Sam Chalekian | A Brief Overview of Costa Rica
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A Brief Overview of Costa Rica

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A Brief Overview of Costa Rica


In 2014, I wrote my Extended Essay over the course of two days. I will openly admit that this was a bad decision, not just for my health and sanity, but for the finished product as well. This essay is composed of short, clipped sentences which sends the reader careening through Costa Rica’s past. The strange cadence and structure stemmed from my lack of knowledge regarding argumentative writing. I feel that when I write to a deadline, I always end up with a product that falls just short of greatness, given a little more revision. This would be a fun essay to go back and fix, but I would like to rework the historiographical angle to something more tangible. Unsurprisingly, this essay ended up scoring a “D” from IB, a grade that was a  appropriate considering the quality of the finished piece. Remember kids, a historiographical essay doesn’t tell the reader history, it questions it.

Question: What historical and socioeconomic factors contributed to Costa Rica’s stability and democratic government and how does Costa Rica contrast with other Latin American countries?


Central America is home to some of the world’s most volatile governments. In a panel of 18 Central American countries from 1971 to 2000, only Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Colombia consistently maintained a democratic government while the other countries in the region vacillated towards autocracies. Over the course of thirty years, these Latin American countries saw a 20 coups d’etats, 217 rots, and a staggering 451 politically motivated assassinations. Not to mention 113 crisis situations which threatened governmental stability.

Consequently, the Latin American region has been ranked as the world’s third most unstable area in the post-war era. The political upheaval that these Latin American countries has experienced can be credited to economic downturns, political infighting, and drug crimes. However, even with such a troubled history there is a country known worldwide for it’s great political stability: Costa Rica.

This small country that borders the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea has the seventh most stable government in the world today.America’s government in comparison comes in at 55. But what made a country surrounded by so much political turmoil successful? How did a country with such volatile neighbors and unforgiving geography ever establish a small social class gap and enjoy great economic stability?

Part of the answer lies Costa Rica’s rich history.

Spanish Occupation


Some might say that there was no name so misgiven as “Costa Rica.” In Spanish, Costa Rica means “Rich Coast”, a name that may have been ironically bestowed to a small country with little in the way of precious metals. Though accounts differ on the origin of this name, a prominent theory states that Costa Rica’s name was given to it by conquistador Christopher Columbus.

Columbus discovered Costa Rica during his final voyage in 1502 when he sailed along Costa Rica’s eastern coast with four ships and 140 men. Whilst sailing, Columbus found an inlet (which today is named Admiral Cove in honor of him) and decided to land there. Upon doing so, he was thrilled to find that the natives were wearing gold jewelry. Had he looked closer, he would have found that the gold the natives were wearing was of a lower quality. Furthermore, if he had the ability to speak with the natives, he would’ve learned that gold wasn’t particularly abundant in the area. None the less, he named this newly found stretch of land after something it didn’t have.


Sixty years after the discovery of Costa Rica the semblance of a permanent settlement was established. In January of 1561, under a royal license, a double expedition headed by Juan de Cavallón and Estrada Rávago was planned. The group sailed from Granada, Spain and eventually landed in Nicaragua.

All was not lost as the following year Cavallón rounded up an entourage of ninety or so Spanish soldiers, several negro slaves, and a variety of livestock that accompanied him on a journey into present day Nicoya, Costa Rica. On the journey, Cavallón established the cities Garcimunoz, Los Reyes, and Landecho. These cities served as stepping stones for the Spaniards into Costa Rica. The people of Garcimunoz found themselves to be poorly located and later moved into the highlands. This new settlement became known as Cartago which still exists today.

Later on in 1566, Perafán de Ribera, a longtime resident of Honduras became governor of Costa Rica. Ribera entered Costa Rica through Nicoya, the same as Cavallón had done before him. Ribera brought with him his family, soldiers, and four hundred head of cattle. He then proceeded to establish Aranjuez, and Costa Rica finally had it’s first two permanent cities.

