledged an indemnity for the families of those who had died as a result of violence during the strike, and that the government would not engage in any reprisals against those who had participated in the strike. One of the major complaints of the strikers had been the partiality of the police, which was intensified when the strike saw widespread collaboration between the police and communist party officials. The results of the negotiations called for control of the police to be placed with the independent, nonpartisan board of the electoral tribunal. After
The election was held the following February. As soon as the voting finished, allegations of fraud were leveled on both sides. When it looked as though Ulate and the opposition had won the vote, the government reversed its declaration that the election had been fair. The Electoral Tribunal itself refused to call the election for either candidate, and on March 1, the Costa Rican Congress declared the election void, virtually assuring that former president Guardia would take power. In response, hard line members of the opposition coalesced into the insurrectionary National Liberation Army, led by José Figueres Ferrer. This marked the beginning of the Costa Rican Civil War, which would last 44 days, leave over 2,000 people dead, and end in victory for Figueres and the opposition.