The history of Costa Rica is quite brief, but very interesting. We don’t have epic wars, or bloodsheds… However, we accomplish education, health and human rights before many other countries. Find here how it happened.
The history of Costa Rica can be seen as a very uneventful story. We could think that it does not have the soapy operas that are scattered around the British or the French histories. Or the intensity of the Asian tales.
However, perhaps, it will guide us to understand something particularly important for humankind: Costa Rica is a different country and has a different history, with evident great results.
It is a story of people who decided to live without a military. And trade the security budget for an increase in health and education. A country who believes in sustainability so much that it is already a state of mind and the first and most stable democracy of Latin America.
A country that yes, is striving to preserve these hardly achieved values: Peace, Health, Freedom, Democracy, Education, and Conservation as priorities… Wouldn’t we all like to know how to accomplish this?
Not only for our World and every country in it. But for our cities, our towns, our families and ourselves.
How do you get there?
Well! Let’s see the history of Costa Rica and what does it have to do with the wonderful country that it is now.
And to give it a start, we will begin with the very beginning of Costa Rica. When it was born.
Geologically speaking, Costa Rica is the newest part of the Americas. And this allowed it to be a filter and bridge for the amazing biodiversity as well as for people.
By now, there are no shreds of evidence of a bigger population in the precolumbian times. However, Costa Rica stood as an interesting archeological place as it merges the Mesoamerican cultures (The Corn culture) and the South American tubers cultures.
The Spanish Conquest
Christopher Columbus arrived in Costa Rica in 1502 on his fourth trip. He made a whole tour throughout the coast of Central America, and there is a small paragraph in a letter saying that he had found the richest coast in this trip.
We don’t know if he was referring to the outstanding beauty of the Central American coasts or the first contact he had with the gold of the continental Americas which was more abundant than what he found in the three first trips in the Caribbean.
This is one of the theories of the origin of the name Costa Rica (Rich Coast).
However as conquerors approach, they found that this part of Central America, had very hostile nature, its rainforest, its mosquitoes, the fact that in the Caribbean it’s a very humid area and they had to go through miles of swamps to arrive at very steep mountains, and all of this finding very little gold, and aggressive indigenous groups.
Of course, throughout the history of Costa Rica, the fact that in this land there was not a lot of gold, or precious stones, or silver, or even a nice area to place a house and to move in, actually turned the place into one of the most remote, poor and isolated provinces of the Spanish Empire. abandoned for decades in order to explore other richer areas of the Americas like Peru or Mexico.
Finally, the conquest began in the 1560s and the exploration happened on the Pacific side (Much dryer and with milder topography) and finally, Cartago was found in 1564 as the capital city.
The colonial times
This will bring us to a conclusion: Costa Rica had no port on the Caribbean, not even a small little village. Nothing. And this is important because well, all of the Spanish development and Spain itself was happening in the Caribbean side.
We were a forgotten province of the kingdom of Guatemala.
And this brought something interesting, The people who moved into this area of the world found a secluded haven where they could hide and live peacefully without the government or the Inquisition following their tracks.
In the next two centuries, you will find Costa Rica in slow motion.
The World was in the great birth of the Illustration and the discoveries, huge wars were being fought, fantastic philosophical, social and economic achievements were happening and Costa Rica was pretty much left alone for more than 200 years.
And the population grew, slowly as well in the Central Valley, a beautiful fertile and rich area with great weather.
There were efforts from the church and the government to gather the people that lived scattered around the Central Valley and several towns were found in the different regions to conquest the indigenous and strengthen the Spanish and Catholic domain.
The first cities we’re actually found because the Catholic Church started to put some pressure threatening with ex-communion those who didn’t move to the towns.
The main cities in the Central Valley were found in the XVIII Century: San José in 1737, Alajuela in 1782 and Heredia in 1763. And all of them in the same way.
But then again, winds of change were coming and, just like in many other times in the history of Costa Rica, little did we know that the lives of the people who lived peacefully in this bubble were to be shaken to the ground.
As we all know, first the United States independence and Constitution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars created a space for the colonies on this side of the world to start the freedom movement that created the new countries.
Our independence happened in 1821 and we were so far away that we knew about it a month and three days after it happened.
By this time the Costa Ricans were very confused, they didn’t know, if they were still apart Guatemala, or Mexico or even Colombia, (as Panama didn’t exist what’s an independent country yet.)
And in 1823 we had our first Civil War between the main cities of the Central Valley: Alajuela and San Jose, who wanted total independence or to join Great Colombia, and Cartago and Heredia who were fighting to remain as a part of Guatemala or joining the Great Iturbide’s Empire in Mexico.
Finally, we stayed as a part of Central America. And the capital city was moved from Cartago to San José. (After some struggling years.)
There was a little problem here: we didn’t produce anything. Meaning that yes, in Costa Rica there was enough to eat, very small plantations that worked in a small and isolated land but not country after its independence.
Some coffee plants arrived in the country and the first plantation was found in the very heart of what is San Jose now and started a new era in the history of Costa Rica: the coffee.
