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Let’s Learn: Costa Rica in pre-Columbian times 8000 B.C. to 2019 Timeline

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If you're planning to visit Costa Rica, you'll probably want to learn a little bit about the democratic Central American country. So, grab a coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and settle in for a quick lesson on Costa Rica’s history, culture, and facts.

About Early Costa Rica -- Archaeological Data

 

12,000 - 8000 B.C. - The earliest archaeological finds, such as Paleoamerican arrowheads and stone tools, testify to the first human settlement for the area that is Costa Rica today.

2000 B.C. - Clay pots and clay figurines suggest that hunters and gatherers began to grow products. According to data, they formed early communal societies, in which community property and equality prevailed.

500 B.C. - Archaeological finds, such as fountains, stoves, and building foundations, reveal that societies led by a chieftain, or “cacique”, developed. The cacique was the leader of a hierarchical society of shamans, warriors, workers, and slaves. Characteristic of these societies is the establishment of a trading system and first territorial claims. The result was jade and goldwork, and corn cultivation, which are documented for this time.

500 A.D. - The former communal societies were replaced by a structured class system with political and religious offices. These societies engaged in trade, fought wars, and promoted cultural exchanges with other South and Central American peoples. This form of society lasted until about 1550, although today there are still tribes represented by a chief.


 

The Spanish Conquest and Colonization (First Phase)

1502 - On Sep. 18, 1502, during his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus landed on the Atlantic coast on the island of Uvita near what is today Costa Rica’s Port of Limón. He christened the area with the name "Veragua", but legend says it was his enthusiastic descriptions of a "costa rica" (rich coast) that later gave the country its current name. His stories told about native people adorned with gold jewelry and he praised the conquered territory as a "castillo de oro" (golden castle). However, after Columbus’ death in 1506, other Spanish settlers were unable to find any valuable mineral resources in the territory. The coastal areas in the east and west were initially explored gradually. Only temporary settlements were established and the indigenous people living there were abused as slaves. The inaccessibility of the densely forested and mountainous country, and also the resistance of the indigenous people, made the establishment of permanent colonies difficult.

1506 - King Ferdinand of Spain commissioned Diego de Nicuesa as governor to settle the newly claimed land. But this first colony was abruptly abandoned due to unmanageable tropical diseases and the tenacious resistance of the natives.

1522 - A second colonization attempt under Gil González Davila of Panama plundered a great deal of gold and the indigenous population was obsessively Christianized. Through his success, he established the name "Costa Rica", but even this colony was not long-lasting.

1524 - The Spanish settlement of Villa Bruselas on the Pacific coast of the Gulf of Nicoya was founded on the orders of Francisco Fernández de Córdoba. The initially friendly relationship with the native people, the Chorotega, was soon reversed by the conquistador mentality of the Spaniards, and it ended with the destruction of the settlements by the natives.

1530s - 1560 - While most of Central America was conquered by Spain between 1519 and 1523, Costa Rica was largely left alone until 1560. Colonization efforts were postponed and a subordinate role was assigned to the territory as a transit area for trade between Panama and Guatemala.

The Spanish Conquest and Colonization (Second Phase)

 

At this time, King Philip II of Spain ruled over of the Kingdom of Guatemala, which had jurisdiction from the Chiapas region of Mexico as far as the southern border of Costa Rica. In 1560, the King decided it was time to explore the interior of Costa Rica and “Christianize” the native people. He promised that colonists could take the land that they wanted and divide the indigenous population among themselves to provide labor, services and agricultural products for at least two generations; in return, they would protect and Christianize the natives.

However, when Juan de Cavallon's expedition arrived to penetrate the Central Valley region in 1561 and establish a small settlement, they encountered an indigenous population that had been decimated to about 120,000 people by epidemic diseases and fighting during earlier colonization attempts. This meant that although the Spanish were able to take control more easily, the slave labor force was very small.

During this time, many native dialects and religious customs were lost. Additionally, a mestizo class emerged from Spanish immigrants mixing with the local indigenous population.

