Pre-Columbian history

Population of the Americas began somewhere between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago, when mankind first crossed the Bering Straight from Asia. A slow southerly migration steadily peopled the continent, and evidence suggests that humans first appeared in what is now Costa Rica roughly 10,000 years ago.

Early human settlement developed in this intermediate zone without a single dominant cultural group. The region was very much at the boundary of a north-south divide, taking its influences from both the Maya civilizations of modern-day Mexico and from several smaller groups in South America.

Farming, which began in earnest around 1000 BC, is the greatest indicator of this division. The Chorotega people, who lived in the northwest of Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula, present day Guanacaste, were the largest and most advanced tribe in the country at the time of conquest. Arriving from Chiapas in southern Mexico around the 13th century, they cultivated beans and maize and developed a tradition of ceramics influenced by the Mesoamerican cultures of the Maya and later the Aztec. However, people on the Caribbean coast and in southern regions were more influenced by South American cultures, leading to the dominance of tuber cultivation, in particular yucca or manioc. Likewise, the dominance of jade, an influence from the north, waned with the decline of the Maya between 500-800 AD, allowing the influence of gold from cultures of the south to emerge.

Archaeological evidence of early settlements in the country are scarce. The largest single pre-columbian site in the country is the Guayabo National Monument, close to Turrialba, which is believed to have been ruled by a
or shaman. Inhabited from 1000 BC to 1400 AD, the economy of Guayabo was based on agriculture, hunting and fishing. The reasons for abandoning the site remain a mystery, as do explanations of the country's other main archaeological remains, the stone spheres found dotted around the Diquis Valley in the south of the country.

The Spanish arrive

The Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus introduced European influences to the country when he dropped anchor off the coast of Puerto Limón at Isla Uvita on 18 September 1502. After 17 days exploring the coastal area, teased by the prospect of Indians decorated in gold, Columbus and his men moved south, calling this section of the coast of 'Veragua'
costa rica
- the rich coast. The precious metal never materialized in significant quantities but rumours travelled far and fast at the turn of the 16th century.

The pattern of exploration, settlement and desertion continued as Spanish attempts at forced colonization met with resistance. Not until 1561, under orders from King Philip II of Spain, was an attempt at conquest successful, when
Juan de Cavallón
managed to cross the territory from east to west for the first time, establishing a permanent settlement in the northwest of the central highlands at Garcimuñez. But it is
Vásquez de Coronado
who receives the credit for establishing the first truly permanent settlement in the central highlands. Forging temporary alliances and utilizing rivalries between different indigenous groups - a technique that proved successful for Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru - Vásquez de Coronado founded Cartago in 1563. He established a settlement of reasonable size in the relative comfort of Cartago which had plenty of fresh water and fertile volcanic soils for agriculture and was away from the sweltering heat and fetid coastal waterways of the Caribbean.

Despite Vásquez de Coronado's less bellicose approach to settlement, he too faced problems of indigenous uprisings. The energy and resources of the governor was all but depleted and the city nearly abandoned in 1568, when the next governor
Perafán de Ribera
arrived with extra supplies, manpower and enthusiasm for the pursuit of precious metals and conquest. The Talamanca people resisted his attempts at pacification, and plans to settle in the southern region were quickly abandoned.

With Cartago finally secured, the division of land between settlers began. While land was divided between Spanish gentry and commoners, the relatively low indigenous populations and the absence of mineral wealth in any substantial quantity denied the landholders many of the comforts afforded those in other parts of the Spanish empire. While the gentry provided leadership in municipal government, the reality was that most settlers were simple farmers, forced to work the land themselves. Some historians suggest this is the bedrock of the liberal sentiments that created the social advances and democratic traditions of modern Costa Rica.

Europeans settling the land

The new settlers had hardly made an encouraging start and the absence of labour and mineral wealth placed Costa Rica in a colonial no-man's land. The Spanish system of administration was both regional and tiered. Costa Rica answered first to the Audiencia of Guatemala which included land from Chiapas in Southern Mexico to the southern border of Costa Rica and ultimately to Spain. Costa Rica's size did not warrant her involvement in the detailed financial administration of empire and the province deemed too remote to manage at distance. Apart from taxes and salaries, which were collected and paid from Nicaragua, Costa Rica was left to govern herself without much interference.

