República de Costa Rica
Republic of Costa Rica

Timeline: 1983: Doomsday
Flag of Costa Rica (state).svg
State flag of Costa Rica (civil flag is without arms)
Languages Spanish (official)
Mekatelyu (co-official in Limón province)
Capital San José
President Ricardo Toledo Carranza
Area 41,867 km2
Population 2,850,000
Independence 1838
Reunification 1993
Currency Costa Rican colón (₡) (pegged 10.75:1 with Brazilian real)

The Republic of Costa Rica was once known as Central America's most stable democracy. Costa Rica boasted the subcontinent's highest standard of living, and its complete demilitarization was a model for the world. The events of Doomsday shattered the country's export-driven economy, and the new pressures on the country led to a long civil war, the aftershocks of which are still being felt. Costa Rica is again a democracy, still a rarity in Central America. Though its people are much poorer than they once were, they remain committed to their nation. And although the great powers that now compete for influence in Central America are different than during the Cold War, Costa Rica tries to maintain its traditional role as a neutral player in the region.



In the late 1970s the Nicaraguan Civil War began to have a greater impact on life in Costa Rica. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)'s 1979 takeover of Nicaragua was organized in large part by revolutionary leaders operating out of Costa Rica. After the Sandinista victory, Contra guerrillas began to drift into Costa Rica's northern border region, especially in the Caribbean lowland. Throughout the war, Costa Rica was a major destination for refugees, both from Nicaragua and Honduras. Their large numbers taxed the country's social services and drew some resentment from native Ticos.

In addition, Costa Rica was in the midst of a long recession triggered by rising government debt and inflation. President Luis Monge was attempting to deal with the crisis through deep cuts in spending together with tax cuts aimed at increasing exports. Overall, the country was probably in worse shape than at any time since the 1948 civil war.

1983-1986: Collapse

Sandinista General Joaquín Cuadra

After Doomsday, Contra guerrilla forces fighting against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua realized they were on their own, cut off from their main patron, the USA and Ronald Reagan. The details of the Contras' inner debates and deals remain unclear, but by the end of 1983 the main factions had decided to launch a last-ditch round of attacks. They formed a force called the People's Front of Nicaragua (FPN). FPN forces crossed from southeastern Nicaragua into Costa Rica early in 1984 and prepared to re-enter Nicaragua's more densely populated west.

Although his own main source of military aid - Cuba - had been cut off, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega chose to attack. He dispatched a major Sandinista force under General Joaquín Cuadra. Over loud protests from President Monge, Cuadra seized Guanacaste Province - long regarded as rightfully Nicaraguan - and Costa Rica's main Pacific port, Puntarenas, in order to head off the Contras.

The bankrupt Costa Rican government, dependent on tourism and food exports to the US, was unable to drive out the invaders. By 1985, much of the Central Valley, home to the capital and half the country's population, was occupied by the Nicaraguan army. President Monge and the Costa Rican government fled to the coast, relocating to the port city of Limón. The civil war dragged on another two years. Although his term expired in 1986, conditions prevented Monge from stepping down, an election being impossible to hold.

1987-1991: Digging in

The 1987 truce

In 1987, the three sides agreed on a ceasefire. Monge's government was allowed to reoccupy the Central Valley, but Nicaragua remained in control of Puntarenas and Guanacaste, with General Cuadra in command of the occupation. The FPN Contras remained unassailed in the northeastern lowlands and in Nicaragua's Miskito Coast region. Monge recognized that the truce was precarious and wisely kept much of the apparatus of government in Limón, far from Nicaraguan forces. He also began to rebuild Costa Rica's military, which had not existed since its abolition in 1948.

As soon as a measure of calm was restored, Monge rushed to hold a new election. Conservative Rafael Angel Calderon won, and his opponent Óscar Arias immediately questioned the results. In truth, there was no fraud, but a great amount of incompetence in the hurried election, with thousands of votes lost, not counted, or counted twice. Arias' supporters refused to recognize the election results. Nevertheless, Monge resigned and fled the country as soon as votes were counted, leaving Calderon to pick up the pieces.

