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The Americas

Central American Colonial Settlements


Modern Costa Rica
AD 1838 - Present Day
Incorporating Heads of State (1838-2024), Confederation of Central America (1842-1844), Free State of Costa Rica (1844-1847), State of Costa Rica (1847-1848), First Republic (1848-1949) & Second Republic (1949-On)

Located in Central America, the modern republic of Costa Rica borders Nicaragua to the north, and Panama to the south, with the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea lying along its western and eastern coastlines respectively. One of the most advanced of countries in the Americas, and historically amongst the most stable, its capital is San José. Founded in 1738, the city was heavily influenced by European architecture, primarily due to the region's early settlement by the Spanish.

Although Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach Costa Rica in 1502, it was not colonised until the Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, explored and captured territory to the south of his base at the new colonial capital of Mexico City between 1523-1527.

Within the Spanish Colonies, Costa Rica was created a province within the 'New Kingdom of Granada', which was administered from Peru until 1717. Costa Rica was eventually lost to Granada, becoming instead part of the captaincy general of Guatemala to the north. This consisted of the provinces of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

These provinces passed onto the 'Federal Republic of Central America' following independence from the Spanish empire. When that began to disintegrate in 1838, the five provinces were given permission to become independent states in their own right on 31 May (although this was already happening anyway).

Costa Rica declared its independence in November 1838 and, in 1842, the new country gained as its head of state General Francisco Morazan, former president of the federal republic. However, that very year his attempt at re-unification led to his own people deposing and executing him.

The 'Confederation of Central America' survived in name only until 1844, after which it was replaced in rapid succession by the 'Free State of Costa Rica' (1844-1847), the 'State of Costa Rica' (1847-1848) and the mainly stable 'First Republic' (1848-1949). Since then the people of Costa Rica have traditionally been the least enthusiastic about attempts at reunion.

The country has one of Central America's most democratic governments. Its 1949 constitution of the 'Second Republic' provides for a unicameral legislature, a fair judicial system, and an independent electoral body. Moreover, the constitution abolished the country's army, gave women the right to vote, and provided other social, economic, and educational guarantees for all of its citizens. It has one of the highest literacy rates (over ninety-five percent of the total population) in the western hemisphere, and a solid educational system from the primary grades through to university level.

Central American beach

(Information by Peter Kessler and the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from American History: A Survey, Richard N Current, T Harry Williams, & Frank Freidel (New York, 1964), from Spain in the Americas (National Geographic supplement, National Geographic Society, February 1992), from Historical Atlas of the World, R R Palmer (Ed, Chicago, 1963), from Times Atlas of World History (Maplewood, New Jersey, 1979), from A Brief History of Central America, Hector Perez Brignoli (Translation by B Ricardo, A Sawrey, & Susanna Stettri de Sawrey, University of California Press, 1989), and from External Links: Costa Rica (Rulers.org), and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), and Costa Rica (Zárate's Political Collections), and BBC Country Profiles, and Modern History of Costa Rica (The Costa Rica Real Estate Group), and Can Costa Rica’s environment minister keep its green reputation intact? (The Guardian).)

1838 - 1842

Braulio Carrillo

Supreme chief of state during end of 'Federal Republic'.


José Francisco Morazán

Provisional supreme chief of state (Apr-11 Sep 1842).

1842 - 1844

The attempt by General Francisco Morazan to establish the 'Confederation of Central America' leads to his death by execution in the same year - 1842. The confederation itself lingers on in name alone for two more years, before being sent to the same scrapheap as many other such attempts to unify areas of Central America or South America.

Map of Central America in the 1830s
The Federal Republic of Central America was formed of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This lasted from 1823-1841, by which time Mexico had grabbed much of Chiapas and the republic itself dissolved into the separate nation states known today - although Nicaragua did not control the independent Mosquito Coast until the end of the century, and British troops occupied eastern Belize (click or tap on map to view full sized)


Antonio Pinto

Supreme commander (11-27 Sep).

1842 - 1844

José María Alfaro

Provisional supreme commander (from 27 Sep).

1844 - 1846

Francisco María Oreamuno

Supreme commander.

1846 - 1847

José María Alfaro

Provisional supreme commander (to 7 Mar 1847).


The 'Free State of Costa Rica' becomes the 'State of Costa Rica' on 7 March 1847. José María Alfaro, provisional supreme chief of state, becomes the country's first president, albeit not one who has been democratically elected.


José María Alfaro

Former supreme commander. First president (Mar-May).

1847 - 1849

José María Castro Madriz

President (May-16 Nov only).

1848 - 1849

The short-lived 'State of Costa Rica' is replaced on 31 August 1848 by the 'First Republic' of Costa Rica. José María Castro Madriz retains the top post for a little over a year after this, until 16 November 1849.

