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Civil War in Costa Rica - History

Civil War in Costa Rica - History

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After incumbent President Teodora Picado attempted to annul the election won by Otilio Ulate, a civil war broke out. The forces of Jose Figueras, which opposed Ulate, were victorious.

Costa Rica History

The history of Costa Rica starts in Pre-Columbian times when the indigenous people of the area were part of the Intermediate Area between Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions, and also includes the influence of the Isthmo-Columbian area. Costa Rica was the area where the Mesoamerican and South American native cultures met.

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Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering Costa Rica in 1502 and gave Costa Rica its name which actually means &ldquorich coast&rdquo because he believed the land to be filled with precious metals. At this time, the Nicoya Peninsula was the southernmost point of the Nahuatl culture, and the central and southern areas of Costa Rica were influenced by the Chibcha culture. Both cultures were basically eliminated by diseases (mostly smallpox) and mistreatment by the conquering Spaniards.

The largest city in Central America during Spanish Colonial times was Guatemala City. Because Guatemala City was quite a distance from Costa Rica making it hard to establish trade routes, Costa Rica was mainly ignored by the Spanish Monarchy and left to develop on its own. This had its good side as Costa Rica was relatively free of intervention by the Spanish Monarchy, but it also contributed to its poverty as Costa Rica did not share in the prosperity that other Colonies were experiencing. In 1719 one Spanish governor described Costa Rica as &ldquothe poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all Americas&rdquo. The fact that many of the indigenous people had succumbed to disease and mistreatment did not leave a large population to work as forced labor for the Spaniards. Most Costa Ricans had to work their own land.

It is believed that these circumstances are what make the Costa Rican ideology today different from many of its neighboring countries in Latin America, and led to the development of Costa Rica's egalitarian society. Costa Rica became a &ldquorural democracy&rdquo with no oppressed classes. Most Spanish settlers made their homes in the higher hills of the Central Valley where the climate was cooler and the soil was rich.

The provinces of Central America, along with Costa Rica, declared independence from Spain in 1821. Following a brief period in which Costa Rica was part of the Mexican Empire, Costa Rica became a state in the Federal Republic of Central America from 1823 thru 1839. San Jose was declared the capitol in 1824. But the new Federation was plagued by continuous border disputes in the region, and that led to a break from the Federation by Costa Rica in 1838. Costa Rica withdrew from the weakened Federation and proclaimed itself sovereign. The Federation soon dissolved and the Central American government soon became independent states that still exist today. But all the Central American countries still celebrate September 15th as Independence Day, which is the day Central America became independent from Spain.

In the 1880's construction of railways in the eastern portion of Costa Rica brought many Jamaican immigrants to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. This immigration for labor on the railways is responsible for the approximately 3% of the country's black African population. Convicts from the United States and Chinese immigrants also worked on the building of the railway. A United States businessman named Minor Keith oversaw the construction of the railway and the Costa Rican government in exchange for his work granted him large tracts of land which he made into banana plantations and exported them to the United States. This made bananas, along with coffee, a principal export from Costa Rica, and gave the United Fruit Company (a foreign-owned corporation) a large role in the national economy.

Although Costa Ricans have enjoyed the benefits of political stability and peace, there were some periods of violence in the last hundred years. From 1917-1919, Federico Tinoco Granados was dictator until he was overthrown and forced into exile. In 1948, Jose Figueres Ferrer in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election led an armed uprising. This led to 2000 deaths and a 44 day Costa Rican Civil War that was the most violent event in Costa Rica in the twentieth century. This event led the victorious government to abolish the military in 1949. The new government also drafted a new constitution by a democratically-elected assembly. The new Costa Rican government established by the assembly held their first democratic election under the new constitution in 1953, when they elected Figueres who had become a national hero. Since that time, Costa Rica has enjoyed peaceful democratic elections, and peaceful transitions of power.

This stability of government has benefited Costa Ricans in many ways. Costa Rica has consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index, ranking 50th in 2006. Costa Rica ranks 5th in the world, and 1st in the Americas in terms of Environmental Performance Index! AND the Costa Rican government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon neutral country by 2021. Costa Rica ranks first in the Happy Planet Index! The Happy Planet Index measures how much of the Earth's resources nations use and how long and happy a life the country's citizens enjoy. Costa Rica is also the greenest country in the world according to this study.



In the late 1970s the Nicaraguan Civil War began to have a greater impact on life in Costa Rica. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)'s 1979 takeover of Nicaragua was organized in large part by revolutionary leaders operating out of Costa Rica. After the Sandinista victory, Contra guerrillas began to drift into Costa Rica's northern border region, especially in the Caribbean lowland. Throughout the war, Costa Rica was a major destination for refugees, both from Nicaragua and Honduras. Their large numbers taxed the country's social services and drew some resentment from native Ticos.

In addition, Costa Rica was in the midst of a long recession triggered by rising government debt and inflation. President Luis Monge was attempting to deal with the crisis through deep cuts in spending together with tax cuts aimed at increasing exports. Overall, the country was probably in worse shape than at any time since the 1948 civil war.

1983-1986: Collapse

Sandinista General Joaquín Cuadra

After Doomsday, Contra guerrilla forces fighting against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua realized they were on their own, cut off from their main patron, the USA and Ronald Reagan. The details of the Contras' inner debates and deals remain unclear, but by the end of 1983 the main factions had decided to launch a last-ditch round of attacks. They formed a force called the People's Front of Nicaragua (FPN). FPN forces crossed from southeastern Nicaragua into Costa Rica early in 1984 and prepared to re-enter Nicaragua's more densely populated west.

Although his own main source of military aid - Cuba - had been cut off, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega chose to attack. He dispatched a major Sandinista force under General Joaquín Cuadra. Over loud protests from President Monge, Cuadra seized Guanacaste Province - long regarded as rightfully Nicaraguan - and Costa Rica's main Pacific port, Puntarenas, in order to head off the Contras.

The bankrupt Costa Rican government, dependent on tourism and food exports to the US, was unable to drive out the invaders. By 1985, much of the Central Valley, home to the capital and half the country's population, was occupied by the Nicaraguan army. President Monge and the Costa Rican government fled to the coast, relocating to the port city of Limón. The civil war dragged on another two years. Although his term expired in 1986, conditions prevented Monge from stepping down, an election being impossible to hold.

1987-1991: Digging in

In 1987, the three sides agreed on a ceasefire. Monge's government was allowed to reoccupy the Central Valley, but Nicaragua remained in control of Puntarenas and Guanacaste, with General Cuadra in command of the occupation. The FPN Contras remained unassailed in the northeastern lowlands and in Nicaragua's Miskito Coast region. Monge recognized that the truce was precarious and wisely kept much of the apparatus of government in Limón, far from Nicaraguan forces. He also began to rebuild Costa Rica's military, which had not existed since its abolition in 1948.

As soon as a measure of calm was restored, Monge rushed to hold a new election. Conservative Rafael Angel Calderon won, and his opponent Óscar Arias immediately questioned the results. In truth, there was no fraud, but a great amount of incompetence in the hurried election, with thousands of votes lost, not counted, or counted twice. Arias' supporters refused to recognize the election results. Nevertheless, Monge resigned and fled the country as soon as votes were counted, leaving Calderon to pick up the pieces.

The truce collapsed even sooner than expected as Contra forces stormed Sandinista positions in Guanacaste province on December 15, 1987. The now three-way war resumed. Óscar Arias suspended his movement and urged all supporters of the legitimist government to follow Calderon. General Cuadra, cut off from Nicaragua, began to recruit local Costa Ricans sympathetic to Marxism and the Sandinista cause. Over the course of several months, they regained control of the province and drove the bulk of the Contra rebels into the far end of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Cuadra's forces enter Alajuela in 1989.

