Even before the first Spaniards arrived, what was to become Costa Rica differed from neighboring lands. To the north, in what are now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and to the south, in mainland South America, civilizations arose based on the cultivation and harvest of bountiful crops of corn by large groups of settled people. Some societies were so powerful and complex that they altered the landscape with great cities, subjugated peoples for hundreds of miles around, traded regularly with distant lands, wrote histories, and made complex astronomical calculations.
Archaeologists have been able to trace a shadowy cultural history of the first peoples of Costa Rica, using the objects they left behind. Pottery from Nicoya from before the time of Christ shows similarities to Mesoamerican styles of the period, with red coloring on a buff background. Elsewhere in Costa Rica, pottery was made in a single color, as in South America. A few hundred years later, jade appeared in Nicoya and central Costa Rica, probably imported from Guatemala.
The northern influence is evident also in the appearance at the same time of the Mexican god Tlaloc on pottery in Guanacaste, in the northwest. In the sixth century, gold from South America began to appear in southern Costa Rica, possibly following the fall of the empire of Teotihuacán in Mexico, and the disruption of maritime trade routes.
By 1000 A.D., multicolored pottery was the norm in Guanacaste and Nicoya, and houses were built in rectangular shapes, all attributes of cultures to the north. Elsewhere in Costa Rica, houses were circular, while pottery featured appliquéd decoration, both characteristics of areas to the south. But while some of the influences of north and south are evident, the dividing line between the two in Costa Rica was generally faint and meandering.
In Costa Rica, there was no empire to be subdued, and usually no surrender. Riches were elusive, and few slaves were imported. Soldiers and fortune-hunters gave way to subsistence farmers. With the passage of time, the settlement came to have more in common with English and French colonies in North America than with other Spanish dominions.
It was Christopher Columbus himself who discovered Costa Rica and whose sailors were the first Europeans to be discovered by the natives of Costa Rica. The encounter took place on or soon after September 18, 1502, when Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World, took shelter from a storm at what is now Uvita Island, just off the port of Limón.
Short-lived settlements were established on both coasts, but for more than half a century from the arrival of Columbus, there was no permanent Spanish foothold. Finally, in 1561, Juan de Cavallón, with a party of Spaniards and domestic animals, founded the successful settlement of Garcimuñoz in the Pacific lowlands. For lack of finding gold, however, Cavallón himself withdrew.
It was under Juan Vásquez de Coronado, Cavallóns successor as governor, that Costa Ricas course began to differ from that of the other Spanish provinces. The search for gold was abandoned, and Vásquez attempted to deal with the natives in friendship. Spaniards cultivated crops for their own consumption, lived mostly in peace, but achieved no great prosperity.
Despite the initial peaceful settlement of the valley, conflict with the natives was inevitable, and the Spaniards dealt with them in characteristically harsh fashion. A few were subjected, and came to live peacefully alongside the Spaniards, to serve them and eventually to intermarry with them. Others were conquered and removed to areas where they could be easily watched over. By far the largest numbers refused to submit.
Without native labor to exploit, without crops to grow for export on a large scale, restricted in trade by Spanish mercantile policy, hemmed into a small valley by hostile environments, Costa Rica stagnated, and the very name of the colony (Rich Coast) must at times have seemed a cruel hoax. No great public buildings were erected. Little moved out of the province but small amounts of meat, cacao, honey and potatoes. Traders faced a journey to port made hazardous by Indians. Sea traffic was ravaged by pirates.
Independence, when it came, had little initial effect on Costa Rica. Spain had administered the five Central American provinces from Guatemala; toward the end of the colonial period, Costa Rica was reduced to the status of a dependency of Nicaragua. In practice, however, Costa Rica had long gone its own way. Without the ambitions and class conflicts of the other colonies, living at subsistence, Costa Rica required only minimal government.
News of the independence of Central America, declared in Guatemala on September 15, 1821, reached Costa Rica at the end of the year. A provincial government was hastily formed, and soon acceded to annexation to Mexico. Opinion on the association was divided, however, and a short civil war was fought. The forces of the town of San Jose, rejecting Mexico, gained the upper hand. In the end, the Mexican empire collapsed in 1823, and Costa Rica joined the United Provinces of Central America, with full autonomy in its internal affairs. The most important result of independence was the elimination of Spanish trading restrictions, but since the world was not beating a path to Costa Ricas door, even this freedom was of limited value.
In 1848, all connections with the moribund Central American federation were severed. A strong leader emerged once again in 1849 with the election to the presidency of Juan Rafael Mora, a representative of the new coffee aristocracy.
