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This week I will be focusing on Costa Rica, a country I have never once studied. The basic theme for this week is going to be “Coming of Age in Costa Rica”. I think more people should explore this country because there are many lessons to be learned from the government’s triumphs as well as their failures.
The Devil’s Elbow (2014) is the story of six political prisoners in Limon who were killed after the 1948 Civil War was supposedly over. Told from the point of view of the children of these people, this documentary questions what this crime means for the legacy of Costa Rica’s peace and democratic stability.
The 1948 Civil War
Throughout the 30s and 40s, Costa Rica saw a rise in communism and a need to modernize. By 1940, it looked like these radicals finally found their answer. Rafael Angel Calderon, a member of the coffee oligarchy, might not seem radical but he was able to bring major reforms to the country. In his youth, he studied at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and believed ardently in liberation theology. During his tenure as president, he created the University of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican Social Security Fund and expanded workers’ rights. These efforts which were inspired by FDR’s reforms would come to alienate him from the coffee industry and lose him an important part of his base.
In order to solve this problem, he allied himself with the Communist Party leader, Manuel Mora, and Archbishop Victor Sanabria. This alliance was achieved when Manuel Mora promised to end the party’s relationship with Moscow and the Archbishop wrote a letter stating the importance of cooperating with communists. The Victory Bloc as it was commonly known was not approved by all. Jose Figueres Ferrer, the self-made son of Spanish immigrants agreed with Calderon’s reforms but abhorred his alliance with the communists.
Figueres and his supporters believed that Calderon had become a dictator that needed to be stopped and started to suspect that the future elections would not be saved from Calderon’s corruption. By 1947, Figueres’ supporters struck all over the country demanding that the integrity of the elections be guaranteed. The next year, Calderon actually lost, but he refused to accept the results, something that was not uncommon in the country. However, Figueres was prepared to fight. He established a strong position in the mountains of Talamanca with weapons and foreign fighters. He was easily able to defeat the Costa Rican army. He took Limon, then Cartago, and by the time he got to the capital, they decided to end the conflict. Calderon and his ally Picado would resign and Mora was promised that no reprisals would be taken. Figueres and his junta were allowed to govern unchecked for 18 months and write a new constitution. The 1949 constitution greatly reduced presidential powers. Figueres got rid of the army, installed more reforms, and established modern Costa Rica which is widely celebrated for its stable democracy.
Why Target Limón?
To the layman, it might seem that killing six Limon residents was serendipitous, but that is far from the truth. Although the communist party in Costa Rica had been established in San Jose, one of the leading members, Carlos Luis Falles was exiled to Limon, the banana zone, and took up the cause of the banana workers there. The greatest accomplishment of the Costa Rican communist party was their organization of the largest strike of banana workers attempted in Central America in 1934. It ended nonviolently and resulted in the United Fruit Company leaving Limon for the Pacific region. A lot of young communists set up shop here during the strike and hoped to transform the region which for many seemed quite alien. One of the witnesses of the documentary felt that he was entering a different country. There is a higher percentage of Black Costa Ricans and English speakers there. Limon was a region full of banana workers, communists, Afro-Latinos, and no coffee workers. In other words, it was a land full of expendables.
Many of the witnesses believe that the Limon victims were the experimental group and part of a national plan to take out the rest of the communists. Whether this is true is debated, but the evidence of the documentary shows that the measures taken in Limon could not have happened anywhere else. The witnesses of the film recall the brutal beating of a Nicaraguan communist who would not leave with the soldiers to an undisclosed location.
Nicaraguans in Costa Rica are often viewed as leeches on the economy and met with violence. This image muddles the reputation that Figueres worked to build as he later visited Limon and hugged and kissed black citizens in a photo-op. This shaky reputation is exemplified in the film through recurring shots of eerie train rides on rickety tracks. These railroads that led to the Devil’s Elbow where these men were killed were built by black Limon residents and it was used to take their only allies to their graves. These trains at the same time represent the integration of the marginalized people of Limon and their destruction. The documentary shows that these two legacies can exist in one thing or in one person.
The Legacy of Army Abolition
One of the most powerful quotes in the film is from a protester interviewed in the documentary. He says, “It is said that in my country there are more teachers than soldiers, that being so, most people learned to read and write, but above all, not to ask questions”. Polls in Costa Rica have shown that while the country remains democratic, only 50% of citizens believe that those critical of the government should be allowed to give public appearances. The director believes that the way Costa Ricans look at their proud past leaves no room for ambiguity, especially how they see the abolition of the army. Because the Devil’s Elbow crime does not fit with the narrative of army abolition, it is not talked about outside of Limon. The end of the documentary shows montages of family reunions. These descendants of murdered men are shown taking their own children to their graves intercut with these images of familial celebration. These families have learned to celebrate life while remembering the dead. Can the rest of Costa Rica learn to do the same and take the good with the bad?