By the end of 1988 the FPN had ceased to function as an organization. Its leadership was driven into the Nicoya peninsula, and the bulk of its troops were scattered throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Once again, the Contra movement was divided among numerous guerrilla organizations with differing goals. In the middle of 1989 one Contra group entered Alajuela at the west end of the Central Valley. A force of Costa Rican Sandinistas recruited by General Cuadra followed and won control of the entire valley. On January 2, 1990, the Costa Rican Sandinistas declared themselves the legitimate rulers of the country. They announced their independence of the FSLM in Nicaragua and installed a three-person junta to consolidate their control. Cuadra was the junta's leader. All this was done without permission from Managua or President Ortega, but the junta enjoyed the support of a good part of the population, who were weary after more than two years of anarchy.

The Sandinistas split, c. 1990.

Friction soon erupted between Nicaragua and the new Sandinista government of Costa Rica. Ortega naturally expected to be able to control Cuadra and his junta in San José, but he was soon frustrated. Cuadra wanted the best of both worlds - to govern Costa Rica as an independent nation, and to retain command of his (Nicaraguan) army. He openly flouted a series of presidential orders. The situation grew steadily more tense, and by 1991 the two Sandinista countries were on the brink of war. Fighting finally broke out in 1991 at issue was control of Guanacaste province. Guanacaste, which at one point had been part of Nicaragua, was occupied by forces that did not report to Cuadra and remained loyal to Ortega and the Managua government. In July Ortega announced that Nicaragua was re-annexing Guanacaste, and Cuadra sent troops to claim it. But even while the Sandinista factions were fighing on the northwestern frontier, Cuadra was losing control at the center: another Contra group had entered the metro area and had gained control of several neighborhoods in Heredia and San José.

A flag used by Costa Rican Sandinistas, combining Sandinista black and red with Costa Rican red and blue.

President Rafael Calderon did not recognize the Sandinista takeover. He continued to preside over the government-in-exile in Limón, far from the fighting in Guanacaste and the capital. As his term wore on, Óscar Arias and his supporters applied more and more pressure to hold another election on schedule in those areas still under the control of the legitimate government. This he did in 1990. Arias, who had spent the last three years building support among the refugee communities along the coast, won, and Calderon stepped down, preserving Costa Rica's tradition of peaceful democracy even in the worst of times. President Calderon had begun arming guerrilla groups to help defend his government, by now known as the Limonese faction. Arias had criticized these guerrilla units, but once in power found that his government needed them in order to survive and, perhaps, reclaim the Central Valley, where the Sandinistas' tenuous control was slipping. Limoneses were fighting in Cartago and San José by 1991.

On April 22, 1991, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake shook the entire Limón region and was felt as far away as El Salvador. Any hope of engaging the Sandinistas or anyone else in the highlands was scrapped. All resources were poured into rebuilding the makeshift capital and staving off starvation in the refugee camps in the surrounding banana lowlands. With both the Limoneses and Sandinistas occupied elsewhere, much of the Central Valley became a no-man's-land. Cartago and San José, though not as severely damaged as Limón, fell into disrepair with the Sandinistas unable to organize or pay for rebuilding. Many people left the cities for camps near the relatively stable coasts. Some of the damage from 1991 has never been repaired.

1992-1996: Reunification

Footage of a Contra guerrilla group consisting mainly of child soldiers (1990)

Óscar Arias, architect of the ceasefire

The situation in 1992 was unacceptable to most Ticos. A decade ago their country had been an island of peace and democracy in Central America. Now it looked like a failed state. The democratically elected government was hiding out in its ruined port. The Sandinista government barely had control in its own capital and attempted to administer the country from Puntarenas. Nicaragua occupied a large chunk of territory, a Contra republic had taken shape in Nicoya, the northeast borderlands were the domain of other Contras based in Mosquitia, and the southeast had been totally overrun by Panamanian refugees, with nothing resembling a government to provide law and order, much less the social services so desperately needed.

President Óscar Arias sought out a political solution and began a new policy of intense diplomacy early in 1992. He convinced General Joaquín Cuadro and the other members of the Sandinista junta that their survival depended upon their ability to govern the whole country. Their regime was on the verge of disingegrating into a guerrilla army, and they needed to work with the Limonese government if they wanted to maintain their positions. The junta agreed to meet with Arias in the former resort town of Jaco, on the Pacific coast. On March 13, Arias made the dangerous flight over the mountains in a small propeller plane and landed safely near the town. In the Jaco Peace Conference the two sides agreed to cooperate to retake San José and reunite the country. Arias and the Limoneses brought their political legitimacy the Sandinistas brought their military strength, most of it ex-Nicaraguan. At Jaco, and at subsequent meetings, plans were formed to create a government of national unity once San José was secure. The government would include Sandinistas, Arias' liberals, and Calderon's conservatives. As soon as the rule of law was re-established throughout the country, nationwide elections would again be held.

The great obstacle to this plan was the Sandinistas' ongoing war with Nicaragua. As long as the fighting continued in Guanacaste, Cuadra's army would never be able to pacify the capital. In October Arias orchestrated another peace summit, this one in the town of Cañas, Guanacaste, near the border between Costa Rican and Nicaraguan zones of control. Arias asked only for a five-year truce in Guanacaste, so that the Costa Ricans could stabilize their government. Meanwhile, Nicaragua could continue to govern the province without fear of attack. Nicaraguans were as fatigued from the war as the Ticos, and Nicaragua still had fighting to do at home to retake the Miskito Coast, so Ortega agreed to a ceasefire.

The unity government takes control.

The government of national unity was announced soon afterwards, and in 1993 it took control of the capital. After a decade of chaos, Costa Rica was about to become a united country again. The government borrowed money from South America to help it bring refugees along the coasts back home to the Central Valley. It implemented plans to regulate the Panamanian refugee camps and integrate their people. Sandinista troops were stationed to defend the borders against refugees in the south, and refugees and diehard Contra groups in the north. The government laid the beginnings of a new national economy when it issued a new colón pegged to the Brazilian real.

Most Costa Ricans were overjoyed with the end of civil war. But back in Limón Province, new tensions simmered. The ethnic Limoneses, mostly of African descent and speaking a unique English creole, had been out on the fringes of Costa Rican life for ages. During the civil war, this marginalized community finally had real political influence, and a number of ethnic Limoneses had served in high levels in the government-in-exile. Now, with reunification and the end of war, Limoneses feared they would again be cast aside.

Marvin Wright Lindo founded the Limonese Socialist Party in 1993 and began an ethnically based mass movement. The community was organizing politically for the first time. At this stage, the movement's demands were quite vague they included political empowerment of the community and a fair share of relief supplies and services for their own province. But as time went by, the movement's demands would become more clarified and much more strident.

For three years, General Cuadra and the core Nicaraguan group among the Sandinistas put off holding elections, despite their promises to Arias and the country. They feared Arias' popularity and feared that democracy would put their faction right out of power. It was only after Arias promised to appoint certain key Sandinistas if elected, in effect continuing the national unity government, that the Sandinistas agreed to submit to an election. By 1996, furthermore, riots in Limón and the approaching end of the ceasefire with Nicaragua put a lot of pressure on Cuadra's faction to proceed with an orderly election and maintain the rule of law.

Óscar Arias was indeed elected in 1996. The election was Costa Rica's first since 1982. The country had high hopes for its peacemaker President. Unfortunately, they would be disappointed by events to come.

1997-2001: Five Frustrating Years

Arias immediately faced a diplomatic task even more delicate than reuniting the country: deciding what to do with Guanacaste province. Nicaragua, still led by President Ortega, would not let it go. Furthermore, Nicaragua insisted that Arias hand over all Nico officers that had defected to Costa Rica since 1984. Since those officers formed a major part of his governing coalition and ran a large part of the military, Arias could not agree to these terms. The Cañas CeaseFire deadline ended in 1997. By then the talks with Nicaragua had completely broken down. Arias would not consent to a total war, but skirmishing broke out in the disputed areas. Nicaragua also sent an expedition into Nicoya, a peninsula still believed to house a band of Contra rebels it failed miserably.

The Limonese Republic declares independence in 1997.