FPN advance of 1988

The truce collapsed even sooner than expected as Contra forces stormed Sandinista positions in Guanacaste province on December 15, 1987. The now three-way war resumed. Óscar Arias suspended his movement and urged all supporters of the legitimist government to follow Calderon. General Cuadra, cut off from Nicaragua, began to recruit local Costa Ricans sympathetic to Marxism and the Sandinista cause. Over the course of several months, they regained control of the province and drove the bulk of the Contra rebels into the far end of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Cuadra's forces enter Alajuela in 1989.

By the end of 1988 the FPN had ceased to function as an organization. Its leadership was driven into the Nicoya peninsula, and the bulk of its troops were scattered throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Once again, the Contra movement was divided among numerous guerrilla organizations with differing goals. In the middle of 1989 one Contra group entered Alajuela at the west end of the Central Valley. A force of Costa Rican Sandinistas recruited by General Cuadra followed and won control of the entire valley. On January 2, 1990, the Costa Rican Sandinistas declared themselves the legitimate rulers of the country. They announced their independence of the FSLM in Nicaragua and installed a three-person junta to consolidate their control. Cuadra was the junta's leader. All this was done without permission from Managua or President Ortega, but the junta enjoyed the support of a good part of the population, who were weary after more than two years of anarchy.

The Sandinistas split, c. 1990.

Friction soon erupted between Nicaragua and the new Sandinista government of Costa Rica. Ortega naturally expected to be able to control Cuadra and his junta in San José, but he was soon frustrated. Cuadra wanted the best of both worlds - to govern Costa Rica as an independent nation, and to retain command of his (Nicaraguan) army. He openly flouted a series of presidential orders. The situation grew steadily more tense, and by 1991 the two Sandinista countries were on the brink of war. Fighting finally broke out in 1991; at issue was control of Guanacaste province. Guanacaste, which at one point had been part of Nicaragua, was occupied by forces that did not report to Cuadra and remained loyal to Ortega and the Managua government. In July Ortega announced that Nicaragua was re-annexing Guanacaste, and Cuadra sent troops to claim it. But even while the Sandinista factions were fighing on the northwestern frontier, Cuadra was losing control at the center: another Contra group had entered the metro area and had gained control of several neighborhoods in Heredia and San José.

A flag used by Costa Rican Sandinistas, combining Sandinista black and red with Costa Rican red and blue.

President Rafael Calderon did not recognize the Sandinista takeover. He continued to preside over the government-in-exile in Limón, far from the fighting in Guanacaste and the capital. As his term wore on, Óscar Arias and his supporters applied more and more pressure to hold another election on schedule in those areas still under the control of the legitimate government. This he did in 1990. Arias, who had spent the last three years building support among the refugee communities along the coast, won, and Calderon stepped down, preserving Costa Rica's tradition of peaceful democracy even in the worst of times. President Calderon had begun arming guerrilla groups to help defend his government, by now known as the Limonese faction. Arias had criticized these guerrilla units, but once in power found that his government needed them in order to survive and, perhaps, reclaim the Central Valley, where the Sandinistas' tenuous control was slipping. Limoneses were fighting in Cartago and San José by 1991.

On April 22, 1991, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake shook the entire Limón region and was felt as far away as El Salvador. Any hope of engaging the Sandinistas or anyone else in the highlands was scrapped. All resources were poured into rebuilding the makeshift capital and staving off starvation in the refugee camps in the surrounding banana lowlands. With both the Limoneses and Sandinistas occupied elsewhere, much of the Central Valley became a no-man's-land. Cartago and San José, though not as severely damaged as Limón, fell into disrepair with the Sandinistas unable to organize or pay for rebuilding. Many people left the cities for camps near the relatively stable coasts. Some of the damage from 1991 has never been repaired.

