The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics / Edition 1

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Long Characterized as an Exceptional Country within Latin America, Costa Rica has been hailed as a democratic oasis in a continent scorched by dictatorship and revolution; the ecological mecca of a biosphere laid waste by deforestation and urban blight; and an egalitarian, middle-class society blissfully immune to the violent class and racial conflicts that have haunted the region. Arguing that conceptions of Costa Rica as a happy anomaly downplay its rich heritage and diverse population, The Costa Rica Reader brings together texts and artwork that reveal the complexity of the country's past and present. It characterizes Costa Rica as a site of alternatives and possibilities that undermine stereotypes about the region's history and challenge the idea that current dilemmas facing Latin America are inevitable or insoluble.

This essential introduction to Costa Rica includes more than fifty texts related to the country's history, culture, politics, and natural environment. Most of these newspaper accounts, histories, petitions, memoirs, poems, and essays are written by Costa Ricans. Many appear here in English for the first time. The authors are men and women, young and old, scholars, farmers, workers, and activists. The Costa Rica Reader presents a panoply of voices: eloquent working-class raconteurs from San Jose's poorest barrios, English-speaking Afro-Antilleans of the Limon province, Nicaraguan immigrants, factory workers, dissident members of the intelligentsia, and indigenous people struggling to preserve their culture. With more than forty images, the collection showcases sculptures, photographs, maps, cartoons, and fliers. From the time before the arrival of the Spanish, through the rise of the coffee plantations and the Civil War of 1948, up to participation in today's globalized world, Costa Rica's remarkable history comes alive. The Costa Rica Reader is a necessary resource for scholars, students, and travelers alike.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333722
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Series: The Latin America Readers Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 528,090
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Palmer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Windsor in Ontario. He is the author of From Popular Medicine to Medical Populism: Doctors, Healers, and Public Power in Costa Rica, 1800–1940 (published by Duke University Press).

Iván Molina is Professor of History at the University of Costa Rica in San José. He is a coauthor of Stuffing the Ballot Box: Fraud, Electoral Reform, and Democratization in Costa Rica.

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Read an Excerpt

The Costa Rica reader

History, Culture, Politics
By Steven Paul Palmer

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3372-4

Chapter One

Birth of an Exception?

The exceptional attributes of contemporary Costa Rica are commonly assumed to have pre-Columbian or colonial origins. In the century after 1880, nationalist historians forged three myths in particular about these origins, ones frequently repeated uncritically by visitors and American scholars. One is that when the Spanish arrived, they found but a tiny indigenous population in Costa Rica. The second holds that the Spanish conquest of the area was essentially peaceful. The third, more complex, myth of Costa Rican exceptionalism claims that the lack of indigenous people to serve as laborers and the scarcity of precious metals made Costa Rica a poor and marginal colony, a condition from which a society of homogeneous yeoman farmers without any meaningful class or racial divisions emerged and flowered in the eighteenth century. This, then, constituted the humble but sound origin of the "rural democracy" that remains the core of the nation-state to the present day.

The first two of these myths are nonsense. Historical demographers have shown that prior to the arrival of Columbus in Cariari (today Puerto Limon) in 1502, the territory of Costa Rica was home to about 400,000 indigenous people. They were organized into small and politically fragmented chieftainships, not comparable incomplexity to the Mayan groups in the north of Central America. Some of the largest and most organized indigenous societies in Costa Rica were located in the Nicoya region. They were influenced by Mesoamerican culture, and the cultivation of corn predominated. In the Caribbean lowlands and the Pacific south, by contrast, populations were more dispersed, the consumption of pejibaye (the rich, pulpy fruit of a palm tree) and yucca was the norm, and the influence of Chibcha culture from northern South America prevailed. Both poles influenced the Central Valley, which was divided into two confederations of chieftainships, Garabito and Guarco. The Spanish conquest of Costa Rica lasted for more than half a century after efforts got underway in 1510. The genocidal enslavement of the indigenous societies of Nicoya on the Pacific north coast was the conquest's first stage. Its second phase began with fruitless attempts to consolidate a Spanish settlement on the country's Caribbean side. In the process, the Spaniards reduced the indigenous population to the point of extinction through disease, war, reprisals, relocation, and brutal exploitation. The Native American population stood at about 120,000 in 1569, and had fallen to 10,000 by 1611. By 1675, a mere 500 "Indios" paid tribute. One can hardly call any of this a peaceful conquest of a virtually uninhabited area.

