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History of Costa Rica

In Pre-Columbian times the Native Americans in what is now Costa Rica were part of a cultural complex known as the "Intermediate Area," between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions.

In 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus made the first recorded European landfall in the area. European settlement of Costa Rica began in 1522. The native peoples were conquered by Spain in the sixteenth century. Costa Rica was then the southern-most province in the Spanish territory of New Spain. The provincial capital was in Cartago.

For nearly three centuries, Spain administered the region as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala under a military governor. The Spanish optimistically called the country "Rich Coast". Finding little gold or other valuable minerals in Costa Rica, however, the Spanish turned to agriculture.

The small landowners' relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population's ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica's isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes -- all contributed to the development of an autonomous and individualistic agrarian society. Even the Governor had to farm his own crops and tend to his own garden due to the poverty that he lived in. An egalitarian tradition also arose. This tradition survived the widened class distinctions brought on by the nineteenth century introduction of banana and coffee cultivation and consequent accumulations of local wealth.

Federal Republic of Central America

Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 in a joint declaration of independence from Spain. After a brief time in the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (see: History of Mexico and Mexican Empire) Costa Rica became a state in the Federal Republic of Central America (see: History of Central America) from 1823 to 1839. In 1824 the capital was moved to San José, but following a rivalry with Cartago that was violent. Although the newly independent provinces formed a Federation, border disputes broke out among them, adding to the region's turbulent history and conditions. Costa Rica's northern Guanacaste Province was annexed from Nicaragua in one such regional dispute. In 1838, long after the Central American Federation ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign.

Following independence, Costa Rica found themselves with no regular trade routes to get their coffee to European markets. This was compounded by transportation problems - the coffee-growing areas were on the Pacific Coast, and before the Panama Canal was opened, ships from Europe had to sail around Cape Horn in order to get to the Pacific Coast. This was overcome in 1843, when, with the help of William Le Lacheur, a Guernsey merchant and shipowner, a regular trade route was established.

In 1856, William Walker, an American filibuster began incursions into Central America. After landing in Nicaragua, he proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and re-instated slavery. He intended to expand into Costa Rica and after entering Costa Rican soil, Costa Rica declared war. Led by Commander in Chief of the Army of Costa Rica, President Juan Rafael Mora Porras, the filibusters were defeated and forced out of the country. Costa Rican forces followed the filibusters into Rivas, Nicaragua, where in a final battle, William Walker and his forces were finally pushed back. Juan Santamaría, a drummer boy who lost his life torching the filibusters' stronghold, was killed in this final battle, and is today remembered as a national hero.


An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Rica began in 1889 with elections considered the first truly free and honest ones in the country's history. Costa Rica has avoided much of the violence that has plagued much of Central America. Since the late nineteenth century, only two brief periods of violence have marred its democratic development. In 1917-19, Federico Tinoco Granados ruled as a dictator, and, in 1948, José Figueres Ferrer led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election. In 1949, José Figueres Ferrer abolished the army; and since then, Costa Rica has been one of the few countries to operate within the democratic system without the assistance of a military.

With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day Costa Rica Civil War resulting from this uprising was the bloodiest event in twentieth-century Costa Rican history, but the victorious junta drafted a constitution guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the military. Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 12 presidential elections, the latest in 2006.

Once a largely agricultural country, the twin pillars of Costa Rica's current economy are technology and eco-tourism. Costa Rica's major source of export income is technology based. Microsoft, Motorola, Intel and other technology related firms have established operations in Costa Rica. Local companies create and export software as well as other computer related products. Tourism is growing at an accelerated pace and many believe that income from this tourism may soon become the major contributor to the nation's GDP. Traditional agriculture, particularly coffee and bananas, continues to be an important contributor to Costa Rica's export income. Land ownership and wealth is widespread and the population enjoys a relatively high standard of living.

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