BECK index

Costa Rica 1850-1935

by Sanderson Beck

   Republic of Costa Rica 1847-82
   Republic of Costa Rica 1882-1918
   Republic of Costa Rica 1919-35

Republic of Costa Rica 1847-82

Costa Rica 1835-50

      A Constituent Assembly of Costa Rica had begun meeting in September 1845, and they completed the Constitution that was promulgated on 7 March 1847. The Catholic Church was established as the official religion, and the worship of other religions was prohibited. The Constitution authorized a president, a vice president, and a Congress. In 1848 the Constitution was revised to allow freedom of religion while the state still funded the Catholic Church. Costa Rica made a concordat with Pope Pius IX on 7 October 1852 and treaties followed with the United States, several Latin American nations, and major European countries.
      Juan Rafael Mora Porras was elected President, and he succeeded his younger brother Rafael Moya Murillo who resigned on 26 November 1849. The Teatro Mora opened in 1852. Juan Mora was re-elected on 3 May 1853. He had a state-owned liquor factory built. People were happy with peace, and he was made captain-general.
      In March 1856 President Mora sent Major Clodomiro Escalante with 400 men to fight the filibusters led by the American William Walker in southern Nicaragua. On March 20 they drove several hundred of his filibusters out of Santa Rosa. On April 11 in the Battle of Rivas the Costa Ricans defeated them, and four days later Mora sent a detailed report to the Minister of War. He wrote that the Costa Ricans lost no more than 110 men while Walker’s force of about 1,250 men had at least 200 casualties. Other estimates of Costa Rica’s losses are about 500, and Walker claimed he had only 750 men. Many corpses were not properly buried, and a cholera epidemic broke out and became so bad that Costa Rican troops left Nicaragua on April 26. As soldiers went home, disease spread throughout Costa Rica killing over 10,000 people by 1857.
      After Walker made a deal for transit rights on the San Juan River with two former associates of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in October 1856 the wealthy Vanderbilt sent Sylvanus Spencer to San José where he offered President Mora $40,000 for an expedition to defeat Walker’s army. Spencer and the Costa Ricans crossed the country, and on December 3 President Mora put 250 troops under the command of Captain S. M. Spencer. On December 23 Spencer’s men in a surprise attack on the 40 or 50 filibusters killed most of them. That night they moved into Greytown and took steamboats, and on Lake Nicaragua they captured La Virgin. They were reinforced by the president’s brother General José Joaquín Mora with 1,100 Costa Ricans on December 31, and together they forced the San Carlos to surrender. Many blamed Mora for the cholera epidemic, and the military spending caused a recession.
      President Mora negotiated on 15 April 1858 the Cañas-Jerez Treaty that made the San Juan River the border with Nicaragua and granted Costa Rica free navigation, and it required Nicaragua to get approval from Costa Rica to negotiate a canal treaty in the region. In 1858 education was declared mandatory. Mora tried to reduce the influence of coffee barons who dominated exports in the 1850s. The owners of property, merchants, and the army led by General Máximo Blanco and General Lorenzo Salazar opposed Mora, and they removed him on the night of 14 August 1859 and set up a provisional government. Mora and his family went to El Salvador where he introduced coffee cultivation.
      A Constituent Assembly elected the provisional president José María Montealagre. The wealthy Vicente Aguilar became vice president and also Minister of the Treasury and of War. His ruthless power was resented, and Costa Rica was divided by two parties both claiming law and order. The Constituent Assembly met on 16 October 1859 and promulgated a new constitution with 142 articles on December 27 that established a Senate and a House of Representatives or Deputies, and it changed the term of the President to three years. The government’s power was strengthened over that of the military. Human rights were protected except that only the Roman Catholic religion was tolerated. After an election the Congress met in April 1860 and declared Montealagre president of the republic. He was from an elite coffee family and made the economy his priority. He renegotiated foreign debts and promoted coffee production and other commodities. He established the Public Works Department to improve infrastructure and services. He reformed the post office and introduced adhesive stamps.
      Some men persuaded the deposed Mora that he would be welcomed back to Costa Rica. He landed in September 1860 at Puntarenas with some friends and gathered about 350 men, but the government’s army defeated them at La Angostura on the 28th. Two days later Mora surrendered. He had claimed that Aguilar owed his family $200,000, but on that day the Minister of War had him and General J. M. Cañas executed by a firing squad. After confiscating Mora’s property Aguilar died of a heart attack on 26 April 1861.