The Limonese Socialist Party saw its opportunity. Urged on by Marvin Wright, the LSP declared independence on behalf of the province on June 30, 1997. A bloodless coup put Wright in charge of the provincial government, and a series of not at all bloodless attacks forced national officials to flee the area. Wright assumed the title of President of the Limonese Republic. Though a radical left-winger himself, Wright astutely formed ties with some of the Contra groups that still controlled parts of the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua. The Miskitos had much in common culturally with the Limoneses, and for some time their struggle had been much more about ethnicity than ideology. Limón and the Miskito "republics" shared intelligence, supplies, and guerrillas. Their cooperation has kept the fight going and has helped both groups maintain a quasi-independence for many years. (Limón would not be brought under government control until 2005, the Miskitos, 2010 see below.)

In 1999, President Arias met again with Nicaraguan leaders to cut a final deal on Guanacaste. His great diplomatic skill was not enough to convince Managua to compromise. All Arias could manage was to secure a promise of amnesty for Sandinista defectors. In exchange, he gave up the entire province beyond the ceasefire line. Costa Ricans were furious at what they saw as an over-conciliatory attitude.

That same year, Arias and Wright came to an agreement that seemed at first to be more successful. Limón was made into an autonomous region of Costa Rica, fully part of the country but with broad power to manage local affairs. The peace held for a while, but within a year Limonese guerrillas were again fighting with the Costa Rican army over various perceived slights and offenses on both sides.

Arias, disgraced by two diplomatic failures, did not even run for reelection in 2000 despite a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to do so. The Sandinista Party swept into power. Moscow-educated José Merino del Río became the new President. As someone with genuine socialist credentials, he seemed the perfect man to find common ground with both the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and with Wright's republic in Limón. For the early part of his term, Merino concentrated on a leftist domestic agenda, continuing the process of granting land to refugees and doing what he could to repair the national health care system. But he also sought help from Socialist Siberia, which had made contact with Central America in 1997 and had diplomatic relations with Costa Rica only since 1999. If any nation could act as mediator in the conflict, it seemed that the USSR's successor could.

2002- : Progress

The Soviets, eager to increase their influence in the region, happily did what they could to lead the two countries to the negotiating table. Costa Rican and Nicaraguan officials traveled to the Russian Pacific port town of Sovetskaya Gavan late in 2002. They agreed to hold a referendum in Guanacaste to determine its future. Both nations would be bound by the referendum's results. The vote was held in 2004 to the dismay of Merino and most Costa Ricans, Guanacaste voted to remain Nicaraguan. Almost two solid decades of Nicaraguan governance, and the overall bad news coming out of Costa Rica, had apparently eroded the people's nostalgic feelings about their former country. Despite this setback, Merino was reelected in 2004.

In his second term, Merino focused newly on ecological issues. Costa Rica had once been a world leader in conservation, both of land and of resources, but years of conflict had degraded the country's famous forests, while in many regions, years without any government presence had left the land open to exploitation. Urged on by the President, the Legislative Assembly passed laws that created incentives for preserving forest and green space, and created stricter protections for certain habitat areas and plant and animal species. Merino sought aid from abroad to develop cleaner and more efficient ways of producing energy - first from Siberia, and later, toward the end of his term, from the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand.

President Patterson of Limón

Marvin Wright's sepratist government was much more stubborn than Nicaragua, and a peaceful solution to the Limón issue proved much more elusive. Perhaps goaded on by his Miskito allies, Wright refused to negotiate with Costa Rica until 2004, when he agreed to meet with Costa Rican, Nicaraguan, and Soviet officials in Managua. However, his death that year threw Limón into confusion, and the talks did not happen. The turbulence in Limón convinced Merino that the time was ripe for a military action. Costa Rican forces successfully invaded Limón in late 2004 and forced local leaders to come to terms. In 2005, the junto that had replaced Wright agreed to an autonomous status within Costa Rica. However, fighting broke out again two years later. In June 2009, following the terms of the treaty, Limón held an election for a new president. The winner was Edwin Patterson Bent, an ally of Wright, but much more a moderate. His administration has done what it can to curb guerrilla activity and has pushed for a renegotiation of Limó's status, advocating virtual independence and a treaty of free association with Costa Rica. Sporadic outbreaks of violence continue to hurt Patterson's position, alienating the rest of Costa Rica and undermining his moderate platform.

Ricardo Toledo, a conservative-leaning Christian Democrat, was elected President in 2008. He pledged to liberalize the economy while maintaining Costa Rica's traditional social safety net. In foreign affairs, Toledo argued that the country should not orient itself so strongly toward Siberia, but should instead balance Soviet and South American influence.

Nevertheless, Toledo had to cooperate closely with Nicaragua to fulfill his promises of securing the northern borderlands, and this meant relying on Siberian aid. An Expeditionary Force arrived from Siberia in April 2010. Siberian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican troops scored a major victory two weeks later over Contra rebels on the Caribbean coast.

The Colonization of Costa Rica

Since there were no sources of gold in Costa Rica those who came came to farm. The native population was too sparse to support plantation agriculture so those who came came to do their own farming. This fact determined the character of Costa Rica and made it different from other Spanish colonies.

In the early days about the only farming that was feasible in the Meseta Central (central table-land) was subsistence farming. The journey to either coast was over mountains and through difficult lowlands. There were no connecting roads to Nicaragua. Few migrants came. By 1700 the population in Costa Rica, which is about the size of West Virginia, was only 20,000. Of these about 2,500 were originally from Spain. There were about 20,000 natives in the area as well at the time.

Generally all of the Costa Ricans were poor, but there were social class distinctions based upon ancestry. Some were hidalgos (gentlemen) and the others were plebeyos (plebians, commoners). The hidalgos had certain social privileges not enjoyed by the plebeyos, but fundamentally Costa Rican farmers were all about the same.

Despite their being poor the Costa Rican farmers were the target of various marauding groups. The Miskito Indians of the Caribbean coasts of what are now Belize and Nicaragua raided south into Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans tried to defend against these raids but ultimately had to pay a bribe to the chief of the Miskitos to curb their depredations. English and French pirates raided the coastal settlements and destroyed. In 1666 a pirate band of 700 under the leadership of Henry Morgan tried to march into the Meseta Central to raid the town of Cartago. An outnumbered force of Costa Rican farmers defeated Morgan's pirates.

Costa Rican economic development was severely limited because of the lack of roads to the coast. But better roads would not only have facilitated trade they would have facilitated raids by marauders.

The little export that Costa Rican farmers did achieve was in cacao beans, tobacco and mules. The mules were taken overland to Panama where the interoceanic transport was by mule train. Spain imposed the mercantilist policy that the trade of its colonies could only be with Spain. So the Costa Rican farmers got less for what little produce that they could get to the coasts and they had to pay higher prices for what they wanted to purchase. Poor little Rich Coast it faced difficult terrain, marauders and bad trade policy. And, oh yes, the taxation imposed from Guatemala took resources out and put none back in.

Despite the adversities Costa Rica was growing. The first town of the Meseta Central, Cartago, was established in 1564 and served as the capital. Another town, Aranjuez, was established near the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific in 1568. It was not until the eighteenth century that other towns in the Meseta Central were founded. These were Heredia in 1706, San José in 1736, and Alajuela in 1782. These towns tended to become rather independent city-states.

Why Doesn’t Costa Rica Have a Military?

One of the things that makes Costa Rica one of the most unique countries in the world is its lack of a military force. Yes, you read that right. Costa Rica does not have a military and it hasn’t had one in over 70 years.

Having no standing military has resulted in a lot of savings for the country, which the government has reinvested in education, a social safety net, and health care. This is one of the reasons Costa Rica remains an icon of political and economic stability amidst the very unstable Central American region.

In this article, we take a look at the history of the Costa Rican military, why it was abolished, and what advantages and disadvantages come with not having a military. Read on to find out more.

History Of The Military in Costa Rica

Despite its current lack of a standing military, the country of Costa Rica actually has had a tumultuous history that involved a lot of war and bloodshed. It is one of the reasons the country’s flag has the color red on it to symbolize the martyrs that died defending the country and its people.

