The coastal plains are low, hot, and heavily forested. Bananas, cocoa, and sugarcane are cultivated there. In the northwest is the Nicoya peninsula, a semiarid plain where cattle and grain are raised. A massive cordillera, with peaks over 12,000 ft (3,658 m) high, cuts the country from northwest to southeast. Within it, under the shadow of volcanoes such as Irazú, lies the Central Valley, with a perennially springlike climate. This valley is the heart of the country, where coffee is cultivated and most of the population and market facilities are located.
One of the most stable countries in Latin America, Costa Rica has a long democratic tradition and no regular military forces. The population is largely of Spanish and mestizo descent. The official language is Spanish, and English is also spoken. About 75% of the people are Roman Catholics; there is a large Protestant minority.
Costa Rica is an agricultural country, although tourism and industry are being developed at a moderate pace. Industries include food processing and the manufacture of electronic components, textiles and clothing, construction materials, fertilizer, and plastics. Bananas, pineapples, coffee, melons, sugar, and beef are exported, as well as manufactured goods such as textiles, electronics, and medical equipment. Raw materials, consumer goods, capital equipment, and petroleum are imported. The United States is the largest trading partner.
The country is governed under the 1949 constitution. The president, who is both the chief of state and head of government, is elected to a single four-year term. Members of the unicameral 57-seat Legislative Assembly are also elected for four years. Administratively, the country is divided into seven provinces.
Although Columbus skirted the Costa Rican coast in 1502, resistance by the indigenous inhabitants and disease prevented the Spanish from establishing a permanent settlement until 1563, when Cartago was founded. The region was administered as part of the captaincy general of Guatemala. Few of the native inhabitants survived, and the colonists, unable to establish a hacienda system based on slave labor, generally became small landowners. From Cartago, westward expansion into the plateau began in the 18th cent.
Costa Rica became independent from Spain in 1821. From 1822 to 1823 it was part of the Mexican Empire of Augustín de Iturbide. It then became part of the Central American Federation until 1838, when the sovereign republic of Costa Rica was proclaimed. In 1857, Costa Rica participated in the defeat of the filibuster William Walker, who had taken over Nicaragua.
The cultivation of coffee, introduced in the 19th cent., led to the creation of a landed oligarchy that dominated the country until the administration of Tomás Guardia (1870-82). In 1874, Minor Cooper Keith founded Limón and introduced banana cultivation. Keith also started the United Fruit Company. Later many tracts had to be abandoned because of leaf blight. Costa Rica's history of orderly, democratic government began in the late 19th cent.The Twentieth Century
The orderly pattern was broken in 1917, when Federico Tinoco overthrew the elected president, Alfredo González. The majority of Costa Ricans, as well as the United States, opposed Tinoco, and he was deposed in 1919. Costa Rica cooperated with the United States during World War II and after the war joined the United Nations and other international organizations. Following the war, United Fruit started new plantations on the Pacific coast.
In 1948 there was a second breakdown of the political system. In a close presidential election Otilio Ulate appeared to have defeated a former president, Dr. Rafael Calderón. But the incumbent, Teodoro Picado, accused Ulate's supporters of fraud and obtained a congressional invalidation of the election. A six-week civil war ensued, at the conclusion of which a junta led by José Figueres Ferrer, a backer of Ulate, assumed power. Picado was exiled and the armed forces were disbanded, to be replaced by a civil guard. Forces from Nicaragua backed Picado, and the Organization of American States (OAS) was called upon to mediate between the two countries.
In 1949 a new constitution was adopted, and the junta transferred power to Ulate as the elected president. Figueres was elected his successor in 1953. In UN-supervised elections in 1958, Mario Enchadi Jiménez defeated Figueres's candidate. Politics remained stable in the 1960s. The Irazú volcano erupted in 1963-64 and caused serious damage to agriculture; another volcano, Arenal, erupted in 1968 for the first time in hundreds of years, killing many. Figueres was again elected president in 1970, and Daniel Oduber Quiros was elected president in 1974, but the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) lost its majority in the legislature for the first time in 25 years. In the late 1970s the country entered a recession and found itself surrounded by increasingly unstable neighbors.
In the early 1980s the PLN returned to power. Oscar Arias Sánchez, the PLN candidate elected in 1986, worked to preserve his nation's neutrality. The economy continued to worsen, however, and in 1990 Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier of the Social Christian Unity party (PUSC) was elected to the presidency by a 3% margin. José María Figueres Olsen, the PLN candidate and son of José Figueres Ferrer, was elected president in 1994. In 1998, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría of the PUSC won the presidency; he was succeeded by fellow party member Abel Pacheco de la Espriella in 2002.
The country was shaken in 2004 by charges that Presidents Calderón and Rodríguez had received illegal kickbacks from government contracts and that, after leaving office, President Figueres had received large consulting fees relating to government contracts. Calderón was convicted of embezzlement in 2009. Former president Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected to a second term in 2006. In Oct., 2007, Costa Ricans approved joining the Central American Free Trade Agreement (signed in 2004), but its accession was delayed until after legislation was enacted (Nov., 2008) that brought the nation into compliance with the accord.
See R. Fernández Guardia, History of the Discovery and Conquest of Costa Rica (1913); J. P. Bell, Crisis in Costa Rica: The 1948 Revolution (1971); H. D. Nelson, ed., Costa Rica, a Country Study (1984); C. Hall, Costa Rica (1985); M. Edelman and J. Kenen, ed., The Costa Rica Reader (1989).