      Costa Rica had only 63,000 people in 1820, and by 1860 the population had grown to 115,000. The first national census was taken in 1862. Costa Ricans had a per capita income more than four times that of other Central Americans, and their economy was improving. In the next election the compromise candidate Jesús Jiménez Zamora was elected president. Montealagre handed over power on 8 May 1863. President Jesús Jiménez continued the progressive policies, and he asserted civilian control over the military. When Congress tried to limit his authority, he dissolved their session and called for new elections. He allowed El Salvador’s former President Gerardo Barrios to stay in Costa Rica despite other leaders’ demands even after Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras broke off diplomatic relations. Jiménez expanded public education by making it obligatory and free. He ended the government’s monopoly on tobacco, allowing private enterprise.
      José María Castro Madriz had been President 1847-49 and had declared Costa Rica a sovereign republic in 1848. He was Chief Judge of the Supreme Court from 1860 to 1866 when he was elected President again. President Castro ran an economical government, and his privy council served without pay. He laid off officials and the presidential honor guard. He then could develop education and improve the country. Castro was a Freemason, and he criticized the Catholic Church for meddling in politics. A military coup led by the generals Salazar and Blanco removed President Castro on 1 November 1868, and they reinstated Jesús Jiménez Zamora in the presidency. He supported the building of more schools, and a telegraph line connected San José to Cartago. A new constitution with liberal principles was drafted in February 1869 and was promulgated in April. The voting age was lowered to 21, and it gave municipal governments more power to propose reforms Primary education was pronounced “for both sexes obligatory, free, and at the cost of the Nation,” and Castro founded the first normal school to train teachers.
      On 27 April 1870 a coup d’état led by Tomás and Victor Guardia, Pedro and Pablo Quiroz, and Próspero Fernandez removed Jiménez and made the physician and journalist Bruno Carranza the Temporary Head of the Republic. His brief administration promoted personal and religious freedom, and they banned the death penalty. He called for a Constituent Assembly. People elected one that met on August 8 and canceled the 1869 Constitution. On that day Carranza came into conflict with his main advisor General Tomás Guardia. Carranza resigned that day, and Tomás Guardia became president on August 10. People assembled and passed resolutions rescinding the constituent assembly and making Tomás Guardia dictator. He then dissolved the assembly on October 10. He granted amnesty to Jiménez and appointed a council of state.
      Elections were held for deputies to a new Constituent Assembly, and on 7 December 1871 they produced a very liberal constitution that strengthened the presidency which would be used to control Congress and elections. President Guardia decreed a law with many restrictions on who could vote. He increased military spending to reduce corruption and improve morale. He reformed training methods, built new facilities, increased salaries, and he wrote new military codes. The National Congress met on 1 May 1872, and on the 30th they declared that Guardia was duly elected president. A railroad from Alajuela to San José was completed in 1873. Guardia got permission to go to foreign countries for his health, and he went away again in 1875 for six months. A revolt in indigenous Guanacaste failed, and insurgents fled into Nicaragua. In March 1876 Congress approved sending troops to that disputed frontier, and on the 27th a general amnesty was offered.
      On May 3 Congress declared that Aniceto Esquivel had been elected president, and they appointed Tomás Guardia first designado and Vicente Herrera second designado. On July 29-30 a revolt in Cartago led to the deposition of Esquivel, and on 8 May 1876 Guardia chose the conservative Vicente Herrera to replace him. On August 11 he decreed press censorship, and on 11 September 1877 a revolution replaced Herrera with Guardia. He had people choose a constituent assembly that met on December 23. He issued the Law of Individual Rights that included life, property, freedom of religion, speech, and travel, and inviolable telegraph and written correspondence. Tomás Guardia imprisoned and exiled people he did not like, and he remained President until his death on 6 July 1882. During his 12 years he tripled the government’s revenues and used them to improve education, public health, and transportation. His modernizing included the paving of streets, installing electricity and indoor plumbing, and constructing highways, ports, and new public buildings. Guardia also had more prisons built to use rehabilitation, and he abolished the death penalty. He banned cockfighting and discouraged drinking alcohol and gambling.