1992-1996: Reunification

File:Contra child soldiers

Footage of a Contra guerrilla group consisting mainly of child soldiers (1990)

Óscar Arias, architect of the ceasefire

The situation in 1992 was unacceptable to most Ticos. A decade ago their country had been an island of peace and democracy in Central America. Now it looked like a failed state. The democratically elected government was hiding out in its ruined port. The Sandinista government barely had control in its own capital and attempted to administer the country from Puntarenas. Nicaragua occupied a large chunk of territory, a Contra republic had taken shape in Nicoya, the northeast borderlands were the domain of other Contras based in Mosquitia, and the southeast had been totally overrun by Panamanian refugees, with nothing resembling a government to provide law and order, much less the social services so desperately needed.

President Óscar Arias sought out a political solution and began a new policy of intense diplomacy early in 1992. He convinced General Joaquín Cuadro and the other members of the Sandinista junta that their survival depended upon their ability to govern the whole country. Their regime was on the verge of disingegrating into a guerrilla army, and they needed to work with the Limonese government if they wanted to maintain their positions. The junta agreed to meet with Arias in the former resort town of Jaco, on the Pacific coast. On March 13, Arias made the dangerous flight over the mountains in a small propeller plane and landed safely near the town. In the Jaco Peace Conference the two sides agreed to cooperate to retake San José and reunite the country. Arias and the Limoneses brought their political legitimacy; the Sandinistas brought their military strength, most of it ex-Nicaraguan. At Jaco, and at subsequent meetings, plans were formed to create a government of national unity once San José was secure. The government would include Sandinistas, Arias' liberals, and Calderon's conservatives. As soon as the rule of law was re-established throughout the country, nationwide elections would again be held.

The great obstacle to this plan was the Sandinistas' ongoing war with Nicaragua. As long as the fighting continued in Guanacaste, Cuadra's army would never be able to pacify the capital. In October Arias orchestrated another peace summit, this one in the town of Cañas, Guanacaste, near the border between Costa Rican and Nicaraguan zones of control. Arias asked only for a five-year truce in Guanacaste, so that the Costa Ricans could stabilize their government. Meanwhile, Nicaragua could continue to govern the province without fear of attack. Nicaraguans were as fatigued from the war as the Ticos, and Nicaragua still had fighting to do at home to retake the Miskito Coast, so Ortega agreed to a ceasefire.

The unity government takes control.

The government of national unity was announced soon afterwards, and in 1993 it took control of the capital. After a decade of chaos, Costa Rica was about to become a united country again. The government borrowed money from South America to help it bring refugees along the coasts back home to the Central Valley. It implemented plans to regulate the Panamanian refugee camps and integrate their people. Sandinista troops were stationed to defend the borders against refugees in the south, and refugees and diehard Contra groups in the north. The government laid the beginnings of a new national economy when it issued a new colón pegged to the Brazilian real.

Most Costa Ricans were overjoyed with the end of civil war. But back in Limón Province, new tensions simmered. The ethnic Limoneses, mostly of African descent and speaking a unique English creole, had been out on the fringes of Costa Rican life for ages. During the civil war, this marginalized community finally had real political influence, and a number of ethnic Limoneses had served in high levels in the government-in-exile. Now, with reunification and the end of war, Limoneses feared they would again be cast aside.

Marvin Wright Lindo founded the Limonese Socialist Party in 1993 and began an ethnically based mass movement. The community was organizing politically for the first time. At this stage, the movement's demands were quite vague; they included political empowerment of the community and a fair share of relief supplies and services for their own province. But as time went by, the movement's demands would become more clarified and much more strident.

For three years, General Cuadra and the core Nicaraguan group among the Sandinistas put off holding elections, despite their promises to Arias and the country. They feared Arias' popularity and feared that democracy would put their faction right out of power. It was only after Arias promised to appoint certain key Sandinistas if elected, in effect continuing the national unity government, that the Sandinistas agreed to submit to an election. By 1996, furthermore, riots in Limón and the approaching end of the ceasefire with Nicaragua put a lot of pressure on Cuadra's faction to proceed with an orderly election and maintain the rule of law.