Slow growth and brief periods of prosperity through the 1700s saw the founding of the fledging settlements of Heredia (1706), San José (1736) and Alajuela (1782). The award of a monopoly to Costa Rica for tobacco production for the whole of Central America in the late 1700s was the catalyst for the growth of smallholdings in the central highlands and the first signs of an internal economy. San José grew too, with the establishment of the trading centre for tobacco there, and this was to prove significant when a second crop introduced at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries also played a significant role in the nation's development. That second crop, coffee, was introduced from Cuba in the late 1700s - although the official date for introduction is often reported as 1808 - and planted in the volcanic soils of the Central Valley. The sleepy colonial territory was finally waking up, and a new phase of Costa Rican history was just beginning.

Independence from Spain by post

Independence created problems for Costa Rica which were to impact on the country for almost 20 years. Mexico declared independence a few weeks before the Central American provinces.
General Agustín de Iturbide
invited the provinces to join a Mexican Empire, which sent the four towns of Costa Rica into a tailspin. Cartago and Heredia favoured joining the Empire, while San José and Alajuela preferred federal relations with the Central American provinces or better still, complete independence. A brief civil war broke out in late 1822 in which the republican forces of San José and Alajuela emerged victorious, and domination by Mexico was rejected. While the fighting was in vain, as Iturbide's imperial aspirations collapsed in early 1823, it did expose the rivalry between the towns of the Central Valley.

With the disintegration of the Mexican Empire, Costa Rica joined the newly formed Central American Federation. As the prospects for peaceful integration through this fledgling Federation waxed and waned with varying degrees of violence, the people of Guanacaste chose to secede from Nicaragua in 1824. Meanwhile in Costa Rica the conservatives of Cartago and Heredia resented the recent victory of San José and Alajuela, and the rivals fought over the dominance of the nation in a series of regional quarrels. In desperation, in 1834 the head of state
José Rafael de Gallegos
approved the somewhat bizarre Law of Movement which rotated the capital seat every four years. But the conflicts continued and Gallegos resigned to be replaced by the forceful leader
Braulio Carrillo Colina
, who firmly established San José as the capital.

The golden bean and social progress

Elected as the first head of state by Congress in 1824
Juan Mora Fernández
governed over a period of economic stability which saw the construction of state schools and houses, the founding of the national mint and government promotion of coffee cultivation. Following the introduction of coffee at the end of the 18th century its importance to the economy grew steadily and by 1829 coffee had overtaken cacao, tobacco and sugar to become the nation's major source of foreign revenue. When Braulio Carrillo Colina became head of state in 1835, he encouraged cultivation of the coffee industry still further, donating publicly owned land to anyone who would plant it with coffee trees, and constructing of roads to bring coffee to market.

The breakthrough for Costa Rican coffee occurred in 1843, when an English captain, seeking ballast for his return journey to Liverpool, took on board sacks of coffee beans. The cargo was well received in England and Costa Rican coffee no longer stopped in Chile to be blended with inferior beans, but was shipped direct to Europe. This boom in coffee production and exports to Europe funded social developments for much of the 19th century.

When Carrillo declared himself dictator for life in 1841, his conservative opponents sought out the Honduran General
Francisco Morazán Quesada
, the former leader of the Central American Federation, to remove Carrillo from office. Morazán's tenure as head of state was briefly popular until he imposed direct taxes with the aim of funding a Costa Rican army and relaunching his ideal of the regional federation. He was overthrown and later executed in San José's Central Park.

Morazón's execution cleared the way for a number of developments which were a result of liberal enlightenment that balanced the vested interests of the coffee elite, with a belief in improved education, public works and more efficient government.

A new constitution in 1844 unsuccessfully attempted to introduce direct election, removing the process from the meddling of a Congress dominated by influential families. In 1847 Congress named the youthful 29-year-old
José María Castro Madriz
the first president of the republic. Castro officially declared Costa Rica a republic in 1848, drawing a line under the perennial discussions amongst the ruling classes on the subject of joining the Central American Federation. Castro's wife, Doña Pacifica, is credited with designing the national flag. As a co-founder of the University of Santo Tomás in 1843, Castro stressed the importance of education and, as a believer in democracy, encouraged free speech and freedom of the press. But while his achievements appear noble, his reforms eventually trod on the toes of the barely established coffee elite and he was replaced.

Juan Rafael
 Mora Porras
rose from the coffee aristocracy to become president in 1849, the role of the coffee elite in society and the economy was established and influenced the development of the nation through the defining years of the 19th century.

The growth of the nation was facilitated by the excellent reputation of Costa Rican coffee in Europe. While the majority of smallholdings were family owned - a fact that is still true today - a brief crisis between 1847 and 1849 assisted the coffee barons to add to their wholesale role by acquiring property. Simple economies of scales exacerbated the differences with every trade cycle and an ever stronger coffee elite increasingly influenced society. The arrival of Porras as president in 1849 marked the beginning of the rule of the coffee barons which lasted until 1870. Liberal government policies continued to improve the general well-being of the nation while nurturing the coffee industry.

