The Republic of Costa Rica (meaning “rich coast”) is a country in Central America, bordered by Nicaragua to the North, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
Costa Rica abolished its army permanently in 1949. It is the only Latin American country in the list of the world’s 22 oldest democracies. Costa Rica has consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), ranked 62nd in the world in 2012.
Costa Rica was cited by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2010 as one of the countries that have attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels and, in 2011, was highlighted by UNDP for being a good performer on environmental sustainability and having a better record on human development and inequality than the median of their region. It was also the only country to meet all five criteria established to measure environmental sustainability. The country is ranked fifth in the world, and first among the Americas, in terms of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index.
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica first in its 2009 Happy Planet Index, and once again in 2012. The NEF also ranked Costa Rica in 2009 as the greenest country in the world.
In 2012, Costa Rica became the first country in the American continent to prohibit recreational hunting after the country’s legislature approved the popular measure by a wide margin.
In 2007, the Costa Rican government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021.
The new constitution, adopted in 1949, gave women the right to vote, dismantled the Costa Rican army, banned the communist party, nationalized banks, and established presidential term limits.
Historians have classified the indigenous people of Costa Rica as belonging to the intermediate area, where the peripheries of the Mesoamerican and Andean native cultures overlapped. More recently, pre-Columbian Costa Rica has also been described as part of the Isthmo-Columbian Area. The northwest of the country, Nicoya Peninsula, was the southernmost reach of the Nahuatl culture when the Spanish conquistadors “conquerors” arrived in the 16th century. The rest of the country was influenced by various Chibcha speaking indigenous groups.
The impact of indigenous people on modern Costa Rican culture has been relatively small compared to other nations, since the country lacked a strong native civilization to begin with. Most of the native population was absorbed into the Spanish-speaking colonial society through inter-marriage, except for some small remnants, the most significant of which are the Bribri and Boroca tribes who still inhabit the mountains of the Talamanca Maintain Range, in the southern part of Costa Rica, near the frontier with Panama.
Accounts differ as to whether the name la Costa Rica (Spanish for “rich coast”) was first applied by Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the eastern shores of Costa Rica during his final voyage in 1502.
During most of the colonial period, Costa Rica was the southernmost province of the General Captaincy of Guatemala, which was nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (i.e. Mexico), but which, in practice, operated as a largely autonomous entity within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica’s distance from the capital in Guatemala, its legal prohibition under Spanish law to trade with its southern neighbors in Panama, then part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (i.e. Colombia), and the lack of resources, such as gold and silver, made Costa Rica into a poor, isolated, and sparsely inhabited region within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica was described as “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America” by a Spanish governor in 1719.
Another important factor behind Costa Rica’s poverty was the lack of a significant indigenous population available for Encomienda (forced labor), which meant most of the Costa Rican settlers had to work on their own land, preventing the establishment of large Haciendas (properties). For all these reasons, Costa Rica was, by and large, unappreciated and overlooked by the Spanish Crown and left to develop on its own. The circumstances during this period are believed to have led to many of the idiosyncrasies for which Costa Rica has become known, while concomitantly setting the stage for Costa Rica’s development as a more egalitarian society than the rest of its neighbors. Costa Rica became a “rural democracy” with no oppressed mestizo or indigenous class. It was not long before Spanish settlers turned to the hills, where they found rich volcanic soil and a milder climate than that of the lowlands.
Like other Central American Countries, Costa Rica never fought for independence from Spain. On September 15, 1821, after the final Spanish defeat in the Mexican War of Independence (1810–21), the authorities in Guatemala declared the independence of all Central America. That date is still celebrated as Independence Day in Costa Rica, even though, technically, under the Spanish Constitution of 1812 that had been readopted in 1820, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had become an autonomous province with its capital in León.
Like other Central American nations, Costa Rica joined the short-lived First Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide but, after its collapse in 1823, Costa Rica became instead a province of the new Federal Republic of Central America, which theoretically existed from 1823 to 1839, but which exercised a very loose authority over its constituent provinces, particularly the poor and remote Costa Rica. In 1824, the Costa Rican capital was moved to San José, leading to a brief outburst of violence over rivalry with the old capital, Cartago. While civil wars raged both among the provinces of the Federal Republic of Central America and between political factions within individual provinces, Costa Rica remained largely at peace.
In 1838, long after the Federal Republic of Central America ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign. The considerable distance and poor communication routes between Guatemala City and the Central Plateau, where most of the Costa Rican population lived then and still lives now, meant the local population had little allegiance to the federal government in Guatemala. From colonial times to now, Costa Rica’s reluctance to become politically tied with the rest of Central America has been a major obstacle to efforts for greater regional integration.
Coffee was first planted in Costa Rica in the early 19th century, and was first shipped to Europe in 1843, soon becoming Costa Rica’s first major export. Coffee production would remain Costa Rica’s principal source of wealth well into the 20th century. Most of the coffee exported was grown around the main centers of population in the Central Plateau and then transported by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Since the main market for the coffee was in Europe, it soon became a high priority to develop a transportation route from the Central Plateau to the Atlantic Ocean. For this purpose, in the 1870s, the Costa Rican government contracted with U.S. businessman Minor C. Keith to build a railroad to the Caribbean port of Limón. Despite enormous difficulties with construction, disease, and financing, the railroad was completed in 1890.
Most Afro-Costa Ricans, who constitute about 3% of the country’s population, descend from Jamaican immigrants who worked in the construction of that railway. United States convicts, Italians and Chinese immigrants also participated in the construction project. In exchange for completing the railroad, the Costa Rican government granted Keith large tracts of land and a lease on the train route, which he used to produce bananas and export them to the United States. As a result, bananas came to rival coffee as the principal Costa Rican export, while foreign-owned corporations (including the United Fruit Company) began to hold a major role in the national economy.
Historically, Costa Rica has generally enjoyed greater peace and more consistent political stability compared with many of its fellow Latin American nations. Since the late 19th century, however, Costa Rica has experienced two significant periods of violence. In 1917–19, General Federico Tinoco Granados ruled as a military dictator until he was overthrown and forced into exile. The unpopularity of Tinoco’s regime led, after he was overthrown, to a considerable decline in the size, wealth, and political influence of the Costa Rican military. In 1948, José Figueres Ferrer led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election between the previous president Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia (he served as president between 1940 and 1944) and Otilio Ulate Blanco. With more than 2,000 dead, the resulting 44-day Costa Rican Civil War was the bloodiest event in Costa Rica during the 20th century.
The victorious rebels formed a government junta that abolished the military altogether, and oversaw the drafting of a new constitution by a democratically elected assembly. Having enacted these reforms, the junta relinquished its power on November 8, 1949, to the new democratic government. After the coup d’état, Figueres became a national hero, winning the country’s first democratic election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 13 presidential elections, the latest in 2010. All of them have been widely regarded by the international community as peaceful and transparent.