Costa Rica’s Colorful History
While small, Costa Rica has a long and dynamic history. Like other Central and South American countries, it has seen its share of turbulence and governmental upheavals. However, it has emerged to become a prosperous and democratic nation that has taken great strides to stay neutral and promote peace in a sometimes troubled area.
Archaeological evidence shows that Costa Rica has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. However, hard-won resources and difficult terrain kept the population low — only a few hundred thousand people lived in the region at the time of its discovery by the Europeans in the 16th century.
Costa Rica was, in fact discovered by Columbus in 15xx. The natives cheered the arrival of the Europeans, but their joy quickly turned to grief and suffering as they were decimated by the smallpox, virus, which was brought by European settlers. Unlike some other Central and South American countries, there is very little indigenous influence in Costa Rica – 93 percent of today’s inhabitants are white.
Costa Rica struggled in its early years, having to fight first for independence from Spain, then for sovereignty from Mexico. While the country has always stayed on a progressive track, there have been stumbling blocks. Costa Rica’s first president was overthrown by powerful coffee barons, and at various times, the government has fallen under military rule. In 1870, General Tomas Guardia seized control of the government. However, rather than imposing a dictatorship, he is credited with instituting some of the country’s most progressive and beneficial educational, military and tax reforms.
In 1948, Costa Rica endured a civil war when President Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon, a socially progressive, yet corrupt leader, lost the presidential re-election, but refused to give up power. The war was short-lived — Jose Maria Figueres Ferrer, who had been exiled for speaking out against Calderon on the radio — defeated Calderon with a legion of fighters he had assembled in 44 days. Ferrer served as president three separate times, and proved to be one of Costa Rica’s most influential, popular and progressive leaders.
Ferrer ushered in banking, political and civil rights reforms that let to nationalized banks, the banning of the communist party, and voting rights for women and blacks. In 1948, Ferrer abolished the military and redirected military funds into education, the environment and the police force, making Costa Rica one of the most peaceable and progressive nations in Latin America.
Even though Costa Rica doesn’t have a military, it’s a safe and welcoming place. The large and well-equipped police force is skilled at keeping order. What’s more, the country has taken great strides to keep conflict at bay. In 1987, President Oscar Arias Sanchez won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ridding the country of the Sandinistas and Contras and putting an end to the Nicaraguan Civil War. He fostered a regional peace plan, and got all five Central American presidents to sign it.
In the end, Costa Rica’s long history of progressive politics and commitment to neutrality and peace have justly earned it the nickname of “the Switzerland of Central America.”