Costa Rican History

Costa Ricans call themselves “Ticos” cut short from “hermaniticos” (little brothers) originating in colonial times when they distinguished themselves from their neighbors for their fair skin, taller stature and lack of influence by the indigenous culture. They are proudly Costa Ricans first and foremost, and Central Americans or Latin Americans only as an afterthought.

Before Columbus

To understand the contemporary Tico personality and culture, however, we should begin with their past. Pre-Columbian Costa Rica left little evidence of human settlement. Neither the complex Aztec, Olmec nor Mayan cultures to the northwest nor the Mesoamerica and the Andes civilizations to the south ever became firmly embedded in present day Costa Rica. An estimated two hundred thousand indigenous people lived in present day Costa Rica by the time Columbus arrived on his fourth and final voyage in 1502. Up to twenty five distinctive broadly scattered chiefdoms lived here, and through isolation, each evolved and maintained its own unique culture and identity.

Generally, little archaeological evidence has been discovered in Costa Rica The most advanced and largest of Costa Rica’s original peoples, the Chorotegas (meaning fleeing people) migrated to the Nicoya Peninsula around 500 A.D. from southern Mexico said to be escaping slavery. Their language, calendar and customs stemmed from the advanced cultures of Mexico and Guatemala, as their language, Nahua, had distinctly Aztec origins.

The Chorotegas lived in wooden long houses with roofs of thatch, and were excellent farmers. Their advanced agriculture and irrigation techniques allowed them to grow substantial harvests in corn, cotton, fruits, beans and cacao. They used cacao seeds as their currency. Harvests were shared communally according to need so that even the elderly and weak would survive. They had trade in pottery and ceramic objects, primarily crocodiles, serpents, jaguars and monkeys painted red and black. Towns had central plazas, they had a calendar and wrote on deer skin parchments, some filed their teeth and expressed the importance of fertility rights by the enlarged genitalia of their carved jade figurines. Their slave system reflected a strict class structure with the high priests and nobles making up the elite. Some slaves were sacrificed to the gods and later eaten for purification. Virgins were occasionally thrown into volcanic craters.

The chiefdoms along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica showed some similarities to the Mesoamerican cultures of Ecuador and Brazil, semi-nomadic hunters and fishermen and grew several crops such as pumpkin, yucca, and squash. Chiefs were decided through maternal bloodlines. Both sexes gained social prestige as warriors and used the decapitated heads of enemies as trophies. They worshiped the sun, moon and bones of ancestors.

The Chibcha Indians on the southern Pacific coast migrated from Columbia. They lived in permanent well-fortified communal huts, tended vegetable and tuber gardens, chewed cocoa, and were constantly a war with each other for the best land. Two matriarchal groups maintained a sophisticated slave system and used their slaves for human sacrifices. Like Andes cultures, they wove simple cloth for trade throughout Costa Rica. Security was heavy probably because golds gathering and smithing may have started on the Osa Peninsula where gold was once plentiful in the river beds. The art was later refined in the Central Valley where they made intricate amulets and animist works.

The Chibcha were presumed to have created Costa Rica’s greatest indigenous mystery, the creation of perfectly round granite spheres, some only a few centimeters across, others up to two meters and weighing fifteen tons. They have been found in linear formations within the Terraba Rio valley and on Isla del Cano ten miles off shore from the Osa Peninsula. How and why they were created is a mystery, some say turning over and over hydraulically at the bottom of powerful waterfalls, others think they were hand produced, and how they got there, the closest source of granite was thirty kilometers away is also a mystery. These spheres and imitations can be found today decorating the front lawns of wealthy Ticos throughout Costa Rica.

The Corobicís were the dominant group in the Central Valley. They farmed and were hunter-gatherers living in tiny tribes. Their excellence in gold smithing (gold nuggets coming from the Chibcha) produced exquisite figurines and amulets, which they traded back to the tribes of the lowlands.

In the Talamancas highlands, the Guaymí and Cabécar tribes were mainly hunters and gatherers, revering the jaguar, living in harmony with nature, and respecting the Shamans within their community. The most notable of all Costa Rican archaeological finds is the city called Guayabo, east of San Jose on the sides of Mount Turrialba, thought to be of some major religious significance and/or a place of trade. It had streets, cobblestone walkways, stone-lined pools and aqueducts but was nothing compared to the vast engineering wonders accomplished by the civilizations to the north and south.

Interesting but where is this all leading? The rugged, jungle clad mountains and sweltering swamplands that occupy present day Costa Rica separated these great civilizations. Indigenous people that inhabited the region were not controlled by any powerful civilization but made their own rules within each chiefdom.