Republic of Costa Rica 1882-1918

      Próspero Fernández Oreamuno became President of Costa Rica on 10 August 1882, and the next day he granted a general amnesty for political offenses. He restored diplomatic relations with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The US citizen Minor Cooper Keith came to Costa Rica in 1871 to supervise the construction of the Atlantic railroad that his uncle was building. Keith made a fortune selling the bananas along the railway. During the presidency of Fernández the government defaulted on its obligations to Keith, and he worked with Costa Rica’s Secretary of State Bernardo Soto to renegotiate the British loans to guarantee customs revenues. In 1883 Minor Keith married the daughter of the former President Próspero Fernández, and the government granted Keith 800,000 acres of land for 99 years on the condition that he cultivate the land and mortgage it to raise money for the railroad. Then the land would be his property. He formed the Tropical Trading and Transport Company and did not cultivate the land which ended up part of the United Fruit Company in 1899 when Keith founded that corporation by merging with the Boston Fruit Company which controlled the banana industry in the Caribbean. In 1897 Keith had bought half the shares in the Snyder Banana Company. He also invested in mining, livestock, cacao, banking, and retail trade.
      Keith got foreign workers from China, Italy, and the British West Indies. After Costa Rica’s ban on Chinese immigration many black workers immigrated from the Caribbean, and they became a majority of the banana industry’s workers. The extensive immigration of Afro-Caribbeans into eastern Costa Rica began in the 1870s and went on until the 1920s. Politicians passed laws to keep blacks out of the Central Valley. Banana workers had low wages and unsanitary living and working conditions after being promised the opposite. Workers were given coupons they could only use at the company store that had higher prices. Eventually the West Indians formed the Limón Workers’ Federation that organized strikes in 1908 and 1909. In 1921 they allied with the Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT).
      Costa Rica had 234 schools in 1883, and that year a decree excluded Jesuits from entering the republic. Electric street lights were installed in San José in 1884. Bishop Bernardo Agusto Thiel aided by Jesuits tried to interfere with the government, and he claimed that he was above the government. A decree on 18 July expelled Bishop Thiel and the Jesuits from Costa Rica. On 28 February 1885 the Guatemala legislature declared the union of Central America as one republic, and they appointed President Barrios the military commander. The government and people of Costa Rica responded by preparing to fight for their independence. Costa Rica’s liberal presidents from 1870 to 1889 were called “Olympians” for their reforms.
      President Próspero Fernández died on 12 March 1885, and he was succeeded by his son-in-law Bernardo Soto Alfaro. In 1885 President Soto improved education with the Ley General de Educación Común and mandated schools for boys and girls with a national curriculum for primary education with classrooms organized by age. They founded the Colegio Superior de Señoritas to train female teachers. Feminists argued that nurturing women are better teachers than men. Costa Rica approved civil marriage and divorce in 1888. That year Costa Rica’s National Library was established, and in 1889 Soto signed a contract with Henry François Pittier, the first director of the National Physical-Geographical Institute. Soto shut down the Universidad de Santo Tomás that had been controlled by Catholics.
      In elections in the fall of 1889 the Constitutional Democratic Party candidate José Joaquín Rodríguez Zeledón received 81% of the votes to 19% for the Liberal Progressive Party candidate Ascensión Esquivel Ibarra. The Liberals had manipulated elections, and this time the Conservatives won with a revived party. The election was disputed, and Liberals tried to take power; but a protest in San José with more than 10,000 people persuaded them to accept the overwhelming vote. Soto stayed in office letting the third vice president, Dr. Carlos Durán Cartín, govern until the end of the term on 8 May 1890.