During its time under the Spanish Empire, the Spanish saw that there Costa Rica didn’t provide too much of a military strategic advantage so there weren’t a lot of armed forces stationed there.

However, economic decisions made in Spain in the 19th century didn’t sit well with the people of Costa Rica, which lead to a “cultural awakening” that resulted in Spain losing popularity not just in Costa Rica, but all across Central America. This unrest sparked various civil wars fought for independence from the Spanish Empire. The war against the Spanish was eventually won in 1821, but that didn’t spell the end for conflict just yet.

The years after the war saw a host of regional conflicts largely between Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. This caused a civil war which was hard fought by all sides in the United Provinces of Central America.
The war and conflict lasted for a significant amount of time and it ended with Costa Rica finally declaring independence from the United Provinces of Central America.

However, after all of that, the country still had more conflict to come. In the 1850s’, an American lawyer named William Walker tried hard to annex in the countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua in the name of the United States.

This resulted in the country fighting to drive away Walker’s forces until 1856 when Walker’s fort was burned to the ground by the Costa Rican hero, Juan Santamaria.

Why Did Costa Rica Abolish Their Military?

After the 40-day conflict, the then-president, Jose Figueres Ferrer, declared the end of the military spirit of Costa Rica. While the rest of the world at the time still feeling the effects of the World War, Costa Rica decided to take steps forward.

The idea to abolish the military and instead put more funds into education and healthcare was first proposed by the Defense Minister at the time, Edgar Cardona who passed it on to the then-Interior Minister Alvaro Ramos.

The proposal was then taken by Jose Figueres Ferrer to the constitutional assembly, who approved it and drafted it into the constitution in 1949. Since then, Costa Rica has not had a military, and instead, they have had a special police force (but more on that later).

The Benefits Of Costa Rica Not Having A Military

The first and most obvious benefit is the savings. There are a lot of countries in the world that spend the majority of their funding on the military, and this can be costly. By abolishing the military, Costa Rica saved a lot of money which they could use to invest in other sectors of society. And that’s exactly what they did.

The money saved from removing the military was then used for the education, social security, and healthcare of the country’s citizens. The result of this is political, economical, and social stability that is largely unseen in that region of Central America.

The standard of living in Costa Rica has been steadily on the rise as a direct result of the abolition. In the 50s and 60s, the country saw a lot of large hospitals and schools that did the country a lot of good. In fact, they now have the second-lowest infant mortality rate in the region and a literacy rate of 98%.

Because the “military-spirit” of the country was removed, they have seen more peace than any of their neighbors, and Costa Ricans take pride in that. In fact, the country has not seen another civil war since 1948 while the country’s neighbors have been in various civil conflicts throughout the same time period.

Disadvantages of Costa Rica not having a Military

The most prominent issue or question most people have with the abolition of a country’s military is a lack of defense.

While it is true that Costa Rica has no army, they are not without defenses. Firstly, the country’s police force has been serving as their main defense unit for decades now, monitoring the borders, and taking control of drug trafficking issues, and help enforce the law. The country also has a civilian guard that maintains order and peace, which is what makes Costa Rica a very safe country.

There’s no lie that abolishing the military reduces some of a country’s defense capabilities, but Costa Rica has found solutions for that. Aside from the local police force, the country also maintains alliances with countries such as the United States who will assist when the need arises or if a war ensues within Costa Rica.

Final Thoughts

All in all, Costa Rica remains one of the safest countries in Central America for citizens and tourists alike. That is why it is a very visited country and a favorite amongst travelers. The absence of a military spirit made way for the presence of a peaceful spirit that is felt throughout the whole country and is visualized in the white color in their flag, which stands for peace.

I started Tico Travel™ way back in 1992 and have always dedicated it and myself to providing the most up to date and accurate information on all aspects of travel to Costa Rica.

After so many years of traveling and living in Costa Rica this blog is a helpful resource that offers unbiased advice and tips on travelling to or living in Costa Rica

How the Costa Rican Spanish defeated the English

I n April 1666, being the province of Nueva Cartago and Costarrica being the poorest of Spain in the Indies[1], the first threat to the Spaniards in what is now Costa Rica occurred. The thieves, rapists, rustlers and murderers, Edward Mansfelt and Henry Morgan, with a huge armed front of more than a thousand men, entered the province through the mouth of the Matina River at midnight on the 9th of April 1666 and marched towards Cartago, ready to plunder the city and everything in their path.

The noble governor Don Juan Lopez de la Flor, a Spaniard of enormous gallantry, is not easily daunted by the threat that is about to destroy the entire province. Determined to take up his arquebus and sword and go to fight the filibusters themselves, he sends Captain Alonso de Bonilla to go ahead as a lookout. Using his poise and intelligence, and with only thirty or so men, he managed to corner the thousand invaders and make them flee from Turrialba, where they were already enjoying women and liquor. In their flight, they set fire to the city, and kill a few villagers. On the 16th of April, Don Juan López de la Flor, together with 120 men, inspected the place from where they had fled, and only managed to catch two filibusters who had straggled while the bulk of the invaders ran in panic towards Matina and then towards Portete to embark and leave for the island of Jamaica. All this with only two hundred brave men, ready to give their lives to defend what they already loved as much as their Spain. Two hundred men were able to put an end to the plans of robbery and barbarism of a thousand outlaws, who already considered the triumph and plunder they would carry out in Cartago a fait accompli.

Ruins of the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Ujarrás still standing today, dating from the early 17th century. Photograph. Homer Dávila for Geografía de Costa Rica.

The daring of these filibusters had reached such a point that they claimed that when they arrived and took the city of Carthage, they would drink chocolate with the governor. Their excitement grew even louder when the informer, Roque Jacinto de la Fuente alias the “Beautiful”, answered in the affirmative to the question of whether the women and courtesans of Cartago were beautiful. This historical fact was what made the image of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Ujarrás famous, as many inhabitants of Cartago and the rest of the province could not believe that with only thirty or so men, such an enterprise could have been won against those ruthless thieves who called themselves pirates, who had already plundered other large cities in Panama and in Hispaniola.

For this reason, they gave part of the credits to the virgin of Ujarrás. To history’s misfortune, the white image of the virgin of Ujarrás was thrown into oblivion by a new image carved in a black stone, which years later would be called the Patron Saint of Costa Rica.

In 1684, again the criminals John Cook, John Eaton, Edward Davis, Ambrosius Cowley, William Dampier and Lionel Wafer tried to invade the Mayor’s Office of Nicoya and were repelled and beaten by Don Diego de Pantoja, mayor of Nicoya, who managed to put together an improvised defence corps, composed of Spanish civilians, Creoles, Chorotega Indians and black slaves who, without any training in military techniques, put an end to the plans of these English outlaws.

Sir Henry Morgan (Llanrumney, Wales, Kingdom of England, c. 1635 – Lawrencefield, Jamaica, 25 August 1688). Knighted by the English crown for his criminal activities on behalf of the British Empire.

History and the men who write it, as well as those who make the decisions, would not be fair to these and other gallant Spaniards and Costa Ricans. To reward the filibusters, different places in Costa Rica are baptised with the names and surnames of these outlaws. Wafer Bay, Chatan Bay, Cape Dampier, Cape Lionel and Colnett Peninsula on Cocos Island and Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula.

Perhaps it is out of pettiness, or resentment towards all things Spanish, that things like this have happened in Costa Rica. If we add the element of premeditated “ignorance”, it is possible to understand why things happen.

The case of the Virgen de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Ujarrás is probably the clearest example it was displaced by a black image that replaced the value of the white and the Spanish. This is yet another reason why it is not so true to say that throughout history, Costa Ricans have wanted to ignore the indigenoid mixture and richness. The anti-Spanish sentiment is a fact that has been brewing for centuries and which came to be consummated in fictional books such as the comic book Asalto al paraíso by Costa Rican Tatiana Lobo or in the pamphlet Las venas abiertas de América Latina by Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano.

