Country Profile – History

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Human settlement in Costa Rica dates back around the year 5000 A.C., but in comparison to the great pre-Hispanic civilizations on the American Continent the aboriginals of Costa Rica were not numerous nor did they reach a high level of development.

The Constitution forced on November 7th, 1949, defines Costa Rica as a Democratic Republic.  It abolished its army in 1948, consolidating Costa Rica’s vocation of peace and democracy which Costa Ricans have always enjoyed. The only security forces are the Civil Guard and the Rural Guard.  Instead of spending money on soldiers and arms, Costa Rica has invested these resources in health and education.  This decision has made of this country a town of peaceful and pacifist people.

During the pre-Columbian times when America was discovered, there were different groups of aboriginals. With a calculated population of around 40,000, people were divided into different kingdoms and grouped together into basically two large cultures: Mesoamerican (Mayas and Aztecs) on one hand and the South American culture on the other.

Costa Rica seemed to be where both cultural traditions came together and for this reason it became a major area of transit and trade.  This explains the great variety of cultural richness found within such a small territory.  The country’s population was spread out in small villages and tribes.

On the Caribbean side there were small and very disperse groups of people, often of only a few dozen in each groups.  In what is known as the Central Valley today, there were very well defined tribes with hierarchies.  There were not very many of them.  In the case of the Caribbean region, they were never subdued and because of their fierceness the Spaniards were unsuccessful in conquering them.

On September 18th, 1502, during Christopher Columbus’s fourth and last voyage to the New World, he discovered the eastern coast of Costa Rica.  During this trip, he anchored his ship in front of the island that the natives called Quiribrí, in what is now the city of Limon.  He called the island La Huerta.  Today it is known as Uvita Island.

The process of conquering and destroying the existing structures of the Indian societies and chiefdoms of this country during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is known as the first and second stages of the Conquest of the Province of Costa Rica.

The first stage starts in 1522 with Andres Niño and Gil González Dávila’s expedition.  They did not enter the interior of the province. Niño travelled through the Pacific coastline from Burica to Caldera and later he continues to Nicaragua. González Dávila headed 100 men and covered the southeast coast of the country by land until he reached the town of Abancari, today the Cantón (county) of Puntarenas. He also visited Caldera and the Nicoya Peninsula at Diriá (Santa Cruz) and continued towards Nicaragua. This first stage is characterized by brief contacts with the aboriginals in these areas. In 1524, Francisco de Córdoba founded Villa Bruselas on the east coast of the Gulf of Nicoya as the first Spanish settlement in Costa Rica.

In 1540, the King of Spain Charles V conferred on the title of Provincial Governor of the Province of Cartago and Costa Rica upon the Conquerer Diego de Gutiérrez.  Three years later Gutierrez founded Villa Santiago, near the Suerre River delta (today known as Pacuare). In 1544, Diego de Gutiérrez founded the city of San Francisco, thirty kilometers inland from his first settlement.  However, he died this same year, and both settlements were dismantled.

In 1561, the Spaniards entered the interior of the province. Juan de Cavallón and Father Juan de Estrada Rávago began a new conquest.  Juan de Cavallón started his conquest in what is now known as Guanacaste. Accompanied by 90 Spanish soldiers and several African slaves, he entered the area bringing cattle and seeds with the intention of colonizing and peacefully taking over the area.  This is how he became the first to establish a settlement in the Central Valley calling it Ciudad de Garcimuñoz (City of Garcimuñoz) in March, 1561.

In 1562, Juan Vázquez de Coronado is appointed as the new Governor.  He had followed the route taken by Cavallón. He raided the areas during his marches to the point of moving Ciudad de Garcimuñoz to Guarco Valley and changing its name to Cartago. Even so, the life of this city was short-lived.

The late conquest and colonization of the Central Valley (1561) made it possible for the entire territory of the Province of Costa Rica to be under the jurisdiction of the Government of Cartago who, along with its Governor, monopolized the control over all the political, economical, social and cultural power of the entire province. In 1601, Costa Rica opened a road to Panama called the “Camino de las Mulas” or the Mule Path.

In the same manner, they continued to decimate the natives.  When Perafán de Rivera was named Governor, he established a system where the Spaniards were given a certain number of Indians over which they were to be responsible, and in return for protecting them, they could extract tribute from them in the form of labor, gold or other products (1569).

One must remember that before 1542, this system of distributing Indians was equivalent to outright slavery.  However, under the new laws put forth by Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, the concept was changed to become more of one of service.  Thus the Indians worked for the Spaniards.  After 1550, they established the system almost as a tax to the Indian which was paid for through work.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was further colonization of the Province of Costa Rica, but this process was slow. This was due to the scarcity of indigenous manpower which made commerce little attractive. It is a fact that Costa Rica was quite poor and the Spaniards had to farm their own food.  The only commercial product was tobacco, and due to a lack of coins, cacao seeds were used as money.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the first coffee seeds enter the country.  This product would later gain a huge importance throughout the nineteenth century

Independence of Costa Rica

The collision of economical and political interests between the Native Americans and Spain was one of the causes that led to their fight for Independence.   In the middle of great fervor of the independence movement, Napoleon invaded Spain.  This in turn created resistance both in Spain as in America.

