On September 15,1821 we claimed our independence from Spain and Democracy was born.
Costa Rica was sparsely inhabited by indigenous people before it came under Spanish rule in the 16th century. Once a backwater colony, since attaining independence in the 19th century, Costa Rica has become one of the most stable, prosperous, and progressive nations in Latin America.
It permanently abolished its army in 1948, becoming the first of a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Costa Rica has consistently been among the top-ranking Latin American countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), placing 62nd in the world as of 2012.
Accounts differ as to whether the name la costa rica (Spanish for “rich coast”) was first applied by Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the eastern shores of Costa Rica during his final voyage in 1502, and reported the presence of vast quantities of gold jewelry among the natives or by the conquistador Gil González Dávila, who landed on the west coast in 1522, met with the natives, and appropriated some of their gold.
During most of the colonial period, Costa Rica was the southernmost province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (i.e., Mexico), but which, in practice, operated as a largely autonomous entity within the Spanish Empire.
Costa Rica’s distance from the capital in Guatemala, its legal prohibition under Spanish law to trade with its southern neighbors in Panama, then part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (i.e., Colombia), and the lack of resources, such as gold and silver, made Costa Rica into a poor, isolated, and sparsely inhabited region within the Spanish Empire.
Costa Rica was described as “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America” by a Spanish governor in 1719.
Another important factor behind Costa Rica’s poverty was the lack of a significant indigenous population available for Encomienda (forced labor), which meant most of the Costa Rican settlers had to work on their own land, preventing the establishment of large haciendas (properties).
For all these reasons, Costa Rica was, by and large, unappreciated and overlooked by the Spanish Crown and left to develop on its own.
The circumstances during this period are believed to have led to many of the idiosyncrasies for which Costa Rica has become known, while concomitantly setting the stage for Costa Rica’s development as a more egalitarian society than the rest of its neighbors. Costa Rica became a “rural democracy” with no oppressed mestizo or indigenous class. It was not long before Spanish settlers turned to the hills, where they found rich volcanic soil and a milder climate than that of the lowlands.
Like the rest of Central America, Costa Rica never fought for independence from Spain. On September 15, 1821, after the final Spanish defeat in the Mexican War of Independence (1810–21), the authorities in Guatemala declared the independence of all of Central America. That date is still celebrated as Independence Day in Costa Rica, even though, technically, under the Spanish Constitution of 1812 that had been readopted in 1820, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had become an autonomous province with its capital in León.
Like other Central American nations, Costa Rica joined the short-lived First Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide but, after its collapse in 1823, Costa Rica became, instead, a province of the new Federal Republic of Central America, which theoretically existed from 1823 to 1839, but which exercised a very loose authority over its constituent provinces, particularly the poor and remote Costa Rica. In 1824, the Costa Rican capital was moved to San José, leading to a brief outburst of violence over rivalry with the old capital, Cartago. While civil wars raged both among the provinces of the Federal Republic of Central America and between political factions within individual provinces, Costa Rica remained largely at peace.
In 1838, long after the Federal Republic of Central America ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign. The considerable distance and poor communication routes between Guatemala City and the Central Plateau, where most of the Costa Rican population lived then and still lives now, meant the local population had little allegiance to the federal government in Guatemala. From colonial times to now, Costa Rica’s reluctance to become politically tied with the rest of Central America has been a major obstacle to efforts for greater regional integration.