An Understated Territory

Costa Rica was an understated territory of the Spanish Crown. It existed for two and a half centuries as a diminutive part of the southernmost province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, a sprawling subnational entity that extended from Guatemala to Costa Rica. The Spaniards who had hoped to mine gold or run large haciendas were bitterly disappointed by the tall unyielding mountains that stood in their way. The misery the Spaniards experienced was so great that in 1719 the governor of the area reported that Costa Rica was the poorest and most miserable colony in all of America.

There are several reasons why Costa Rica played a minor roll as a Spanish colony. Chiefly, Costa Rica’s geography consisted of rugged mountainous terrain formed by hundreds of volcano cones. Despite the rich volcanic soil found in the lowlands, Costa Rica did not fit the plantation or hacienda style of farming that made Mexico an agricultural powerhouse during this time period. Instead, Costa Rica had a mountainous typography with costal lands making travel and plantation farming difficult.

Furthermore, Costa Rica had a comparatively small population of natives. Spaniards expected Costa Rica’s colonization to be similar to Mexico’s and wished to establish haciendas. However, these ventures were short lived as properties were split up amongst the settler’s descendants and large farms went into debt. Without large lands to work, encomienda or forced labor became impractical and the indigenous people once again began to work their own lands (albeit with a substantial amount of their crops being commandeered by the settlers).

In 1615 and shortly thereafter, several attempts were made to conquer the Indians who lived in nearby Cartago, Spain’s first official settlement in Costa Rica. This was because their “households almost all fallen into a state of ruin for lack of Indians to repair them.” Eventually the raids yielded 400 prisoners. Even so, this attack failed to result in a lasting subjugation although for a period of time the area’s Indians were forced to pay for their lands with a substantial amount of crops.

Costa Rica’s Independence

The state of Costa Rica remained largely the same for several centuries until 1810 when in the small town of Dolores, Guanajuato, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla declared Mexico’s independence from Spain. Unfortunately for Hidalgo, the monarchy disagreed with him and he was killed by firing squad before he could see Mexico finally declare itself free from Spanish rule. However, after 11 long years of fighting, the people of Mexico finally gained independence from Spain on August 24, 1821.

Asides from Mexico, no other provinces were involved in the Mexican War of Independence. Nevertheless, the Captaincy General of Guatemala declared itself independent on September 15, 1821. After three centuries of Spanish occupancy, Costa Rica became it’s own country.

First Mexican Empire

There was much debate in Costa Rica as to what the state’s next course of action should be after it became a free country. During 1821 and 1822 ad interim governments ran in place of the centuries-old Spanish rule, allowing for little change in day-to-day life.

During this time, Mexico’s Agustín de Iturbide and Mexico’s parliament founded the First Mexican Empire. The First Mexican Empire was to be part of Spain but with its own laws and separate legislative offices. During the formation of this empire, King Agustin I invited the old Captaincy General of Guatemala to join his free state. Many were divided on the matter and on April 5, 1823 Costa Rica’s first civil war broke out between the republicans in favor and those against it. The victory for those who were opposed separatism was short-lived, for King Agustin absorbed Costa Rica shortly after.

Costa Rica was absorbed into the First Mexican Empire in 1821. The Mexican Empire was made up of the provinces that were once part of New Spain. The constitutional monarchy government quickly crumbled after a mere three years due to the Plan of Casa Mata of 1823, an agreement between two generals that set out to abolish Mexico’s monarchy and replace it with a republic.

Federal Republic of Central America

In 1823, The First Mexican Empire divided into two countries; The United Mexican States and the Federal Republic of Central America. Costa Rica and four other countries opted to unify and form the Federal Republic of Central America in 1823. The provinces that made up this country eventually descended into civil war after several years.

Bitter fighting ensued between liberals and conservatives, neither of whom ever succeeded in totally seizing control. After years of fighting, Nicaragua withdrew from the union on November 5, 1838 and in 1839 Costa Rica and Honduras followed suit. It was then that Costa Rica became a sovereign country.