Sketch of Cocos Island. Most of the island’s place names are in “honour” of the English pirates.

Another episode takes place in 1856 and 1857 when Costa Ricans march into Nicaragua with the main objective of expelling the filibustering armies commanded by the American William Walker, who has already been declared president of Nicaragua.

The Costa Rican people respond to the call to war made by the hero Juan Rafael Mora Porras. With basic instruction in the art of war, the Costa Rican national army won victories, allowing them to control extensive territories that had fallen to Walker: Rivas, Granada, Lake Nicaragua, San Juan del Norte, San Juan del Sur, Río San Juan.

As shown in documentary sources, from 1857 Costa Rica could have annexed all these territories at will, as it had won them in battle. However, it did not do so, because under threat of going to war against the USA, it was decided to return those territories and the brave soldiers who had managed to survive returned.

The mansion of the Hacienda Santa Rosa is witness to how Costa Ricans are capable of such bravery to the point of glory. Photo: J. Salazar for Geografía de Costa Rica. 2011.

This is how we were forced to sign a treaty that harmed our pacifist spirit, because contrary to what custom and science dictate, where the border line is marked by the midpoint of the river’s talweg, Nicaragua is granted the supreme empire of a river that has life, thanks to the fact that 78% of the water comes from Costa Rica.

By January 1955, an armed aggression from Nicaragua against Costa Rica was once again in the making. On the morning of 11 January 1955, Teodoro Picado Lara (son of former President Teodoro Picado Mischalsky) and an armed group of Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Dominican and Venezuelan mercenaries invaded Costa Rica. They receive military support from Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. Ideological support was provided by resentment over the 1948 defeat of Dr. Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia. It is therefore more of a fratricidal war than an ideological war.

January 1955. Improvised army with Costa Rican volunteers who respond to the call of President José Figueres Ferrer and march to the battle front. Photograph by Rodolfo Carrillo Arias.

Another harsh episode happens again during the Sandinista Revolution, where hundreds of Costa Ricans fight on the front lines, shoulder to shoulder against the National Guard of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza de Debayle and supported by the CIA-sponsored Contras. Many Ticos had to give their lives for an ideal. Who remembers this other sacrifice for the liberation of a people like Nicaragua?

It would be unfair to overlook what the Costa Rican Miguel Acuña has written in his work El 55 te mataron hermano:

…friendship in the sense that this word can be understood between human beings, does not exist between nations. At most we can speak of currents of sympathy but these currents change course when convenience appears

Very well expressed by Billo Zeledon when he wrote:

In the tenacious struggle of fruitful labour
that reddens man’s face,
your children -simple Labriegos- have conquered
eternal prestige, esteem and honour.
Hail, O gentle land!
Hail, O mother of love!
When anyone seeks to tarnish your glory
you will see your people, brave and virile,
the coarse tool into a weapon.

Civil War in Costa Rica - History

When Spanish explorers arrived in what is now Costa Rica at the dawn of the 16th century, they found the region populated by several poorly organized, autonomous tribes. In all, there were probably no more than 20,000 indigenous peoples on 18 September 1502, when Columbus put ashore near current-day Puerto Limón. Although human habitation can be traced back at least 10,000 years, the region had remained a sparsely populated backwater separating the two areas of high civilization: Mesoamerica and the Andes. High mountains and swampy lowlands had impeded the migration of the advanced cultures.

There are few signs of large organized communities, no monumental stone architecture lying half-buried in the luxurious undergrowth or planned ceremonial centers of comparable significance to those elsewhere in the isthmus. The region was a potpourri of distinct cultures. In the east along the Caribbean seaboard and along the southern Pacific shores, the peoples shared distinctly South American cultural traits. These groups--the Caribs on the Caribbean and the Borucas and Chibchas in the southwest--were seminomadic hunters and fishermen who raised yucca, squash, and tubers, chewed coca, and lived in communal village huts surrounded by fortified palisades. The matriarchal Chibchas had a highly developed slave system and were accomplished goldsmiths. They were also responsible for the fascinating, perfectly spherical granite "balls" of unknown purpose found in large numbers at burial sites in the Río Terraba valley, Caño Island, and the Golfito region. They had no written language.

The largest of Costa Rica's archaeological sites is at Guayabo, on the slopes of Turrialba, 56 km east of San José, where an ancient city is currently being excavated. Dating from perhaps as early as 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1400, Guayabo is thought to have housed as many as 10,000 inhabitants. The most interesting archaeological finds throughout the nation relate to pottery and metalworking. The art of gold working was practiced throughout Costa Rica for perhaps one thousand years before the Spanish conquest, and in the highlands was in fact more advanced than in the rest of the isthmus.

The tribes here were the Corobicís, who lived in small bands in the highland valleys, and the Nahuatl, who had recently arrived from Mexico at the time that Columbus stepped ashore. In late prehistoric times, trade in pottery from the Nicoya Peninsula brought this area into the Mesoamerican cultural sphere, and a culture developed among the Chorotegas--the most numerous of the region's indigenous groups--that in many ways resembled the more advanced cultures farther north.

In fact, the Chorotegas had originated in southern Mexico before settling in Nicoya early in the 14th century (their name means "Fleeing People"). They developed towns with central plazas brought with them an accomplished agricultural system based on beans, corns, squash, and gourds had a calendar, wrote books on deerskin parchment, and produced highly developed ceramics and stylized jade figures (much of it now in the Jade Museum in San José). Like the Mayans and Aztecs, too, the militaristic Chorotegas had slaves and a rigid class hierarchy dominated by high priests and nobles.

When Columbus anchored his storm-damaged vessel in the Bay of Cariari on his fourth voyage to the New World, he was welcomed and treated with great hospitality. The coastal Indians sent out two girls, "the one about eight, the other about 14 years of age," Columbus's son Ferdinand recorded. "The girls . . . always looked cheerful and modest. So the Admiral gave them good usage. . ."

In his Lettera Rarissima to the Spanish king, Columbus gave a different tale of events: "As soon as I got there they sent right out two girls, all dressed up the elder was hardly eleven, the other seven, both behaving with such lack of modesty as to be no better than whores. As soon as they arrived, I gave orders that they be presented with some of our trading truck and sent them directly ashore."

The Indians also gave Columbus gold. "I saw more signs of gold in the first two days than I saw in Española during four years," his journal records. He called the region La Huerta ("The Garden"). The prospect of loot drew adventurers whose numbers were reinforced after Balboa's discovery of the Pacific in 1513. To these explorers the name Costa Rica must have seemed a cruel hoax. Floods, swamps, and tropical diseases stalked them in the sweltering lowlands. Fierce, elusive Indians harassed them maddeningly. And, with few exceptions, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In 1506, Ferdinand of Spain sent a governor, Diego de Nicuesa, to colonize the Atlantic coast of Veragua. He got off to a bad start by running aground off the coast of Panama and was forced to march north, enduring a welcome that was less hospitable than that of Columbus. Antagonized Indian bands used guerrilla tactics to slay the strangers and willingly burnt their own crops to deny them food. Nicuesa set the tone for future expeditions by foreshortening his own cultural lessons with the musket ball. Things seemed more promising when an expedition under Gil Gonzalez Davila set off from Panama in 1522 to settle the region. It was Davila's expedition, given quantities of gold, that nicknamed the land Costa Rica, the "Rich Coast."

Davila's Catholic priests also supposedly managed to convert many Indians to Christianity. But once again, sickness and starvation were the price: the expedition reportedly lost more than 1,000 men. Later colonizing expeditions on the Caribbean similarly failed miserably the coastal settlements dissolved amidst internal acrimony, the taunts of Indians, and the debilitating impact of pirate raids. Two years later, Francisco Fernandez de Cordova founded the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific, at Bruselas, near present-day Puntarenas. It lasted less than two years.

For the next four decades Costa Rica was virtually left alone. The conquest of Peru by Pizarro in 1532 and the first of the great silver strikes in Mexico in the 1540s turned eyes away from southern Central America. Guatemala became the administrative center for the Spanish main in 1543, when the captaincy-general of Guatemala, answerable to the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), was created with jurisdiction from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the empty lands of Costa Rica.