Coffee revolution
The coffee revolution was to an extent inspired by improved production methods by countries such as El Salvador, although supplies to Europe may have been occasionally interrupted by the frequent Central American revolutions


Miguel Mora

President (16-26 Nov only).

1849 - 1859

Juan Rafael Mora

President (acting, 26 Nov-Dec 1849).

1855 - 1856

With civil war raging in Nicaragua, US soldier and adventurer, William Walker, takes advantage by landing with a mercenary force, intent on creating his own slave-owning state with backing by Nicaragua's Democrat Party.

He recruits over a thousand Native North Americans or Europeans who will fight to conquer Nicaragua and the other four central American nations: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

On 1 September 1855, his forces win the First Battle of Rivas. On 13 October he captures the regional capital, Granada, and on 20 May 1856 he is recognised as the legitimate ruler of the country by the US president.

However, the USA is persuaded by Walker's enemies to withdraw recognition of his government. In April 1856, Costa Rican and mercenary forces defeat Walker's forces at the Second Battle of Rivas. He is executed in 1860.

El Salvador
El Salvador's topography offers some dramatic challenges but its climate and growing conditions are excellent for coffee production, something which has created periods of economic boom for the nation

1859 - 1863

José María Montealegre

Acting president to 1860, full office afterwards.

1863 - 1866

Jesús Jiménez



The rivalry between El Salvador's president and the Guatemalan leader, Rafael Carrera, leads to open war. Guatemala suffers a defeat at Coatepeque and agrees to a truce. However, with Honduras siding with El Salvador, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua siding with Guatemala, the war soon ends with Carrera occupying the Salvadorian capital.

1866 - 1868

José María Castro Madriz


1868 - 1870

Jesús Jiménez

President again (provisional to 1869, in post to Apr 1870).


Bruno Carranza

Provisional chief (Apr-Aug).

1870 - 1876

Tomás Guardia

President (Aug onwards, provisional to 1872).


While also busy playing a leading part in the building of a railway to support Costa Rica's coffee plantation export market, US businessman Minor Cooper Keith introduces banana cultivation into the country. His efforts are a success (in 1899 a financial problem forces him to merge his operations with those of Andrew W Preston to form the United Fruit Company - now known as Chiquita).

Minor Cooper Keith, coffee baron and banana production revolutionary
Minor Cooper Keith was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1849 and, by the time he was in his early twenties, he was already a railroad tycoon


Aniceto Esquivel

President (May-Jul only).

1876 - 1877

Vicente Herrera

Acting president (Jul onwards).

1877 - 1882

Tomás Guardia

President again (to Jul 1882, provisional to 1880).


The country gains most of its modern three per cent population of Jamaican immigrants when they arrive in this decade to work on the construction of the country's railways. They settle as a community and retain their dominant English language and Jamaican cultural influences.


Saturnino Lizano

Acting president (6-20 Jul).

1882 - 1885

Próspero Fernández Oreamuno

President (20 Jul onwards, acting to Aug 1882).


A diplomatic approach fails between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in regard to forming a fresh union of Central American states. President Rafael Zaldívar of El Salvador is against the idea despite his predecessors being well disposed towards it.

Now the president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios, attempts to reunite the states of the former federal republic by force of arms, but is killed in battle against El Salvador.

El Salvador
El Salvador's topography offers some dramatic challenges but its climate and growing conditions are excellent for coffee production, something which has created periods of economic boom for the nation

1885 - 1886

Bernardo Soto Alfaro

Acting president (to Nov).


Apolinar de Jesús Soto

Acting president (Nov-Dec only).

1886 - 1889

Bernardo Soto Alfaro

President (Dec onwards - former acting president).

1889 - 1890

Carlos Durán Cartín

Acting president.

1890 - 1894

José Joaquín Rodríguez


1894 - 1902

Rafael Yglesias Castro


1902 - 1906

Ascensión Esquivel Ibarra


1906 - 1910

Cleto González Víquez


1910 - 1914

Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno


1914 - 1917

Alfredo González Flores

President. Deposed during a coup.

1917 - 1918

In one of only two periods of disturbance during the country's independent history, the minister of war, Federico Tinoco Granados, and his brother, Jose Joaquin, grab power on 27 January 1917 in a coup d'etat.

Tinoco Granados establishes a repressive military regime which attempts to crush all opposition. In the middle of the dictatorship, in May 1918, Costa Rica sides with the First World War allies against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, although it plays no active role.

El Salvador
Following a military coup, Federico Alberto Tinoco Granados provisionally assumed power between January and April 1917 and, with a new constitution behind him, he served as president of Costa Rica until August 1919

1917 - 1919

Federico Tinoco Granados

Dictator. Resigned and exiled. Died 1931.


Tinoco has never been recognised by the USA, who support the deposed government. The dictator's brother is assassinated in early August amid growing popular discontent, and on 13 August Tinoco Granados resigns and accepts exile in Europe.


