Costa Rica History 101-102

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Costa Rica History 101-102

First of all, Costa Rica isn’t exactly known for its rich ancient history, although the original inhabitants made their way here from the north more than 15,000 years ago. Sounds like they’d be steeped in ancient history, but archaeological records indicate that actual settlements didn’t surface until approximately 1000 B.C. Check out this video of Pre-Columbian Costa Rica-Video: History of Costa Rica To the north and south of Costa Rica,
Chorotega artifact
Chorotega artifact
socially complex societies flourished, but here they never acquired the rich kingdoms found in other places in Mesoamerica or in the Andes. Therefore, Costa Rica doesn’t really have anything like the Aztec temples, Mayan pyramids, or the Incas’ Machu Piccu. Truth be told, when the Spaniards arrived in Costa Rica in 1502, they found loosely organized groups of tribes, surviving on very marginal means. The Spaniards had come across advanced societies to the north and south, and although the tribes in Costa Rica were adapt to making ceramic pottery, weaving and metalwork, there were no eleborate temples, castles, or other indications of a more advanced civilization.

At the time, the major indigenous group was the Chorotega, who settled in what is now Guanacaste. The Chorotega had descended from southern Mexico and were known as, “the people who escaped.” They were more advanced than other indigenous groups already in Costa Rica since they were well versed in the ways of the Aztecs, Olmecs, and the Mayans. The Chorotega had no problems going to war with other tribes as a means of obtaining slaves or human-sacrifice victims. They fought and intimidated other tribes and soon rose to prominence. The Chorotega learned much from their northern neighbors by establishing towns with central plazas and even brought with them a written language and a calendar system, both of Mayan origin. Agriculture was important to the Chorotega, and they relied heavily on their three major agricultural products, which were beans, squash, and corn. To control the masses, they held fast to a strict class system and developed a religious system that included bloodletting and virgin sacrifice.

During this same time, there were other indiginous tribes scattered throughout what is now Costa Rica. On the Caribbean Coast, there were the Caribs, who farmed squash, yucca, and local fruits to augment their primary food source, crustaceans, which were plentiful. In the Central Highlands, another more advanced tribal culture presided- the Corobicís. This indigenous group lived in small bands and were mostly hunters and gathers, but also known for their goldsmithing skills. The Corobicís were responsible for constructing the only pre-Colombian city in Costa Rica, Guayabo. Archaeological records indicate this ancient city was built more than 3,000 years ago and was home to approximately 1,000 inhabitants. For the time, the city was quite modern with cobbled streets, aqueducts, and burial mounds, but what is not understood is why this city was abandoned around 1400 A.D.

Lots of speculation about the mysterious spheres, but no one knows for sure.
Lots of speculation about the mysterious spheres, but no one knows for sure.

Although Costa Rica lacks the great cities, giant temples of the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec civilizations of northern Mesoamerica, its pre-Columbian residents did leave a unique legacy that continues to cause archaeologist to speculate- the significance of the stone balls that have been found in burial sites throughout the country. Over a period of several centuries, hundreds of perfectly carved and carefully positioned granite spheres were left by the peoples who lived throughout the Diquis Delta. The orbs, which range from grapefruit size to more than 2m (6 ½ ft.) in diameter, can weigh up to 15 tons, and many reach near spherical perfection. It is believed that the Diquis created these stone spheres for religious purposes, although their exact significance remains a mystery.

Before the Spaniards arrived, Costa Rica was inhabited by many tribes, some a little more advanced than others, but none really compared to the organized cultures to the north and south of Costa Rica. And many times these loosely organized tribes would be fighting with each other. Typically, this would be considered a good thing for arriving colonists, since the last thing they wanted to encounter was an organized state or a central army prepared to defend itself, but when the Spaniards arrived in 1502, things did not turn out so well. Check out this video of Pre-Columbian Costa Rica-Video: History of Costa Rica

The Spaniards Arrive

Christopher Columbus actually called the region what is now Costa Rica, La Huerta (The Garden)
Christopher Columbus actually called the region what is now Costa Rica, La Huerta (The Garden)

Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now Limon in 1502. The locals were friendly; probably due to the fact Columbus was only there to fix his ships and didn’t appear to pose a threat to the local inhabitants. It should be noted, Columbus did NOT name Costa Rica (Rich Coast), this is an often told fallacy, he actually named the region La Huerta (The Garden). Anyway, Columbus soon left back for Spain, never to return, but he did tell others about the vast wealth he encountered, which attracted European explorers in the coming years. The first colonial missions were complete disasters for a few reasons. First, they tried to explore and settle on the Atlantic coast, which is extremely dense jungle, then add the many tropical diseases coupled with the ferocity of local tribes who were none to happy with their new neighbors. It wasn’t until 1513, when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean and the Spanish decided to concentrate their efforts on the Pacific Coast. Nine years later, Gil González Davila found some fair amounts of gold, thus the region became known as the Rich Coast (Costa Rica for you gringos). A colony was established, but quickly attacked and abandoned and all the settlers eventually died within three years. The Spanish had only cared about you thing- gold and that was the sole reason for attempting to establish a settlement on the Rich Coast. Christopher Columbus had seen a lot of gold among the tribes on the coast, yet the early colonists found no root source for the precious metal. They turned their attention to Peru and Mexico where there was an abundance of gold, but not before relieving the local tribes of there riches. Spanish presence was established in Guatemala and although Costa Rica was technically a part of this ‘presence’ the Spanish turned their attention to those regions abundant in natural resources. The Spanish left Costa Rica alone for the next 50 years. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century when the Spanish began to settle the region. Settle- meaning they imposed a system that allowed settlers the right to enslave the indigenous people, which at that point was mostly the Chorotega.

Juan Vásquez de Coronado was appointed the first governor of Costa Rica and he aimed to improve the plight of the indigenous tribes by persuading the settlers to move to the Central Highlands, where the cooler climate and fertile land was more favorable to Spanish settlement. As a consequence, the city of Cartago was established in 1563 and became Costa Rica’s first capital. Unfortunately at the same time, European diseases and brutal forced labor practices annihilated the population of indigenous people, forcing them to escape to the mountains. After the dust settled, European settlers in Costa Rica found that very few Indians were left to force into servitude. The settlers were thus forced to till their own lands, a situation unheard of in other parts of Central America. At this point, few settlers headed this way because they could settle in Guatemala, with its large native workforce. Unable to keep up with demands and with no gold or crops to export they soon became poor Spanish farmers whose dreams of leading the good life had been thwarted. Tobacco was introduced and Spain gave Costa Rica exclusive rights to the crop. Tobacco was a start, but in the late 18th century, the first coffee plants were introduced. Most think coffee is indigenous to Costa Rica, but actually Cuba introduced coffee to the country. As agriculture grew, so did the population. Since coffee plants thrive in the highlands, Costa Rica began to develop its first cash crop. The Spanish still had central authority on ‘paper’, but most Costa Ricans lived outside the sphere of their heavy hand.

Costa Ricas Independence

In 1821, Spain granted independence to its colonies in Central America, Costa Rica joined with its neighbors to form the Central American Federation. Costa Rica didn’t learn of its independence from Spain until a month after the fact, because the news was delivered to Mexico and took 30 days to reach the south. In 1838 Costa Rica withdrew to form a new nation and pursue its own interests.

Coffee was the country’s main export by the mid-1800’s. Free land was given to anyone willing to grow coffee, and plantation owners soon grew wealthy as well as powerful. In fact, the plantation owners were so powerful they elected their own representatives to the presidency. This was a turbulent time in Costa Rican history. In 1856, Costs Rica was invaded by a cocky American mercenary, William Walker who was then backed by U.S. president, James Buchanan. Basically, Walker wanted to rule over a slave state in Central America. It should be noted; he also tried to invade Baja, California and Nicaragua. The people of Costa Rica and helped by Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorians united behind Costa Rica’s president, Juan Rafael Mora forced Walker and his soldiers back to Nicaragua. Just for the record, Walker later tried to attack Honduras, claiming to be the president of that country. The Hondurans who had had enough of Walkers antics, quickly executed him. The coffee industry was finding its legs, and soon attracted settlers from Europe. Along with the prosperity, however, the coffee business started a civil war of sorts between coffee barons who competed for power. Eventually, a coffee grower name Juan Rafael Mora became president in 1849. It was during Mora’s term that the William Walker saga took place. Despite ten years of a success as president, Mora was ousted in a takeover and executed. Throughout the 1860’s this power struggle among the coffee barons (who had military generals to wage their battles) raged on until General Tomás Guardia took power as a reformer. By establishing a working central government, controlling the coffee barons, issuing tax revenue for civic projects, and promoting the construction of the Atlantic railroad, Guardia originated the modern liberal-democratic state of Costa Rica. With the completion of the railroad (which cost thousands of lives and led to the importation of Jamaican and Chinese laborers), Costa Rica became the world’s leading banana producer by the turn of the 20th century.

