Monday, January 20, 2014

A Brief History of Costa Rica

article from May 26, 2011
by Julie R Butler

Costa Rica is one of the most well-known and well-established expat havens of them all, having been, for several decades, a popular location for people who want to escape to the jungle and live among tropical birds, immense greenness, incredible beaches, and lush alpine regions, as well as take advantage of all of the benefits of a country that has been very welcoming to tourists and expats. Sometimes referred to as “The Switzerland of Central America” for being the most stable democracy in the region, Costa Ricans are better educated and enjoy a higher standard of living than any of their neighbors in Central America.

Of course, the moniker also fits the country because it is very mountainous and full of cows (however, they are more likely to be beef cows than milk cows).

The indigenous situation

Like in Uruguay (The Switzerland of South America – with cows, but no mountains), the number of people of pre-Colombian indigenous decent is presently a very small portion of the population, and their sparse number has played an important role in the development of the country. Costa Rica’s location puts it at the peripheries of the Mesoamerican world to the north, and the Andean world to the south, and because the Isthmo-Colombian culture that existed from Caribbean and Southern parts of Central America to northern Colombia were not organized into as sophisticated and densely populated civilizations as their neighbors were, they were easily sidelined by both the Spanish conquistadores and later anthropologists. Also like in Uruguay, the region that is now Costa Rica was of little use to the Spanish because of its lack of copious amounts of gold, silver, and indigenous people to use as forced labor for large haciendas, so it long remained a remote backwater of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. As history has progressed into the present, many of the social problems that are based on the marginalization of indigenous peoples that are common throughout Latin America have been another thing lacking in Costa Rica and Uruguay, which has been a factor in the ability of both of these countries to achieve the kind of economic and social progress that they have.

Post-colonial Costa Rica

Yet another lacking that has had a lasting effect on Costa Rica is a penchant for war. In this respect, the country is unique to Latin America, because (unlike in Uruguay) it avoided the chaos of civil as well as regional strife that most other nations experienced after independence from Spain was declared. However, Costa Rica was not immune to the social problems caused by a railroad baron along with the associated land grabs by the United Fruit Company and other foreign-owned corporations, which brought the importation of Jamaicans and Chinese as well as US convicts as poorly paid laborers.

Nor was Costa Rica immune, in the 20th century, to one military dictatorship and one coup d’état with an ensuing bloody civil war, which is what brought about the abolition of the military in 1948. This action is credited with the freeing up funding for other purposes that has helped things to go relatively well for the Costa Ricans, although tensions with neighboring Nicaragua have been persistent, and being a “developing nation,” there are still many social and economic issues facing the Ticos.

Economic development

For a quick look at its economic development, back in 1843, Costa Rica began exporting coffee to Europe. Then came the railroad link to Limón on the Atlantic coast and the banana plantations, then other tropical products such as pineapple, sugar, and lumber, as well as beef.

It was during the 1980s when the famed ecotourism industry sprung into being. Beginning in the 1990s, foreign investment in the country’s free trade zones has also brought jobs and export revenue from electronics, pharmaceuticals, financial outsourcing, and software development. However, despite such foreign investment, the official focus on education and a social security net, and the sustainable ecotourism movement, the poverty rate has remained stubbornly fixed in the area of 15-20% for nearly twenty years, according the CIA World Factbook, and some are questioning just how much the Ticos have really benefited from the influx of foreign visitors and businesses.

But Costa Rica – with its amazing biodiversity, its stunning national parks, its gorgeous beaches, backed by mountainsides covered in more shades of green than seems possible, its fiery volcanoes, verdant jungles, life-sustaining waterways, and world-class surf, its surprisingly pleasant climate, and its Pura Vida attitude – cannot fail to be an inviting and invigorating place for nature lovers, whether to visit or to stay for a while.

[Image via Wikipedia]

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

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