Emergence of a Nation
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Independence of Central America from Spain came on September 15, 1821. Independence had little immediate effect, however, for Costa Rica had required only minimal government during the colonial era. In fact, the country was so out of touch that the news that independence had been granted reached Costa Rica a full month after the event. In 1823, the other Central American nations proclaimed the United Provinces of Central America, with their capital in Guatemala City. A Costa Rican provincial council, however, voted for accession to Mexico.
The four leading cities of Costa Rica felt as independent as had the city-states of ancient Greece, and the conservative and aristocratic leaders of Cartago and Heredia soon found themselves at odds with the more progressive republican leaders of San José and Alajuela. The local quarrels quickly developed into civic unrest and, in 1823, to civil war. After a brief battle in the Ochomogo Hills, the republican forces of San José were victorious. They rejected Mexico, and Costa Rica joined the federation with full autonomy for its own affairs. Guanacaste voted to secede from Nicaragua and join Costa Rica the following year.
From this moment on, liberalism in Costa Rica had the upper hand. Elsewhere in Central America, conservative groups tied to the church and the erstwhile colonial bureaucracy spent generations at war with anticlerical and laissez-faire liberals, and a cycle of civil wars came to dominate the region. By contrast, in Costa Rica colonial institutions had been relatively weak, and early modernization of the economy propelled the nation out of poverty and laid the foundations of democracy far earlier than elsewhere in the isthmus. While other countries turned to repression to deal with social tensions, Costa Rica turned toward reform.
Juan Mora Fernández, elected the federalist nation’s first chief of state in 1824, set the tone by ushering in a nine-year period of progressive stability. He established a sound judicial system, founded the nation’s first newspaper, and expanded public education. He also encouraged coffee cultivation. The nation, however, was still riven by rivalry, and in September 1835 the War of the League broke out when San José was attacked by the three other towns. They were unsuccessful, and the national flag was planted firmly in San José.
Braulio Carrillo, who seized power as a benevolent dictator in 1835, established an orderly public administration and new legal codes to replace colonial Spanish law. In 1838, he withdrew Costa Rica from the Central American federation and proclaimed independence. The Honduran general Francisco Morazán invaded and toppled Carrillo in 1842. Morazán’s extranational ambitions and the military draft and direct taxes he imposed soon inspired his overthrow. He was executed within the year.
Coffee Is King
The reins of power were taken up by a nouveau elite, the cafetaleros (coffee barons) who in 1849 announced their ascendancy by conspiring to overthrow the nation’s enlightened president, José María Castro. They chose as Castro’s successor Juan Rafael Mora, a powerful cafetalero. Mora is remembered for the remarkable economic growth that marked his first term and for “saving” the nation from the imperial ambitions of the American adventurer William Walker during his second term. Still, his countryfolk ousted him from power in 1859. After failing in his own coup against his successor, he was executed—a prelude to a second cycle of militarism.
The Guardia Legacy
The 1860s were marred by power struggles among the coffee elite, supported by their respective military cronies. General Tomás Guardia, however, was his own man. In April 1870, he overthrew the government and ruled for 12 years as an iron-willed military strongman backed by a powerful centralized government of his own making.
True to Costa Rican tradition, Guardia proved himself a progressive thinker and a benefactor of the people. His towering reign set in motion forces that shaped the modern liberal-democratic state. Hardly characteristic of 19th-century despots, he abolished capital punishment, managed to curb the power of the coffee barons, and, ironically, tamed the use of the army for political means. He used coffee earnings and taxation to finance roads and public buildings. And in a landmark revision to the Constitution in 1869, he made “primary education for both sexes obligatory, free, and at the cost of the Nation.”
During the course of the next two generations, militarism gave way to peaceful transitions to power. In 1917, democracy faced its first major challenge. At that time, the state collected the majority of its revenue from the less wealthy. Flores’s bill to establish direct, progressive taxation based on income and his espousal of state involvement in the economy had earned the wrath of the elites. They decreed his removal. Minister of War Federico Tinoco Granados seized power. Tinoco ruled as an iron-fisted dictator, but Costa Ricans were no longer prepared to acquiesce in oligarchic restrictions. Women and high-school students led a demonstration calling for his ouster, and Tinoco fled to Europe.
There followed a series of unmemorable administrations. The apparent tranquility was shattered by the Depression and the social unrest it engendered. Old-fashioned paternalistic liberalism had failed to resolve social ills such as malnutrition, unemployment, low pay, and poor working conditions. The Depression distilled all these issues. Calls grew shrill for reforms.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition