The Roots of Costa Rica’s Enduring Democracy

Costa Rica’s name, like much of American civilization, can be traced back to one of Christopher Columbus’s mistakes. He arrived on the Caribbean coast in 1502, met some friendly indigenous people and surmised that there was gold to be had, and an empire to be vanquished. A rich coast, he figured. Costa Rica .

Instead, subsequent Spaniards found, the land was not particularly mineral-rich, and the indigenous population was small, widely scattered and reluctant to be colonized. The pre-Columbian Costa Ricans also did not shrink from violence; among those tribes are some that held the tradition of heaving virgins into volcanoes. Without a large local work force to be subjugated or an obviously valuable product to export, Costa Rica became a backwater colony, prone to earthquakes, eventually released from the Spanish empire in 1821.

Since 1889, the country has been holding democratic elections (voting in the presidential elections every four years is mandatory), but the system has occasionally sputtered. In 1948, a flurry of disputed elections and military skirmishes led to brief civil war. The chaos was only resolved with the ascension of coffee grower Jose Figueres to an 18-month spell as president. In that brief time, Figueres had a constitution adopted, gave blacks and women the vote, banned presidents from seeking successive terms, nationalized the banks and insurance companies, and abolished the army.

Though faltering coffee and banana markets have shaken the nation’s economy over the last decade, land ownership is fairly widespread, there’s a large middle class, tourism is booming and Costa Rica remains on a political course that is the envy of the Americas. Oscar Arias, president from 1986 to 1990, won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his work developing a regional peace plan. But for many here, Jose Figueres, who was reelected president in 1954 and 1970 and died in 1990, is the larger, more enduring hero.


The Hotel Milvia, my lodgings in the San Jose suburb of San Pedro for two nights, figures as a footnote in some of this history. In the course of renovating the old house for use as a hotel in 1992, workers found a stash of bomb materials. They had evidently been hidden there by Ricardo Fernandez Peralta, builder of the house, grandfather of the current owner and political activist in the late 1940s. The stash was probably intended for deployment during the brief civil war of 1948 and forgotten once the country stabilized.

The grandfather, who died eight years ago, “never said anything, yet he was sleeping right over it,” marveled hotel manager Milvia Cornacchia Grossi. She and her husband, the grandson, have framed a newspaper article about the discovery, and visitors may come across it in the tidy lobby by the front door.