Costa Rica has been unique throughout its history. Even in pre-Columbian times, it was a relative backwater, with a very low number of indigenous peoples. The Spaniards didn’t arrive until 1560 and the lack of mineral wealth and large numbers of native tribes forced settlers to work for themselves.
Following Independence in 1821 and the breakdown of the Central American Federal Republic in 1836, Costa Rica chose its first head of state: Governor Juan Mora Fernández. This visionary saw that Costa Rica’s relative poverty in crops, minerals and population called for unique measures, so he introduced agrarian reform and offered free land and free coffee seeds to any farmer who agreed to cultivate this crop for export. This reform benefited the country greatly, leading to better roads, ports, and general prosperity as exports grew.
A key event in Costa Rica’s history came in 1856 with the arrival of William Walker and his “Filibusters”. This mercenary wanted to annex Central America to the Southern U.S., thus making it an English-speaking slave state to support the South. He actually became Nicaragua’s Constitutional President before Central Americans united to boot him out. This war cost Costa Rica nearly 10 percent of its population, between war casualties and a simultaneous cholera epidemic. But it produced Costa Rica’s national hero, Juan Santamaría. In a key battle at the Santa Rosa hacienda in Guanacaste, Walker’s forces were defeated and forced to retreat. Walker was eventually executed in Honduras.
In 1870, another “gringo” arrived to influence Costa Rica in a big way, this time more positively. The government hired Minor Keith to build a railroad from Limon to the Central Valley in exchange for a land grant on both sides of the track. Keith planted bananas on this land and this crop eventually became Costa Rica’s top export.
Costa Rica prospered until the onset of both World Wars and the Great Depression. As conditions worsened, the Communist Party became the spokesman for disillusioned field workers. With the country on the brink of social revolution, an unlikely alliance formed in 1940 to chart the country’s unique course for the rest of the 20th century. Rafael Calderón Guardia teamed up with the Catholic Church and the Communist Party to implement the reforms that have made Costa Rica a leader in Latin America today. These reforms included socialized medicine, low-cost housing, child welfare, minimum wage laws, the university system, and many legal and constitutional reforms that gave important rights to citizens and workers.
The remaining reforms that have set Costa Rica apart were sparked by the country’s brief civil war in 1948. After a suspicious win by Calderon in the elections of that year, the his biggest critic, José “don Pepe” Figueres staged a coup that sparked a one month long civil war. The conflict ended in a compromise that preserved the reforms implemented in Calderón’s first term, while Figueres would head up a committee that would restore order and then turn power over to the true winner of the elections Otilio Ulate. Figueres abolished the Costa Rica’s army on December 1st, 1949. His army became the National Liberation Party, which went on to nationalize the banking system and public utilities, and furthered the educational and health reforms.
This unique history and unusual reforms have forged the Costa Rica we know today. It enables Costa Rica to attract foreign investment, industry and tourists to this tropical paradise and allows Ticos to enjoy what is arguably the best quality of life in all of Latin America.
**Article from the archives of the American-European Real Estate Group**