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Human habitation can be traced back more than 10,000 years but it appears Costa Rica was sparsely populated and a relative backwater in the pre-Columbian era. There is little sign of major communities and none of the impressive stone architecture that characterized the more advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica to the north and the Andes to the south. When Columbus arrived near Lim¢¢n on September 18, 1502 on his third and last voyage to the Americas, there were probably no more than 20,000 indigenous inhabitants They lived in several autonomous tribes, all with distinct cultures and customs. Costa Rica's only major archaeological site is at Guayabo, 30 miles east of San Jos‚‚, where an ancient city, dating back to 1000 B.C. and though to have contained 10,000 people at its peak, is currently being excavated. Many interesting gold, jade and pottery artefacts have been found throughout the region and are on display in several museums in San Jose.
The Indians gave Columbus gold and he returned to Europe with reports of a plentiful supply of the yellow metal. But the adventurers who arrived to cash in found only hostile Indians, swamps and disease for their trouble. Several early attempts to colonize the Atlantic coast failed for the same reasons and for almost half a century Costa Rica was passed over while colonization gathered pace in countries to the north and south. In 1562, the Spanish main's administrative center in Guatemala sent Juan Vasquez de Coronado to Costa Rica as governor and Cartago was established as the capital the following year. With no Indian slaves to work the land, the colonists were forced to work the land themselves, scratching out a meagre subsistence by tilling small plots.
The impoverished colony grew slowly and was virtually ignored by the Spanish rulers in Guatemala. By the late 18th century, the settlements that would buela had been founded and exports of wheat and tobacco were making economic conditions somewhat better.
Central America gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. The news reached Costa Rica a month after the event. The question of whether Costa Rica should join newly independent Mexico or join a new confederation of Central American states resulted in a bitter quarrel between the leaders of San Jose and their counterparts in Cartago and Heredia. A brief civil war in 1823 was won by San Jose and Costa Rica joined the confederation.
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Juan Mora Fernandez was elected the country's first head of state in 1824. His progressive administration expanded public education and encouraged the cultivation of coffee with land grants for growers. This quickly led to the establishment of a new Costa Rican elite, the coffee barons, who quickly put their power to use by overthrowing the first Costa Rican president, Jos‚‚ Maria Castro. His successor, Juan Rafael Mora, is remembered as the man who mobilized a force of Costa Rican volunteers and defeated William Walker, ending the persistent North American adventurer's ambitions to turn Central America into a slave state and annex it to the United States.
After more than a decade of political turmoil, General Tom s Guardia seized power in 1870. Though he ruled as a military dictator, his 12 years in power were marked by progressive policies like free and compulsory primary education, restraining the excesses of the military and taxing coffee earnings to finance public works. It was Guardia who contracted Minor Keith to build the Atlantic railroad from San Jose to the Caribbean. The post-Guardia years witnessed the fitful transition to full democracy.
The next important era began with the election of Dr. Rafael Angel Calder¢¢n Guardia in 1940. His enlightened policies included land reform, a guaranteed minimum wage and progressive taxation. But when Calder¢¢n's United Social Christian Party refused to step down after losing the 1948 election, civil war erupted. The anti-Calder¢¢n forces were led by Jose Mar¡¡a (Don Pepe) Figueres Ferrer who had been exiled to Mexico in 1942.
Supported by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba, he won the war which lasted 40 days and cost 2,000 lives.
Figueres became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica. He consolidated the reforms introduced by Calder¢¢n and introduced many of his own: He banned the Communist Party, gave women the vote and granted full citizenship to blacks, abolished the armed forces, established a term limit for presidents and nationalized the banks and insurance companies. He also founded the Partido de Liberacion Nacional. (The PLN won last year's presidential election behind Don Pepe's son, now President Jose Mar¡¡a Figueres Olsen.
Don Pepe died in 1990 a national hero, his deeds having set the scene for the social and economic progress that would earn Costa Rica the reputation as a peaceful and stable island of democracy in one of the world's most politically unstable, and often war-torn regions. When civil war broke out in neighboring Nicaragua, Costa Rica was drawn reluctantly into the conflict, its northern zone being used as a base first for Sandinista and later for "contra" forces. In 1986, a young lawyer called Oscar Arias Sanchez was elected president on the platform of peace. Arias' tireless efforts to promote peace in the region were rewarded when the five Central American presidents signed his peace plan in Guatamala City in 1987, an achievement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Information supplied by the Green Arrow Guide Costa Rican People
It is almost impossible to describe a people without succumbing to generalities and omissions; nonetheless a perusal of certain statistics and common values can help begin the lifelong process of getting to know a people.
Ethnically Costa Rica has one of the most homogeneous populations in all of Latin America. Ninety-seven percent is mestizo (of mixed blood, generally Spanish with Native American) or of direct European descent. Of the mestizos, the vast majority have a much higher percentage of European blood and thus are considerably fair skinned. Afro-Caribbean natives represent approximately 2% of the population. They did not arrive in Costa Rica as slaves, as in most other regions of the New World, but as migrant labor in the 1870's. They had been hired from a host of Caribbean islands in order to help construct a railroad that would run from San Joséé down to the Atlantic coast near Limon. Of the original denizens of this land, the Native Americans, only about 30,000 remain. They represent less than 1% of the total.