Food Staples Lead to Stability

Early Agriculture

Unlike other Central American countries which had been known for their easily exploitable resources, Costa Rica had no immediate source of income for many years. In 1620, an early wave of fifty Spanish families in a Costa Rican colony reported they only cultivated maize and wheat. As time progressed, Costa Rica expanded into other exports, many of them small, including hemp, wax, sarsaparilla, cacao, and potatoes. The effects of these early exports were clearly not felt as in 1719 a governor declared Costa Rica the “poorest and most miserable colony of all America.”

King Coffee

It wasn’t until the early 18th century that coffee reached Costa Rica and was widely grown before the end of Spanish control. This crop quickly became Costa Rica’s first major export and proved an important part of Costa Rica’s blossoming economy. Interest in coffee grew during the early 17th century and many recognized the great economic opportunities it held. In 1821, the municipal councils of San José and Cartao promoted coffee cultivation. A government stimulus in 1831 allowed farmers who planted public lands with coffee a title to the lands after five years.

By 1841 an owner of a large estate had a total of 27,000 coffee trees and their crop was expanding fast. Coffee growing regions sprang up, including such notable growing areas as Herediá, Tarrazu, Tres Rio, and Alajuela. Coffee shipments continued to increase and the trend held for many years. Even today, coffee is still shipped worldwide from Costa Rica.

Minor Keith’s Railroad

In 1871, Costa Rica produced 8,334 tons of coffee, with much of it being shipped to the United Kingdom. The demand for coffee in both the United Kingdom and Europe at large was growing quickly, and the Costa Rican government needed a more effective medium of transport than mules.

Consequently, a group businessmen contracted with the Costa Rican government to build a railroad to transport coffee, goods, and people. The group consisted of Henry Meiggs and his nephew Minor Keith. The railroad was to run from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to the Caribbean port of modern day Limón.

The team was in for a challenge as the railway proved extremely difficult to build. By the time the first 25 miles of track were laid, the railroad had claimed the lives of as many as 4,000 people, three of whom were Keith’s brothers. The builders and overseers alike suffered through tropical diseases, bad weather, and unforgiving terrain. Keith also had issues sourcing Costa Rican workers so he had to bring in Jamaican, Black, Italian, and Chinese laborers to complete the railway.

The financial side of the railroad also proved to be an issue. In 1882 while the railroad was being built, Costa Rica defaulted on it’s payments to Keith and several banks from which it had borrowed. Keith made the best of a bad situation and responded by raising an additional £1.2 million from a variety of banks and private investors. In exchange, the government gave Keith 800,000 acres of tax-free land along the railroad along with a 99 year lease to operate the train route. This huge acquisition of land made Keith the owner of 5% of Costa Rica’s acreage.

After suffering many setbacks, the railroad was finally completed in 1890. When it began operations, Keith ran into yet another issue: the cashflow from the passengers and cargo of his railroad was not enough to pay back the debt incurred from building the railroad. However, Keith had yet another idea that would bring about the next big cash crop in Costa Rica: bananas.

Bananas Take Root

While building his railroad in 1873, Keith began probing the practicality of planting banana trees. Nobodyhad ever utilized bananas as a cash crop before, let alone anybody in Central America. Nevertheless, Keith began to grow bananas on the real estate he had been granted from the Costa Rican government. He built banana plantations directly alongside his railroad which made transport convenient and cohesive.

In 1878, Keith began operating a steamboat that ran from Limón to New Orleans which supplied New Orleans with fresh bananas. Keith christened his banana-trading interests the Tropical Trading and Transport Company. Through Keith’s efforts, Costa Rica became the first country ever to export bananas. In the late 1800’s Keith continued to plant more bananas, eventually dedicating 25% of company-owned lands towards bananas farms.