With every shipment of the golden bean to Europe, vessels returned from Europe with an increasing supply of European goods. Styles of fashion, entertainment, architecture and culture - exemplified in the extravagance of the Teatro Nacional paid for by a direct coffee tax and inaugurated in 1897 - all took their lead from Europe. For Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, contemporary Costa Rican-US historians, it is the 'European disposition' of the new coffee elite that saw the introduction of liberal ideals to Costa Rica.

However, the continued domination of the political and economic future of the country by the coffee families led to the coup of 1870 which gave
General Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez
the presidency. Guardia ruled as an authoritarian dictator determined to break the power of the coffee barons, redistributing land from some of the larger landowners and introducing taxes on personal wealth. He introduced a new constitution in 1871 which extended the voting to an electoral college and abolished the death penalty. But his programmes continued the liberal tradition of extending education, stimulating trade and encouraging greater production of coffee and sugar. Guardia also initiated the construction of the
Atlantic railroad

Guardia succeeded in breaking the power of the coffee families, only to replace them with his own nepotistic successions. On Guardia's death in 1882 his brother-in-law
Próspero Fernández Oreamuno
ruled as president until his death in 1885, when his brother-in-law
Bernardo Soto Alfaro
took the presidential position. But despite continuing the dictatorial style, Soto introduced
free and compulsory education
, the national library, the Red Cross and promised to abide by congressional elections at the end of his term in 1889. With freedom of the press, the first truly honest and open election in Costa Rica's history took place. Soto set himself up as the victor, but lost.

The 1890s marked a shift in the political and economic landscape of the country beyond the introduction of a considerable improvement in the democratic process. The church tired of the consistent undermining of its role as the educators and moral guides of society also re-entered the political arena. As early as 1825 the income of the church through state-collected taxes had been cut, then abolished, and eventually the clergy were demanded to pay taxes on their income. In the presidency of Fernández civil marriage and divorce had been introduced, religious instruction in schools prohibited and the Jesuits expelled from the country. The creation of the Partido Unión Católica (Catholic Union Party) in 1891 was intended to defend the interests of the church.

The banana boom

When Guardia instigated the construction of the railroad link from the Central Valley to the Atlantic coast, the simple logic was to speed up and reduce the cost of transporting coffee to European markets. Guardia contacted
Henry Meiggs
who had experience of railroad building in Chile and Peru. Almost £4 million was borrowed from British banks to finance the construction.

The first tracks were laid in 1872, but due to mismanagement and corruption, construction was regularly delayed. The task actually fell to Meigg's nephew
who completed the line in 1890, having managed to secure some generous concessions along the way in return for taking on the debts of the railroad. Keith moved in political and social circles that enabled him to negotiate a 99-year lease on the railroad, purchase land for banana cultivation alongside the track and marry the daughter of former president Castro Madriz. In the process of construction over 4000 workers died and labourers from China, Italy and then from Jamaica were recruited to work on the railroad. By the time the railroad opened in 1890 foreign capital had gained a strong foothold in the Costa Rican economy, the economic profile of the country had shifted and the social make-up of the country had been dramatically altered.

With the completion of the railroad a permanent link to the Caribbean was established and the banana industry grew rapidly. In 1899 Keith created the
United Fruit Company
(today known as
) and many of the labourers that worked on construction of the railroad moved to work in the port of Limón or the banana plantations. The coffee elite of the highlands avoided investing in bananas, leaving the industry and the lowlands to develop in almost complete isolation. Between 1910 and 1920, banana exports had grown to equal coffee in value and control of the Caribbean lowlands was almost entirely in the hands of the company which colloquially became known as

Seeds of democratic reform

On the back of the prosperity of the late 19th century and the increased affluence for the agricultural elites, an increasingly educated populace enlarged by considerable migration from Spain, Germany and Italy, and ever-greater hardships for plantation workers and the urban working class sowed the seeds of resentment in the early years of the 20th century. The constitution was nudged gently towards direct elections and eventually produced President
Alfredo González Flores
(1914-1917). When he proposed the liberal reforms of a state bank and direct taxes as gestures towards reducing growing inequalities and tackling problems with the public finances produced by falling coffee prices, González lost popular support and was ousted in the military coup of
Federico Tinoco Granados
in 1917. Events conspired against Tinoco as the US withdrew support for the regime and loss of German markets due to World War I crippled public finances still further. By popular consent he was removed from power in 1919.

