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Costa Rica in Brief

    The Spanish settled places where they found large numbers of sedentary people accustomed to working under directions or deposits of precious metals or both or which had strategic value. Little Costa Rica had none of these elements in its 19,700 square miles. It probably contained no more than 25,000 people (Indians) when Columbus arrived in 1502. There were people living there such as the Chorotegas who owned land and slaves and used a hierarchical religion. Other peoples were less sophisticated. Nevertheless, Amerinds resisted Spanish incursions  until European diseases greatly weakened their numbers and social organization. The introduction of European diseases (to which the natives had no resistance) killed most of the people and the Spanish conquest, 1559-1563, killed most of the rest.   There was a little easy to find gold to excite Spanish interest. 
    Few Spaniards went there. The tropical rainforest on the Atlantic/Caribbean coast was unattractive. Those who did developed small to medium-sized farms instead of large estates because Spaniards couldn't find enough Amerinds to do the work. Most of the Europeans and their offspring (including mestizos) lived in the highlands or in mountain valleys with volcanoes (which destroyed the first capital at Cartago). The colonials grew some wheat, tobacco, and cacao for export. It was administered as a sub-unit of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, headquartered in Guatemala City, but could administer much of the Captaincy-General because communication was so poor.1  It was a backwater until the1850s. There were only 65,000 people there  in 1820.
    In many ways, Costa Rica was not an independent country until 1838 although it acted independently after its official break with Spain on September 15th, 1821. It was part of imperial Mexico until 1823 when it and other Central American nations broke away to form the Central American Federation. Costa Rica joined the Federation after a civil war between San José and Cartago and Heredia. San José won and Costa Rica joined the Federation. The Federation was headquartered in and dominated by Guatemala but even this much reduced government could not effect much in Costa Rica, which was governed more by a Supreme Chief of State than by the Federation president. Juan José Mora Fernández became the first Chief of State in September, 1824. He expanded education and fostered coffee cultivation, which was exported to Great Britain. The success of coffee created a new, powerful class, coffee barons. There were eventually thirteen chiefs of state.  A Honduran,  Francisco Morazán, overthrew Braulio Carrillo in 1835, but he was later overthrown and executed. The Federation slowly disintegrated. Costa Rica became a republic in 1848 with José María Castro Madriz as its first president. He was overthrown by the coffee barons and replaced by Juan Rafael Mora. 
    Mora fought the invasion of William Walker of Tennessee, who had conquered Nicaragua in 1855 and established slavery and then tried to take over Costa Rica in 1856 to do the same. The Ticos were too much for him, however. Since the army had been abolished in 1848, President Mora assembled an army of  nine thousand, armed mostly with machetes, and chased Walker and his army from Guanacaste province back into Nicaragua. The Ticos pursued Walker's army to Rivas, Nicaragua where they held up in a fort. A boy, Juan Santamaría, torched the fort, forcing Walker's army to escape.2 The Ticos had won and would not face another invasion that century.
    Modest little Costa Rica remained peaceful and moderate, for the most part. Mora was blamed for the crisis caused by a cholera epidemic that followed the wear with Nicaragua under Walker; the epidemic killed some 10% of the population. The economy went into a tailspin until 1859, when Mora and his brother-in-law, General José María Canas, were exiled. They were executed in Puntarenas the next year when they returned. Naturally, there was conflict and contending for power; even though the stakes were smaller than elsewhere, Tico egos were just as great as those elsewhere. Costa Rican politics were more "democratic" than those of its neighbors. There was a military dictatorship from 1870 to 1882, done by  Tomás Guardia. From 1885 to1944, there was a new president each term and no electoral violence.
     Costa Rica's economy remained agricultural  until after World War II. Coffee became important since the 1830s. Much was grown on small and medium-sized farms. Coffee merchants aggregated the produce;  processed and bagged it; and shipped it to the Pacific coast where British ships took it around Cape Horn to England. Banana cultivation became important after 1878 when Cooper Minor Keith, brought in by President Tomás Guardia to complete the railroad to Limón on the Atlantic coast, planted bananas along the route. This fruit would grow in the tropics, unlike coffee. Keith had been paid partly in land. Growing and shipping bananas provided him and other with income. The railroad was completed by 1890. He eventually joined with others to create what became  the United Fruit Company. United Fruit Company plantations dominated the country for much of the 20th century.
    Tico presidents had the common touch and most cared about the average person. Braulio Carrillo, after whom a national park is named, began building the state apparatus. All subsequent presidents built on his work. José María Castro y Madriz (1847-49 and 1866-69) promoted freedom of the press and public education. Although dictatorial, Tomás Guardia was progressive. He established free and compulsory primary education; taxed coffee production to finance needed public works; and abolished the death penalty. It was he who worked with foreign investors to improve port facilities and build the railroad to the Atlantic coast. Later presidents abolished the special privileges of Roman Catholic Church and its clergy, who had been above the law. When the Liberals lost the election of 1889, they accepted it peacefully. Alfredo González Flores (1914-1917) instituted an income tax to offset the loss of import duties caused by World War I; he was overthrown by General Federico A. Tinoco in 1917. In protest, the common people refused to buy things on which the government depended for revenue. Tinoco himself was overthrown by 1919, in part because he granted an oil exploration concession to a U.S. company.The insurance industry  was take over by the government in 1924 by President Ricardo Jiménez. Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia, in 1942, had social legislation passed which made Costa Rica one of the more progressive nations in the world.