Addressing the myth of rural democracy requires a more nuanced look at the way colonial Costa Rica was configured into three different zones-a basic division established by about 1650. In the Central Valley encomenderos (Spaniards with special rights to indigenous labor and tribute), colonial functionaries, and ecclesiastics took control of the agricultural and craft wealth produced by the indigenous populations. In the Pacific center and north, cows, mules, and horses were raised on great estates. This area's economy experienced its greatest growth after 1750, when the displacement of pasturage by export crops in El Salvador opened a market for cattle on the hoof from Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Finally, on the Caribbean side, some cacao production developed and enjoyed a brief boom, but waned in the face of competition from Caracas, Maracaibo and Guayaquil. Although the cacao boom was based on the labor of imported African slaves, the slave trade was limited in Costa Rica and did not become an alternative to compensate for the collapse of the indigenous population. Beyond these spaces dominated by Spanish culture, in the coastal plains of Talamanca and near the current border with Nicaragua, so called indios bravos (wild Indians) took refuge and resisted Spanish conquest until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Costa Rica found itself on the margins of the colonial Central American world due to a lack of mines and the scarcity of indigenous survivors. The Spaniards who settled in Costa Rica failed to construct a society similar to that of their neighbors, that is, one based on the exploitation of indigenous and slave labor. The development of a peasant economy in the Central Valley indeed proved the fundamental outcome of this failure. The families of small and medium agriculturalists constituted a free peasantry with a strong mercantile vocation, and they did become the principal social group of the Central Valley during the eighteenth century. In contrast to the myth of rural democracy, however, an unequal access to land and significant differences in wealth marked their reality, and in their majority, they had mixed-race (mestizo and mulatto) ancestry. Agricultural colonization begun by this peasantry extended the primary area of settlement from Cartago and environs to the west, leading to the founding of the towns of Heredia (1706), San Jose (1736), and Alajuela (1782). These tiny urban milieus, where the more specialized artisans lived, also bred a clear colonial elite made up of small groups of merchants, owners of large estates, and military, civil, and ecclesiastical functionaries. Their wealth came from unequal exchange with the peasantry: they bought the agricultural surplus at low prices and sold imported articles at high ones. The so-called rural democracy of the eighteenth century was a society of peasants and merchants in which the exploitation of the former by the latter was not based on physical coercion, but rather on the different position each enjoyed in market relations.

Ethnic and class differences did divide and separate the population of the Central Valley, but the people experienced four important processes of integration. First, social hierarchies depended increasingly on economic wealth rather than ethnic origin, a phenomenon aided by the process of race mixture. According to figures from 1777-78, the province was ethnically comprised of 60 percent mestizos, 18 percent mulattoes and blacks, 12 percent Indians, and only 10 percent Spanish (both peninsular and American-born, the latter of whom claimed pure racial lineage back to Spain). Second, in contrast to other parts of Hispanic America, where a deep cultural division existed between Indian and Hispanic societies, in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, a Hispanic and Catholic culture took shape and was shared-if unequally-by most groups. The third factor favoring social cohesion was the size and location of the mass of the population. In 1824, the province had only about sixty thousand inhabitants, and four out of every five of them lived in the Central Valley, in small urban and rural communities strongly endogamic. As a result, the spread of family ties helped to compensate for social and ethnic divisions and promoted cohesion at a time when colonization of the agricultural frontier tended to remove emigrants from their hometowns. Finally, as some of the following selections will reveal, Costa Ricans tended to channel individual and collective conflicts along legal and institutional avenues even in the colonial period.

