Costa Rica National History

Costa Rica shows proof of people 12000 B.C. Initially, early man in Costa Rica was a hunter and a gatherer, but later, between 8000 and 4000 years B.C. nomadic groups started settling down and domesticating crops. The period between 4000 and 1000 B.C. was extremely important for the development of the indigenous people. Since Costa Rica was located in a strategic position, in a land mass that served as a bridge between North and South America, it was influenced by different customs.

The political hierarchy was headed by the "cacique", a chief that made use of supernatural beliefs to justify his almost unlimited power. Underneath him were various members of the religious and military nobility, then the common workers and finally the slaves. War became an important element of life, and was usually justified by territory expansion or defense and the acquisition of slaves.

When Columbus arrived near Lim¢n on September 18, 1502 on his last voyage to the Americas, there were probably no more than 20,000 indigenous inhabitants. They lived in four major indigenous tribes living in Costa Rica. The east coast was the realm of the Caribs, while the Borucas, Chibchas, and Diquis resided in the southwest. As he was setting anchor off shore, a crowd of local Carib Indians paddled out in canoes and greeted his crew warmly. Later, the golden bands that the region’s inhabitants wore in their noses and ears would inspire the Spaniard Gil Gonzalez Davila to name the country Costa Rica, or Rich Coast.

The Indians gave Columbus gold and he returned to Europe with reports of a plentiful supply of the yellow metal. But the adventurers who arrived to cash in found only hostile Indians, swamps and disease for their trouble. Several early attempts to colonize the Atlantic coast failed for the same reasons and for almost half a century Costa Rica was passed over while colonization gathered pace in countries to the north and south. In 1562, the Spanish main’s administrative center in Guatemala sent Juan Vasquez de Coronado to Costa Rica as governor and Cartago was established as the capital the following year. With no Indian slaves to work the land, the colonists were forced to work the land themselves, scratching out a meagre subsistence by tilling small plots. The impoverished colony grew slowly and was virtually ignored by the Spanish rulers in Guatemala. In 1723 an eruption of the Irazú volcano destroyed the small town of Cartago, but during this same century cities like San José, Heredia and Alajuela, started growing in population and infrastructure. The towns always revolved around the church and plaza. By the late 18th century, the settlements that would buela had been founded and exports of wheat and tobacco were making economic conditions somewhat better.

Central America gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. The news reached Costa Rica a month after the event. The question of whether Costa Rica should join newly independent Mexico or join a new confederation of Central American states resulted in a bitter quarrel between the leaders of San Jose and their counterparts in Cartago and Heredia. A brief civil war in 1823 was won by San Jose and Costa Rica joined the confederation.

Juan Mora Fernandez was elected the country’s first head of state in 1824. His progressive administration expanded public education and encouraged the cultivation of coffee with land grants for growers. This quickly led to the establishment of a new Costa Rican elite, the coffee barons, who quickly put their power to use by overthrowing the first Costa Rican president, Jose Maria Castro. His successor, Juan Rafael Mora, is remembered as the man who mobilized a force of Costa Rican volunteers and defeated William Walker in 1856, ending the persistent North American adventurer’s ambitions to turn Central America into a slave state and annex it to the United States.

The evolution from a militaristic and coup-ridden nation to a more stable and democratic one, took place through Tomás Guardia´s rule. Ironically, Tomás Guardia came into power and remained there by military force. However, his reforms were the seeds of a much needed democracy. In twelve years he succeeded in controlling the use of the military, revising the Constitution, building several roads and declaring education for both sexes obligatory and free (1869 reform). It was Guardia who contracted Minor Keith to build the Atlantic railroad from San Jose to the Caribbean. These amazing events marked the path for a new democratic era.

The official onset for Costa Rican democracy dates to 1889 after the rule of President Bernardo Soto. Many historians consider this to be the first true election, devoid of fraud and corruption. In this election, Jose Joaquin Rodriguez, and not Soto won, but the latter’s government refused to accept these results. The people however, organized into mobs, supported their chosen candidate, so Soto had to withdraw from power. This incident marked if not the definitiveness of democracy, the desire by the people for its country to head in this direction.

The twenty years between Guardia’s rule (1870-1882) and his predecessor, Soto (1882-1889) mark the liberalist era or of the "Olimpo" (Olympus). The Olimpo consisted in a group of rather arrogant people who intended to reform the government and to "civilize" the populace. The members of the group, who were intellectuals, scientists and political leaders, encouraged agrarian reform, capitalism, bureaucracy and free and obligatory primary education. This group favored science and attacked religion and the Church as an institution, thus provoking a growing tension between government followers and religious supporters. While the liberals promoted the heroic nature of the Battle of 1856 (where Costa Rica defeated an American filibuster) and its hero, Juan Santamaria, the church advocated for the people’s cult of the Virgin of the Angels. Therefore, each band had its symbol which they promoted in order to awaken people’s solidarity and loyalty as well as their resistance against the other group’s power. As far as the populace went, the Church won.