By the 1560s several Spanish cities had consolidated their position farther north and, prompted by Philip II of Spain, the representatives in Guatemala thought it time to settle Costa Rica and Christianize the natives. By then it was too late for the latter. Barbaric treatment and European epidemics--opthalmia, smallpox, and tuberculosis--had already reaped the Indians like a scythe, and had so antagonized the survivors that they took to the forests and eventually found refuge amid the remote valleys of the Talamanca Mountains. Only in the Nicoya Peninsula did there remain any significant Indian population, the Chorotegas, who soon found themselves chattel on Spanish land.

In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado--the true conquistador of Costa Rica--arrived as governor. He treated the surviving Indians more humanely and moved the existing Spanish settlers into the Cartago Valley, where the temperate climate and rich volcanic soils offered the promise of crop cultivation. Cartago was established as the national capital in 1563. The economic and social development of the Spanish provinces was traditionally the work of the soldiers, who were granted encomiendas, land holdings which allowed for rights to the use of indigenous serfs.

In the highlands, land was readily available, but there was no Indian labor to work it. Without native slave labor or the resources to import slaves, the colonists were forced to work the land themselves (even Coronado had to work his own plot of land to survive). Without gold or export crops, trade with other colonies was infrequent at best. Money in fact became so scarce that the settlers eventually reverted to the Indian method of using cacao beans as currency. After the initial impetus given by the discovery, Costa Rica lapsed into being a lowly Cinderella of the Spanish empire.

Thus, the early economy evolved slowly under conditions that didn't favor the development of the large colonial-style hacienda and feudal system of other Spanish enclaves. The settlers had to make do with clearing and tilling primitive plots for basic subsistence. A full century after its founding, Cartago could boast little more than a few score adobe houses and a single church, which all perished when Volcán Irazú erupted in 1723.

Gradually, however, prompted by an ecclesiastical edict that ordered the populace to resettle near churches, towns took shape around churches. Heredia (Cubujuquie) was founded in 1717, San José (Villaneuva de la Boca del Monte) in 1737, and Alajuela (Villa Hermosa) in 1782. Later, exports of wheat and tobacco placed the colonial economy on a sounder economic basis and encouraged the intensive settlement that characterizes the Meseta Central today.

Intermixing with the native population was not a common practice. In other colonies, Spaniard married native and a distinct class system arose, but mixed-bloods and ladinos (mestizos) represent a much smaller element in Costa Rica than they do elsewhere in the isthmus. All this had a leveling effect on colonial society. As the population grew, so did the number of poor families who had never benefited from the labor of encomienda Indians or suffered the despotic arrogance of criollo landowners. Costa Rica, in the traditional view, became a "rural democracy," with no oppressed mestizo class resentful of the maltreatment and scorn of the Creoles. Removed from the mainstream of Spanish culture, the Costa Ricans became very individualistic and egalitarian.

Not all areas of the country, however, fit the model of rural democracy. Nicoya and Guanacaste on the Pacific side offered an easy overland route from Nicaragua to Panama and were administered quite separately in colonial times from the rest of present-day Costa Rica. They fell within the Nicaraguan sphere of influence, and large cattle ranches or haciendas arose. Revisions to the encomienda laws in 1542, however, limited the amount of time that Indians were obliged to provide their labor Indians were also rounded up and forcibly concentrated into settlements distant from the haciendas. The large estate owners thus began to import African slaves, who became an important part of the labor force on the cattle ranches that were established in the Pacific northwest. The cattle-ranching economy and the more traditional class-based society that arose persist today.

Some three centuries of English associations and of neglect by the Spanish authorities have also created a very different cultural milieu all along the Caribbean coast of Central America. On the Caribbean of Costa Rica, cacao plantations--the most profitable activity of the colonial period--became well established. Eventually large-scale cacao production gave way to small-scale sharecropping, and then to tobacco as the cacao industry went into decline. Spain closed the Costa Rican ports in 1665 in response to piracy, thereby cutting off seaborne sources of legal trade. Such artificial difficulties to economic development compounded those created by nature. Smuggling flourished, however, for the largely unincorporated Caribbean coast provided a safe haven to buccaneers and smugglers, whose strongholds became 18th-century shipping points for logwood and mahogany. The illicit trade helped weaken central authority. The illusion of Central American colonial unity was also weakened in the waning stages of the Spanish empire as interest in, and the ability to maintain, the rigid administrative structure declined.


Independence of Central America from Spain on 15 September 1821 came on the coattails of Mexico's declaration earlier in the same year. Independence had little immediate effect, however, for Costa Rica had required only minimal government during the colonial era and had long gone its own way. In fact, the country was so out of touch that the news that independence had been granted reached Costa Rica a full month after the event. A hastily convened provincial council voted for accession to Mexico in 1823, the other Central American nations proclaimed the United Provinces of Central America, with their capital in Guatemala City.

After the declaration, effective power lay in the hands of the separate towns of the isthmus, and it took several years for a stable pattern of political alignment to emerge. The four leading cities of Costa Rica felt as independent as had the city-states of ancient Greece, and the conservative and aristocratic leaders of Cartago and Heredia soon found themselves at odds with the more progressive republican leaders of San José and Alajuela. The local quarrels quickly developed into civic unrest and, in 1823, to civil war. After a brief battle in the Ochomogo Hills, the republican forces of San José were victorious. They rejected Mexico, and Costa Rica joined the federation with full autonomy for its own affairs. Guanacaste voted to secede from Nicaragua and join Costa Rica the following year.

From this moment on, liberalism in Costa Rica had the upper hand. Elsewhere in Central America, conservative groups tied to the Church and the erstwhile colonial bureaucracy spent generations at war with anticlerical and laissez-faire liberals, and a cycle of civil wars came to dominate the region. By contrast, in Costa Rica colonial institutions had been relatively weak and early modernization of the economy propelled the nation out of poverty and lay the foundations of democracy far earlier than elsewhere in the isthmus. While other countries turned to repression to deal with social tensions, Costa Rica turned toward reform. Military plots and coups weren't unknown--they played a large part in determining who came to rule throughout the next century--but the generals usually were puppets used as tools to install favored individuals (usually surprisingly progressive civilian allies) representing the interests of particular cliques.

Juan Mora Fernandez, elected the nation's first chief of state in 1824, set the tone by ushering in a nine-year period of progressive stability. He established a sound judicial system, founded the nation's first newspaper, and expanded public education. He also encouraged coffee cultivation and gave free land grants to would-be coffee growers. The nation, however, was still riven by rivalry, and in September 1835 the War of the League broke out when San José was attacked by the three other towns. They were unsuccessful and the national flag was planted firmly in San José (see "San José--History" for more details).

Braulio Carrillo, who had taken power as a benevolent dictator, established an orderly public administration and new legal codes to replace colonial Spanish law. In 1838, he withdrew Costa Rica from the Central American federation and proclaimed complete independence. In a final show of federalist strength, the Honduran general Francisco Morazan toppled Carrillo in 1842. It was too late. The seeds of independence had taken firm root. Morazan's extranational ambitions and the military draft and direct taxes he imposed soon inspired his overthrow. He was executed within the year.

By now, the reins of power had been taken up by a nouveau elite: the coffee barons, whose growing prosperity led to rivalries between the wealthiest family factions, who vied with each other for political dominance. In 1849, the cafetaleros announced their ascendancy by conspiring to overthrow the nation's first president, José María Castro, an enlightened man who initiated his administration by founding a high school for girls and sponsoring freedom of the press. They chose as Castro's successor Juan Rafael Mora, one of the most powerful personalities among the new coffee aristocracy. Mora is remembered for the remarkable economic growth that marked his first term, and for "saving" the nation from the imperial ambitions of the American adventurer William Walker during his second term (which Mora gained by manipulating the elections). In a display of ingratitude, his countryfolk ousted him from power in 1859 the masses blamed him for the cholera epidemic which claimed the lives of one in every 10 Costa Ricans in the wake of the Walker saga, while the elites were horrified when Mora moved to establish a national bank, which would have undermined their control of credit to the coffee producers. After failing in his own coup against his successor, he was executed . . . a prelude to a second cycle of militarism, for the war of 1856 had introduced Costa Rica to the buying and selling of generals and the establishment of a corps of officers possessing an inflated aura of legitimacy.