In 1899, despite the lucrative trade route that the Tropical Trading and Transport Company was running, Keith lost $1.5 million when Hoadley and Co., a New York City broker went bankrupt. As a consequence, Keith traveled to Boston to merge his banana interests with fruit goliath Boston Fruit Company. This new collaborative became known as the United Fruit Company.

Banana Republic

The United Fruit Company became a huge organization and had a deep impact on the economic development of not just Costa Rica, but also Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies. The United Fruit Company owned or leased considerable pieces of infrastructure, land, and vehicles as bananas spoil quickly and fast cohesive transport is essential.

UFC’s omniscience could be seen in the way they did business. In Costa Rica, the UFC was the only exporter for bananas and allowed individuals to use their own land. The other 25% of the bananas exported were grown on company land. Some growers rented land from Compañia Bananera de Costa Rica, a subsidiary of UFC. The bananas that were grown on the land were transported over 117 miles of private road that one of UFC’s many subsidiaries leased from Ferrocarril de Costa Rica. The fruit was then shipped off through one of two ports on UFC’s famous Great White Fleet of steamships.

The UFC did many positive things for Costa Rica. It cleared miles of jungle and was responsible for many economic developments such as funding the remainder of Costa Rica’s railroad developments. It also provided free healthcare and gave workers’ children a free six year education in company built schools. By 1926 the United Fruit Company employed 10,680 men in Costa Rica and had a payroll of ₡20,290,080 colones.

Due to the practical monopoly that the UFC held, Latin Americans referred to the organization as “el pulpo” or “the octopus.” Furthermore, the organization was largely criticized for using Costa Rica and other Latin American countries for it’s own intentions and taking money out of the country. Hence, the countries that UFC worked in became known as “banana republics,”, nations that were dependent on the influx of foreign capital and a cash crop.

Costa Rica’s banana craze subsided greatly in the 1900’s. In 1970, UFC became Chiquita Brands which still operates banana farms in Costa Rica today. It is worth noting however that Chiquita works on a smaller scale when compared to the UFC of old.


Pineapples were late to the cash crop game. In 1986, fruit mogul Del Monte already had banana plantations in Costa Rica when they started to grow pineapples. Del Monte began to grow two types of hybrid pineapples known as 73-114 and 73-50 respectively. Del Monte found Costa Rica’s temperate climate to be similar to that of Hawaii, one of the world’s biggest pineapple producers of the early 20th century. Due to taxes and the general expense of operating, Del Monte left Hawaii in 2006 and established themselves in Costa Rica. Other smaller pineapple producers also bought up tracts of land to grow the tropical favorite.

By 2000, thanks in no small part to Del Monte, Costa Rica exported an impressive 322,000 tons of pineapple and the industry is expected to grow. Due to the popularity of pineapple worldwide, it is the second most popular crop in Costa Rica after bananas. Fascinatingly, while coffee was very popular in the mid 1800’s, it is now the third most exported crop.

New Industry

In recent years, Costa Rica’s repertoire of industries has grown beyond cash crops like coffee and bananas. In 1995, in an effort to drum up foreign investment the struggling Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE), worked with Intel to build a 52 hectare microchip plant in Belén, Costa Rica. The move came as a shock to other Latin American countries and as a huge boon to Costa Rica. Intel’s new semiconductor manufacturing and research facility came to make up 20% of Costa Rican exports and 5% of the country’s GDP.

Other previously nonexistent industries have begun to take foot as well. In addition to Costa Rica’s agricultural and technological sectors, one of the fastest growing economic sectors in Costa Rica is tourism. Tourism picked up in 1987 when 329,000 people visited Costa Rica and has shot past 2.34 million in recent years. This shift in industry caused Costa Rica to see a 3% reduction in poverty rates.

Today, Costa Rica is continuing to diversify, with several high-profile companies working in the area including GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company and Proctor & Gamble, a consumer products company. Industries such as software development and financial outsourcing have also proved popular in Costa Rica and abroad.