As a result, the Courts of Cádiz were summoned and the Constitution of Cadiz was adopted.  This Constitution established equality between the natives and the Spaniards.  However, once Napoleon was defeated by the Spaniards, King Fernando VII repealed this Constitution and reestablished an absolute monarchy.  This action exacerbated the feelings of the members of the independence movement.

In the Viceroyalty of New Spain to which Costa Rica belonged, there were also pro Independence movements.  These culminated in the Iguala Plan signed between Vicente Guerrero and Agustín de Iturbide. This was accepted by all parties and it allowed Iturbide to enter the capital of Mexico in September of 1821.

When this news got to the authorities in Guatemala, they convened a meeting where the Act of Independence was finally written on September 15th, 1821. After this, the four main cities of the country: Cartago, Heredia, San José and Alajuela also felt autonomous from each other and disagreed on several issues. The Cartago and Heredia conservative leaders were in favor of joining Mexico, while the two latter cities and their Republican leaders disagreed. After a small battle in the Ochomogo Hills in Cartago, the Republicans were victorious, thus rejecting the accession with Mexico. Afterwards, Guanacaste, which belonged to Nicaragua, decided to join Costa Rica.

On March 3rd, 1823, the Provincial Assembly was installed by the Most Noble and Loyal City of Cartago.

On May 16th, 1823 the Second Political Statute of the Province of Costa Rica was signed.

In 1824, Costa Rica swore allegiance to the National Constitutional Assembly of the United Provinces of Central America.  In this same year, the Superior Political Head Mr. José María Peralta ordered that the law of July 23rd of 1823 to be promulgated.  In this law, the titles of ‘Excellency’, ‘Sires’ and ‘Don’ must be eliminated.  On September 9th, 1824, Mr. Juan Mora Fernández is designated as the First Head of State by the Assembly.  On September 24th of the same year, the Our Lady of the Angels (La Virgen de los Ángeles) was named the Patroness of the State of Costa Rica.

The Republic

By 1848, Costa Rica could be defined as an agricultural exporter and coffee producer immersed in the world market.  The local government lost its strength and space before the Central Government.  After almost a year that the smaller counties lacked a Municipality in the smaller cantons, President José María Castro Madriz places into the Constitutions a new administrative division of the country consisting of provinces, cantons and districts.  In this division, each canton would have a local government.

This initiative was a response to the Proclamation of the Republic of Costa Rica which then recognized the government of England and other countries of the world.  It also improved Costa Rica’s economical relationships with other countries.

The new Liberal Constitution of 1871 kept the municipalities only in the provincial capitals. Then in 1876, this Constitution is amended to re-establish the municipalities at a canton level.  This provided to the canton level municipality the stability it needed which is in existence until this day. Basically, the municipality had no ruptures from 1876 to 1940; it suffered changes in its legal-administrative capacity but not from an institutional point of view.

However, from 1876 the liberal laws weakened the municipalities and the tendency was to strength the Central Government.

The Liberal Government, consolidated by Tomás Guardia from 1870 to 1882, had the privilege to affect several social, political and economical changes that marked the development of the cantons that oversaw the flourishing of many municipal projects under the influence of liberalism that made it all possible.  However, as a contradiction, it left the municipalities in a financially weakened state.

The State donated lands to the municipalities who then sold them.  This allowed the people to begin public works and to develop a series of municipal services including educational services.

The Liberal Government had the opportunity top put into place several measures that can be subdivided under the following categories:

  1. Demarcation of territorial space and communication routes.
  2. Basic services: infrastructure, community projects and public services (water, electricity, hygiene and security).
  3. Educational and Political-Religious Measures.
  4. Agricultural and Political-Commercial Measures.

The centralist politics of the Liberal Government tried to clarify the administrative territorial division of the country in order to solve the boundary issues between the cantons.

The Liberal Government also needed a road system that would allow to control better its territory and also to modernize it in response to the internal and external market demands. Bridges and roads were built, the railroad arrived along with foreign investment capital, opening and modernizing Costa Rica during this Liberal Period. The distribution of the Telegraph Offices was an excellent way for the State to control the infrastructure that was being built as well as a method to control the “order and progress” in which it was being done within the cantons.

The first electric lines (1884) were for the city of San José, followed by Cartago, Alajuela and Heredia. In 1928, the electric grid had grown enough to be taken over by the National Electrical Service.

Towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, the government understood the construction of water pipelines as a priority in its model of modernization.