The 1860s were marred by power struggles among the ever-powerful coffee elite supported by their respective military cronies. General Tomás Guardia, however, was his own man. In April 1870, he overthrew the government and ruled for 12 years as an iron-willed military strongman backed up by a powerful centralized government of his own making.

True to Costa Rican tradition, Guardia proved himself a progressive thinker and a benefactor of the people. His towering reign set in motion forces that shaped the modern liberal-democratic state. Hardly characteristic of 19th-century despots, he abolished capital punishment, managed to curb the power of the coffee barons, and tamed the use of the army for political means. He utilized coffee earnings and taxation to finance roads and public buildings. And in a landmark revision to the Constitution in 1869, he made "primary education for both sexes obligatory, free, and at the cost of the Nation."

Guardia had a dream: to make the transport of coffee more efficient and more profitable by forging a railroad linking the Central Valley with the Atlantic coast, and thus with America and Europe. The terrain through which he proposed to build his railroad was so forbidding that it gave rise to a saying: "He who once makes the trip to the Caribbean coast is a hero he who makes it a second time is a fool." Fulfillment of Guardia's dream was the triumph of one man--Minor Keith of Brooklyn, New York--over a world of risks and logistical nightmares (see opposite page).

Guardia's enlightened administration was a watershed for the nation. The aristocrats gradually came to understand that liberal, orderly, and stable regimes profited their business interests while the instability inherent in reliance on militarism was damaging to it. And the extension of education to every citizen (and the espousal in the free press of European notions of liberalism) raised the consciousness of the masses and made it increasingly difficult for the patrimonial elite to exclude the population from the political process.

The shift to democracy was witnessed in the election called by President Bernardo Soto in 1889--commonly referred to as the first "honest" election, with popular participation women and blacks, however, were still excluded from voting. To Soto's surprise, his opponent José Joaquin Rodriguez won. The masses rose and marched in the streets to support their chosen leader after the Soto government decided not to recognize the new president. The Costa Ricans had spoken, and Soto stepped down.

During the course of the next two generations, militarism gave way to peaceful transitions to power. Presidents, however, attempted to amend the Constitution to continue their rule and even dismissed uncooperative legislatures. Both Rodriguez and his hand-picked successor, Rafael Iglesias, for example, turned dictatorial while sponsoring material progress. Iglesias's successor, Ascension Esquivel, who took office in 1902, even exiled three contenders for the 1906 elections and imposed his own choice for president: Gonzalez Visquez. And Congress declared the winner of the 1914 plebiscite ineligible and named its own choice, noncontender Alfredo Gonzalez Flores, as president.

Throughout all this the country had been at peace, the army in its barracks. In 1917, democracy faced its first major challenge. At that time, the state collected the majority of its revenue from the less wealthy. Flores's bill to establish direct, progressive taxation based on income and his espousal of state involvement in the economy had earned the wrath of the elites. They decreed his removal. Minister of War Federico Tinoco Granados seized power. Tinoco ruled as an iron-fisted dictator and soon squandered the support of U.S. business interests. More importantly, Costa Ricans had come to accept liberty as their due they were no longer prepared to acquiesce in oligarchic restrictions. Women and high-school students led a demonstration which called for his ouster, and Flores stepped down.

There followed a series of unmemorable administrations culminating in the return of two previous leaders, Ricardo Jimenez and Gonzalez Visquez, who alternated power for 12 years through the 1920s and '30s. The apparent tranquility was shattered by the Depression and the social unrest which it engendered. Old-fashioned paternalistic liberalism had failed to resolve social ills such as malnutrition, unemployment, low pay, and poor working conditions. The Depression distilled all these issues, especially after a dramatic communist-led strike against the United Fruit Company brought tangible gains. Calls grew shrill for reforms.


The decade of the 1940s and its climax, the civil war, mark a turning point in Costa Rican history: from paternalistic government by traditional rural elites to modernistic, urban-focused statecraft controlled by bureaucrats, professionals, and small entrepreneurs. The dawn of the new era was spawned by Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, a profoundly religious physician and a president (1940-44) with a social conscience. In a period when neighboring Central American nations were under the yoke of tyrannical dictators, Calderón promulgated a series of farsighted reforms. His legacy included a stab at land "reform" (the landless could gain title to unused land by cultivating it), establishment of a guaranteed minimum wage, paid
vacations, unemployment compensation, progressive taxation, plus a series of constitutional amendments codifying workers' rights. Calderón also founded the University of Costa Rica.

Calderón's social agenda was hailed by the urban poor and leftists and despised by the upper classes, his original base of support. His early declaration of war on Germany, seizure of German property, and imprisonment of Germans further upset his conservative patrons, many of whom were of German descent. World War II stalled economic growth at a time when Calderón's social programs called for vastly increased public spending. The result was rampant inflation, which eroded his support among the middle and working classes. Abandoned, Calderón crawled into bed with two unlikely partners: the Catholic Church and the communists (Popular Vanguard Party). Together they formed the United Social Christian Party.

The Prelude To Civil War

In 1944, Calderón was replaced by his puppet, Teodoro Picado, in an election widely regarded as fraudulent. Picado's uninspired administration failed to address rising discontent throughout the nation. Intellectuals, distrustful of Calderón's "unholy" alliance, joined with businessmen, campesinos, and labor activists and formed the Social Democratic Party, dominated by the emergent professional middle classes eager for economic diversification and modernization. In its own strange amalgam, the SDP allied itself with the traditional oligarchic elite. The country was thus polarized. Tensions mounted.

Street violence finally erupted in the run-up to the 1948 election, with Calderón on the ballot for a second presidential term. When he lost to his opponent Otilio Ulate by a small margin, the government claimed fraud. Next day, the building holding many of the ballot papers went up in flames, and the calderonista-dominated legislature annulled the election results. Ten days later, on 10 March 1948, the "War of National Liberation" plunged Costa Rica into civil war.

"Don Pepe"--Savior Of The Nation

The popular myth suggests that José María ("Don Pepe") Figueres Ferrer--42-year-old coffee farmer, engineer, economist, and philosopher--raised a "ragtag army of university students and intellectuals" and stepped forward to topple the government that had refused to step aside for its democratically elected successor. In actuality, Don Pepe's revolution had been long in the planning the 1948 election merely provided a good excuse.

Don Pepe had been exiled to Mexico in 1942--the first political outcast since the Tinoco era--after being seized halfway through a radio broadcast denouncing Calderón. Figueres formed an alliance with other exiles, returned to Costa Rica in 1944, began calling for an armed uprising, and arranged for foreign arms to be airlifted in to groups being trained by Guatemalan military advisors.

Supported by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba, Don Pepe's insurrectionists captured the cities of Cartago and Puerto Limón and were poised to pounce on San José when Calderón, who had little heart for the conflict, capitulated. (The government's pathetically trained soldiers--aided and armed by the Somoza regime in Nicaragua--included communist banana workers from the lowlands they wore blankets over their shoulders against the cold of the highlands, earning Calderon supporters the nickname mariachis.) The 40-day civil war claimed over 2,000 lives, most of them civilians.

Foundation Of The Modern State

Don Pepe became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica. As leader of the revolutionary junta, he consolidated Calderón's progressive social reform program and added his own landmark reforms: he banned the press and Communist Party, introduced suffrage for women and full citizenship for blacks, revised the Constitution to outlaw a standing army (including his own), established a presidential term limit, and created an independent Electoral Tribunal to oversee future elections. Figueres also shocked the elites by nationalizing the banks and insurance companies, a move that paved the way for state intervention in the economy.

