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Costa Rica

History & Background

Costa Rica has the highest standard of living in Central America, the highest level of education, and the most stable political structure. The 1948 revolution eliminated the national army and established national health care and education systems with funds that were no longer needed for the army. As a result, Costa Rica has the most highly developed welfare state in Central America, and, consequently, the largest middle class in Central America.

The Costa Rican population is one of the most schooled and literate in Latin America. Approximately one-third of the national budget is directed towards education. Of 192 countries in the world, Costa Rica ranks 89th on the schooling index, 62nd on the education index, and 28th on the human development index. Adult literacy is 93 percent. Primary and secondary education is free. Primary education is compulsory from the ages of 6 to 15. Study of a foreign language, usually English or French, is mandatory. Costa Rica achieved universal primary education in 1980. Twenty-five students per 1000 attend universities, which is double the rate of university enrollment in Mexico. Economic difficulties, nonetheless, may create challenges in the future, since Costa Rica was ranked among the top thirty debtors in the world in the 1990s. Families with money increasingly place their children in private educational institutions.

Costa Rica is 51,000 square kilometers, approximately the same size as West Virginia. Nicaragua borders Costa Rica to the north and Panama to the south. It remains the only country in Central and South America without an army. Political and economic refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua moved to Costa Rica in the 1980s. The U.S. financing of the Contra war in Nicaragua and of military regimes in Central America contributed to the growth in refugees. Costa Rica has more teachers than soldiers and spends more of its federal budget for education than for its military. It spends about one-third of the national budget on education.

About 50 percent of the population lives in urban areas, including the capital of San Jose, which is located in the Central Valley. The population is approximately 3.4 million people, with 52 percent residing in urban areas and 48 percent in rural locations. Spanish is the official language.

The Costa Rican population is estimated to be 80 percent white, primarily of Spanish, Italian, German, and other European ancestry; 17 percent Mestizo; 2 percent English-speaking Afro-Caribbean, and less than 1 percent indigenous Indians. At 0.6 percent, Costa Rica has the lowest percentage of indigenous population of any nation in Central America. Somewhere between 10,000 and 70,000 Afro-Caribbeans speak an English Creole language. The indigenous population of Amerindians, estimated at 27,200 people in 1522 when the Spanish arrived in the area, was reduced by 1800 to 8,281 people. Meanwhile the Spanish, Mestizo, and Afro-Caribbean population increased from 0 to 44,310 people in the same period. In rural areas, 8 different indigenous groups inhabit 22 reservations with a total population around 21,200 people. The primary Amerindian group is the Talamanquenos, with three subgroups: the Bribri, Cabecar, and Teribe. All subgroups have similar culture and language patterns. The Bribri find the Cabecar language difficult to understand, but the Cabecars are bilingual in Bribri and Cabecar. The Bribri population is approximately 7,500 people at Talamancca and 3,650 people at other locations.

Costa Rica maintains strong ties to the United States, its principal trading partner. The current economy is based on agriculture and tourism. The most important commodity exports are coffee, bananas, and sugar. Tourism is a large industry constituting about 21 percent of the national income.

Costa Rica industrialized more slowly than other Central American nations. Approximately 16 percent of its workforce is employed in manufacturing, a greater number than in the rest of Central America. The agricultural sector, 29 percent, employs fewer numbers than the rest of Central America.

Costa Rica encounters many of the same socioeconomic difficulties of other Central American countries but experiences them less severely. Costa Rica had a severe recession in the 1980s, but it remains more economically viable than the rest of Central America. Its GDP per capita of $2,283 in 1994 was 55 percent higher than the next highest in the region, which was in Guatemala. Costa Rica experienced a recession in the 1980s with a 9 percent decline in GDP from 1981 to 1987, but again this was the least severe in the region, which averaged a 17 percent GDP decline during the same period. From 1990 to 1994 Costa Rica's GDP per capita recovered 10 percent, double the regional average.

Income distribution is more equitable in Costa Rica than the rest of Central America. The average income of the poorest fifth of Costa Ricans is $177 per year, which is 85 percent above the regional average. The average income for the poorest fifth of U.S. citizens is 12 to 15 times greater than that in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica's literacy rate of 90 percent is 23 percent higher than the regional average, and university enrollment per capita is four times higher than the Central American average. The patterns of mortality and morbidity are similar to developed countries. Infant mortality per 1,000 births in 1993 was 14; the mean for the region is 55. The rest of Central America has more than three times this rate of infant mortality, with 62 per 1000 on average. Thirty-eight percent of children ages 0 to 4 suffer from malnutrition, compared to an average of 58.5 percent for Central America in general. Life expectancy of Costa Ricans is 76 years, which is 9 years longer than the regional average.

The higher life expectancy is based in part on public policy. Costa Rica's ratio of spending for human services to defense ranges around 20:1 in favor of human services; in other Central American countries, ratios between spending for human services and defense range from 1:1 to no higher than 4:1.

Costa Rica self-describes itself as the Switzerland of the Americas. Unlike other Latin American countries, Costa Rica has a long established history of democracy. Equality of land distribution, racial homogeneity, and a tradition of nonviolence characterize Costa Rica. During its first 300 years, inhabitants of Costa Rica embraced an agrarian democracy. Costa Rican history is comprised of three periods: the colonial era until independence in 1821, independence to the revolution in 1948, and 1948 to the present.

Christopher Columbus landed in Costa Rica in 1502 at Puerto Limon. The indigenous population at the time consisted of the Grin Nicolas of northwestern Costa Rica and smaller tribes of Chichi origin in the southern and Atlantic regions. When they saw Indians wearing gold jewelry, they named the territory Costa Rica, meaning Rich Coast. Costa Rica had no gold of its own. The gold jewelry had been acquired through trade. This lack of gold meant that few conquistadors were drawn to the area. Around 1560, the first Spanish settlements were made in the central mountains. In 1564, the capital city of Cartago was founded. San Jose, the eventual capital and largest city, was not founded until 1755.

Unlike the rest of Central America, Costa Rica developed a democracy based on agrarian farmers, not a feudal hacienda system controlled by a European aristocracy with large tracts of land supported by the army and police. The economy was based on farming. Catholic priests first arrived with the Spanish in 1522. There were about 38 priests in Costa Rica by the close of the sixteenth century.

During the period of early national life, from 1821 to 1905, Costa Rica had a weak military and an economy based on coffee cultivation. Their colonial status ended without any local combat in 1821 when Mexico won independence. The farmers of Costa Rica declared their independence from Spain in 1821. The first constitution of Costa Rica was drafted on December 1, 1821. In 1882, anticlerical polices were enacted to counter the growing strength of the Catholic Church. The Liberal Laws of 1884 provided for secular, compulsory, and free education. The Jesuits were expelled. Marriages and cemeteries were secularized at this time and divorce was legalized.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceCosta Rica - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education