Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia

Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia

Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia
President of Costa Rica
Term of office: 8 May 1940 to
8 May 1944
– Preceded by: León Cortés Castro
– Succeeded by: Teodoro Picado Michalski
Date of birth: 10 March 1900
Place of birth: San José
Date of death: 9 June 1970
Place of death: San José

Rafael Ángel del Socorro Calderón Guardia was the president of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944.

Early life

Calderón was born on 10 March 1900 in San José. In his youth, Calderón studied in Costa Rica and Belgium, where he married Yvonne Clays Spoelders, who was later to be the first female diplomat of Costa Rica. After finishing his studies, Calderón became a practicing physician, which he would remain for most of his early career.


In 1940, with the support of conservative coffee elites, Calderón was elected President of Costa Rica. Prior to Calderón, Costa Rican Presidents, while democratically elected, had largely supported the interests of the conservative coffee oligarchy. [For a detailed analysis of the influence of coffee elites in Costa Rica, see Jeffrey Paige, Coffee and Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).]

Calderón soon turned his back on the conservative coffee elite to address widespread poverty and poor health conditions among the working poor. He became the first Central American president to primarily focus his attention on poverty and deteriorating social conditions.

During his presidency he established the Work Code, which introduced the minimum wage, and other important protections for laborers. Prior to this reform, working conditions for Costa Rica's poor had been abhorrent. Calderón also founded the CCSS, a national social security retirement program, extremely advanced for its time. He also instituted a national healthcare program. In education, he established the University of Costa Rica.

To this day, Costa Rica has been well-known around the world for its system of universal health care, its high education levels, and the social security system founded under Calderón. [See [http://reachian.googlepages.com/seniorthesis2 Ian Holzhauer, "The Presidency of Calderón Guardia" (University of Florida History Thesis, 2004)] ]

Calderón also brought Costa Rica into World War II on the Allied side and cooperated with the United States. During the war his government imprisoned many Costa Ricans of German descent and confiscated many of their assets including large coffee plantations and banking businesses. This made him very unpopular with the powerful German minorityin the country. Many German families and their descendants would later become backers of Calderón's rival, José Figueres Ferrer.

Calderón developed strong ties with labor organizations, certain important figures of the Catholic Church, such as the progressive Archbishop Víctor Sanabria, and the Communist Party, led by Manuel Mora. This unlikely alliance was strong enough to transform the country's labor laws, its health and education systems, and its economic structure. He enjoyed wide support among the poor, but a growing coalition of land owners, industrialists, military leaders, and conservative Church officials strongly opposed him, polarizing society.

Picado Years

In 1944, Calderón supported Teodoro Picado Michalski to succeed him as President. Picado was also backed by Archbishop Sanabria, and the former Communist leader Manuel Mora in the 1944 election. [John Patrick Bell, Crisis in Costa Rica (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971), p. 112] Calderón was accused of committing electoral fraud and even violence during the election, which was extremely unusual in relatively peaceful and democratic Costa Rica. However, Picado's 2:1 margin of victory suggests that he would have won regardless of these instances. Picado's Presidency was quieter and more concilliatory than that of Calderón. But both Calderón and his enemies were preparing for the upcoming showdown in 1948, when Calderón would be constitutionally eligible again to run for President. [John Patrick Bell, Crisis in Costa Rica (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1971), p. 121]

Revolution of 1948

In 1948, Calderón ran for president again. Otilio Ulate Blanco defeated him by 10,000 votes and was proclaimed winner by the Electoral Board. However, the Congress, controlled by Calderón's party, declared the votes for President to be null and void.

Calderón seized power, but the charismatic José Figueres Ferrer launched a coup against him in the Revolution of 1948. Calderón was backed by the Costa Rican army and communist fighters. After 2,000 deaths, the Revolution ended and Figueres seized power. Figueres is noted for seizing power by force, establishing the framework for a successful modern Democracy (which lasts to this day), disbanding the military, and then remarkably voluntarily relinquishing power. Figueres is celebrated as a national hero in Costa Rica to this day, while Calderón's image was tarnished, in spite of his monumental social reforms.

Upon being ousted by Figueres, Calderón fled to Nicaragua, where he launched failed invasions of Costa Rica in December, 1948 and 1955, further tarnishing his image. He then fled to Mexico. In 1958, Calderón Guardia returned to Costa Rica and was elected as congressman, but he didn't serve as such. He ran for the presidency again in 1962 but lost. He was also named ambassador to Mexico (1966-1970). He died in 1970.

His son, Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, was president from 1990 to 1994.

Calderón Guardia remains one of the most controversial figures in Costa Rican history. While his social reforms had an enormous impact on Costa Rica, his seizure of power in 1948 and failed coup attempts hurt his reputation. [See [http://reachian.googlepages.com/seniorthesis2 Ian Holzhauer, "The Presidency of Calderón Guardia" (University of Florida History Thesis, 2004)] ]


Further reading

[http://reachian.googlepages.com/seniorthesis2 Ian Holzhauer, "The Presidency of Calderón Guardia" (University of Florida History Thesis, 2004)]

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