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History of Costa Rica

Last Updated: Jan 12, 2012

oxcart statue history
 - Costa Rica

Early History 

In 1502 when Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Limon, less than 20 indigenous tribes occupied the lands which are now Costa Rica. The golden bands that the region's Carib Indians wore as earrings and nose rings inspired the crew to name the country Costa Rica, meaning Rich Coast. Columbus' arrival ultimately led to the eradication of these native populations as exotic diseases and fatal battles took their toll.

While large-scale colonization was rampant in other Central American countries, few Spanish colonists claimed lands in Costa Rica due to the lack of mineral wealth (gold and silver) and an abundant Indian population to work the land. Initial attempts to colonize coastal areas were unsuccessful due to the extreme heat, dense jungle and diseases such as Dengue fever and malaria. Colonists finally settled in the cooler, central highlands of Cartago in 1563. As most of the native population had perished, the settlers worked the land themselves and became small land owners. Cartago remained a provincial capital of colonial Spain for nearly two and a half centuries.

Independence

In 1821, Costa Rica and several other Central American provinces  declared their independence from Spain. Juan Mora Fernandez, elected the nation's first chief of state in 1824, initiated the construction of roads and ports and established a judicial system. Moreover, he encouraged coffee cultivation by providing free land grants to farmers. The cultivation of coffee would transform Costa Rica in the nineteenth century. At this time, only a few families owned sizable properties. As Costa Rica began to develop, these few families rich in land soon became some of the wealthiest in the country.

Coffee Trade

To support the coffee trade, an oxcart path was built from the fertile Central Valley, where most of the coffee was being grown, to the Caribbean coast for direct export to Europe. This trade ultimately opened doors to European influences as doctors, artisans and naturalists from Europe immigrated to Costa Rica in the 1850’s. The capital of San Jose rapidly developed and was one of the first three cities in the world to have electricity. 

In 1871, Jamaican slaves, Chinese indentured servants and American convicts were brought in to begin railroad construction. This was significant in that it would unite the coffee-growing Central Valley with the Caribbean port of Limon. The new railroad helped boost the coffee industry and the steady rise in coffee exports resulted in a wealthy upper class and a prosperous Costa Rican economy.

The Twentieth Century

The first democratic elections were held in 1889 and, other than two brief periods of violence, democracy has been synonymous with Costa Rica ever since.

In 1917, Federico Tinoco overthrew the elected president, Alfredo Gonzalez. Most Costa Ricans, as well as the United States, opposed Tinoco's overthrow, and he was deposed in 1919.

In the close presidential election of 1948, Rafael Calderon fraudulently claimed victory over Otilio Ulate. The dispute precipitated a six-week civil war, resulting in over 2000 deaths. Jose Ferrer, a supporter of Ulate, assumed presidency for 18 months before deferring to Ulate.

Economic and social reforms since 1948 have enabled the country to remain stable. A new constitution was adopted and elections have since been free and fair.

Costa Rica Today

Costa Rica still has a large agricultural sector including coffee, banana, pineapple and sugar exports. In the last twenty years, eco-tourism and technology have taken off and become top-earning industries in the country. Costa Ricans enjoy a high standard of living, and land ownership is widespread. The country boasts a high literacy rate, a large middle class and a stable government that has functioned without an army for more than 60 years.

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