Brief History of Costa Rica

In Pre-Columbian times the Native Americans in what is now Costa Rica were part of the Intermediate Area, between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions

In 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus made the first European landfall in the area. Settlement of Costa Rica began in 1522. The native peoples were conquered by Spain in the 16th century. Costa Rica was then the southern-most province in the Spanish territory of New Spain. The provincial capital was in Cartago.

For nearly three centuries, Spain administered the region as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala under a military governor. The Spanish called the country "Rich Coast" in the hopes of finding gold or other riches. However, what Costa Rica offered them was rich volcanic soils very adecuate for agriculture.

The small landowners' relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population's ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica's isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes, contributed to the development of an autonomous and individualistic agrarian society. An egalitarian tradition also arose. This tradition survived the widened class distinctions brought on by the 19th century introduction of banana and coffee cultivation. This led to the accumulation of wealth mainly during the 19th century.

Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 in a joint declaration of independence from Spain. After a brief time in the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (see: History of Mexico and Mexican Empire) Costa Rica became a state in the United States of Central America (see: History of Central America) from 1823 to 1839. In 1824 the capital was moved to San José. Although the newly independent provinces formed a Federation, border disputes broke out among them, adding to the region's turbulent history and conditions. Costa Rica's northern Guanacaste Province was annexed from Nicaragua in one such regional dispute. In 1838, long after the Central American Federation ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign.

An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Rica began in 1899 with elections considered the first truly free and honest ones in the country's history.

Costa Rica has avoided much of the violence that has plagued much of Central America. Since the late 19th century, only two brief periods of violence have marred its democratic development. In 1917-19, Federico Tinoco ruled as a dictator, and, in 1948, José Figueres Ferrer led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election.In 1949, José Figueres Ferrer abolished the army; and since then, Costa Rica has been one of the few countries to operate within the democratic system without the assistance of a military.

With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day civil war resulting from this uprising was the bloodiest event in 20th-century Costa Rican history, but the victorious junta drafted a constitution guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the military. Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 11 presidential elections, the latest in 2002.

Although still a largely agricultural country, it has achieved a relatively high standard of living. Land ownership is widespread. Tourism is a rapidly expanding industry.

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