      The lawyer José Joaquín Rodríguez had become Secretary of State in Soto’s government, and the clergy and some liberals support him in the election. President Rodríguez had telephone lines installed. In 1892 he dissolved Congress, and he decreed individual guarantees.
      Minister of War Rafael Yglesias Castro was elected president in 1894. He worked on improving sanitation and public health, and he promoted the building of a national theatre in 1897, an electric train, completed the Atlantic to Pacific railway, and extended electricity to Heredia. He put Costa Rica on the gold standard and regulated the currency. He was re-elected in 1898. Provinces were provided with emergency health care, and he established a pharmaceutical college in 1902.
      Ascensión Esquivel Ibarra was born in Nicaragua and was naturalized as a citizen of Costa Rica. He became a law professor and was elected in 1901 and became President on 8 May 1902 for four years. Cleto González Víquez was a liberal National and opposed the party in power, and he was elected in 1905 and served four years (1906-10). He would become President later for two more terms. Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno was the son of the two-term President Jesús Jiménez Oreamuno. Ricardo Jiménez criticized the United Fruit Company, and he was elected in 1909 and would serve three four-year terms as President of Costa Rica. A powerful earthquake in 1910 destroyed most of the town of Cartago and killed hundreds of people. President Ricardo Jiménez banned construction with adobe and provided relief and rebuilding. By 1910 the Panama disease (Fusarium Wilt) was causing many banana trees to rot. On 23 July 1910 the Pacific Railroad across the country from Limón to Puntarenas began operating. The Artisans and Labourers’ Union was organized in Limón, and on August 1 they took “Emancipation Day” off from work.
      In 1913 President Ricardo Jiménez did not like the three presidential candidates, and he put Alfredo González Flores in command of the police and armed forces. Then two parties in Congress cooperated to elect Alfredo González Flores who became President on 8 May 1914. The Great War (World War I) in Europe affected the economy of Costa Rica, and González Flores helped found the International Bank of Costa Rica. He established the General Depots to direct taxation and implemented the progressive Charity Tax. The previous tax system had been hard on the poor and helped the rich, and he worked to make it more fair. In 1915 he offered five major bills with four to reform taxes and one to create a land survey and census. He vetoed a bill to grant oil concessions to a foreign company. As opposition grew, he restricted speech and censured the press.
      On 27 January 1917 his Secretary of the Army and Navy, General Federico Tinoco, removed González Flores in a coup and made himself president. Supporters of González Flores asked the United States to send marines. President Woodrow Wilson directed the State Department to prepare a memorandum on the Tinoco regime, and Herbert Stabler, head of the Latin American Affairs division, found that War Secretary Tinoco had committed crimes and that González Flores had been friendly with a German colony in Costa Rica. Tinoco was supported by British investors and the Costa Rica Oil Corporation. The US declined to recognize the Tinoco government or to help González Flores. The relationship between Keith and Tinoco persuaded Herbert Stabler that the United Fruit Company must have known about Tinoco’s conspiracy. Stabler wanted a friendly government in Costa Rica because it is next to the Panama Canal. US Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Wilson agreed with Stabler’s advice. On February 9 Lansing sent a telegram not recognizing Tinoco. In March 1918 President Tinoco declared war against the German Empire. US President Wilson withdrew recognition from Tinoco’s government because it was not democratic. In November the US envoy Stewart Johnson was recalled from Costa Rica. The US Consul Benjamin Chase in San José criticized Tinoco. The US sent gunboats to ports in Costa Rica, and Chase continued to advise intervention in Costa Rica.

