Before the spaniards came to Costa Rica, the country was inhabited by indigenous people from two different cultural backgrounds, One settled in the north-eastern region and the other, of South American influence, covered the rest of the territory. These formed other ethnical subgroups. Anthropilogical studies show that these human groups were not warlike, but they led a peaceful life, dedicated to hunting, fishing and cultivating crops.
In 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus made the first European landfall in the area. Settlement of Costa Rica began in 1522. For nearly three centuries, Spain administered the region as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala under a military governor. The Spanish optimistically called the country “Rich Coast.” Finding little gold or other valuable minerals in Costa Rica, however, the Spanish turned to agriculture.
Small landowners’ relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population’s ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica’s isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes all contributed to the development of an autonomous and individualistic agrarian society. An egalitarian tradition also arose; this tradition survived the widening class distinctions brought on by the nineteenth century introduction of banana and coffee cultivation and consequent accumulations of wealth.
In 1998, Costa Rica, along with many of its Central American neighbors, was hit by the force of Hurricane Mitch. One of the most significant long-term effects of the hurricane was the damage to major crops. Of these, coffee production is the crop that appeared to be most affected, with experts predicting a decrease of 22-30 percent in the production of high quality coffee.
An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Rica began in 1899 with elections considered the first truly free and honest ones in the country’s history. These election began a trend that has continued until today with only two lapses: in 1917-19, Federico Tinoco ruled as a dictator, and, in 1948, Jose Figueres led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election.
With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day civil war resulting from this uprising was the bloodiest event in twentieth century Costa Rican history. The victorious junta drafted a constitution guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the army. Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held eleven presidential elections, the latest in 1998. It boasts decades of peaceful and democratic rule, one of the most impressive political records in the Western Hemisphere.