Here is a brief outline of Costa Rican history, to give some perspective to what you will see...
Before the Spaniards came, Costa Rica had several dozen independent tribes who apparently didn't form the empires that the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas did to the north and south of them. Besides hunting and gathering, they fanned and had some permanent settlements which are now being studied. The sculptures and ceramic figures you can see in museums show that they had artists and had developed culture.
In 1502, Columbus landed at Cariari, now Puerto Limon, and stayed for several days. The Indians showed his men some gold and he felt there was hope for more.
However, the small tribes hadn't accumulated the wealth that drew the Spaniards to the bigger empires. Warfare between the tribes and with the Spaniards plus the diseases brought by the white men to which the natives had no immunity nearly wiped out the native population.
The Spanish who came and settled found both coasts had a hot, huimd climate and tropical diseases which many couldn't tolerate. The coasts were also raided by pirates of many countries, especially British, who sacked and burned whatever the settlers had. There were no easy routes to the interior, but eventually small farmers did settle up in the cool, healthful climate of the Meseta Central.
Unlike the other Spanish colonies, these settlers had no way to amass great wealth, no natives to enslave, and few to intermarry. The farmers remained almost pure Spanish and didn't develop the social classes or the mestizo majority that characterized most of New Spain. They were almost forgotten by Spain since they had little to trade and no wealth to send back to Europe. Even the access routes to their settlements mostly led up from the west coast instead of the east.
Cartago was the main town, started in 1563, but San Jose wasn't established until 1737, Heredia in 1717. The population, mostly poor and still struggling, hadn't grown enough to settle the whole valley, though theyhad brought some fine cattle and horses from Spain and continued to grow livestock and food crops.
In the late 1700's, coffee was introduced, and with the rich volcanic soils and near perfect climate, it was a winner' Land was given to those who would plant it for an export crop. Big and small farmers grew it, and the bigger landowners built benefios to process the beans from everyone. Even though the coffee had to be carried by oxcart west to Puntarenas and thence around Cape Horn or across Panama, Costa Rica finally grew in population and wealth.
In 1821, the Spanish colonies declared independence from Spain. Various attempts were made to unify the former colonies in the Central American Federation which Costa Rica joined in 1824 and from which she withdrew in 1838. The lack of rapid communication, as well as differing interests, made a unified regional government very difficult, though economic and political treaties based on regional interest had been signed.
Coffee growth and trade led some families to become richer and more powerful than others, and Costa Rica was no longer a classless society. It was still a group of small towns and farms with little feeling of nationality. The town councils met separately and rivalries grew until San Jose won a battle with Cartago and the capital was moved to San Jose in 1823.
Democracy developed, with some setbacks according to the personalities of those who were elected chief of state, and then president after 1847. Some of the most autocratic leaders are remembered for starting schools and getting roads and railroads built. Juan Rafael Mora, president 1849-59, recruited an army of volunteers which marched from San Jose to Santa Rosa (now a national park) to surround and drive out pro-slavery American William Walker and his band of filibusters who were trying to establish a slavery empire in Central America. Walker and his band were driven back into Nicaragua and again defeated at the Battle of Rivas.
National hero, Juan Santamaria, was a youth from Alajuela who volunteered to torch the building Walker and his men occupied, knowing it was a suicide mission. Walker was later captured in Honduras' held by the British navy, and turned over to Honduran authorities who executed him. President Mora's proclamation of the right of the Costa Rican people to be free of foreign despots is respected by Costa Ricans as U.S. citizens respect the Declaration of Independence.
In 1889, for the first time, Costa Rica's election was not controlled by the party in power (more than a hundred years later, many other nations still haven't reached this point). Later administrations have passed laws establishing national health insurance, labor rights, and property rights.
The last internal military strife was in 1948 when the party in power tried to use the army to remain so after losing an election. A volunteer group led by Jose Figueres took Cartago, and after widespread violence and bloodshed that killed 2000 people, a cease-fire was arranged. Costa Ricans were determined this should never happen again. Among the changes Figueres and his followers enacted were limits on the length of presidential terms and elimination of the army. A well-armed and trained national guard serves as the country's police force. Its control is turned over to the election tribunal before national elections to remove it from politics and guarantee free elections.
Costa Rica celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the constitution in 1988, justifiably proud of 40 years of free elections, democracy, and survival without an army in Latin America! President Oscar Arias proposed a peace plan for Central America which was adopted, with modifications by all the Central American governments in August 1987. For his effort he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Costa Rica's contribution to peace and democracy is very big for so small a nation.
In recent years, the population, size of bureaucracy, and foreign debt have grown rapidly. With almost all exports in the form of raw agricultural products, Costa Rica is at the mercy of the world prices for them and for the oil it needs. The International Monetary Fund places stringent conditions on economic policy in an effort to control the foreign debt. Costa Rica is spending most of its income from foreign trade to pay the interest on that debt, a heavy burden on a country with many other needs. If you check prices in stores you'll quickly discover the difference between products from Central America and those imported.
The turmoil in the Central American countries to the north and the resulting refugee flow into Costa Rica added tension. Nicaragua's election and change of government haven't solved its problems, but many Nicaraguans have returned to their country.
Despite urgent economic problems, including an inflation rate of 25% in 1991, Costa Ricans are well aware that they have advantages in education, personal freedom, and the possibility for personal progress that few in Latin America have. Many other countries now provide research funds, economic aid, and increased trade.
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