Costa Rica’s Stability

A Modern Miracle

Costa Rica has been referred in the past as the Latin American success story, and modern Costa Rica’s stability is something to behold. It has been the subject of praise from many organizations for being at the apex of human development and environmental performance.

In the 21st century, Costa Rica has set itself up to improve many facets of its already successful existence. It pledged to be the world’s first carbon neutral country 2021, and placed first in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. It’s economy is more stable than the United States and is considered to be an excellent place to invest according to business watchdog ViewsWire.

The Beginnings of Stability

As we have seen, Costa Rica’s development, exports, and industrial expansion have fueled its successful growth as a nation. There are several reasons for the stability that Costa Rica enjoys today.

Costa Rican Political Incidents

Costa Rica didn’t travel the rocky road Mexico and its neighbors did with many iterations of government and subsequent political turmoil. Instead, Costa Rica had only two major political crises after breaking off from the Federal Republic of Central America.

The first incident occurred in 1917 when an oppressive militaristic dictatorship headed by General Federico Tinoco Granados tried to squash all the other opposing parties with a strong military crackdown. Granados, like so many before him, proved unpopular with everyone aside from the oligarchs and the military. He was ousted from his position of power in 1919. This incident was disastrous for the Costa Rican military, which both shrunk in size and influence.

Almost 30 years later, in 1948, Costa Rica had its one and only civil war of the 20th century. José Figueres Derrer spearheaded a revolution in the wake of a disputed presidential election. The war lasted all but 44 days but over 2,000 people were killed. Since this grisly event, Costa Rica abolished their military in 1949 and had a democratic assembly write a new constitution. Since then, Costa Rica has been the very model of a peaceful and stable Central American country.


Surprisingly, Costa Rica’s geography played an important role in its long-term stability. Costa Rica’s unyielding geography prevented the hacienda style of farming, and a lack of easily exploitable metals made Costa Rica different from it’s counterparts, like Mexico, in more ways than one.1

Costa Rica’s mountainous geography came as a blessing. While Costa Rican’s continued to work their own land after being inhabited by the Spaniards1, Mexicans were forced to slave away in large, open plantations.


Though beneficial in the short term for a tiny minority, the people of Mexico have spent centuries battling a great wealth gap that started with poor Mexican peasants and rich hacienda owners. Even in the 1980’s, social inequality remained a sizable issue with a few very rich people and a vast majority of very poor people.

In view of this, it’s no surprise that the Mexico we know it today has seen many governments, ranging from dictatorships to monarchies. The Mexican government had it’s most recent shakeup in 2000 when the National Action Party ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71 year reign.

When one looks at Mexico’s volatile history, it becomes apparent that there are several major effects of this wealth gap. First, with a large income gap comes great political instability. Second, Mexico and other Central American countries have experienced great disparities in education, wealth, and the skill sets of its workers.

Costa Rica was quite different when it came to inequality. After separating from the Federal Republic of Central America, Costa Rica has had the same government for hundreds of years while Mexico has been a republic, a monarchy twice, and a democracy.

To see the stark difference in the development between these two countries, one need look no further than education. Costa Rica had established excellent public schools in the early 1800’s and legislation was passed around the same time that required children to go to school. By 1927 only 27% of the entire population was illiterate. Around the same time, Mexico had a 62% illiteracy rate in 1925.


Studies have shown that when there is inequality, the promotion of democracy becomes difficult4. Furthermore, countries with low democratic standings are typically high in political instability. Mexico truly suffered from these issues and was caught in a hypothetical tailspin of unstable, short-lived governments.

Many other countries suffered from similar issues into the 20th century. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all had some governmental upheaval that resulted in thousands of death and damaged economies.

Costa Rica was the anomaly. Thanks in part to it’s geography and small population, Costa Rica sidestepped the long term issues that would plague other Latin American countries for years. It shed its military and learned from its mistakes. It became prosperous in its own right and didn’t get involved in other countries’ feuds. Perhaps that’s why Costa Ricans say “Pura Vida” for Costa Rica truly embodies “pure life.”

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