Costa Rica, as many of the other countries in Central and Latin America, was originally established as a colony of Spain. As the Spanish empire eventually lost its power throughout the 16th-19th centuries, it began to relinquish its hold on its colonies in Central and Southern America. Unlike many of the other former Spanish colonies, the citizens of Costa Rica are primarily of Spanish descent. About four-fifths of the population of Costa Rica are of direct Spanish descent. Nearly one-fifth of the rest of the population are considered Mestizos (which means “mixed” in Spanish), because they are a mix of Spanish descendants and the indigenous people of Costa Rica. Less than one-tenth of the population of Costa Rica are considered Guanacaste, which is a mix of Spanish, indigenous, and African descent. Less than 1% of the remaining population are of direct indigenous descent. Of the estimated 400,000 indigenous that lived in Costa Rica before Spanish conquest, less than 49,000 direct descendants remain.
The point is this: Costa Rica is one of the most Spanish-assimilated states of all the former Spanish colonies. They have the largest percentage of population of Spanish descendants, and it’s obvious that Spanish culture has a huge impact on the country. Not only is Spanish the official language of the country, but Costa Rica’s customs and traditions parallel many of the traditions of Spanish culture. For example, the majority (over 70%) of Costa Ricans consider themselves Roman Catholics—which is the predominant religion of Spain. As a result, the Costa Ricans practice many of the same religious ceremonies and holidays that Spaniards celebrate. The majority of Costa Ricans also consider themselves “white,” due to their Spanish heritage and there are serious class and caste system social structures in place that mimic those in Spain.
All similarities aside, Costa Rica is not simply “Spain 2.0.” Even though it may seem that way, Costa Rica developed a culture of its own from the 19th century on. Despite holding on to the roots of their Spanish culture, Costa Rica had to fight to gain its sovereignty in the mid 19th century. The fight against American filibusters (trying to prolong slavery during the American Civil War by taking over Central America) served as a Costa Rican “American Revolution,” and created one of its biggest holidays, Juan Santamaría Day. The holiday celebrates the heroics of a Costa Rican drummer boy who thwarted the American William Walker’s plans to establish his slave trade empire in Central America.
While Spain continued on with its monarchy and eventual dictatorship until 1975, Costa Rica established its own independence from Mexico and constitutional democracy in 1949. Since they established their modern form of government, Costa Rica has been a role model for democracy in Central America and has continued to expand its influence on a broader, international scale.
Before Costa Rica had even established its modern government, they were already taking advantage of the post-WWII movement of Westphalian Sovereignty. Costa Rica formally gained its independence on an international level when it joined the United Nations on November 2nd, 1945. Despite being a member state of the UN, Costa Rica did not come together as one sovereign country until the end of its civil war in 1948. After the war, Costa Rica began its new progressive democratic government by abolishing its army. Since Costa Rica abolished its army, it has spent the majority of its government budget developing infrastructure and more recently focusing on alternative energy to combat climate change. As a UN member state, Costa Rica has most recently influenced other member states with its aggressive climate change policies and has been an active participant in the Conference of Parties 21 and 22 (COP 21 & 22), including the monumental Paris Climate Agreement.
Equally as important as its membership in the UN, Costa Rica became a member of the GATT in 1990 and the WTO in 1995. Costa Rica has recently transitioned from a primarily agricultural exporting economy to an industrial and services economy. Many contribute this recent trend to Costa Rica’s membership in the GATT. According to the WTO, Costa Rica primarily trades with the EU, which makes sense given its colonial ties.
Costa Rica also became a member of the IMF on January 8th, 1946. It’s approved for about half a billion dollars in loans, but has taken out none to date because its economy is growing enough to support its growth.
In general, Costa Rica is one of the most European influenced states of Central and Latin America. While many countries in the region and around the world have suffered trying to separate themselves from their colonial ties, Costa Rica’s unique majority of Spanish descendants caused them to assimilate to Spanish culture early on. Eventually, the Costa Ricans made their culture their own and even surpassed its parent country in establishing a democracy. Today, Costa Rica reaps the benefits of colonial past, while setting an example internationally through its member organizations such as the UN and the WTO.