1562 - Juan Vázquez de Coronado was sent as the new governor in 1562. He founded the city of Cartago, Costa Rica’s colonial capital, in 1563-4. Around 1565, the city received a coat of arms; it remained the capital of Costa Rica until 1823, when the capital was moved to San Jose. Since the country was still managed from Guatemala, which was the economic center, the colony of Costa Rica was one of the poorest in the region.

Juan Vasquez de Coronado treated the natives more humanely than his predecessors, opting for the use of persuasive tactics to forge alliances and gain their cooperation. His friendly manner enabled Spain to gain its first real foothold in the region. He died in 1565 when his ship was lost in a storm at sea off the coast of Spain.

1665 - By the end of the 16th century, Spanish control was solidified but the native population was largely wiped out, with only 7,000 to 8,000 natives remaining in the country by 1611. Scarcity of labor and lack of mineral wealth meant that Costa Rica remained a poor and marginal backwater throughout this period. Spanish settlers were forced to work small-scale subsistence farms themselves or otherwise starve. They lived in small agricultural communities, largely isolated from each other by the difficult terrain, climate, and lack of transportation systems.

By 1665, wheat and tobacco were being grown and exported. Cocoa plantations were created on the east and southern west coast. Repeated plunder by pirates prompted the Spanish government to close the ports, which stunted trade. A more urban culture began to develop and in 1717, the city of Heredia was founded; San Jose in 1737; and Alajuela in 1782.

Costa Rica Independence

 

1821 - On Sept. 15, 1821, the “kingdom” of Guatemala declared its independence from Spain, paving Costa Rica's path to independence. At the time, the country's political organization consisted of separate town councils, which gave each of the four major towns significant, regional power. There was a struggle between Heredia and Cartago, which favored joining the Mexican empire, and San Jose and Alajuela that wanted to join a Central American Confederation. This resulted in a period of conflict and unrest over the next 20 years.

1823 - In 1823, after a battle in Cartago, San Jose was declared the new capital of the country and joined the Republic of Central America, until the federation’s collapse in 1840. Costa Rica was successful in avoiding involvement in the horrendous civil wars dominating the region, where the forces of conservatives linked to the Catholic church were pitted against liberal entrepreneurs. Religious institutions had never been particularly strong or influential in Costa Rica, and the largely rural, agrarian economy had prevented the growth of a bureaucratic conservative elite, hence liberalism easily led politics.

1824 - Juan Mora Fernandez was elected the country's first President. He established a fair judicial system, founded the nation's first newspaper, expanded public education, promoted commerce and industry, and encouraged coffee production.

1825 - The first constitution of the free state of Costa Rica was passed and the area of Guanacaste was incorporated.

1830 - Coffee production and exports helped Costa Rica to thrive. The middle class prospered and investment was made in education and a liberal democracy. 

1835 - Braulio Carrillo Colina became president as a “benevolent dictator” after the War of the League, when San Jose’s power was challenged by the other three cities; it emerged victorious. He enforced liberal reforms and a centralist administration in San José, along with the expansion of coffee production.

1838 - Costa Rica was declared a Sovereign State. 

1848 - Costa Rica was declared an independent Republic on Aug. 31,1848 by President José María Castro Madriz. Castro inaugurated the country's first university, the University of Santo Tomas; founded the first high-school for girls and established a new national newspaper.

By the late 1840s, coffee wealth had transformed the previously impoverished and scarcely populated nation into a cosmopolitan, European -influenced society.

Juan Rafael Mora, one of the richest coffee aristocrats, took over the presidency in 1849 and brought the country a rapid economic boom. He was twice re-elected (1853, 1859) and fought against the American William Walker, who tried to take over Central America.

1870 - General Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez took the country after a military coup in 1870. During his reign (1870-1876, 1877-1882), he promoted the construction of roads and public buildings from coffee revenue; made primary education for all children compulsory and free at the cost of the nation; and abolished the death penalty in 1877. His support in the development of the railroad helped the project leader Minor Cooper Keith take over a large piece of land, which he transformed under the name of United Fruit Company into a successful banana plantation.

