Learn and understand the history of Costa Rica

History of Costa Rica

A brief presentation

Costa Rica has sometimes been called the “Switzerland of the Americas” , for its small size (population: 4 million, land area: 51,100 square kilometers), beautiful landscape, and pacifist foreign policy.

In reality, the analogy is not quite accurate: Costa Rica puts Switzerland to shame on most counts.

When it comes to peacefulness, not only is Costa Rica one of the very few Western countries not to have participated in a foreign war since its independence. The country is also one of the very few in the world without any standing army whatsoever. Nor does Costa Rica produce and sell weapons to warring nations, unlike its European counterpart.

The Costa Rican landscape also puts just about any other country, not just Switzerland, to shame. In a very tiny land area, Costa Rica’s rain forests represent a large proportion of the world’s biodiversity. In other words, Costa Rica has a vast number of native species of plants and animals, which are uniquely free from extinction fears thanks to the country’s superb conservation laws.

But while Costa Ricans have treated the world well, they haven’t always been so kind to each other. Costa Rica’s mostly peaceful history has been punctuated by pitched battles to achieve democracy and overcome poverty, the latter of which still goes on today.

History of Costa Rica before the Spaniards

Human beings have lived in Costa Rica since at least 5,000 BC, but we know very little about them.

The area at the time of Columbus was apparently very sparsely populated, confirmed by the lack of stone structures and other archaeological evidence of settlement that remember civilizations elsewhere.

Though the gold jewelry of the natives led Columbus to name the country “Costa Rica,” (“rich coast”) when he stayed here for 17 days in 1502, almost none of the indigenous material culture survived being melted down by the Spaniards.

The locals initially welcomed Columbus. But they soon began attacking Spanish colonizers. Their resistance, combined with the thick jungle, prevented real colonization of Costa Rica for sixty years after Columbus arrived.

Still, the locals could not resist European diseases, which ultimately did the most to destroy their civilization and change the history of Costa Rica forever. Today, only one percent of Costa Rica’s 4 million people are of primarily indigenous extraction.

Spain Finally Colonizes

The Spanish role in the history of Costa Rica

In 1561, Juan de Cavallón led the first successful expedition of colonizers into Costa Rica. From 1562-1565, Juan Vásquez de Coronado brought even more colonists to the central valleys of Costa Rica, where most Costa Ricans still live today.

Costa Rica’s colonial experience was unique in the Americas.

Costa Rica was an appendage to the Spanish possession of Nicaragua, itself a part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, which was in turn a distant outpost of New Spain (i.e., Mexico), a colony ruled indirectly by the Spanish monarchs from their throne in Madrid.

As a country on the edge of the edge of the Spanish empire, the authorities mostly ignored Costa Rica. Costa Rica’s jungle location and lack of wealth also helped to keep out meddling outsiders.

One effect of this isolation was to make Costa Rica one of the most egalitarian, and also most European countries, in the Americas. There were few slaves, since there was no money to bring in kidnapped Africans and their descendants, and the few remaining indigenous people could escape subjugation in the dense jungle. Today, 96% of Costa Ricans are of primarily Spanish ancestry.

Most colonial Costa Ricans were subsistence farmers. There were naturally few government or church officials.

Costa Rica Emerges from Obscurity, Becoming an Independent Nation

The crucial events towards independence

Towards the end of the 1700s, Costa Rica’s tobacco exports boomed, and the area suddenly became an important center of cultural and political thought in the Americas.

When Mexico won independence from Spain in the 1810s and 1820s, Costa Rica, as part of the viceroyalty of New Spain, went with it.

However, after Mexico’s decisive victory over the Spaniards in 1823, the Central American isthmus, from Guatemala to Nicaragua, became the United Provinces of Central America in 1824.

The confederation was wracked by civil war until it disbanded in 1838. In the meantime, Costa Rica began its tradition of neutrality by staying out of the fighting.

The first steps of the new and independent state

When Costa Rica became independent from the confederation, San Jose won out over the towns of Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela to become the capital.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica developed the two basic political parties that also developed elsewhere in the former Spanish colonies: the reform-minded Liberals and the sometimes-authoritarian Conservatives.

Also like much of the Americas, the history of Costa Rica is an alternation between independence dictatorships, coups, and fragile elected governments. It was a time of considerable change and instability in the history of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica finally established a durable democracy towards the end of the nineteenth century, which has continued, with brief interruptions, to this day.

Still, despite the in fighting, Costa Rica once again managed to stay out of foreign wars, even as it opposed the William Walker’s (a US adventurer) takeover of Nicaragua and expelled Walker’s invasion of Costa Rica.

The biggest nineteenth-century economic development was the growth of coffee, which replaced tobacco as Costa Rica’s number one export. US businessmen also established a banana empire that later became the United Fruit Company (which operates under the label, “Chiquita” overseas).

Costa Rica Becomes a Mostly Modern Nation in the Twentieth Century

Recent History of Costa Rica

A rising middle class challenged both the coffee barons and the traditional Liberal-Conservative political divide. They brought to power the National Republican Party (Partido Republicano Nacional, or PRN).

But when the PRN, after losing the 1948 presidential election, started a palace coup, the victorious party, National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN became the dominant party, a position it has held throughout the modern history of Costa Rica, and until this day.

The PLN led Costa Rica to establish a new constitution, one which gave the vote to women and to black Costa Ricans, and also disbanded the army. The PLN also established a national pension plan, the basis for Costa Rica’s strong social policy.

Since that time, the various governments have all been fairly moderate. Universal healthcare access was instituted in the 1970s.

Since that time, Costa Rica’s stunning natural beauty, coupled with its relative safety and stability (in sharp contrast with much of the rest of central and South America), have made it a tourist mecca.

Tourism has brought some problems, chief among them the well-publicized problem of prostitution. Still, despite the problems, tourism has helped to cement Costa Rica’s international reputation as perhaps the most attractive country in the Americas, and done much to improve the economy.

by Joel Walsh


In addition to the history of Costa Rica, check out the country's geography

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