Costa Rica’s Interesting History

 September 9th, 2013 |    eric

The History of Costa Rica

All Costa Ricans refer to themselves as ‘Ticos’ short for ‘hermanticos’ or little brothers. The name originated during the colonial era when they differentiated themselves from other Central American countries because of their taller stature, fairer skin, and minimum indigenous cultural influence. After living here for fourteen years, I can truly attest they are proudly Costa Ricans first, and part of the Central American / Latin American population only as a fact that they have to admit to.

Before Columbus

It has taken me a while to understand today’s Tico culture and personality , and I now realize we need to begin putting the pieces together before Columbus arrived.

On his fourth and final voyage in 1502, Columbus found little evidence of human settlement in what is now present day Costa Rica. Neither the Andes and Mesoamerica civilizations to the south nor the advanced Aztec, Mayan or Olmec cultures of the northwest ever became embedded here. Only an estimated 200,000 indigenous people lived here in widely scattered chiefdoms, each with its own evolving micro-culture often bending to the interpretations of the chief. Of the little recent archaeological evidence discovered, the most noteworthy is Guayabo northeast of Cartago on the sides of Volcan Turrialba. You can visit it and see a place theorized by some as having some religious significance, others think it may be a central location for trade, more likely both. You will find the remnants of streets, cobblestone sidewalks, stone-lined ponds for water or swimming, even aqueducts, but still it was small compared to engineering marvels by the highly organized Mayan and Inca civilizations extending from opposite ends of Costa Rica.

Chiefdoms in the northern part of Costa Rica had similarities to civilizations towards Guatemala and Mexico, such as pottery and ceramic trade, central plazas in the middle of their towns, advanced agricultural irrigation systems for their corn and beans, a calendar, dried deer skin for writing, teeth filing (owch!) and an infatuation with enlarged genitalia in the jade figurines they carved representing the importance of fertility. They had elite comprised of high priests and nobles, and basically everyone else was obliged to co-operate with their whims. Slaves at the bottom were often sacrificed and eaten for self-purification, while virgins were sometimes tossed into the magma of nearby volcanic craters to appease the gods.

Costa Rica’s chiefdoms along the Caribbean coast had similarities of the Mesoamerican cultures, so they obviously migrated back from Equador and Brazil. They were semi-nomadic fishermen and hunters, their prestige was enhanced by bravery in war, using decapitated enemy heads as trophies. The moon and sun were worshiped, and they carried ancestors bones everywhere with them.

Chibcha Indians migrated from present day Colombia back to the Osa Peninsula region i the south Pacific coast. They believed in well-fortified permanent communal housing, tended their vegetable and their tuber gardens, and liked chewing cocoa. Most striking were two matriarchal groups (women leaders) that maintained a complex slave system for work and sacrifice. Like other Andes cultures, simple cloth was woven and traded through most of Costa Rica. Gold smithing may also have started on Osa Peninsula where gold was abundant for a while in the river beds. Later,up in the Costa Rican high Central Valley, the art was improved to make amulets and intricate animist works .

Sort of interesting, but where am I taking this? Costa Rica’s jungle clad rugged mountains and hot sticky bug and snake-filled swamplands separated the great civilizations, and Costa Rica was a hinterland of sorts, no man’s land. The indigenous people residing here were not under the control of any powerful civilization but used these civilizations as a starting point to develop their own cultural peculiarities.

The Spanish Arrive

Spanish slowly settled Costa Rica rather than conquering it. A relatively small number of indigenous people come in immediate contact with the Europeans. Most fought the new comers and many died by musket fire, or worse, of smallpox, tuberculosis, or ophthalmia to which they had no natural resistance. But in short order they were simply overwhelmed in number by this strange advanced culture and moved inland from the coast to less hospitable locations of Costa Rica’s rugged interior. All through Central America, saving indigenous souls by pressuring them into slavery was a smoke-screen for Spain’s insatiable desire for gold or other wealth accumulation. In other Spanish colonial lands, large groups of Indians were found and subjugated. However, in Costa Rica there was little interaction (or breeding) as few indigenous people survived and stayed on the coasts. Even to this day, the majority of the Tico population tend to have more height, lighter skin and more European facial features than populations found in other regions of Central America that heavily interbred with the native people.

In 1532 Pizarro was conquering Peru while silver was found in Mexico, both putting Costa Rica on the back burner. Juan Vasquez de Coronado, Costa Rica’s first governor, came in 1562 and passed laws preventing the system of encomiendas where settlers were allowed the right to forced indigenous labor. Because of so few native people available, he actually empathized with them, and was far ahead of his time for doing so. The settlers were forced to survive by their own means and wits. Vasquez even looked after his own fruit and vegetable gardens. Spanish settlers tended to be more attracted to the Guatemala area because of the large indigenous workforce available to exploit.

