Introduction to Comparative Politics

Discipline: Comparative Politics
Instructor: LeFebvre
Credits: 3
Day: B
Start: 1425
End: 1540
Field Work: Day 5 - Wednesday, 9 December | Costa Rica Download Syllabus

This course introduces students to the central principles of comparative politics, with a focus on the politics and governments of port countries, examining those political systems, how those systems developed, and why and how these governments are the same and different. In identifying and comparing the politics and governments of these countries, we will look at the following concepts: the state and nation; history; political organization and governance; political culture and institutions; democracy and authoritarianism; social and economic development; conflict/violence; globalization and the international environment; and current challenges.


Field Work

Country: Costa Rica
Day: 5 - Wednesday, 9 December

Among developing countries in Central America, Costa Rica, despite poverty, stands out for its stable democracy and progressive political and social policies. For the majority of Americans, we know Costa Rica only by its travel reputation: peaceful, beautiful, lots of protected land, good environmental policies, and pretty safe. However, Costa Rica is very different from its Latin American neighbors, and from most other countries in the world, in one important way: it has no military—that means no tanks, no missiles, no generals, no Navy, no Air Force, no Army. In 1948, then-President Jose Figueres took a hammer and literally hit through the wall enclosing the headquarters of the military. He then handed the keys to that military fortress, in San Jose, to the head of Costa Rica’s department of education. Figueres announced that the country’s military headquarters would be transformed into a museum (it is now the National Museum of Costa Rica) and that, from that day forward, the military was banned. He went on to promise that the money and resources formerly spent on the military would now be spent on the environment, health care for the people, and education. This ban on a military became part of the Costa Rican Constitution in 1949.  

Forty years later, in 1987, President Oscar Arias (Sánchez), who had been involved in negotiating peace next-door, in the Nicaragua/Contra armed conflicts, told the U.S. Congress:  "I belong to a small country that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter.... Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbors. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed.”  Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

In this field lab, we will go to central San Jose and, in the morning, visit the Peace Museum (Museo Para La Paz) (established partly with Arias’s Nobel prize money), which is located on Democracy Square, near the Legislature and Supreme Court. While at the Museum, we hope to talk with a member of the staff of the Arias Foundation for Peace and the Human Progress. On the way back, we will also take a look at the exterior of the former national military headquarters, the Bella Vista Fortress, which is now the National Museum.  After lunch, we plan to meet with a Costa Rican government official, as well as a member of Politics and Economics Section of the U.S. Embassy about the link between Costa Rica’s economic, social, environmental, and political stability and its ban on a military, as well as about Costa Rica’s democracy, advantages and disadvantages of demilitarization on the state and its citizens, what works and what doesn’t, and continuing challenges.

You will turn in a 3-5 page Reflection Paper on this Field Lab, discussing what you learned from this field lab experience and its connections to your readings. Academic objectives: To enable students to:

  1. Learn more about how democracy works on the ground in Costa Rica;
  2. Learn more about the country's political and economic situation; the advantages and disadvantages of its having banned the military; challenges today; and the reasons for Costa Rica's success, especially when compared to neighboring countries.
  3. Connect their readings about Costa Rican politics to what they learn on this field trip