Very brief overview of Costa Rica’s history

The pre-Columbian times

In the territory occupied by Costa Rica, sedentary life and agriculture were consolidated around the year 800 AD. Socially, there is a growing differentiation between members of the indigenous villages and it gradually reaches a hierarchical system whose central figure is the cacique (chief). This organization reaches further deepening and consolidates a military and religious nobility, who rule over regular workers and slaves. The so called sistema de cacicazgos (system of chiefs) flourishes between 800 and 1550.

In this period, agriculture is complemented by hunting, fishing and gathering. The craftsmanship is diversified and there is a genuine development of the main settlements, which have aqueducts, roads, bridges, houses and temples. The population growth in this period does not involve a sudden transformation of the landscape, characterized by dense forests, rushing rivers, lush vegetation, the density of mountain ranges and the existence of a bustling, abundant and diverse wildlife, which can still be seen today in many parts of the country.

The arrival of the Spanish and the colonial era

In the early sixteenth century, the territory of Costa Rica was home to some 400.000 Indians, most of which were located in the North Pacific and the Central Valley. Numbers quickly decreased to 120.000 individuals in 1569 and 10.000 in 1611, mainly by epidemics brought from Europe, but also due to the ill treatment of the conquistadors.

At first, the control of the local population by the conquerors is difficult, due to the political fragmentation of the indigenous tribes and the conflicts between the Europeans themselves. However, since 1570, the Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities significantly extend their influence, at least in the central highlands and the Pacific region, since the Atlantic would remain largely unconquered due to its remoteness, unbearable climate and indigenous resistance. Costa Rica, which was part of the “Captaincy General of Guatemala”, was a rather poor and isolated province. The only wealth the settlers had were its fertile soil and favourable climate, which allowed them to engage in agriculture in the Central Valley.

The seventeenth century is characterized by a cycle dominated by cocoa exports. During the eighteenth century, the country undergoed a growing mix in races (Spanish and Indians), during which the Central Valley began to be populated by a free peasantry, of Spanish and mestizo.

From the nineteenth century, the desire of Costa Rica to procure a stable relationship with the world market is achieved with the production and exportation of coffee, which becomes the axis of the capitalization of agriculture.

Independence and the beginning of democratic life

Costa Rica obtained its independence on the 15th of September, 1821 and adhered itself to the Federal Republic of Central America. However, the Federal Pact was dissolved de facto between 1838 and 1839, and each province declared its independence. It is in this context that Costa Rica became a republic in 1848.

Along with other Central American countries, Costa Rica participated in the war against William Walker in 1856. Walker was an American filibuster who had planned to take over Central America, mainly to export slaves and to profit from the prospects of an interoceanic canal. During the battle of Rivas, Nicaragua, on the 11th of April, 1856, Costa Rica’s national hero, Juan Santamaría, stood out for his heroic efforts.

Early on, Costa Rica adopted a policy in favour of teaching with the aim of ensuring the survival of democratic institutions. Free and compulsory education was established in 1869. Militarism is not successful, and the functioning of the country is solidly based on three clearly defined powers.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the country also knew social and economic transformation through the expansion of coffee exports and the institution of universal suffrage in 1889. The leaders adopted a liberal educational reform that benefited all Costa Ricans and strengthened our democratic pillars.

The birth of the Second Republic and the abolition of the army

In 1948, after the annulment of the elections by the Congress, supporters of opposition candidate Otilio Ulate launched an armed offensive, as they considered themselves the rightful winners of the election. A civil conflict broke out between supporters of Ulate, led by José Figueres, and the group that supported President Calderón Guardia. The confrontation extended for a few weeks, between March and April, but it left a deep mark in the country.

Supporters of Ulate win the conflict and Jose Figueres takes command of a military junta which remained in power for 18 months. At the end of this period, Figueres delivers power to Otilio Ulate, considered the winner of the annulled elections in 1948.

During the period of the military junta, a new constitution, which maintained the social legislation of the period of Calderón Guardia (1940-1944), is adopted. This gives rise to the Second Republic, in which we still are to this day. The new constitution creates an independent electoral power (the Tribunal Supremo Electoral or Supreme Electoral Tribunal) responsible for ensuring the transparency of future elections. On the other hand, José Figueres decided to abolish the army, considering that it involved unnecessary expenses and that it did not guarantee stability.

The commitment to peace

For over 60 years, Costa Rica has had no army, betting on the instruments that international law provides for solving disputes between nations. The abolition of the army has allowed, in particular, the financing of education, health and access to potable water and electricity. Since 1949, elections take place regularly every four years and the political change is part of the values and political principles of Costa Rica. The country’s commitment to unarmed peace was confirmed in 1983, when President Monge declared the perpetual, active and non-armed neutrality of Costa Rica in armed conflict. The compromise with peace had and extremely significant international boost in 1987, when President Oscar Arias Sánchez received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the signing of the peace accords that put an end to the armed conflicts in Central America.

Main source: Molina Jiménez, Iván; Palmer, Steven. History of Costa Rica: Brief, updated and illustrated. San Jose, Office of the University of Costa Rica, 1997.