For more fertile volcanic soils, Vasquez moved inland from the coast following the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers to the slightly cooler Orosi Valley, then up the steep face to present day Cartago. Being away from the coast, Spain had even less influence over the settlers. As gold became depleted and because of transportation difficulties to export crops, a economy based on hand to mouth subsistence developed. With the land being rich and lots of rainfall, a little hard work went a long way to supporting large families. Neighbors had strong bonds working and sharing with each other. The settlers enjoyed their accomplishments which inspired an egalitarian, classless democratic society to evolve, and it can be seen in the Tico personality even today.

Over the next hundred years they expanded their operations and started exporting some of their produce, especially cacao. Then in 1665 Spain closed all Costa Rica’s ports in response to the plundering of British pirates and buccaneers, isolating the region once again. England’s unruly influence on the Caribbean coast of Central America was virtually uncontested for three hundred years, smuggling hardwoods and mahogany, rum and guns, all constantly chipping away at Spain’s authority. Costa Ricans were virtually forgotten, left to survive, evolve and grow from within, merely a footnote in Spain’s American colonial endevours.

In the northwest, Nicoya Peninsula and Guanacaste were physically similar to drier Nicaragua, and the region easily assisted the sea transport routes between Panama and Nicaragua, unhindered by pirates. As a result, Spain had more day to day control. Extensive cattle ranches flourished there, and the indigenous were required to work, but that was short lived, as without any incentive, as they moved to distant settlements. Slaves from Africa were therefore imported becoming an integral reason of the successes of cattle ranching. However, even after slavery was abolished, class divisions kept the blacks down

Costa Ricans rejected Spain’s port closures by the late 1700s, as their economy was thriving with exports of tobacco and wheat. Costa Rica finally received its independence from Spanish rule in 1821, and soon thereafter amalgamated with the United Provinces of Central America, its capital in Guatemala.

The independence news took a month to finally reach Costa Rica, but seemed to make little difference as the Ticos had always felt independent. With power struggles among the four largest cities in the Central Valley, Cartago, San Jose, Heredia and Alejuela, a short civil war broke out and the left-leaning republicans of San Jose won the honor of being the capital of Costa Rica. In 1824, Guanacaste voted to leave Nicaragua to join the more prosperous Costa Rica.

Great Leaders

Costa Rica was very fortunate or wise to always elect benevolent presidents who placed the welfare of the citizens ahead of any selfish motives, or the expanding fortunes of the rich. They chose to work from a weak power base of government authority allowing economies to develop organically in Costa Rica. The country was motivated by reform for all those concerned rather than change through repression. Politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers and most professionals having a say in Costa Rica’s future had received some of their education in either Europe or the more advanced Chile and Argentina. Their modern ideas became the cornerstone of Costa Rican government structure and policies.

Other Central American nations were constantly battling between the colonial laissez-faire liberal bureaucracies and the church, while the elite stole land from the campesinos creating huge coffee plantations. In Costa Rica however, the smaller coffee farmers were allowed to grow their own labor intensive coffee selling it to larger processing plants called beneficios, which were owned by larger plantation owners, all to process exportable amounts of coffee. Large and small worked together forming a real democracy long before other Central American countries. The wealthy mixed with the working class. The post-confederation government moved quickly establishing a Costa Rican-made judicial system, promoting public education and land transfer to citizens in the Mesita Central (Central Valley) who had the ambition for coffee cultivation.

After full Costa Rican independence in 1842, a few nuevo-elite coffee plantation owners contracted puppet generals to head up small armies to overthrow the presidents. However, it was all for not as even the newly- installed presidents were progressive looking, undermining the coffee barons initiatives. The coffee barons lost control over credit when a central bank was initiated, and a liberal national newspaper came into existence. Roads and other public infrastructure were built using taxes from the successful coffee exporting, while at the same time other neighboring nations were getting nowhere struggling against non-benevolent dictators.

In 1855, 5’2″ American William Walker wanted to legalize slavery within the Central American countries, amalgamating a confederate state to easily accommodate American business investors, with of course. him to be emperor. Walker’s mercenaries defeated Nicaragua, then headed southward to Guanacaste. They were pushed back to Nicaragua by a ragged group of Costa Rican campesinos and instant soldiers. Their drummer boy Juan Santamaria lost his life after volunteering to successfully ignite the fort Walker was taking refuge in, flushing Walker out to be captured. Santamaria became a national hero and the international airport today (near Adventure Inn) proudly is named after him.