Costa Rica on the Way to the 20th Century

 

1890 - José Joaquín Rodríguez Zeledón was elected president for the first time. Further dictatorial and rather unstable governments followed: 1894, Rafael Yglesias Castro; 1902, Ascensión Esquivel Ibarra; 1906, Cleto González Víquez; 1910, Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno (re-elected 1924-28, 1932-36); 1914, Alfredo González Flores; 1917, Federico Tinoco Granados; Aug. 13 - Sep. 2, 1919, Juan Batista Quiros Segura; 1919, Francisco Aguilar Barquero; 1920, Julio Acosta Garcia.

1939-45 - During World War II, Costa Rica’s economy severely worsened and the period was marked by civil unrest in which the social gap between the rich and the impoverished working class grew steadily. President León Cortés (1936-40) sympathized with National Socialism. 

1940-44 - During the term of Cortes’s successor, Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (grandson of the infamous Tomas Guardia), Costa Rica declared war against Germany and Japan in 1941 and fought on the side of the Allies. Calderon implemented a series of ambitious reforms that became the basis of Costa Rica's modern welfare state, including: the creation of the country's renowned social security system, la Caja, that provides health insurance for all residents, as well as benefits for unemployment, old-age and dependents; a social bill of rights, known as the “Social Guarantees”; and a labor code that greatly extends workers’ rights and protection. He also founded the University of Costa Rica in 1940. 

1945 - The National Liberation Party (PLN) was founded under José Mariá Figueres Ferrer. The country was divided into two camps, the "Figueristas" and the "Calderonistas", which still shape the political landscape today. 

1948 - After a short civil war that lasted 40 days and resulted in over 2,000 deaths, led by “Don Pepe” Figueres, he took over the presidency and abolished the Costa Rican Army. Figueres served as president until new democratic elections in 1949, but was re-elected again in 1953-58 and 1970-74. 

1949 - Figueres passes leadership to the newly democratically elected president Otilio Ulate. With the army abolished by the constitution, public funds were invested instead into education and health care. 

1979 - Neighboring Nicaragua was mired in civil war and in 1979, the insurgent Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. As a result, Costa Rica became a strategic piece in the struggle between the U.S. CIA-backed Contras and the socialist Sandinistas. A severe economic crisis followed, marked by inflation and declining coffee, banana and sugar prices.

1983 - President Luis Alberto Monge declared the “unarmed neutrality” of Costa Rica, causing tensions with the USA.

1986 - President Oscar Arias Sánchez advocated the restoration of peace in Central America and on Aug. 7, 1987, the five Central American presidents signed the accord. Arias was honored that year with the Nobel Peace Prize.

1994 - President Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, the son of former president Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia (1940-44), was replaced as president by José María Figueres Olsen, son of famous former president “Don Pepe Figueres”. Because of its neutrality and prosperity, Costa Rica was named the “Switzerland of Central America”. Figueres was followed by the presidents Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) and Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), well-known because of his TV show "Comentarios con el Dr. Abel Pacheco".

2006 - Oscar Arias Sánchez was re-elected as president of Costa Rica. 

2010 - Costa Rica elects its first woman president, Laura Chinchilla Miranda.

2014 - For the first time in 66 years in Costa Rica, a new political party (other than the National Liberation or Social Christian Unity parties) took over power. President Luis Guillermo Solís of the Citizens' Action Party (PAC) was elected in a landslide victory, earning more votes than any other presidential candidate in the history of the nation. 

2018 - Carlos Alvarado Quesada, also of the Citizens' Action Party, took office as the 48th President of Costa Rica. He also won in a landslide victory, earning 61% of the vote. As President, Alvarado has focused his efforts on decarbonizing Costa Rica's economy. He has set a goal for the country to achieve zero net emissions by the year 2050, and is implementing measures to achieve this. 

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