Guardia Gutiérrez, Tomás (1831–1882)

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Guardia Gutiérrez, Tomás (1831–1882)

Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez (b. 16 December 1831; d. 6 July 1882), president and dictator of Costa Rica (1870–1882). Guardia is often seen as the expression of triumphant liberalism in Costa Rica with his dictatorial style, the rewriting of the Constitution of 1871, and the hegemony of an entire generation of elitist Liberals in the 1880s and 1890s. However, Guardia was not the first to champion liberal policies, and his reign was more a reflection of severe intra-elite tensions within a liberal framework than of liberalism's ascendancy for the first time. Indeed, the Constitution of 1871 proved to be a highly presi-dentialist document, with Guardia and his relatives rigidly controlling political power for some twenty years while pursuing liberal economic transformation of the country.

Guardia, born in Bagaces, was the son of leading ranching families in Guanacaste and Alajuela provinces. Nevertheless, his power transcended particular regions. His father's family was originally from Panama, and the family remained active in the politics of that nation as well. As a colonel in the Costa Rican army, Guardia led a revolt against the government, taking the artillery barracks in San José on 27 April 1870. He became general commandant of an interim government headed by Bruno Carranza Ramírez. He was elected president in 1872 under a system that centralized the election procedures in the executive branch. He engineered the election of an ally, Aniceto Esquivel Sáenz, in 1876, but soon thereafter (1877) he reassumed the presidency as virtual dictator. He convened yet another Constituent Assembly in 1880 and reestablished the Constitution of 1871 by decree in 1882. Guardia died of natural causes in 1882, prior to the scheduled presidential election.

Guardia was something of an outsider in mid-nineteenth-century Costa Rican politics. He was not a leading member of the coffee oligarchy, dominated by the Mora and Montealegre clans, which had ruled for over twenty years before his coup. Many of his policies can best be seen as designed to wrest political power from the family-based cliques of the coffee barons of the Central Valley. He exiled former President José María Montealegre Fernández to the United States for life in 1872, and, although his own family would benefit enormously, much of his regime's support came from non-oligarchic forces in the coffee economy. Coffee elite members who were more ideologically and institutionally than personally oriented, as well as liberals of more modest social origins, tended to support Guardia, while the "old money" families more often felt his wrath.

Guardia's regime was most highly identified with the long-lasting (until 1949) Constitution of 1871 and the building of the railroad to the Atlantic coast. The latter endeavor was contracted with Minor Keith and led to both the first serious foreign debt and to the United Fruit Company dominance of much of the Atlantic coast province of Limón. Other major achievements included the abolition of the death penalty in 1882, the beginning of a major effort at mass primary education, and, curiously for an avowedly presidentialist regime, the strengthening of both the legislative branch and legal norms in public affairs. A substantial group of ideologically committed liberal deputies and magistrates came to power during Guardia's reign, as is suggested by the reformulation of the Civil Code in 1886.

In foreign affairs Guardia was able to deter Central American unification efforts led by the Guatemalan strongman Justo Rufino Barrios, preserving local independence and a special commercial relationship with Great Britain. Perhaps the overzealous pursuit of British loan capital and investment, brokered by Keith, is today seen as the most negative aspect of Guardia's admittedly authoritarian form of liberalism.

See alsoCosta Rica, Constitutions; Railroads; United Fruit Company.


For Guardia the most basic source is Donna Cotton, "Costa Rica and the Era of Tomás Guardia" (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1972). See also Eugenio Rodríguez, Don Tomás Guardia y el estado liberal (1989); José Luis Vega Carballo, Orden y progreso: La formacíon del estado nacional en Costa Rica (1981); Carlos Mélendez Chaverri, comp., Documentos fundamentales del siglo xix (1978); Eugenio Rodríguez, El pensamiento liberal: Antología (1979); and Rafael Obregón Loría, Conflictos militares y políticos de Costa Rica (1951).

Additional Bibliography

Mahoney, James. The Legacies of Liberalism: Path Dependence and Political Regimes in Central America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Sáenz Carbonell, Jorge Francisco. Los días del presidente Lizano: La muerte de don Tomás Guardia y la administración de don Saturnino Lizano Gutiérrez. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Universidad Estatal a Distancia, 1997.

                                      Lowell Gudmundson