Spanish Arrival

The Spanish conquest was more like a slow steady settlement. The few Indians that did not die by the musket ball or newly introduced smallpox, ophthalmia and tuberculosis for which they had no natural resistance, first resisted but were soon overwhelmed by the increasing number of Spanish settlers. They moved away from the coast to the less hospitable lands in the rugged interior. Throughout the isthmus, Spain’s voracious hunger for gold was disguised as saving Indian souls by forcing them into slavery. However, unlike other Spanish colonies where large indigenous populations were found, the Spaniards in Costa Rica had little interaction or intermarriage with the few Indians that remained, and to this day, Costa Ricans tend to be taller, more fair skinned and more European featured than people found elsewhere in Central America.

Pizarro’s conquests of Peru in 1532 and the silver strikes in Mexico drew attention away from Costa Rica. Then in 1562, the first governor, Juan Vasquez de Coronado, made some unusual laws. With so few Indians to be found, he empathized with the remaining few and did not allow the system encomiendas where settlers were allowed the right to forced Indian labor. The settlers had to survive on their own. Even the governor tended his own garden. Many Spanish settlers therefore chose Guatemala because there was a large native workforce available.

Vasquez moved his center of operations inland to the cooler Cartago Valley because the rich volcanic soils encouraged crop cultivation. This isolated the majority of settlers from Spain’s seaside influence. With the depletion of gold and few crops to export, a subsistence economy developed. However the land was rich and the rainfall plentiful, and with hard work, self-sufficient settlers could provide a comfortable living for their families. They created strong social bonds with neighbours, and took pride in their individual accomplishments, thus inspiring a classless, egalitarian and democratic society to emerge. This can still be seen in the attitudes of many Costa Ricans today.

Just as the economy started to pull out of its state of subsistence, in 1665 the Spanish closed all Caribbean ports in Costa Rica in response to English buccaneers and pirates. This further isolated the region, and cut off legal trade by sea of their prosperous cocoa. For three hundred years the British had an unruly influence along the whole Caribbean coast of Central America, undermining and weakening Spanish authority and hampering Spanish settlement. The smuggling of logwoods and mahogany accelerated, and gun and rum running were all but uncontested. Once again the Costa Ricans were left alone to grow and develop from within, virtually forgotten and just a footnote in Spanish American colonialism.

The northwest Nicoya Peninsula and the Guanacaste region is more physically linked and similar to Nicaragua than Costa Rica. It most easily facilitated the transportation routes between Nicaragua and Panama, and thus was under more day to day Spanish control. Large cattle ranches also flourished in this drier region. Indians were required to work but did for only for a short time, then moved into distant settlements. As a result, slaves from Africa were imported and became an integral part of the success of cattle ranching, but class divisions were still prominent there.

By the late 1700’s, bucking Spain’s port closures, the economy started to thrive with the exports of wheat and tobacco. In 1821, Costa Rica received independence from Spain, and in two years became part of the United Provinces of Central America with its capital in Guatemala. The news of independence took a full month to reach Costa Rica, but made little difference. It was independent already. There were power struggles amongst the four leading cities in Costa Rica but after a brief civil war, the liberal republican forces of San Jose were victorious. Guanacaste voted to secede from Nicaragua and join Costa Rica in 1824.

A History of Great Leaders

Nearly all the governors and later the presidents of Costa Rica have ruled the country in a benevolent fashion placing the good of all ahead of selfish motives of the rich. They worked from a weakened power base thus allowing natural economic forces to develop the country. It was more prone to reform than repression. Many lawyers turned politicians, engineers, doctors, economists, teachers and other professional people who had a say in the future of Costa Rica received part of their education in Europe and progressive Latin American countries such as Chile and Argentina. Their contemporary ideas became the cornerstones of Costa Rican policy and governmental structure.

The other nations on the isthmus spent generations at war as the church and colonial bureaucracies battled the laissez-faire liberals, as the elite forced campesinos off their land to create large coffee plantations. In Costa Rica small coffee farmers were encouraged to tend their labor-intensive coffee and sell it to the processing plants (beneficios) owned by the larger plantation owners to process it for export. The small and large worked together entrenching true democracy much before the other Central American nations. The first official government after confederation quickly moved to establish a home-made Costa Rican judicial system, promoted public education and land was transferred to those in the Mesita Central who wished to cultivate coffee.

With full independence claimed by 1842, some nuevo-elite coffee barons hired puppet generals to lead small armies into presidential overthrows. But even then, newly installed presidents were forward thinking, to the detriment of the coffee barons themselves. A central bank was created reducing the power coffee barons had over credit, and a national newspaper was established. While other nations in Central America were still in a power struggle against tyrannical dictators, Costa Rica created roads and other public facilities largely from taxing the successful coffee industry.

