By April Stanley
Costa Rica is a small Central American state well known for its ecological diversity, pristine beaches, outdoor adventures and countless vacation destinations. Tourism is a large part of the economy, and each year thousands of people travel to Costa Rica to hike, enjoy canopy tours, scuba dive and experience whitewater rafting.
Upon examining Costa Rican history, it's apparent this state also has political stability, a history of democracy and an emphasis on its citizens' welfare. In contrast to the region in which it is located, this country has avoided guerrilla wars and repressive dictatorships. There are many historical reasons that Costa Rica has been a sea of tranquility in a region plagued by violence.
Costa Rica had a unique experience with the Spanish colonists. Unlike other areas of the Americas, Costa Rica was mostly ignored by colonists. In 1522, Europeans arrived on the coast and found the indigenous people unwilling to submit to slavery, making the area difficult to colonize. With few natives to force into servitude, the Spanish would have had to embark on the agricultural labor themselves, a situation unheard of in other parts of Central America. Considering the intense labor involved, colonists opted to move north where there were larger indigenous populations.
In 1821, Central America gained its independence from Spain. At that time, the Central American Federation included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Each country had the choice of becoming independent republics, rejoining the Mexican Empire or remaining members of the federation. Rather than make a hasty decision, Costa Rica waited to observe what the other countries would chose. A popular phrase, Esperar que pasen los nublados del día (Wait until the clouds have passed) was coined at this time. This reflects the general attitude of the people at that time as well as today when faced with conflict. In 1838, Costa Rica claimed its sovereignty and withdrew from the Central American Federation.
Costa Rica has the longest history of democracy of any Central American state. The first democratic election was held in 1899, and Costa Rica has since continued this tradition, with a few exceptions. Two exceptions were a dictatorship from 1917-1919 and a revolt in 1948 which led to an 18-month rule by military officer José Figueres. Military power is usually associated with violence, repression and human rights violations. However, rule by Figueres was in contrast to this norm. Positive outcomes of his rule include national army abolition, women's right to vote, full citizenship for black immigrants, and a presidential term limit.
The people of Costa Rica take pride when they proclaim, "we have more teachers than soldiers." When the army was abolished, military buildings were transformed into schools, weapons were replaced by books, and the military budget was transferred into education and healthcare budgets.
Costa Rica made the deliberate and risky decision to abolish its army in order to provide security to citizens through social welfare rather than military might. Today, Costa Rica has superior healthcare and education systems.
The government provides citizens with access to free public education and healthcare. The credibility of this system is exhibited in the fact that 96 percent of Costa Ricans are literate.
The abolition of the army has created an atmosphere in which the people are patient with the negotiation process. When conflict arises, the people are said to have confidence that the road to a lasting solution is more often paved with negotiations rather than military intervention.
Another reason Costa Rica is associated with stability and peace is due to its contribution to the regional peace process.
For decades most of Central America was experiencing endless guerrilla warfare and revolutions.
During the 1980s, Costa Rica's ability to rely on negotiations was tested when violence from the Nicaraguan revolution spilled into Costa Rica.
Costa Rican President Dr. Oscar Arias drafted the Arias Peace Plan which was instrumental in bringing together the leaders of Central America to negotiate a solution to the region's many conflicts.
The Nobel Peace Prize was presented to Arias for his efforts in initiating the Central American peace process.
He used the monetary award to create the Arias Foundation of Peace and Human Progress.
The foundation works to promote just and peaceful societies in Central America and other regions.
Costa Rica is an ecologically diverse country which offers a variety of vacation spots. But this country has proven to be more than just a tourist destination.
The actions of Costa Rica's leadership proved essential for initiating negotiations in the region.
Due to these historical events Costa Rica is considered on the world stage to be a progressive state dedicated to democracy and a peaceful existence.