Costa Rica


1990 Census data


Along with the other Central American states, Costa Rica is geographically situated within the "Ring of Fire", a string of volcanoes which run from the western shores of South America well into the eastern shores of Asia. Costa Rica has thus suffered from violent volcanic eruptions and massive earthquakes throughout its history . The name "Costa Rica" means "rich coast" in Spanish, a name which does not accurately describe how the Spanish conquistadors perceived this region. Costa Rica lacked both of the assets which the Spanish settlers were searching for - valuable minerals (such as gold) and a large population capable of being turned into slaves. Thus, the first settlements in Costa Rica did not appear until well after the conquest of the Incas in Peru, and even then very few Spanish settlers arrived. Since the Spanish settlers in Costa Rica were unable to amass large personal fortunes, the colonial heierarchy which existed in other settlements never developed in Costa Rica, leaving all members of society to live more or less equally. Many historians believe that this level playing field created during Costa Rica's colonial period planted the roots which have led to its successful democratic society of today. 


Important Dates in Costa Rican History



"The Kingdom of Guatemala"

The entire Central American region, from Guatemala to Costa Rica, collectively declares its independence from Spain in 1821 and later from Mexico in 1823. The new sovereign state comprising the entire Central American region is named "the Kingdom of Guatemala".



late 1820's-30's

"The attempt for unity"

Liberal policies designed to promote equality and to protect native Indians and mestizos from discrimination are the norm in Guatemala. Yet high taxes for social welfare programs create tension, even amongst the Indian population. The Catholic Church helps right-wing conservatives opposed to the liberal policies to organize. Tensions also exist between peasants and privelged elites.





The Kingdom of Guatemala has been troubled since its inception, due largely to a lack of strong central government in the face of the competing interests of the different regions. Individual cities have developed their own militias, which at times fight each other concerning disputes over territory and governmental representation. In 1837, all-out civil war erupts across the Kingdom of Guatemala, and the national government of General Francisco Morazan disappears without fanfare in 1839 amidst all the fighting. Cessesions are made by newly independent Central American states along natural geographic boundaries, and the fighting finally ends in 1840.




"A new state"

The region of Costa Rica secedes from the Kingdom of Guatemala and becomes an independent state. Due to the horrific violence of the civil war, the Liberal parties across Central America have lost all political influence, and Conservative dictatorships will control the Costa Rican government until 1870.




"A slow start"

Economic development is slow in this period. The social structure resembles that of colonial times, and free trade with foreign nations is discouraged as the dictatorial governments impose high tariffs on imports. Distrust of foreign power leads to slow, if any, development of infrastructure (railroads, bridges, etc.).




"The coffee revolution begins"

Costa Rica becomes the first Central American state to export coffee. This highly-demanded crop is easily grown along the slopes of the mountains which dominate the interiors of many Central American states. Coffee would soon become Central America's most important export, yet its production required the investment of foreign business from Britain and the United States to construct railroads for its transport.




"Coffee boom!"

The industrial age begins, and coffee becomes the largest export of every Central American state except Nicaragua and Honduras, whose conservative governments choose to focus on the mining industry instead. Economic growth and modernization develop as foreign investments increase, yet profits are concentrated in the hands of wealthy landowners and international businessmen. In every state except Costa Rica, the feudal colonial system renews itself as peasants lose their lands to the coffee kings and are strong-armed into supplying labor for coffee-growing plantations. In Costa Rica, the small homogenous population outlaws the stealing of peasants' lands, and small scale subsistence farms continue to operate alongside the coffee-exporting giants.




"The birth of United Fruit"

Minor Keith receives a huge track of land in Costa Rica in exchange for building a railroad to link its Atlantic and Pacific shores. Keith uses his land and this railroad to export bananas, which eventually become a highly-demanded Central American export, even capable of rivaling coffee. Keith links together his company with other smaller banana exporters in Central America and the Boston Fruit Co, and the ologopoly becomes known as the United Fruit Co. By 1910, American companies such as United Fruit own 80% of the banana crop in Central America and most of the prime lands along the Carribean coast. By 1925, bananas comprise 88% of Honduran exports.



early 1900's

"A different stance"

Costa Rica is the only Central American nation to spend more money on education funds than on the military.




"The Big Stick"

World War I drastically reduces the amount of trade with European nations, and increases that with the United States. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt has advocated that the US government actively involve itself in the affairs of Central American politics in order to protect their overseas business interests. This official government policy is called the Roosevelt Corrolary, later nicknamed "The Big Stick" Policy. · U.S. investmets in Central America rose from $11.5 million in 1897 to $76.9 million by 1914, almost surpassing the region's highest investor Britain ($115 million). U.S. also refinanced many loans between Central American and European nations, thus making Central American countries more dependent on their northern neighbor. U.S. investmets came in form of banana companies, mines, shipping companies, and railroads. As Foster declares, "Foreigners controlled the natural resources; they owned the railroads and the telegraph lines they had built, along with the shipping lines and, often, the banks; in some instances, their (foreign) governments actually collected customs receipts - all as their price for modernizing the republic and lending them funds." (p. 189)




"The end of the Big Stick"

President Franklin D. Roosevelt repeals the Roosevelt Corrolary, thus ending the "Big Stick" policy with Central America. Roosevelt works to establish a good neighbor policy with Latin America by abolishing all US protectorates over Central American countries and establishing trade agreements to provide these nations with priveleged access to US markets, especially the coffee market.