Óscar Arias was indeed elected in 1996. The election was Costa Rica's first since 1982. The country had high hopes for its peacemaker President. Unfortunately, they would be disappointed by events to come.

1997-2001: Five Frustrating Years

Arias immediately faced a diplomatic task even more delicate than reuniting the country: deciding what to do with Guanacaste province. Nicaragua, still led by President Ortega, would not let it go. Furthermore, Nicaragua insisted that Arias hand over all Nico officers that had defected to Costa Rica since 1984. Since those officers formed a major part of his governing coalition and ran a large part of the military, Arias could not agree to these terms. The Cañas CeaseFire deadline ended in 1997. By then the talks with Nicaragua had completely broken down. Arias would not consent to a total war, but skirmishing broke out in the disputed areas. Nicaragua also sent an expedition into Nicoya, a peninsula still believed to house a band of Contra rebels; it failed miserably.

The Limonese Republic declares independence in 1997.

The Limonese Socialist Party saw its opportunity. Urged on by Marvin Wright, the LSP declared independence on behalf of the province on June 30, 1997. A bloodless coup put Wright in charge of the provincial government, and a series of not at all bloodless attacks forced national officials to flee the area. Wright assumed the title of President of the Limonese Republic. Though a radical left-winger himself, Wright astutely formed ties with some of the Contra groups that still controlled parts of the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua. The Miskitos had much in common culturally with the Limoneses, and for some time their struggle had been much more about ethnicity than ideology. Limón and the Miskito "republics" shared intelligence, supplies, and guerrillas. Their cooperation has kept the fight going and has helped both groups maintain a quasi-independence for many years. (Limón would not be brought under government control until 2005, the Miskitos, 2010; see below.)

In 1999, President Arias met again with Nicaraguan leaders to cut a final deal on Guanacaste. His great diplomatic skill was not enough to convince Managua to compromise. All Arias could manage was to secure a promise of amnesty for Sandinista defectors. In exchange, he gave up the entire province beyond the ceasefire line. Costa Ricans were furious at what they saw as an over-conciliatory attitude.

That same year, Arias and Wright came to an agreement that seemed at first to be more successful. Limón was made into an autonomous region of Costa Rica, fully part of the country but with broad power to manage local affairs. The peace held for a while, but within a year Limonese guerrillas were again fighting with the Costa Rican army over various perceived slights and offenses on both sides.

Arias, disgraced by two diplomatic failures, did not even run for reelection in 2000 despite a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to do so. The Sandinista Party swept into power. Moscow-educated José Merino del Río became the new President. As someone with genuine socialist credentials, he seemed the perfect man to find common ground with both the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and with Wright's republic in Limón. For the early part of his term, Merino concentrated on a leftist domestic agenda, continuing the process of granting land to refugees and doing what he could to repair the national health care system. But he also sought help from Socialist Siberia, which had made contact with Central America in 1997 and had diplomatic relations with Costa Rica only since 1999. If any nation could act as mediator in the conflict, it seemed that the USSR's successor could.

2002- : Progress

President Merino

The Soviets, eager to increase their influence in the region, happily did what they could to lead the two countries to the negotiating table. Costa Rican and Nicaraguan officials traveled to the Russian Pacific port town of Sovetskaya Gavan late in 2002. They agreed to hold a referendum in Guanacaste to determine its future. Both nations would be bound by the referendum's results. The vote was held in 2004; to the dismay of Merino and most Costa Ricans, Guanacaste voted to remain Nicaraguan. Almost two solid decades of Nicaraguan governance, and the overall bad news coming out of Costa Rica, had apparently eroded the people's nostalgic feelings about their former country. Despite this setback, Merino was reelected in 2004.

In his second term, Merino focused newly on ecological issues. Costa Rica had once been a world leader in conservation, both of land and of resources, but years of conflict had degraded the country's famous forests, while in many regions, years without any government presence had left the land open to exploitation. Urged on by the President, the Legislative Assembly passed laws that created incentives for preserving forest and green space, and created stricter protections for certain habitat areas and plant and animal species. Merino sought aid from abroad to develop cleaner and more efficient ways of producing energy - first from Siberia, and later, toward the end of his term, from the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand.

