Walker, Between Good and Evil: The National Campaign--Too Closely Equating Political Events from Different Eras Is Unwise

This opinion piece ran in Costa Rica's La Nacion on Sunday, June 3. An English translation, as well as a link to the original, is below.

By Lowell Gudmundson

For those who love historiographical polemics, the recent celebration of the 150th anniversary of Costa Rica's "National Campaign" of 1856 against William Walker and his filibustering forces in Nicaragua offers an unexpected opportunity to contribute something to a world ever less interested in historical topics. The somewhat heated exchanges between Iván Molina, Juan Rafael Quesada, and Armando Vargas serve as pretext here to point out what I consider two unfortunate errors, not in hopes of putting out the flames of controversy but rather to clarify their deep ideological and political bases. First, among various accurate criticisms, Molina insists that Robert May's study shows--contrary to the insinuations of Quesada and Vargas--that the U.S. government did not officially support the filibustering efforts. Such a claim ends up being as misleading and incomplete as it is true.

Molina points out the tendency to simplify in order to line up all the "villains" by employing a less analytical and more nineteenth-century-style, nationalist language. However, in light of the hypocrisy of official U.S. policy since Walker's day--more recently with Kissinger's and Nixon's cynical practice of "plausible deniability," or Reagan's so-called "low-intensity conflicts"--what do we gain by repeating May's careful, well-documented claim?

It would be worse than naive to think that Reagan's policy in Nicaragua was based on official statements or that, without the Iran-Contra scandal we would have ever been able to document its profound duplicity, evident to all but perfectly erased from the official archives.


More important for the real politics of Walker's day would be to highlight the contradictions that lead U.S. magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (whose transport concession in Lake Nicaragua was harmed by the actions of Walker's de facto government) to aid the Central American forces and their cause than to bring to light this or that official U.S. policy. Then as now, official policy was the site of intense conflicts and innumerable private and public projects in search of public backing, should they succeed on their own.

Who fails to remember the unofficial project first charged to Oliver North in his corner of the White House basement, exposed during the Iran-Contra scandal, and continued with his endless candidacies and radio and television programs? More important than official positions in stopping it were the series of revelations by the first Arias administration (1986-1090) and its allies in the U.S. Congress.

The fact that several of those implicated in the "unofficial" policy leading to Iran-Contra have resurfaced in important posts in the George W. Bush administration shows with crystal clarity the limited relevance of any official U.S. position. Manifest Destiny in 1856--just as with anticommunism more recently and the war on terrorism today--served as cover for innumerable private agents and their sinister projects.

Second, the heroic, romantic, and at times simplistic nationalism of the works by Quesada and Vargas may be understandable and even praiseworthy in today's situation of a new filibusterism, this time with full official U.S. government support in Iraq, albeit with the same infamous fate as Walker and his troops.


Nevertheless, it is ironic that they too seek to cover the sun with their hand. In their attempt to establish direct comparisons between the threat they perceive today's Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to represent and nineteenth-century filibustering, they do not seem to even recognize that the presidency of Juan Rafael Mora Porras, their hero, was intensely identified with liberal economic policies, the equivalent of a nineteenth-century free trade agreement.

This was to be done with the privatization of common lands as the only way to progress based on the coffee exports produced there. His policy generated widespread, angry opposition between San José and Alajuela and the fall of Mora's regime owed much more to that discontent than to what some today seek to present as a treasonous conspiracy by a few "bad seeds" in the otherwise heroic nation.

Costa Rican historiographic nationalism has tended to glorify not only an emotional patriotism but its supposed roots in a broad distribution of private property in the land, the basis of its idiosyncratic national character. However, private property in the land has historical roots, combining complex and often opposed tendencies (which are not simply positive or democratic).

There are at least three contradictory elements that argue against such a "morista" and heroic reading of mid-nineteenth-century Costa Rica. Several authors have pointed out the relationship between Mora's election and the attempt to restrict the vote to wealthier landowners with the constitution of 1848. Moreover, both Mora and José María Montealegre--his major opponent--profited personally from the privatization of common lands just to the west of the capital of San José.

In that wave of privatizations (reinforced by the Homestead Act, or Ley de Cabezas de Familia, of 1864), the policy of awarding public lands to private parties in colonization zones eliminated women as direct beneficiaries almost completely, unlike the earlier practice of including them in the renewable annual lease or rental of common lands.

Once again we have contradictory processes: on the one hand, the broadening of the number of men able to own property and vote, along with the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to restrict suffrage; the radical increase in the number of men awarded public lands as private property; and, on the other hand, greater patriarchal rigidity.

Mora Porras, then, would be the architect of a more democratic patriarchy, or of a democracy with more property holders.

Why must historians pay more attention to context and to interests than to the eternal favorites of romantic nationalism, the character and beliefs of Founding Fathers? While character and beliefs count, it is more convincing to trace changes in circumstances, context, and interests. If we were to continue with these kinds of errors, historians of the twenty-first century would surely have to engage in polemics over whether, in contemplating current President Arias Sánchez, we see Arias the "good," Reagan's challenger and Nobel Prize winner, or Arias the "bad," reelected unconstitutionally in 2006--according to some--and determined to pass CAFTA over all opposition.

Future readers will have every right to reverse the order of good and bad based solely on their ideological convictions, just as with the figure of Mora Porras today.

Such a polemic might well be interesting, but in the real world the good and the bad among the citizenry do not line up so obligingly or simply: heroes and their loyal followers to this side, villains and despots to the other.

Let us not reduce history to the moral lessons of a stale nationalism, nor to a documentary casuistry that could contribute to the popularity of its message in today's time of intense polarization.

Lowell Gudmundson is a professor of Latin American studies and history at Mount Holyoke College (USA). He is the author of Costa Rica antes del café (ECR, 1986) and coeditor of Café, sociedad y poder en América Latina (EUNA, 2001). He began his academic career in the Universidad Nacional and Universidad de Costa Rica in the 1970s.

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