The last decade of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of capitalist investments that would lead to an imperialist hold of the United States over Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. In 1884, the Costa Rican government finally signed a contract with American entrepeneur, Minor C. Keith, in which the businessman agreed to finish the railroad to the Atlantic and to lessen the British debt, in exchange for a 99 year concession of the railroad and huge amounts of land in the Atlantic. His participation in this business culminated with the founding of the United Fruit Company in Boston, in the year of 1899.

Costa Rica, which had defended its sovereignty in the 1856 war against American filibuster, William Walker, was facing the imperialist threat but much stronger this time. The ironic part of this story is that Costa Rica had caused this situation by welcoming unleashed foreign investment. The country was completely surrounded by the American influence: on the North, the marines had invaded and occupied Nicaragua (1912-1934); on the South, Panama had been chosen for its canal; on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, the United Fruit Company had basically taken over the region. Even after the two world wars, the United States influenced economic and political decisions of the Costa Rican government.

Up until the founding of the United Fruit Company, Costa Rican exports were limited to coffee. However, in 1910, the export of bananas equaled that of coffee, and in 1911 the country became the world’s largest producer of this crop. Between 1914 and 1930, world prices for bananas fell or rose dramatically. By 1930, the company decided to desert the Atlantic region and to move to the Pacific. This change, which was due to the deterioration of the land, also caused great social chaos, since the inhabitants of the region had become completely dependent of the company, and the government had never encouraged any diversification.

The hunger for earnings from foreign and national businessmen, usually meant a lack of concern for society in general. There were several strikes that denoted the poor conditions of the common workers: the Chinese, Jamaican and Italian strikes (1879-1888) during the railroad construction; the banana plantation strikes (1910-1921); the miner’s strikes in Guanacaste (1906-1922). Thanks to these social pressures, the Costa Rican government was forced to allow the formation of non-traditional parties, such as the Reform Party (1923) and the Communist Party (1931). Within these parties, common workers, peasants and other poor people rose to power in the party and in the government itself.

Rafael Angel Calder¢n Guardia was the President of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944. Among his various achievements is included the founding of the University of Costa Rica (1940), which is still a landmark in the progress of public, higher education. Calderon Guardia also established the country’s social security system, called the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (1941), which is still functioning. He also passed extremely important bodies of law that guaranteed basic rights for workers and for all citizens alike. But when Calder¢n’s United Social Christian Party refused to step down after losing the 1948 election against to Otilio Ulate, civil war erupted. The anti-Calder¢n forces were led by Jose Mar¡a (Don Pepe) Figueres Ferrer who had been exiled to Mexico in 1942. Supported by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba, he won the war which lasted 40 days and cost 2,000 lives.

Figueres became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica. He consolidated the reforms introduced by Calder¢n and introduced many of his own: He banned the Communist Party, gave women the vote and granted full citizenship to blacks, abolished the armed forces, established a term limit for presidents and nationalized the banks and insurance companies. He also founded the Partido de Liberacion Nacional. (The PLN won last year’s presidential election behind Don Pepe’s son, now President Jose Mar¡a Figueres Olsen). Costa Rica was fortunate to suffer a civil war that would last only five weeks, and that would eventually return power to the people’s choice as president. Costa Rica would later reward Jose Figueres by electing him to two terms of office (1953-1957 and 1970-1974).

In February 1982, Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez was elected president. He originally tried to keep his country neutral. In the face of the Sandinistas radical shift to the left, however, Monge found himself hostage to US and domestic right-wing pressure to support the contras. As his economic crisis deepened. He was forced to bow to US demands in exchange for foreign aid. The Nicaraguan counterstrikes in the border began so the Costa Rican Civil Guard was being trained in Honduras by US military advisors, and roads and airstrips were being built throughout the northern provinces.

Don Pepe died in 1990 a national hero, his deeds having set the scene for the social and economic progress that would earn Costa Rica the reputation as a peaceful and stable island of democracy in one of the world’s most politically unstable, and often war-torn regions. When civil war broke out in neighboring Nicaragua, Costa Rica was drawn reluctantly into the conflict, its northern zone being used as a base first for Sandinista and later for “contra” forces. In 1986, a young lawyer called Oscar Arias Sanchez was elected president (1986-1990) on the platform of peace. Arias’ tireless efforts to promote peace in the region were rewarded when the five Central American presidents signed his peace plan in Guatamala City in 1987, an achievement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

After President Arias, three other presidents have been elected. An interesting fact about the elections that followed that of Arias, is that two of the candidates were sons of the main rivals during the Civil War of 1948. Calderon’s son, Rafael Angel Calderon, candidate of the rival Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) was president from 1990-1994, while Figueres’ son ruled the country from 1994-1998. This illustrates the flexibility of the Costa Rican democracy, which allows the election of candidates that represent generations of rivalry, one after the other. The next president is Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who belongs to the Social Christian party, which has its origins with Calderon’s followers, after the 1948 Civil War. In 2002 – the electorate has returned a PUSC majority in both presidential and National Assembly elections. Abel Pacheco de la Espriella is the new President.


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