A Brief History of Costa Rica


So it looks like my ambitions of becoming a colonel in some gritty banana republic militia have been squashed. Because it turns out Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1948, making it one of the few nations on Earth to function–even thrive–without a military. That’s terrific for Ticos, but decimated one of my four vacation priorities before the plane even touched down.


In fact I’m not altogether sure that Costa Rica ever went through a “banana republic” phase. To give you an idea of how Costa Rican history compares to other Latin American nations, Costa Rica didn’t find out it had gained independence until about a month after it happened. Mexico declared independence from Spain on behalf of most of the hemisphere, and later, I suppose Costa Rica discovered its new status by mail. (Imagine if Rhode Island found out about its new status as an American state via a congratulatory letter from Congress.)

For a few years a kind of Latin parallel to the Articles of Confederation grouped Central America together, but unlike us gringos to the north, this union fell apart, and Costa Rica has enjoyed more or less smooth sailing as a sovereign nation since.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have some fun history, much of which the United States features in prominently. We don’t really harp on it in school, but prior to the Civil War, various Southerners assumed Manifest Destiny applied as much south of the United States as it did on the western frontier in then-territories like California or Wyoming. In their view, America (specifically cotton-growing, slave-owning states) would proliferate throughout Mexico and below it in due time. (To give you an idea of how different people thought back then, President Jefferson tried to buy Cuba, and John Quincy Adams assumed it would eventually become a part of “the North American Union.”)


One American named William Walker took it upon himself to conquer Nicaragua with a few buddies and some guns over a long weekend in 1856. An interesting combination of “physician, lawyer, and mercenary,” Walker organized a private expedition of adventurers to seize Nicaragua’s capital during a civil war, and thereafter declared himself president. That is to say, “some guy” up and conquered Nicaragua. In fact he planned to establish English-speaking colonies throughout Central America, but these grandiose ambitions were cut short by a disagreement with a coalition of Latin American armies which defeated him in 1857 and his subsequent execution in Honduras in 1860. Costa Rica (which shares a border and some degree of contention with Nicaragua) managed to rebuff the rogue doctor at the Battle of Santa Rosa and maintain its independence.

You might think, what with having abolished their military, that now is a perfect time for me to organize some old frat buddies to invade Costa Rica. And I won’t lie–the thought has definitely occurred to me. But I like these folks and the pleasant eco-utopia they’ve made for themselves. Besides, I think it’s probably a lot of work being El Presidente.

Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.