elites are more in agreement with each other and closer to the society
they control, though of course, as in most countries, the government likes
to steal and be corrupt. A friend of mine from Isla Grande in Panama once
told me that when things get bad ,when the government is very corrupt,
people pick up on this and realize that this is a way of surviving.
When the Spanish
arrived in Costa Rica in 1522 they were frustrated by not finding either
large amounts of gold or large amounts of labor and so Costa Rica became
a kind of backwater for the Spanish; it was ruled over by the Bishop of
Leon in Nicaragua who rarely visited and when he did demanded that people
work harder and that they build more churches. The consequence of Costa
Rica being a backwater in the Spanish colonial world was that a strong
labor system was never instituted. The country was very poor and mostly
relied on agriculture for survival. Luckily for Costa Rica large amounts
of gold and silver were never found; if gold and silver had been found
then a strong system of enslavement would have been instituted by the Spanish
as they instituted such systems in important mining centers such as Guatemala
and Peru. If you go to countries in Latin America where the Spanish
had strong mining interests in the colonial period you will normally find
places that have terrible race relations between the indigenous community
and the Europeans. The Spanish that came to Costa Rica were conquerors.
They had fought the Moors for 700 years in Iberia; they knew nothing of
business or trade. After defeating the Moors in 1492 they sailed out to
sea to look for new lands to conqueror, new people to enslave. The most
important personality qualities for the conquerors were bravery and courage
and that is true even today in Latin America, as one friend put it to me,
what is important as a man in Latin America is how many bullet holes do
you have in your body at the end of the year. This outlook on life was
different in the Portuguese colony of Brazil, where the most important
thing wasn’t bravery or courage, but rather how smart and cool you were.
That is the French influence coming through in Brazil. In fact, the French
were the first Europeans to settle Rio de Janeiro and their original name
for Rio was “France Antarctique”.
The crop that
laid the basis for the Costa Rican economy was coffee. Coffee came to Costa
Rica as a curiosity and when people started to plant it at the beginning
of the 19th century few were patient enough to wait the five years for
the plants to mature. At that time most people in Costa Rica drank chocolate
or refined sugarcane. By the 1830s and 1840s coffee became the major export
crop for Costa Rica. The highlands of Costa Rica were perfect for coffee
cultivation; there was light rain, cool temperatures and volcanic soil.
The first country to receive coffee from Costa Rica was Chile who shipped
the product to Europe. The first European country to ship directly from
Costa Rica was Great Britain; in 1843 the British Captain William Le Lacheur
pulled into Puntarenas and started to export coffee out of Costa Rica.
By the end of the 19th century the coffee crop was king in Costa Rica;
the industry created its own elite known as the cafetaleros, who ruled
The most important
event to push the coffee industry into high gear in Costa Rica was the
building of the railroad from the Caribbean port town of Limon to the highland
capital of San Jose. The Americans that built the railroad were Jon Meiggis
who had built railroads in the Andes and his nephew from Tennessee, Minor
Cooper Keith. The construction of the railroad began in 1876; the work
was finished in the mid-1880s. Thousands of people died from malaria during
the building of the railroad. To finish the job Italians and West Indians
were brought in; ever since there has been a large Italian community in
Costa Rica; they are loved by Costa Ricans – the original Italian colony
in Costa Rica was located in the town of San Vito de Java; the colony produced
coffee as you might have guessed by the name. With the completion of the
railroad coffee production as well as banana production increased dramatically.
Companies like the United Fruit Company of Boston moved into Costa Rica
in order to control the exportation of bananas; the Europeans came for
coffee: Costa Rica became part of the world economy.
You can't talk
about Costa Rican history without mentioning the legend of Juan Santamaria.
To tell the story of Juan Santamaria you must first tell the story of William
Walker. Walker, an American from Tennessee, was what was known in the mid-19th
century as a filibuster, you would call such a person today a terrorist.
Filibusters were Americans who thought it was their mission, as commanded
by God, to govern land outside the U.S.: the filibusters took the famous
motto "Go West" as, yes, "Go West", but then go Southwest, and go until
you get as much land and wealth as you can: Walker was the most famous
filibuster of the 19th century. Walker must have possessed a large intellect;
he received his medical degree while still a teenager. He was a small man
and when I think of him, I think of the darker flipside of Andrew Jackson.
