The time from 1860 to 1890 were characterized by power struggles among the members of the coffee-growing elite. In 1869, a free and compulsory elementary education system was established - though, inevitably families in more remote areas were not able to send children to schools. In 1889, the first democratic elections were held, with the poor campesinos (peasants) as well as the rich coffee-growers able to vote, although women and blacks had not yet received that right.
Democracy has been a hallmark of Costa Rica politics since then, and there have been few lapses. One occurred between 1917 and 1919, when the Minister of War, Frederico Tinoco overthrew the democratically elected president and formed a dictatorship. This ended in Tinoco's exile after opposition from the rest of Costa Rica and from the US government.
In 1940 Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia became president. His presidency was marked by reforms that were supported by the poor but criticized by the riche. These reforms included worker's rights organize, minimum wages, and sozial security. To further widen his power base, Calderón allied himself, strangely, with both the Catholic church and the Communist party to form a Christian Socialist group. This alienated him even more from the conservatives, intellectuals and upper classes.
Calderón was succeeded in 1944 by the Christian Socialist Teodoro Picado, who was a supporter of Calderón's politics, but the conservative opposition claimed the elections a fraud. In 1948, Calderón again ran for the presidency against Otilio Ulate. Ulate won the election, but Calderón claimed fraud because some of the ballots had been destroyed. Picado's government did not recognize Ulate's victory, and the tense situation escalated into civil war.
Calderón and Picado were opposed by José (Don Pepe) Figueres Ferrer. After several weeks of civil warfare, in which more than 2000 people were killed, Figueres emerged victorious. He took over an interim government and in 1949 handed the presidency to Otilio Ulate.
That year marked the formation of the Costa Rican constitution, which is still in effect. Women and blacks finally received the vote, presidents were not allowed to run for successive terms, and a neutral electoral tribunal was established to guarantee free and fair elections. Voting in elections, held every four years, was made mandatory for all citizens over the age of 18. Although voter turnout is higher than in most Western countries, the mandatory vote is not legally enforced. But the constitutional dissolution of the armed forces is the act that has had the most long-lasting impact on the nation. Today, half a century later, Costa Rica is known as "the country that doesn't have an army".
Although there are well over a dozen political parties, since 1949 the Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN; National Liberation Party), formed by Don Pepe Figueres, has dominated, usually being elected every other four years. Figueres continued to be popular and was returned to two more terms of office, in 1953 and 1970. He died in 1990. Another famous PLN president was Oscar Arias, who governed from 1986 to 1990. For his work in attempting to spread peace from Costa Rica to all of Central America, Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.
In recent years, the Christian Socialists have continued to be the favoured party of the poor and working classes, and Calderón's son, Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, has played a large role in that party, running for president three times. After two losses, he finally was elected president in 1990, succeeding Oscar Arias.
During 1993, six PLN politicians vied for their party's candidacy for the 1994 presidential elections. They included Margarita Penon, who was the first woman to reach such an advanced position in a presidential race in Costa Rica. Penon is the wife of ex-president Oscar Arias. The winner of the PLN candidacy, however, was José María Figueres, Don Pepe's son.
The PLN party and Figueres was opposed by the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC; Social Christian Unity Party). The PUSC pre-candidates for the 1994 presidential elections included Juan José Trejos, the son of ex-president José Juaquín Trejos (1966-70), and economist Miguel Angel Rodríguez, who became the PUSC candidate. There were also some presidential candidates form other minor parties.
Clearly the history of politics in Costa Rica is strongly influenced by a handful of families, as shown by the father-son, husband-wife associations mentioned above. In fact 75% of the 44 presidents of Costa Rica prior to 1070 were descended from just three original colonizers.
The winner of the 1994 elections was Figueres, who received 49,6% of the vote, closely followed by Rodriguez with 47.6%. Figueres has campaigned on a populist platform, promising improved health care and education, but his presidency was unpopular, marked by price hikes, tax increases, bank closures, and strikes by teachers and other groups.
In 1998 Miguel Angel Rodriguez again represented the PUSC party in the election on February 1st. He was opposed by PLN candidate José Miguel Corrales (incumbents are not allowed to run) and 11 others, including the country's first black candidate, and the first all female ticket. Also for the first time, the two front-runners had women running in both vice-presidential positions.
Election results favoured Rodriguez with 46.6% of the vote, barely 2% more than Corrales and much closer than expected. Rodríguez term was not marked by major changes. Increases in tourism, high-tech products and the traditional coffee and banana exports buoyed the president's attempt to fix the economy during the first two years of his administration but his attempts to privatise state companies led to mayor street demonstrations. The economic down-turn in the high-tech and agricultural sectors after 2000 resulted in a faltering economy and "business as usual".
Thirteen different parties put forward candidates for the 2002 elections, but by the February election there were only three serious contenders. These were PUSC's Abel Pacheco, 68, a psychiatrist and former TV commentator, PLN's Ronaldo Araya, 54 a chemical engineer and long-time PLN politician, and a surprising third choice in a traditionally two-party race, Ottón Solís of the Citizen Action Party. The fact that Solís with his stance against corruption and ineffectual government, was a serious contender in itself spoke of the public's readiness for change.
With tree contenders in the running, Costa Ricans were unable to decide whom they wanted for president, and 31% failed to vote at all. Pacheco led with 39% just short of the 40% needed for election , followed by Araya with 31% and Solis with a sizeable 26% - enough to cause a runoff election between the top two candidates for the first time since the redrafting of the constitution in 1949.
The runoff between Pacheco and Araya was held in April 2002. The public's frustration with the conservative status que led to the highest voter abstention ever, with more than 39% of eligible Costa Ricans not voting (they were led by Ottón Solís who showed up at the polls only to cast a blank ballot). Pacheco won with 58% of the vote, due partly to his being well-known to Costa Ricans through his TV programs. Both candidates campaigned on an economic platform, but with the public against privatisation of state companies and with a stagnant worldwide economy, Pacheco will have a hard time pleasing ticos once his honeymoon is over.
In 2006 after a fierce battle the ex-president and Peace Nobelprice Winner Oscar Arias won the the elections for presidency. The whole country has big hopes that he will get private and public corruption and the damaging effects of several state-run monopolized services under control and sign the Free Trade Agreement. Maybe we soon will see some roads we can drive on.
Other noteworthy events of recent years include several natural disasters that caused widespread flooding, road damage, and destruction of homes. The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November 1998 caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic event occurred in the countries to the north , especially Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Rains associated with Hurricane Michelle in November 2001 let loose mudslides that closed many highways on the Pacific slopes (including the Interamericana) for several weeks, resulting in several towns being stranded and some death.
On the positive note, Costa Rica's men's soccer squad was one of 32 countries to qualify for the prestigious World Cup tournament in 2006 this was the third time that the tiny, soccer-crazy country has qualified.
Text partly by Lonely Planet.
Pictures by ICT, Instituto Costarricense de Tourismo. The team of 1-CostaRicaLink and Costa-Rica-Information-Mobile wishes you the best of times in our little paradise called Costa Rica.
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