The topsy-turvy politics of Costa Rica in the nineteenth century were only a sideshow to the economic changes that were taking place. Costa Rica was transformed, as coffee came to be cultivated on a large scale.
Inevitably, the rewards of coffee cultivation were not distributed evenly. Some families acquired large expanses of land, transformed their wealth into political power, and developed tastes for culture and the finer things in life that the nation had done without for so long. But despite the emergence of a class structure, there appeared to be land and profit enough for all, and no sector of society failed to advance.
Although he was autocratic, Tomás Guardia saw himself as a benefactor of his people. Under his government and those of his two successors roads were built and improved, public buildings erected, capital punishment abolished, and primary education made free and compulsory, and independent of the church. Coffee earnings, and borrowings against future earnings, financed the expenditures.
The problems of shipping coffee led indirectly to the development of a second major export crop. Coffee was sent by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas, then on a long voyage around South America to markets in the eastern United States and Europe. To shorten the journey President Guardia ordered the construction of a railroad line to the Atlantic. Bananas were planted as a stop-gap measure to provide revenue for the financially troubled project. The new crop proved immensely profitable, and large areas were soon planted in the fruit.
Costa Ricas modern, democratic tradition started with the election of 1889, the first that was honest, open, and direct. Peaceful transitions of power, and more active participation in politics by all sectors of the population, characterized the years that followed.
Under Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, a physician who became President in 1940, the measured pace of reform continued as the first social security legislation was enacted. Calderón was to be one of the more Controversial figures in modern Costa Rica. His social programs -including paid vacations, unemployment compensation and an income tax- and his early declaration of war on Germany, offended many of his original conservative supporters.
In 1948, Calderón ran again for the presidency, and lost to Otilio Ulate. But the government claimed fraud, and the legislature annulled the results. Tensions rose, and finally broke out into an open rebellion led by José Figueres. Armed by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba the rebels prevailed in a few weeks over the army The short civil war was the bloodiest in Costa Ricas history, with more than 2000 killed.
José Figueres led an interim administration that attempted to restore order to a disrupted nation. Banks were nationalized and taxes restructured. Most curiously following a civil war, and amid threats from; domestic plotters and opponents in exile, Figueres and his allies chose not to purge and restructure the army, but to abolish it altogether, retaining only those elements of the old security forces that they considered appropriate in the Costa Rican context: a national police force, and the military bands.
A constituent assembly proceeded to write a constitution that rejected some of Figueres proposals, but extended welfare programs, gave the vote to women, ended discrimination against blacks, and established an electoral tribunal with broad powers to ensure the honesty of elections. Following the legislative elections of 1949, Figueres stepped side, and Otilio Ulate, the victor of the disputed 1948 vote, assured office as president.
Despite the bitterness of the civil war, politics in Costa Rica since 1948 have been remarkably peaceful and democratic. Exiles have threatened evasions on two occasions, but have found no internal support, and their movements have fizzled. José Figueres himself twice served as president, from 1953 to 1957 and from 1970 to 1974, and his National Liberation Party has dominated electoral politics. But it has only twice held the residency for more than a single term.
Through the 1980s, unstable coffee prices, oil bills, disruptions of trade in the Central American Common Market, the arrival of refugees from Nicaragua, the shutdown of banana plantations in the face of higher taxes and labor strife, and the costs of social programs all gave the society and economy a jolt. The government has at times been hard-pressed to meet payments on loans from abroad, which take up most export earnings, and the currency has been regularly devalued. National income as fallen in some years, and unemployment has risen.
Elsewhere in the region, economic crises have led to turmoil and bloodshed. In Costa Rica, administrations that have failed to stabilize the economy have been turned out of office democratically. But while Costa Ricans are proud of their stability, it has provided little consolation when they have had to make do with less.
Internationally, Costa Rica has continued to exert a strong moral influence as a nation that has officially renounced the use of arms. Administrations have generally been pro-Western, and some have given more than passive support to armed movements in neighboring countries.
Most recently, reconciliation between all parties in conflict in Central America has been actively promoted. For his key role in putting together a regional peace plan, President Oscar Arias was awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
The successor to Arias is Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, son of former president Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia. Calderón took office in 1990 with strong business support, coming back after a string of electoral defeats. He has promised to streamline Costa Ricas bureaucracy and pay more attention to domestic problems than his predecessor. But under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund, his first actions included unpopular increases in sales taxes and fees for government services.