After finishing his medical degree he went to Europe in the 1840s, while
there he witnessed the Revolutions of 1848: he went to England, France,
Germany and Czechoslovakia. Those revolutionary movements had been about
identity, especially identities within the decaying Austrian-Hungarian
Empire. Walker returned to the States, practiced medicine outside of Philadelphia
and hated it - his medical degree had been from the Univ. of Pennsylvania.
He then went to New Orleans to get a law degree and then headed off to
San Francisco where he hired himself out as mercenary. He first tried to
carve out his own Republic in the north of Mexico and Baja; the Mexicans
chased him off. In 1855 he headed to Nicaragua to fight in the Civil War
between the Conservatives who dominated the city of Granada and the Liberals
centered in Leon. Walker fought with the Liberals and eventually took over
the power of the state and declared himself Emperor of Nicaragua and the
Costa Ricans and Hondurans eventually had to run him out, as he was determined
to create slave states in Central America - that had been the drive behind
his fanatical will to conquer; he would return to Central America two more
times in order to try to establish slave states: on the third attempt the
British picked him up on the Honduran Coast and watched him be shot by
the Honduran military: his grave is in the Honduran town of Trujillio.
But on his first attempt to conquer Central America, Walker was stopped
by a young boy from the Costa Rican town of Alajuela, Juan Santamaria was
a young drummer boy who as legend goes threw a torch onto the roof of the
farmhouse Walker was staying at in Guancaste during the Battle of Rivas.
But before he was able to throw the torch onto the roof of the farmhouse,
Walker's men fired a massive round of bullets into his body - Juan Santamaria
fought through the hail of bullets and lit the house on fire that Walker
was stationed in (When Walker retreated out of Costa Rica and Nicaragua
he threw dead bodies into the water wells so that after his retreat 27,000
people would die of cholera). April 11th is the day to remember Juna Santamaria;
the Airport is named after him and there are statues of him in National
I thought about
the history of Costa Rica as we drove through the mountains above Cartago,
up and up we went each turn of the road seemed to take us into a new landscape,
a new climate. Fields were covered in mustard plants and onions. Our destination
was Irazú Volcano. As you drive up the side of the volcano be sure
to stop and buy the cheese that is produced on the small farms along the
road. The name of my favorite Costa Rican cheese is palmito; it is like
string cheese but better and much more tasty.
When you reach
the top of Irazú, you will first feel a little dizzy, as the altitude
is much higher than in San Jose, then you will smell the scent of sulfur
that emanates from the volcano. When you look down into the volcano there
is blue water and as you look beyond the blue water and the lip of the
volcano you will see the tops of clouds; it feels as though you are above
the world looking down on the clouds below. The area around the volcano
is the color of black ash. People walk along the fence that protects people
from falling down into the volcano. Others walk through the field of black
ash that lies back from the volcano. The volcano exploded in 1723 and covered
the nearby town of Cartago in ash. At that time there were very few people
living near the volcano: Cartago was the original capital of Costa Rica
and in 1723 there were only seventy houses and two churches. Most people
at that time lived far from Cartago and many never came down off the mountains
to go to church or buy goods.
On the way
back from the volcano we were both very thirsty so we stopped and had an
Imperial. Imperial is the national beer of Costa Rica and it is the finest
beer I know. The only other beer that I’ve tried that compares to Imperial
is the German beer Bitburger. Imperial, is everywhere in Costa Rica; it
is the taste of Costa Rica; it’s a reflection of the great pride that Costa
Ricans have for their country. You can’t find Imperial outside of Costa
Rica so be sure to buy some bottles to take back with you.
We drank some
more and then headed down into the coffee region of Valle de Orosi. Here
you could see the importance of coffee: almost every field was covered
in coffee and people drank industrial amounts of coffee. In some areas
of Costa Rica children are given coffee in baby bottles. We drove around
and headed for Carrara Lake. On the way to the lake we stopped in a small
restaurant called "La Casona del Cafetal". As we ate you could see the
lake nearby and we sat back and enjoyed the sun and cool air. The highlands
of Costa Rica are almost always cool and at night it can be cold. Back
in San Jose we had dinner in an excellent Chinese restaurant. Costa Rica
like Panama has a very large Chinese community as well as a large Jewish
community: the largest Chinese community in Central America is located
in El Salvador.