When the coffee arrived the government and the richest families that traveled to Europe often, saw a great business opportunity, but for the peasants, it was not as clear that it was such a great venture, and refused to plant it. But then, the government decided to give away for free the land around the Central Valley for the people to plant a bean they couldn’t eat or taste in any possible way. (Everyone drank chocolate back then)
The first coffee exports were sent by the Pacific side traveling through Horn Cape and were sold in England as Chilean coffee as no one knew Costa Rica.
Finally, exports turned to be a regular income and the distribution of the land accomplished equality and the middle class (Who were landowners) was formed, and supported since those days.
Although there were a few families, they controlled the process and the export business and these people became what is known as the coffee oligarchy throughout the history of Costa Rica.
The Central American Federation was finally over in 1838, and the coffee power, money, and families took over the control.
Differences between classes remained small as the owners of the haciendas would go to the same schools as their workers and the same cantina served drinks for the poor and for the rich.
The First International War:
In the 1850’s a migratory movement started from Europe and millions of people went across the Atlantic to the Americas. Only the United States received around 27 million immigrants coming from Ireland, Italy, Sweden and other countries that were going through rough times.
They came looking for the original american dream, a piece of land that they could call their own and the hope of personal progress and growth.
And the conquest of the Wild West started causing thousands of families to go across the plains looking for the dream of land.
The first gold was found in California in 1842 (1) and this turned the immigration into a stampede.
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And interestingly, before the railroad idea going to California started, the first intention was to build the canal in Central America.
And the ideal canal was to be built in Nicaragua, this country had the huge Nicaragua lake, and a very narrow land piece to arrive in the Pacific.
And an American physician, lawyer, journalist, and mercenary called William Walker organized private military Expeditions into Central America as a way to establish slave colonies and to control the area of the canal. He usurped the Nicaragua presidency from 1856 to 1857 and finally was defeated by a coalition of armies where Costa Rica had a strong position.
This strenghtens the international position of Costa Rica before Panama and Nicaragua as well as the power of the coffee oligarchy.
And we go bananas
After this war, the coffee families decided that it was very important for Costa Rica to have a port on the Caribbean and watching the results of the railroads in the U.S., South America, and Europe, the government decided to call a man called Henry Meiggs, who was originally from Boston Massachusetts and had a lumber yard in New York. link to Henry Meiggs Wikipedia.
Henry Meiggs built the railroads of Chile and Peru and he started in 1870 the railroads in Costa Rica, with his nephews Minor, Michael and Henry Cooper Keith as his representatives.
The project was funded by a tax over each bag of coffee exported and all the lumber around the railroad.
But just like the train in the U.S. they had to build the rails starting from two points: The Caribbean Coast and San José and this created an incredible increase of the budget.
And funds proved not to be enough very quickly.
Thousands of Jamaicans in Chinese were brought to work in the Caribbean plains, but the malaria plague was continuous and very intense and the payments were slow, and very often the money didn’t come.
After a long struggle the government of Costa Rica and the families of coffee decided to give away 800000 acres (300,000 hectares) of land on the Caribbean basin together with a 99-year contract of a monopoly of the railroad.
Pretty much at the same time bananas started to take flight in the world and Minor Cooper (Who survived his brothers that died of malaria) had used them as a way to control the rainforest.
The bananas are weeds and in the right weather conditions, they are made to always come back and take over, no matter what.
As well it was great to feed the workers as it is very complete and abundant nourishment.
Soon the businessman realized that the great economical adventure were bananas and eventually his recently created United Fruit Company and his brand, Chiquita Bananas came to dominate The Banana trade of all of Central America and Colombia.
And well Costa Rica had a railroad and most importantly a route to connect the main cities with the rest of the World.
When did the 20th century arrives, Costa Rica was producing coffee, bananas, and sugarcane and everything seemed to be fine.
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The XX Century
But an unfortunate set of events happened in the first 50 years of the twentieth century for Costa Rica.
Again the World was moving faster than us, and the first World War and the consequent 1929 crisis, brought a drop in the prices of coffee and bananas, both still considered as a luxury.
When the second world war arrived, Costa Rica was already in trouble.
The Revolution of 1948 and the abolition of the army:
In the history of Costa Rica there are fewer, or maybe none, more key moments than the abolition of the army.
Because the banana plantations on the Caribbean developed a very serious disease caused by a fungus, the company decided to move from the Caribbean to the South Pacific of Costa Rica, establishing the port of Quepos (Very close to the nowadays Manuel Antonio).
And thousands of men were left unemployed and the labor rights were, then, simply nonexistent.
This, together with the repetitive drop in the coffee value, the Second World War and the violent reactions of the government against the people protesting for the situation created a general discomfort.
And although the social insurance and labor rights were granted in 1942, the economy was very harsh, and the repression too.
In 1944 there were elections, however, it is said that there was a very clear fraud and the same party won.