Protest movements and revolutions springing up around the world in Russia, Mexico and closer to home in neighbouring Nicaragua added strength to the ever-louder cry for better working conditions. Economic hardship between the two world wars, culminating in the depression of the 1930s led to greater social conflict. The broadening influence on the political process exerted by the educated and opinionated population, introduced the notion of ideology into the Costa Rican political process. The
Reformist Party
, which promoted unions, an end to state monopolies and control over foreign capital, was created in 1923, founded by Jorge Volio, a politician and priest credited with the introduction of the Christian Socialist policies to national politics. The
Communist Party
was founded in 1931, and under the leadership of Carlos Fallas led strikes that in 1934 paralysed the banana plantations of the
United Fruit Company
. One outcome of the strike was the introduction of a minimum wage. However, economic recovery towards the end of the 1930s was abruptly halted by the outbreak of war in Europe and once again the immediate loss of markets for bananas and coffee. But despite the economic problems, government investment in health and education continued to improve health provision and reduce levels of illiteracy.

Civil war

In the 1940s tensions between agricultural and urban forces rose to boiling point and the eventual outbreak of civil war. The elections of 1940 awarded the presidency to
Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia
of the Partido Republican Nacional (PRN). Calderón favoured government intervention in social and economic affairs and marked a slight shift in the liberal tradition. His early reforms were unsuccessful but raised the suspicions of many landowners, and in a small band of modernizing liberals that prompted the idea it was the structures and institutions of governments (not just the policies) that needed to be changed for the good of the country overall. Costa Rica's early declaration of war against the Japanese and shortly after with Germany and Italy earned Calderón the greater criticism that he had overstretched the position of a country without the means to defend itself. One vocal critic of Calderón was
José Figueres Ferrer
, a landholder with sympathies towards the modernizing factions, who denounced the president. Figueres was promptly exiled to Mexico. Calderón's social intervention increased with a swathe of reforms called the 'Social Guarantees' which improved job security, proposed health insurance and introduced a moderate series of land reforms. With the criticism of Calderón's opponents escalating and with elections approaching in 1944, Calderón tried to shore up his political support. The church gave tacit support to his social reforms and the reintroduction of religious instruction in schools. An unholy alliance was created when rumours of a coup pushed Calderón into the arms of the renamed and toned down Communist Party, thus gaining valuable support of labour movements which promptly led to the introduction of a minimum wage, an eight-hour working day and trade union rights for workers. While the reforms further ostracized the ruling elites, young professionals and liberal modernizers, opposition to communism was widespread and growing.

After two years in exile in Mexico the vehemently anti-communist
returned in 1944 to find the Communist Party still playing an increasingly significant role in national politics and with no direct political heritage of his own, he formed an allegiance with Calderón's adversaries.

Calderón himself was constitutionally barred from standing as president for a second term in the election that same year, but his PRN puppet candidate,
Teodoro Picado Michalski
, was voted in, and held the presidency till 1948. Civil liberties were increasingly restricted through the Picado presidency and unrest rose to new heights when government forces killed two protesters. Picado promised to abide by the outcome of presidential elections in 1948, but few were convinced.
, calling on Central American allegiances he had made while in exile, planned for military intervention if democratic elections failed.

The elections of 1948 set Calderón against
Otilio Ulate Blanco
who occupied the anti-Calderón ticket. The election produced a victory for Ulate but, as feared, alleged voting irregularities led Congress to award the presidency to Calderón.

Figueres decided a military uprising in defence of democracy was justified and began a brief but bloody civil war. His
Army of National Liberation
, supplemented with soldiers and weapons flown in from Guatemala, made rapid progress from San Isidro de El General, via Limón and eventually to Ochomogo, outside Cartago. The decisive five-week battle resulted in 2000 deaths before government troops surrendered in April 1948.

Don Pepe
', as Figueres later became known, assumed the position of head of state for a period of 18 months leading the Junta of the Second Republic. Against expectations, he retained many of the reforms of Calderón and extended them further. Power was prised away from the ruling elites by nationalizing the banks controlled by the coffee oligarchy, creating the Costa Rican Electrical Company, public bodies to administer health insurance, public utilities and social security and increasing taxes. The army was abolished and a new constitution extended suffrage to women, blacks and
and created the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to remove the possibility of electoral fraud. With the new constitution designed to redistribute power away from established elites and eliminate institutional corruption, Figueres stood down in 1949, peacefully handing power to the elected president Ulate.

Historians continue to explore different interpretations of the reforms of the 1940s, but the legacy of a nation without armed forces has been enduring. The shift of political power away from social elites combined with improved education fuelled the growth of an urban middle class. The post-1949 era was to be defined by the acceptance of public involvement in the economy, an informal acceptance of centrist politics and the introduction of free and open democratic elections.

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