In 1855 American William Walker had dreams of legalizing slavery and making the five Central American countries a confederated state that easily accommodated American business ventures, with him as emperor. After he and his mercenaries captured Nicaragua, they headed south to Guanacaste but were turned back by a ragtag band of Costa Rican campesinos and makeshift soldiers. In Nicaragua, the drummer boy, Juan Santamaria volunteered to burn down a fort that Walker took refuge in, successfully flushing Walker out into the open. Santamaria lost his life but became a national hero, and today the international airport proudly bares his name.

In 1869 primary school became free and mandatory. Liberalization increased with waves of independent thinking Europeans and the consciousness of the masses pre-empted all national political processes.

The Coffee Fix

By the 1870’s the coffee barons were realizing that the strength of the general economy was good for business and that their military lead offensives were for the most part counter-productive. They stayed in the background using their influence to fine tune the economy. The first democratic elections were in 1889. The general standard of living continuously increased until the Great Depression of 1929. Unemployment and malnutrition in San Jose and the other urban areas caused the masses to question the paternalistic liberalism of the coffee elite. Some city dwellers were forced to return to the land. But with the soils so rich, and rainfall plentiful, nourishment from hunger pangs could usually be remedied.

Historically the blacks were not considered citizens. Until the depression they successfully worked their plots of land, but without citizenship or the right to own land, they were dispossessed of their land and high paying jobs in the banana industry by the “white” highlanders. When the banana blight forced companies to abandon their Caribbean plantations, laws were passed restricting blacks from working outside of the Province of Limon, or from even traveling past Siquirres into the highlands. Many reclaimed their subsistence plots and grew cocoa at a profit.

In the early 1940’s President Calderon offered a reform policy allowing people to gain title to land if they cultivated it anywhere in Costa Rica. He also permitted workers the right to unionize, and started social security, holiday pay and a minimum wage. The Second World War slowed spending, and these social programs eroded his tax base causing high inflation. Unfortunately for him, he also aligned himself with the Church and communists. With claims of election fraud, the former exiled opposition leader “Don Pepe” Figueres who sided with the middle class liberals and businessmen took over power after two thousand people were killed in the 1948 Civil War. During his presidency he banned the communist party, introduced suffrage for women. He also nationalized banking and insurance and created an independent Electoral Tribunal.

Modern Day Costa Rica

Figueres rewarded black support by abolishing apartheid, and granting full citizenship. Today the blacks of Costa Rica consistently achieve higher education levels than the national average, and being bilingual has prompted many into the higher echelons of international business, and in tourism.

Figueres also abolished the standing army (including his own) which suited the national character of avoiding conflict. It freed up money for health, education and other public expenditures. It forbade the formation of military groups with eyes on taking over. Democratic elections became the only route to leadership, and being neutral in the region gave no legitimacy to others who would try overthrowing Costa Rica. Of course the United States was an ally and friend, and had a vested interest in Costa Rica’s continued prosperity.

Democratically held elections have occurred since 1948, with the balance of power routinely alternating between the left-leaning social liberals (PLN) and the conservative Social Christians. The formula worked well and the economy grew until the 1980 economic crisis. It was caused by a combination of factors, high welfare and oil costs, regional trade disruptions from the war in Nicaragua, falling banana, sugar and coffee prices, and the resulting inflation leading to currency devaluation. But Costa Rica survived the crisis, and more. Encouraged by the myopic US government to enter the war and support the re-establishment of the dictatorial right wing Nicaraguan contras in exchange for foreign aid, the Ticos chose instead to elect peace advocate Oscar Arias as president in 1986. His peace plan was said by Ronald Reagan to be “fatally flawed”, however Arias convinced five Central American presidents to sign the plan ending the Nicaraguan revolution bringing stability to the region. Arias emphasized the risks they ran to ensure peace would always be less than the irreparable cost of war. In 1987 when Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize, Ticos proudly viewed it as their own.

Throughout history, those occupying the land of present day Costa Rica, with its forbidding dense rainforests, snake infested swamp lands, and rugged interior have been pushed to the outback of civilization. Costa Rican governors and presidents have fine tuned the economic policy for the good of all, not just favoring the rich. The elite benefited as well, with less dissention among the masses. The five centuries of history since Columbus have shown that the proud, peaceful, egalitarian, self-deterministic Ticos have been able to succeed because of little bureaucratic imposition from within, and regardless of serious restrictions imposed from outside. Necessity became the mother of invention. Even today most Ticos believe that with diligent work and the right ideas, nearly anyone can reach the upper limits of wealth in this democratic society.

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