Primary school in 1869 became free and obligatory. Waves of independent liberalized thinking for the betterment of the masses became the norm pre-empting all political processes within Costa Rica.

A Coffee Fix

Coffee barons by the 1870s realized that economic strength of the people was good for business, and their coup attempts to steer the presidency were generally counter-productive, deciding instead to fine tune economic policy by advising from a background position. Democratic elections were first held in 1889 and the standard of living within Costa Rica increased until 1929s great depression. Malnutrition in San Jose caused by a lack of work made the people question the coffee elite’s paternalistic liberalism. Many living in the city returned to the countryside, and because of the ideal growing conditions, hunger pangs and malnutrition were soon alleviated.

Blacks, nearly all from Limon Province were still not considered citizens, and were not allowed to travel southwest of Siquirres into the Central Valley. Before the depression, many worked plots of land without ownership. White highlanders dispossessed them of their land to grow huge banana plantations, but when the banana blight caused plantation companies to abandon their Caribbean holdings, many blacks repossessed their small plots growing cocoa at a nice profit.

President Calderon, in the early 1940s reformed the policy by allowing people title to land anywhere in Costa Rica if they would cultivate it, by permitting workers to unionize, and he started programs in social security,

minimum wage and holiday pay. World War II eroded the social programs enacted with inflation. He also unfortunately aligned himself with communists and the Catholic Church. In 1948, after election fraud claims, an exiled opposition leader, Pepe Figueres, siding with the middle classes, the liberals, the blacks and the businessmen gained presidency after 2,000 people died in a civil war. One can still see bullet holes on the walls of the National Museum buildings beside the National Democracy Park in San Jose. He banned communists, introduced voting rights for women, nationalized insurance and banking while creating an independent electoral tribunal.

Modern Day Costa Rica

Black support throughout the campaign was rewarded by Figueres when he abolished apartheid, and granted full citizenship. Today’s blacks in Costa Rica achieve consistently higher education grades than the Costa Rican average, and being trilingual (English, Patois, and Spanish) has allowed many to achieve higher positions in the work force including tourism and international business.

Figueres abolished a Costa Rican standing army, and the formation of military groups, suiting the national personality of peace and avoiding conflict. This has freed up financing for public expenditures such as health and education. Leaders have only been put in office by democratic elections as being neutral in Latin America and the Caribbean gives no legitimacy to those who would attempt overthrowing Costa Rica. Of course, this just plays right into Big Brother, United States’ hands was a friend and ally, with an interest in Costa Rica’s neutrality and prosperity in the region.

Democratic elections have taken place regularly since 1948, and power has routinely alternated between the conservative Social Christians and the more social liberals (PLN). The economy expanded until the 1980 economic crisis caused by high welfare and oil prices, trade disruptions with Nicaragua and other neighboring nations because of the Central American War, falling sugar, banana and coffee prices, and inflation causing the colon to devalue.

However Costa Rica continued to survive but became upset by the myopic US government’s ill-decision to jump in the war supporting the dictatorial right-wing Nicaraguan contras. Instead of accepting American foreign aid, Costa Ricans instead chose to elect non-violent advocate Oscar Arias to presidency in 1986. Ronald Reagan said Arias’s peace plan was fatally flawed, however Arias was able to convince the five presidents of the other Central American countries to sign the agreement which brought stability to the region by ending the Nicaraguan conflict. Arias espoused the risks to ensure peace would definitely be less than the irreparable costs of war. Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, and Ticos rightfully and proudly viewed it as belonging to all Ticos.

Throughout its recorded and unrecorded history, people living on the land of present day Costa Rica, because of its dense rainforests, its bug and snake infested swamps, and its jagged interior mountains, have all chosen to exist on the hinterland of civilization. A pleasant climate however, especially in the Central Valley, has allowed those here to work and grow their food to survive throughout history. Governors and presidents of Costa Rica have been conscious to fine tune the economy in an altruistic fashion, not only favoring the rich. And the wealthy have benefited by this policy, less dissention and more co-operation from the common people. Five centuries of recorded history since Columbus’s arrival have produced the peaceful, proud, self-deterministic, egalitarian Tico, people who have proven to succeed due to little bureaucratic regulation from within, and in spite of serious impositions coming from outside their borders. Necessity has become their mother of invention. Still to this day, nearly all Ticos feel that with diligent, hard work and intelligent ideas, anyone can attain a satisfactory level of wealth in their democratic society.ociety.