Republic of Costa Rica 1919-35

      Former officers in the González administration in exile in Nicaragua and El Salvador organized an offensive led by Julio Acosta García against Tinoco’s dictatorship in May 1919. In early June the opposition to Tinoco was growing. On June 12 at a meeting in Central Park in San José demonstrators had pictures of Julio Acosta. Police closed the park, saying protests were forbidden. The crowd began shouting for Acosta, Wilson, and Costa Rica, and they persuaded the US Consul Chase to make a speech. The police began to disperse protesters using leather thongs and clubs. Someone from a balcony shot at police who returned fire. Several people were killed. Chase sent requests to two US warships. Tinoco and others believed US intervention was imminent. He sent a message to Chile’s ambassador in Washington proposing that Chase “be put in jail,” that the US ship in Limón withdraw, that Juan Bautista Quirós be provisional president, that the US recognize Quirós, and that Tinoco leave Costa Rica.
      President Tinoco summoned the Congress to meet on August 1, and the next day the War Minister Joaquín Tinoco informed soldiers and police that the Tinocos were leaving to prevent “the United States from intervening in Costa Rica.” Federico Tinoco made a speech criticizing the US and requesting permission to go to Europe because of ill health. Joaquín Tinoco made a speech in Congress on August 9, and he resigned from being next to the presidency. Congress agreed and appointed Quirós, and they gave Federico Tinoco a leave of absence. Joaquín Tinoco did not intend to leave, and he was assassinated on 11 August 1919.
      The next day Federico Tinoco resigned, and Juan Bautista Quirós became President. He began by confirming public liberty and freeing all political prisoners. The United States refused to recognize his government, and Quirós resigned on September 2. He was replaced by Francisco Aguilar Barquero who became Interim President.
      The diplomat Julio Acosta became the candidate of the Constitutional party, and he was elected President with 89% on December 7. He was inaugurated on 8 May 1920 and ended the previous military dictatorship. He was a Progressive and worked for reforms such as women voting, solving border disputes, removing corruption, and he established pensions for veterans. He negotiated debts and stabilized the currency. He protected minors, regulated gaming, reformed insurance, established pedagogical training, developed school inspection and teacher pension programs, and he established free and compulsory education for all children from the age of 8 to 15. Costa Rica became a member of the League of Nations on 20 January 1921. In 1924 Acosta moved to Paris and worked for the International Red Cross for three years.      Jorge Volio was born in Cartago on 26 August 1882. He was well educated in Costa Rica and Europe. In 1909 he was ordained a Catholic priest. He went to Nicaragua and supported Augusto César Sandino’s liberal revolution against US occupation. After returning to Costa Rica he was persecuted by the dictator Tinoco, and Volio became a leader in the civic movement by students and teachers in 1919. He was elected to the Assembly as an Independent in 1922. The Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT) nominated Volio for president. He founded the Reformist Party on 25 January 1923, and he ran for president as their candidate. That year the Costa Rican Feminist League (Liga Feminista) was organized to work for equality.
      In 1924 Jorge Volio became second vice president. He founded the Reformist Party and advocated agrarian reform, better housing, cooperatives, social security, nutritional programs, prison rehabilitation, and improving sanitation and sewer systems. He was a teacher and aimed to eradicate illiteracy with well-funded free education. He believed that the state should support the poor and the weak who had been exploited. He advocated “authentic Christianity” and criticized the abuses of capitalism. He believed a priest could bring people charity, goodness, and social justice.
      Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno’s second term as President was from 1924 to 1928, and Cleto González Víquez became President again 1928-32. In 1930 he established the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Labor. The National Republican Party was formed prior to the election of Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno for his third term 1932-36. These two men were President 1906-14 and 1924-36, a period some considered a “golden age” for Costa Rica when democratic traditions were respected, and progressive measures were implemented. All presidents from 1932 to 1948 would be National Republicans.
      The young law student Manuel Mora Valverde had started a Communist Party in 1929. The Communist Party of Costa Rica was formally established on 16 June 1931, and on 13 March 1932 they published their “Minimum Program” which supported workers and peasants and advocated numerous reforms. They aimed to establish social security, abolish child labor, give workers an 8-hour day with 6-hours for strenuous occupations such as miners, a minimum wage, labor union rights, hygienic dwellings and policies, education for nutrition, ending the National Liquor Factory, emancipating women, revising treaties with foreign capitalists, land reform, improving infrastructure, state expansion of agriculture and industry, controlling monopolies, revising tariffs and taxes, a National Economic Technical Council, reducing bureaucracy, civil service laws, no public employees earning more than workers, and major educational reforms.      The United Fruit Company (UFC) had been exploiting underpaid workers in Latin America since 1899, and they extended banana cultivation to the Pacific coast in the 1930s. In the first three years of the Great Depression Costa Rica’s imports fell by 75% while export income decreased by more than 50% by 1932. In the Great Atlantic Banana Plantation Strike of 1934 in Costa Rica 10,000 workers demanded the right to form trade unions. When the price went down, the Company would throw away bananas so that farmers absorbed the losses. Rulers obtained onerous loans from foreign companies. A minimum wage was established. One of the strike leaders was the Communist Carlos Luis Fallas (a.k.a. Calufa) who wrote about the strike in his 1941 novel Mamita Yunai. In 1935 the UFC gave President Ricardo Jiménez 250,000 acres to be distributed to the landless.

Copyright © 2023 by Sanderson Beck

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Latin America & Canada to 1850

Brazil 1850-1935
Uruguay 1850-1935
Argentina 1850-1935
Paraguay 1850-1935 
Bolivia 1850-1935
Chile 1850-1935
Peru 1850-1935
Ecuador 1850-1935
Colombia 1850-1935
Venezuela & Guianas 1850-1935
Haiti & Dominican Republic 1850-1935
Cuba 1850-1935
Puerto Rico 1850-1935
Panama 1850-1935
Costa Rica 1850-1935
Nicaragua 1850-1935
El Salvador 1850-1935
Honduras 1850-1935
Guatemala 1850-1935
Mexico 1850-1935
Canada 1850-1935

Chronology of Latin America to 1935
Chronology of Canada to 1935
Chronology of North & South America to 1786
Chronology of North & South America 1787-1844
Chronology of North & South America 1845-1896
Chronology of United States to 1896
World Chronology to 1830


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