In 1889, Costa Rica held what is considered the first honest and free election in all of Central American history. The opposition candidate won the election, and the control of the government passed from the hands of one political party to those of another without bloodshed or hostilities. Thus, Costa Rica established itself as the region’s only true democracy. In 1948, this democratic process was challenged by Rafael Angel Calderón, who had served as the country’s president from 1940 to 1944. After losing by a narrow margin, Calderón, who had the backing of the communist labor unions and the Catholic Church, refused to concede the country’s leadership to the rightfully elected president, Otillio Ulate, and a civil war ensued. Calderón was eventually defeated by José “Pepe” Figueres. In the wake of this crisis, a new constitution was drafted. While in power, Figueres instituted broad reforms, nationalized the banks, and most important, disbanded the army. He crusaded against communism and corruption , extended suffrage to blacks and women, and finally allowed Afro-Caribbeans to acquire citizenship. This new constitution also established Costa Rica as a pacifist democracy, and his party, the Partido Liberacion Nacional (PLN), is still a major force today. Figueres stepped down (as he promised) but returned as president of Costa Rica two more times.

Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, Nobel Peace Prize winner and current President of Costa Rica. circa 1987
Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, Nobel Peace Prize winner and current President of Costa Rica. circa 1987

Since the civil war of that Figueres launched in 1948, Costa Rica has enjoyed political stability and economic success. The PLN continued to sponsor state-endorsed development and increase the welfare state. This welfare state mentality soon became a problem with the state heavily subsidizing industry and by the 1970’s economic crisis had fallen on Costa Rica. Hyperinflation, enormous currency devaluation along with a fall in coffee, banana, and sugar prices, caused severe economic problems for the state. Meanwhile, the civil war in Nicaragua threatened to spill over into Costa Rica and in 1979 the rebellious Sandinistas toppled the American-backed Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Alarmed by the Sandinistas’ Soviet and Cuban ties, President Ronald Reagan decided it was time to intervene. It was Somoza supporters, known as Contras, who came seeking support from Costa Rica. Under intense US pressure, Costa Rica was reluctantly dragged in. The Contras set up camp in northern Costa Rica, from where they staged guerilla raids. Not-so-clandestine CIA operatives and US military advisors were dispatched to assist the effort and Costa Rican authorities were bribed to keep quiet. Diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua grew nastier; border clashes between the two became bloodier. The long running debacle came to a climax in the 1986 presidential election in Costa Rica, when Oscar Arias Sánchez, came to power, kicked out the Contras, and worked to mollify the situation. Sánchez presented a peace plan, and although the Reagan administration lobbied for its defeat, it was signed into law by the five Central American presidents, bloodlessly defusing the situation and earning President Sánchez the Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequently, in the early ‘90’s the government scaled back the welfare system and privatized many state-owned enterprises in an effort to improve the country’s finances. Fortunately, tourism took center stage (a much needed source of foreign income) and has played a major role in saving Costa Rica from economic ruin.

Stability and economic prosperity are returning to Costa Rica, and the country is slowly becoming much more diverse and cosmopolitan. North Americans and Europeans continue to arrive in droves, in hopes of discovering their own little slice of tropical paradise and with them comes investment. But foreign investment can drive up property prices and potentially displace many cash-strapped Ticos, and this is a problem the government will have to contend with.


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