An unknown farmer called Jose Figueres started to take radio spaces to criticize the government and finally, he was kicked out and had to go to Mexico, coming back hidden prior to the 1948 elections.
In 1948 not only the fraud was quite clear but the votes were put in a newspaper building that was burned to ashes that night.
This worked as a spark to light up the revolution of 1948. a movement that started in the southern mountains and moved towards the Central Valley.
It lasted only one month causing more than 2,000 casualties. A huge number considering that Costa Rica had a population of 700,000 people. (Approx).
The revolutionaries won in April 1948 and Figueres came into San Jose with his army and the other leader flew to Mexico.
The abolition of the army:
Some say that his own Army was planning a coup, some others say that his vision was like none else’s, but Figueres had a bright and daring idea to deal with this possibility.
He didn’t want a second civil war and simply decided to unplug the power of the very new militaries. In December the first 1948 he abolished the army.
At the end of the protocol, he openly gave the keys of the headquarters of the Costa Rica army to the minister of education, announcing that the building would be transformed into a national art and history museum and the nation’s security budget would be redirected to healthcare, education and housing and the progress of Costa Rica.
Figueres was a self-taught man and an insatiable reader of Tolstoy, Emerson, and other leading pacifists. As leader of the revolution, he solidified Costa Rica’s social democracy and stepped off from power in order to acknowledge and honor that democracy.
He called the candidate that was to be president in 1948 (Otilio Ulate) and in 1953 elections he ran for president and won after a very clear vote of the Costa Ricans in his favor.
(He was president of Costa Rica three times).
Speech of the abolition of the army:
Cuartel Bellavista, Dec. 1 of 1948
“The regular Army of Costa Rica, worthy successor of the National Liberation Army, today gives the key to this barracks to schools, to be converted into a cultural center.
The Founding Board of the Second Republic officially declares the National Army dissolved, considering that the existence of a good police force is sufficient for the security of our country.
The men who recently bloodied a country of peace, we understand how serious these injuries can be in Latin America, and the urgency that they stop bleeding. We do not wield the assassin’s dagger but the surgeon’s scalpel. As surgeons we are interested now, more than the operation practiced, the future health of the Nation, which demands that the wound be closed soon, and that a scar be formed on it that is healthier and stronger than the original tissue.
We are defined holders of the ideal of a new world in America. To that homeland of Washington, Lincoln, Bolivar and Marti, we want to say today: Oh, America! Other peoples, your children too, offer you their greatness. Little Costa Rica wants to offer you always, as now, along with her heart, her love of civility, of democracy. “
José Figueres Ferrer
After the Revolution:
This, of course, created a new period in the history Costa Rica.
Progress was the priority and Costa Rica was still covered with huge forested areas that were uninhabited.
The goal was to develop this country, to create towns, schools and work for all Costa Ricans, and more than 60% of the remaining rainforest turned into plantations then.
Regions like the North, the South, Guanacaste were conquered, under the same premise of giving land for people to cultivate it.
In the 1970s Figueres was president again and he supported the creation of National Parks in rainforest areas, primarily to preserve the water, but also the unknown riches of the natural Costa Rican diversity.
And environment conservation started to be part of our culture and is one of the main pillars of the way we see life in general, as a culture and country.
In the 1980s in the end of the Cold War, the nuclear race and the Latin American dictatorships and guerrillas, Costa Rica went for another bold move and declared total neutrality in any possible conflict.
Later on on the history of Costa Rica, it becomes a peace leader for the peace process that ended up with the Central American peace.
In this same decade, the government was determined to start a plan in order to develop other products for export, not only in agriculture but in technology and services.
By 1989, when the peace came into Central America, tourism started and developed, becoming the first income of the Costa Ricans.
But there were other products to diversify the coffee and bananas economy.
Nowadays our main exports are:
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: US$2.9 billion (27% of total exports)
- Fruits, nuts: $2.2 billion (20.8%)
- Miscellaneous food preparations: $527.2 million (5%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $478.9 million (4.5%)
- Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $418.8 million (3.9%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $350.1 million (3.3%)
- Coffee, tea, spices: $317.1 million (3%)
- Pharmaceuticals: $281.4 million (2.7%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: $262 million (2.5%)
- Animal/vegetable fats, oils, waxes: $170.6 million (1.6%)
In a World facing hard difficulties and challenges, Costa Rica keeps on thriving in change.
Nowadays as conservation leaders in forums like the Climate Change in Paris or the Kyoto Protocol, Costa Rica, as small and insignificant as it looks, defines a way to live peacefully and happily.
Workman, D. (2018). Costa Rica’s Top 10 Exports. World’s Top Exports. Retrieved 11 February 2019, from http://www.worldstopexports.com/costa-ricas-top-10-exports/
Provincia de Heredia. (2019). Es.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 12 February 2019, from https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provincia_de_Heredia
California’s First Gold Rush. (2011). Gold Prospecting | The New 49ers | Prospecting Supplies. Retrieved 12 February 2019, fromhttp://www.goldgold.com/californias-first-gold-rush.html