President Patterson of Limón

Marvin Wright's sepratist government was much more stubborn than Nicaragua, and a peaceful solution to the Limón issue proved much more elusive. Perhaps goaded on by his Miskito allies, Wright refused to negotiate with Costa Rica until 2004, when he agreed to meet with Costa Rican, Nicaraguan, and Soviet officials in Managua. However, his death that year threw Limón into confusion, and the talks did not happen. The turbulence in Limón convinced Merino that the time was ripe for a military action. Costa Rican forces successfully invaded Limón in late 2004 and forced local leaders to come to terms. In 2005, the junto that had replaced Wright agreed to an autonomous status within Costa Rica. However, fighting broke out again two years later. In June 2009, following the terms of the treaty, Limón held an election for a new president. The winner was Edwin Patterson Bent, an ally of Wright, but much more a moderate. His administration has done what it can to curb guerrilla activity and has pushed for a renegotiation of Limó's status, advocating virtual independence and a treaty of free association with Costa Rica. Sporadic outbreaks of violence continue to hurt Patterson's position, alienating the rest of Costa Rica and undermining his moderate platform.

Costa Rica in 2009

Ricardo Toledo, a conservative-leaning Christian Democrat, was elected President in 2008. He pledged to liberalize the economy while maintaining Costa Rica's traditional social safety net. In foreign affairs, Toledo argued that the country should not orient itself so strongly toward Siberia, but should instead balance Soviet and South American influence.

Nevertheless, Toledo had to cooperate closely with Nicaragua to fulfill his promises of securing the northern borderlands, and this meant relying on Siberian aid. An Expeditionary Force arrived from Siberia in April 2010. Siberian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican troops scored a major victory two weeks later over Contra rebels on the Caribbean coast.

Costa Rica today

Costa Rica in late 2010, showing the progress of the "Caribbean campaign"

Ricardo Toledo, President since 2008

Costa Rica now enjoys a permanent peace with Nicaragua and a stable, if sometimes rocky, union with Limón. The return of peace has given Costa Rica the opportunity to develop its economy and collaborate with other nations in the region. Costa Rica is a member of the League of Nations and a part of the LoN coalition that maintains the Panama Canal. Under President Toledo, the country has sought closer ties with the South American Confederation but remains on good terms with Siberia, going so far as to become an observer in the new CSTO, which is considered as a sign of good faith.

Costa Rica is smaller than it was before Doomsday. Besides losing most of Guanacaste to Nicaragua, Costa Rica has yet to fully bring the Nicoya peninsula under control. The northeastern border with the Miskito region of Nicaragua was reconquered only in late 2010. In addition, Colombia occupied the Isla del Coco, 550 km out in the Pacific Ocean, in 1992 to stop its being used as a base for pirates. President Merino agreed to the island's annexation in 2001. On the other hand, Costa Rica controls some land across the Panamanian border, a constant cause of conflict with the city-state of Changuinola.

Despite its own problems, Costa Rica has long acted as a protector to some of the small Panamanian successor states in West Panama, and it has often exerted pressure on them to maintain peaceful democratic governments. The city of Bocas in particular has had a very close relationship with Costa Rica since 1983, and from time to time there is even talk of annexation. David, Panama's largest city, has been a longtime partner with Costa Rica in trying to organize the Panamanian communities into a federation of some kind. The current effort, variously called the Third Federation or the League, has only three members, and a Costa Rican observer attends every session.

The defecting Sandinistas under Cuadra formed the core of a new army around 1990. Since then, Costa Rica's ongoing conflicts have prevented it from returning to its former demilitarized status, although all three postwar Presidents (Arias, Merino, and Toledo) have stated that as a long-term goal. Costa Rica has secured some military aid from Siberia since the peace talks in Sovetskaya Gavan, and also some from South America. Plans are underway for expeditions into Nicoya to follow up on the successful campaign in the Miskito borderlands.

See also

Sports in Costa Rica

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