On a darker note, Don Pepe reneged on the peace terms that guaranteed the safety of the calderonistas: Calderón and many of his followers were exiled to Mexico, special tribunals confiscated their property, and, in a sordid episode, many prominent left-wing officials and activists were abducted and murdered. (Supported by Nicaragua, Calderón twice attempted to invade Costa Rica and topple his nemesis, but was each time repelled. Incredibly, he was allowed to return, and even ran for president unsuccessfully in 1962!)

Then, by a prior agreement which established the interim junta for 18 months, Figueres returned the reins of power to Otilio Ulate, the actual winner of the '48 election and a man not even of Don Pepe's own party. Costa Ricans later rewarded Figueres with two terms as president, in 1953-57 and 1970-74. Figueres dominated politics for the next two decades. A socialist, he used his popularity to build his own electoral base and founded the Partido de Liberacion Nacional (PLN), which became the principal advocate of state-sponsored development and reform. He died on 8 June 1990, a national hero.

The Contemporary Scene

Social and economic progress since 1948 has helped return the country to stability, and though post-civil war politics have reflected the play of old loyalties and antagonisms, elections have been free and fair. With only two exceptions, the country has ritualistically alternated its presidents between the PLN and the opposition Social Christians. Successive PLN governments have built on the reforms of the calderonista era, and the 1950s and '60s saw a substantial expansion of the welfare state and public school system, funded by economic growth. The intervening conservative governments have encouraged private enterprise and economic self-reliance through tax breaks, protectionism, subsidized credits, and other macroeconomic policies. The combined results were a generally vigorous economic growth (see "Economy," below) and the creation of a welfare state which had grown by 1981 to serve 90% of the population, absorbing 40% of the national budget in the process and granting the government the dubious distinction of being the nation's biggest employer.

By 1980, the bubble had burst. Costa Rica was mired in an economic crisis: epidemic inflation, crippling currency devaluation, soaring oil bills and social welfare costs, plummeting coffee, banana, and sugar prices, and the disruptions to trade caused by the Nicaraguan war (Costa Rica became a base first for Sandinista and then for contra activities, as its war-torn northern neighbor swung from rightist to leftist regimes). When large international loans then came due, Costa Rica found itself burdened overnight with world's the greatest per-capita debt.

In February 1986, Costa Ricans elected as their president a relatively young sociologist and economist-lawyer called Oscar Arias Sanchez. Arias's electoral promise had been to work for peace. Immediately, he put his energies into resolving Central America's regional conflicts. He attempted to expel the contras from Costa Rica and enforce the nation's official proclamation of neutrality made in 1983 (much to the chagrin of the U.S. government see "Costa Rica And The Nicaraguan Revolution"). Arias's tireless efforts were rewarded in 1987, when his Central American peace plan was signed by the five Central American presidents in Guatemala City--an achievement that earned the Costa Rican president the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, and for which the whole nation is justly proud.

In February 1990, Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, a conservative lawyer and candidate for the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), won a narrow victory with 51% of the vote. He was inaugurated 50 years to the day after his father, the great reformer, was named president. Restoring Costa Rica's economy to sound health in the face of a debilitating national debt remains Calderón's paramount goal. Under the aegis of pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Calderón has initiated a series of austerity measures aimed at redressing the country's huge deficit and national debt (see "Economy," below).

Colonial Life

Scarcity of labor and lack of mineral wealth meant that Costa Rica, late to join its isthmus neighbors in the colonial process, remained a poor and somewhat marginal backwater throughout this period.

In place of the huge haciendas and plantations found under the feudal el latifundio system elsewhere in South and Central America - which depended on a large exploitable workforce - in Costa Rica, family-managed, small-scale subsistence farming became the norm. Spanish settlers were generally forced to clear plots and till the soils themselves (in 1719 the governor himself reports having to sow and reap his own crops or otherwise starve), living in small agricultural communities, largely isolated from each other by the difficult terrain and climate and lack of transportation systems.

In this sense the aforementioned 'leyenda blanca' contained some element of truth, although the notion of a 'rural egalitarianism of the poor' was the result of a mass destruction of the native population, rather than any lack of indigenous civilization.

Also contradictory to Costa Rica's homogenizing narrative of 'equality' was the existence of a burgeoning slave trade. Black slaves were imported from Africa and the Caribbean to augment the dwindling labor supply. The slave trade was most active between 1690 and 1730, with most slaves working on the cacao plantations near the Atlantic coast town of Matina. Slavery in Costa Rica however was never as brutal as in other colonial areas, the region's poverty making slaves a valuable investment. Most were eventually able to purchase their freedom, over time becoming ethnically and socially incorporated through mestizaje, or racial mixing.

Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries the population of Costa Rica remained small and the lifestyle humble. In fact by 1709 Spanish money had become so scarce that settlers had resorted to using cacao beans as currency, like the Chorotegas hundreds of years earlier. When Volcan Irazu erupted in 1723, covering Cartago with ashes, reports reveal that the capital consisted of only seventy adobe houses, two churches and two chapels.

Remote, isolated and largely forgotten by the 'Mother Country', colonial Costa Rica was seen as the poor sister, or 'Cinderella', of its neighbors. However, this left it largely free from the intrusion of the Guatemalan authorities, for the most part autonomous and self-sufficient in its poverty, allowing it to develop its own rural political character, distinctly different from that of surrounding regions.

The one area that did not follow this pattern through the colonial period was the Nicoya Peninsula and what is now Guanacaste. At this time the area came under the separate jurisdiction of Nicaragua and vast cattle ranches, haciendas, arose on its semi-arid plains, made possible by a larger indigenous workforce and the extensive exploitation of imported black labor. The cattle ranching economy and subsequent growth of a defined, class-based society still persist today. Guanacaste did not become part of Costa Rica until 1825, after Independence, this was not officialized until 1858 when the San Juan River was agreed upon as the new boundary between the two countries.

Costa Rica's First Successful Colony

Explorers landing in Costa Rica on expeditions after Columbus expecting the abundant riches and docile natives that Columbus described were sadly disappointed. Little gold was ever mined from Costa Rica, and the locals fiercely fought attempts to enslave them. The conquistadors attempted to establish permanent colonies in the region, but each failed due to disease and battles with the natives. The indigenous population was eventually decimated by disease and the Spaniards’ powerful weapons, which left few workers for the farms. Rather than work the land themselves, most Spaniards emigrating to the Americas chose to live in countries with numerous native servants. The Spaniards did not successfully establish a colony in Costa Rica until 1563, which was called Cartago and subsequently became the country’s first capital city, in Costa Rica’s interior.

Costa Rica in the 20th century

In the early 20th century Costa Rica and four other Central American republics established the Central American Court of Justice, the first international court with wide juridical powers. The headquarters were established in Cartago, but, when the building was destroyed in the 1910 earthquake, the headquarters were moved to San José. One of the court’s landmark cases involved the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916, which gave the United States permission to use the San Juan River (the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica) as part of an interoceanic canal route. Costa Rica protested that Nicaragua was violating preexisting treaty rights and that opening a route would threaten Costa Rican security. The claim was brought before the court, which ruled in Costa’s Rica’s favour however, Nicaragua refused to accept the ruling and withdrew from the court. Because of Nicaragua’s withdrawal and an overall ineffective judicial procedure, the court dissolved in 1918 after 10 years in existence. However, the building in San José, which had been constructed with help from a donation by U.S. philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, became the home of Costa Rica’s Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Costa Rica’s boundary with Panama (originally with Colombia, before Panamanian independence) was also in dispute. Arbitration awards by France and the United States in 1900 and 1914, respectively, had been generally favourable to Costa Rica but were rejected by Panama. In 1921 Costa Rica attempted forcible occupation of this area (on the Pacific coast) but was diverted by the intervention of the United States. Panama then evacuated the region, but relations between the two small states were not reestablished until 1928. In 1941 the governments finally reached an accord over the boundary.

Watch the video: The Costa Rican Civil War Part I (June 2022).


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