When Costa Rica became independent in 1821, it was the society of the Central Valley- not that of the Caribbean with its cacao plantations and slaves, and not that of the Pacific center and north with its vast haciendas-that provided the foundations of Costa Rica's national experience and institutional character. That is, the basis of Costa Rica's so-called exceptionalism was a certain regional development whose agrarian structure resembled that of other parts of Latin America, such as Antioquia in Colombia, Bocono in Venezuela, Santa Fe in Argentina, the Bajio in Mexico, and the Cordillera in Puerto Rico. In contrast to these areas, which developed as local or regional peculiarities, the ever more differentiated yet integrated world of Costa Rica's Central Valley became the foundation of the nation-state. Moreover, distance from the fractious centers of Central American political and economic power in Guatemala and El Salvador allowed the province to evade the protracted civil wars of the post independence era-wars that also consumed the imperial pretensions of Costa Rica's more powerful neighbors to the north, who might otherwise have conquered and annexed the province.

Warriors and Sacred Struggle

Pre-Columbian Distinctions

The pre-Columbian indigenous societies of the Pacific north displayed a greater Mesoamerican influence, especially in religion and art, than those of the Caribbean, where a greater Chibcha influence prevailed. The tendencies are evident in these two works, one realized in ceramic, the other in stone.

A Conqueror Looks on the Bright Side

Town Council of Castillo de Garci-Munoz

In 1560, the colonial administrators of Guatemala gave Juan de Cavallon the right to conquer and settle the territory then known as New Cartago and Costa Rica. His expedition left Nicaragua in two groups: the first tried to establish a settlement on the Caribbean, but was thwarted by indigenous resistance. The second, under Cavallon, penetrated into Costa Rica via Nicoya, and in March 1561 founded Castillo de Garci-Munoz, the first settlement in the Central Valley. But the Audiencia then recalled Cavallon and allowed Juan Vazquez de Coronado to take his place. In 1562, the new leader had his town council write the following letter, a representative of a classic genre. These letters underlined the sacrifices the conquistadors had made in the name of God and king, while they also solicited favors from the Crown and speculated wildly about the economic possibilities of the territory they had subdued (often by making spurious comparisons with the spectacular conquests of the Aztecs and Incas). Ironically, this letter was one of the sources used to forge the myth of Costa Rica's peaceful conquest.

Catholic Royal Majesty,

By other letters that we have written Your Majesty we have given a lengthy account of how, in your royal name, we are engaged in the pacification and discovery of the provinces of New Cartago and Costa Rica, and of how, because of the rebellion and stubborn disobedience of the natives who are set in their many ancient rites and sacrifices, we have suffered trying to attract them to the knowledge of our Lord and the dominion of Your Majesty by peaceful means because they have done everything possible, with riots and treachery, to defend against the settlement of this city....

On the second of November of this year, Juan Vazquez de Coronado entered this city of Castillo, where the Spanish people of the province are gathered, and he was received with much love and goodwill by everyone. The colors were presented and all the customary formalities were extended him. Realizing the urgent needs of all who were there, the said Juan Vazquez gave and supplied to almost everyone linens, sheets, cloths, shirts, dresses, arms, horses, and shoes and many other things of which he came well provided, and so took care of the said needs. He spent his goods liberally and with great generosity on everyone, inspiring them to serve Your Majesty with greater zeal and willingness in the campaign. The said Juan Vazquez, besides spending a vast sum in gold pesos, put himself deeply in debt in order to provide the aforementioned relief.

And afterwards he immediately dispatched his master at arms and other captains to the lands of Garabito and Coyoche, leading chieftains who were rebelling against us, so that they might be made to understand how he had come to these provinces sent by Your Majesty to pacify them and settle the place and bring the natives to a knowledge of God our Lord and under the dominion of Your Majesty. By peaceful means and with much love and many gifts he persuaded them, sending them ransoms and presents and getting them to agree that the gospel might be preached among them. And our Lord has willed that through the determined zeal with which the said Juan Vazquez serves Your Majesty, eight chieftains have arrived and are now in this city. They have consigned themselves to the dominion of Your Majesty, recognizing you as their sovereign lord. We believe that, God willing, in this way they will attract and subdue the rest.