The indigenous population exists in the present as eight separate communities. Six native languages have survived the ravages of time, and are now encouraged by government legislation that allows for bilingual education. The majority of the indigenous groups are located in the south of the country; the two largest groups being the Cabecares and the Bribris. A 1977 Indigenous Bill established the right to land reserves as well as creating programs to preserve and stimulate native culture. The government has actually followed through with these initiatives, but has simultaneously failed to help protect the land rights versus the incursions of mining and squatting interests. The indigenous people only earned their right to vote in 1994.
International standards would rank Costa Rica amongst those nations with high literacy rates. Although the government's claim of a 93% literacy rate is considered to be inflated, the great majority of its people can read and write. Education up to the sixth grade is obligatory and the network of public schools is dispersed into the far corners of the land. The country is now home to a handful of well regarded Universities such as the National University and the University of Costa Rica.
The country's population is believed to have surpassed the 3 million mark in the last couple of years. Family size is declining steadily with parents who are now in their thirties having only 2 or 3 children, whereas they themselves come from families of 8 or 9. It would not be at all uncommon for their grandparents to have 12 or 14 siblings. The annual population growth rate is now at 2.3 percent. Another major factor adding to the steady increase of the population has been a regular stream of illegal immigrants from Nicaragua, which has extremely high unemployment.
A people may best be understood by values they hold dear. Foremost amongst Costa Rican sources of pride are its democratic tradition and its peace ethic. In a region plagued by civil wars, human rights abuses, and until recently dictatorships, Costa Rica stands out as an exception. Since 1949, when the army was abolished, the country has had a fairly stable democracy. The new Constitution of 1949 included a progressive labor code, upheld a system of social security, and contained a set of social guarantees( such as a minimum wage), that gave the average citizen rights that were ahead of their time. In many ways this diminished the disparity between the upper and lower classes and thus was conducive to cooperation and the resolution of conflicts in a democratic forum. The government, albeit plagued by problems over the decades, has shown a commitment to broad social welfare. This commitment coupled with a strong support of public education and public health has helped create a mature populace that has learned how to solve problems without resorting to armed conflict.
Children are exposed to the "rights" that they have as citizens in the public school system. The National Anthem includes the line, "let work and peace always live." In 1987 the country's president, Oscar Arias, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Esquipulas II, a plan to bring peace to Central America. Internationally the country receives much praise for its abolishment of the army and its comparative political stability for almost half a century. The average Costa Rican, if questioned about his/her opinion, will most often concur that peace is a noble and worthwhile aspiration, as well as a condition to be treasured. Their closest neighbor, Nicaragua, stands as a clear reminder of the hardships of a people living in a state of war, since this nation experienced a revolution in 1979, and continued armed struggle well into the 1980's.
A second, younger ethic that grows in the nation's citizenry is environmental protection. Costa Rica stands out in the world with over 20% of its national territory in national parks, wildlife refuges, and forest reserves. Another 10% is also bound by various restrictions in land use, and ecotourism has become the nation's largest source of economic revenue. Conservation organizations worldwide look upon Costa Rica as a model to be emulated. Even in the 1990's the conservation frontier expands, despite illegal logging, squatting, and bureaucratic corruption. Government sponsored advertisements on television espousing the protection of natural resources are fairly common, and a new generation of Costa Rican biologists have emerged as staunch supporters of conservation. Some statistics have claimed that the country may hold over 5 percent of the world's species. The present generation of teenagers cannot help but become aware of environmental issues. A growing sense of pride is developing amongst Costa Ricans, in that they stand in the forefront of the conservation movement. Once again international acclaim only serves to further entrench this environmental ethic.
This nation stands as a shining example of what can be done to preserve the world's biodiversity.
A third aspect of Costa Rica is simply the hospitality of its people. Despite a growth in crime and drug problems, on average, the country is a remarkably friendly environment. In the countryside there is always a warm pot of coffee on the wood stove, ready to be served to the unexpected visitor. The people are polite, curious, and inclined to smile. The tourism of the last decade has brought with it an assortment of con-artists, hustlers, and entrepreneurs, but nonetheless almost all travelers are made to feel welcome.
Of course one cannot describe the people of a nation without mentioning their religion.
Costa Rica is a Catholic land, like most of Latin America. A host of evangelical churches emerged in the 1970's and have become well established, but nearly 80% of the population remains Catholic. However, only about 20% of the Catholics attend mass regularly. Holy Week is the time of year when there is the most pronounced expression of the faith and the nation comes to a standstill during this holiday.
Costa Ricans are also a people in the making. As the world becomes more interconnected, the Ticos, as they call themselves, will be exposed to new ideas, cultures, and technologies, and will thus have to forge a new and dynamic identity.
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