    Not all was well, however, and the nation underwent one of its few wars to rectify the political situation. In 1944, Calderón García handpicked Teodoro Picado as his successor, hoping that he, in turn, would succeed in 1948. In 1948, the liberal Otilio Ulate won but the Picado Congress declared Calderón García the winner. José “Pepe” Figueres overthrew government in a civil war which lasted five weeks and cost 2,000 lives. On December 10, 1948, the exiled Calderón and his supporters invaded Costa Rica from Nicaragua, always the bete noire of Costa Rica. He was beaten. Figueres headed a junta for eighteen months (1948-49), after which he would turn the government over to Otilio Ulate. 
    Under Figueres' leadership, the junta abolished the army (which was decrepit) and the money saved spent on public education. The police were to be used for domestic security. By 1990, 92.8% of those 15 or older were literate. Women gained the right to vote in 1949. Blacks got full citizenship. Most lived on the Atlantic side of the country and worked in the banana trade. The junta outlawed the Communist Party; established an independent Electoral Tribunal; nationalized the banks and insurance companies; and negotiated a rise from 10% to 30% profit share with the United Fruit Company. In 1949, power  was turned over to Ulate who finished his term. In part, this could be done because the nation only had  746,000 people in 1948.
     The dictators of Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Dominican Republic detested President Figueres, who had been elected in 1953 to serve until 1958. In January, 1955, war planes flew over San Juan and small army invaded from Nicaragua. Figueres appealed to the Organization of American States, which asked the United States to sell planes to Costa Rica for defense. The US sent four F-51 Mustangs. The Nicaraguans retreated. No doubt the US Embassy in Managua told the Nicaraguan dictator, a US ally, to behave himself.
    Nicaragua would continue to be problematical for Costa Rica, not because of Nicaragua but because of US policy towards Nicaragua. In 1979, the Sandinistas, with the support of many conservative Nicaraguans, overthrew the corrupt dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the son of the dictator would hade invaded Costa Rica in 1955. The US, under Ronald Reagan, opposed the Sandinista movement, accusing it of being a stalking horse for the Soviet Union, Cuba or both. Reagan supported the Somocistas and other counterrevolutionaries.  The US put enormous pressure on Costa Rica and President Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez (1982-86) allowed the Contras to use Costa Rican territory to stage attacks on their homeland. The US trained Costa Rican Civil Guard in Honduras and built roads and airstrips throughout the northern provinces. Fearing a general Central American war (El Salvador was also suffering from a civil war with the US backing one side and Guatemala was seeing internal fighting), in 1983-4, four nations--Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela--tried to mediate the disputes. Although rejected, the process spurred Central American nations to negotiate among themselves. President Monge withdrew support of the Contras. Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected president in 1986. Politely keeping the US at bay and ignoring its hysteria about "Communists" in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Arias got the five Central American nations4--Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, to agree to a concurrent ceasefire, to grant amnesty to all guerilla soldiers, to release political prisoners, abolish the states of emergency, and to establish freedom of the press and a democratic form of government. Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in creating this regional peace plan for Central America. Little Costa Rica with it 3.5 million people had done what the colossal US could not do.
    In recent decades, the country has faced the problem of paying for social services and the question of how much of the state economy should be private. The nation imports petroleum and was battered by the oil price revolution of 1973-74 and 1979-80, which reduced exports while engendering serious inflation. One long-term solution to its economic problems was the development of tourism, especially eco-tourism. In 1990, President Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier sought to spur the export-led economy and privatize more public enterprises. By the mid-1990s, the country had attracted an Intel computer chip factory.  José Maria Figueres Olsen, son of Pepe Figueres, became president in 1994. Like his father, he believed in a strong role for government in the economy even when the International Monetary Fund thought otherwise. In 1998, Miguel Angel Rodríguez became president, pledging economic reforms. In 2000, Costa Rica and Nicaragua resolved a long-standing dispute over navigation of the San Juan River, which forms their border. In 2000, another Social Christian politician, Abel Pacheco, won the presidency. It was clear that Ticos demanded a higher standard of living than the country could sometimes afford.


1.    In modern times it is easy to forget that even ten miles was a great distance hundreds of years ago. Going from the viceregal capital of  Mexico City to Guatemala, through mountains and jungle was rarely done. From Guatemala to Costa Rica, one had to cross equally forbidding terrain, as US engineers found in the 1940s and 1950s as they built the very expensive Inter-American Highway. 
2. Santamaría died but became a national hero. As for Walker, he was saved by the US Navy. After a short time, Walker went back to Nicaragua where he was defeated and captured for three years. Upon his release, he tried to take control of Honduras. The Hondurans were not so forgiving. They shot him.
3. William Krehm, Democracies and Tyrannies of the Caribbean (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1984), p 131-2.
4. Panamá is technically part of South America but is often included in Central America.

Donald J. Mabry