Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Costa Rica

Spanish-speaking Central American nation covering 19,730 square miles, about twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland. Costa Rica, with a 1945 population of some 750,000 people, is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The country's population is mostly of mestizo descent, with several ethnic minorities, including Nicaraguans and English-speaking descendants of Jamaican immigrants.

A Spanish colony until 1 September 1821, Costa Rica became part of the Mexican Empire. In July 1823, the United States of Central America (USCA) was founded, which included Costa Rica. When Honduras left the USCA in 1838, leading to the unraveling of the union, Costa Rica became a stand-alone entity. During 1880–1940 Costa Rica slowly evolved into a fledgling democracy.

In 1940 Costa Ricans elected Dr. Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia as president, and he began to institute land and economic reforms. Although initially successful, Calderon's popularity declined over the next eight years. To bolster his support, he entered into an alliance with the Costa Rican Communist Party and the conservative Costa Rican Catholic Church.

Despite this unusual coalition, Calderon's United Social Christian Party lost the presidential election of 1948. But Calderon refused to step down. This precipitated a coup after which José Figueres Ferrer became provisional president in May 1948. In short order, Figueres banned the Communist Party as part of a purge against Calderon's supporters and undertook extensive social and political reforms. Figueres gave women the vote, granted full citizenship to African Caribbeans, abolished the armed forces, established a presidential term limit, and nationalized banks and insurance companies. He also founded the Partido de Liberacion Nacional (PLN, National Liberation Party). His socialist leanings, however, made relations with the United States very touchy.

Figueres handed over power to the rightful winner of the 1948 election, Otilio Ulate, at the end of 1949 but then won the presidency in his own right in 1953. Figueres was defeated for reelection in 1958 but regained the presidency in 1970.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Figueres and other Costa Rican presidents expanded the role of the government, making Costa Rica a model welfare state for Latin America. However, a deep recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s strained Costa Rica's ability to provide expanded state services. During the late 1970s neighboring Nicaragua was embroiled in a civil war that drew the attention of the United States. Costa Rica thus found itself forced to choose between the anti-Anastasio Somoza forces, which it had supported for many years, and the Contras, whom the Americans supported.

In 1982, Luis Alberto Monge Álvarez was elected president. Under increasing pressure from the United States, Monge agreed to let the Americans build airstrips in northern Costa Rica and to allow the Contras to receive training in Costa Rica. Monge lost a reelection bid in 1986, in part because of growing fear among Costa Ricans that U.S. policy would drag the country into the Nicaraguan Civil War.

By 1987, those fears came to pass. The civil war in Nicaragua spilled over into Costa Rica as both the Sandinistas and the Contras set up bases there. Going against American wishes, President óscar Arias Sánchez embarked on a peace process, establishing the Central American Peace Plan that ended conflicts in both Nicaragua and El Salvadora. Sanchez was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Over the last fifteen years, Costa Rica has enjoyed a relatively stable political climate and encouraging economic growth.

David H. Richards

Further Reading
Honey, Martha. Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.; Palmer, Steven, and Ivan Molina. The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2004.

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