According to what has been seen so far, this province offers great wealth, with fertile soil and abounding with good and delicate airs and waters, good sky and land, with temperatures more cool than hot. It has oaks, alfalfa and plantain and verbena and other trees of Spain, and oranges and lemons, and we believe it will produce other fruits. The people are rich, of a good disposition; they closely resemble those of Peru in their clothes, customs, and service; their faces are lovely, sharp and wise, and they can have our Spanish language introduced to them and, through God, our law and Christian faith. All wear gold lockets, and it is believed that they have among them a great quantity of very rich mines of this metal, although up to now we have not searched for them due to the demanding tasks that have presented themselves.

We greatly need Your Majesty's royal favor and require that those who govern in these parts understand that Your Majesty is served by the continuation of the said pacification and settlement. It is going ahead in peace and with Christian virtue as Your Majesty has wished it, and the said Juan Vazquez is carrying it out with integrity. And we ask that Your Majesty favor us with his royal treasury for the purpose of this mission, since up to now this has not been done. For such an important thing it will be necessary, and the fortune of any one individual will not be enough because the costs involved are large.

Hunting Indians

Claudia Quiros

The Central Valley was subdued beginning in 1561, but in the northern plains and the southern Talamanca region, important refuges of so-called wild Indians consolidated themselves and survived throughout the colonial period despite constant harassment from the Spanish. Unlike the Chichimecs in northern Mexico and the Araucanians in the south of Chile, who carried out guerrilla wars against the Spanish, the indios bravos of Costa Rica relied on their ability to survive and defend themselves in inaccessible areas. Cartago, the colonial capital, relied on the exaction of tribute and labor from local indigenous groups, and so there was constant demand for more Indians, especially as the population of those under Spanish rule declined through disease and other factors. The recent work of the noted historian Claudia Quiros describes the correrias organized by Spaniards-expeditions to hunt and extract Indians, principally from the Talamanca region.

The juridical concept of just war began to take shape in Spanish law with a royal edict of 1500 that condemned the slaving activities undertaken by Columbus in each of the islands that he had "discovered." This proclamation established that all Indians had to be considered free vassals of the Crown of Castile, but the same document included a contradictory caveat saying that the aboriginals captured in "just war" could be kept as slaves, since this was the message contained in the notorious requerimiento (literally, the giving of notice; a text read aloud by the Spaniards prior to conquering an area, which exhorted the Indians to accept Catholicism and a new king without acting aggressively or suffer the consequences). It was undoubtedly under cover of this legal exception that the abuses against the anti slaving law were committed, and which indeed allowed an increase in Indian slavery. The monarchy tried to rectify the situation in a royal decree of August 1530, in which it ordered that Indians should not suffer enslavement, even in cases of just war. Nevertheless, due to the strong pressure of conquerors and discoverers, the same exception was definitively reestablished four years later in the New Laws of 1542 and became ratified later in the New Code of 1680.

In my view, the concept of just war, understood in light of these juridical dispositions and based on the real practices that developed in Costa Rica, was characterized first and foremost by permanent violence and aggression by the Hispanic population against the irredentist indigenous communities or against those indigenous communities whose rebelliousness, or geographical inaccessibility (this held especially true in Talamanca and the Pacific south), had thwarted effective and permanently established domination. The objective of this aggression was to assure a labor force that, given the juridical conditions of its recruitment, took on the character of a semi-slave labor force. The indigenous people captured in so-called just war did not fall under any of the categories of Indian workers or tributaries in the Law of the Indies, which might have eventually afforded them some protection.


Excerpted from The Costa Rica reader by Steven Paul Palmer Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I Birth of an exception? 9
II Coffee nation 55
III Popular culture and social policy 99
IV Democratic enigma 139
V The Costa Rican dream 183
VI Other cultures and outer reaches 229
VII Working paradise 275
VIII Tropical soundings 319
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