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
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
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.3 The
insurance industry was take over by the government in 1924 by President Ricardo Jiménez. Rafael Ángel
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
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
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
Donald J. Mabry