Juan Bautísta Quirós Segura

Acting president (Aug-Sep only).

1919 - 1920

Francisco Aguilar Barquero

Provisional president (from Sep).

1920 - 1924

Julio Acosta García


1924 - 1928

Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno

President for a second time.

1928 - 1932

Cleto González Víquez

President for a second time.

1932 - 1936

Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno

President for the third time.

1936 - 1940

León Cortés Castro


1940 - 1944

Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia


1941 - 1945

Costa Rica joins the Second World War as an ally of the USA and Great Britain on 8 December 1941, against Japan, Germany, and Italy, but takes no active role in the conflict.

Berlin 1945
Poet Yevgeny Dolmatovski recites his works on Berlin's Pariser Platz just a few days after the German surrender - a remarkable poetry recital with the bullet-riddled Brandenburg Gate flanked by ruins and two tank barrels hovering above the heads of soldiers

1944 - 1948

Teodoro Picado Michalski

President (to Apr). National Republican Party (PRN).


Representatives of fifty countries gather at the 'United Nations Conference on International Organization' in California's San Francisco, USA, between 25 April and 26 June 1945. In that time they draft and then sign the UN charter, which creates this new international organisation.

It is hoped that it will be able to prevent another world war like the one just ended. Costa Rica joins the United Nations on 2 November, nine days after its formation.


Santos León Herrera

Acting president (Apr-May only).

1948 - 1949

José Figueres Ferrer leads an armed uprising in the wake of a presidential election which is disputed by Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia. The resulting Costa Rican Civil War leaves more than two thousand people dead and lasts for forty-four days, making it one of the country's bloodiest events in modern history.

The following year, the junta abolishes the military as a permanent institution (something which remains in force today), and oversees the drafting of a new, 'Second Republic' constitution which leads to new presidential elections in 1953. Ironically, Figueres wins those elections.

Jose Figueres Ferrer
José Figueres Ferrer (pictured centre, in white) was president of Costa Rica on three separate occasions between 1948 and 1974

1948 - 1949

José Figueres Ferrer

Chairman of the 'Second Republic' founding junta.

1949 - 1953

Luis E R Otilio Ulate Blanco

President. National Union Party (PUN).

1953 - 1958

José Figueres Ferrer

President. National Liberation Party (PLN).

1958 - 1962

Mario Echandi Jiménez

President. PUN.

1962 - 1966

Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich

President. PLN.

1966 - 1970

José Joaquín Trejos Fernández

President. PUN.

1970 - 1974

José Figueres Ferrer

President for a second time. PLN.

1974 - 1978

Daniel Oduber Quirós

President. PLN.

1978 - 1982

Rodrigo Carazo Odio

President. Party of the Christian Democratic Revival (PRDC).


President Rodrigo Carazo has inherited a nation which is in debt to foreign banks. Depending upon coffee exports to keep up payments he now find the finances in deep trouble when the international coffee price drops through the floor while fuel prices soar.

Carazo ignores advice from his knowledgeable finance minister, Leonel Baruch, instead vainly trying to control inflation by spending the nation's gold reserves. Order is not restored until Luis Alberto Monge wins the 1982 elections and negotiates with the creditor institutions.

National Theatre, Costa Rica
Costa Rica's architecturally beautiful National Theatre is located in the country's park-filled capital, San José, which is one of the Americas' most heavily-European-influenced cities in terms of its buildings

1982 - 1986

Luis Alberto Monge Álvarez

President. PLN.


The Marxist-Leninist Sandinistas have been in control of Nicaragua since 1979. Now a US-trained anti-guerrilla force known as the 'Contras' begins operating from Costa Rica and Honduras following clashes with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. President Monge is left walking a delicate tightrope between divided left-wing and right-wing sympathies within the country.

1986 - 1990

Óscar Rafael Arias Sánchez

President. PLN.


Having realised quite quickly that Central America's civil wars and conflicts are hurting the entire region, President Óscar Rafael Arias Sánchez launches a 'peace offensive' which achieves victory through diplomacy. He wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua (he also wins a second term of office in 2006).

1990 - 1994

Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier

President. Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

1994 - 1998

José María Figueres Olsen

Son of José Figueres. President. PLN. Corruption suspect.

1998 - 2002

Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría

President. PUSC.


Costa Rica and Nicaragua resolve a long-standing dispute over navigation along the San Juan river, which serves as the joint border between both countries.

The revolutionary Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua between 1979-1990, but when they returned in 2007 as part of the political establishment, they pursued a policy of removing limits on their power and that of Daniel Ortega

2002 - 2006

Abdel Pacheco de la Espriella

President. PUSC. Legislation blocked by divided congress.


Costa Rica's reputation as the 'Switzerland of Central America' is badly dented when allegations of high-level corruption leads to two former presidents being imprisoned on 'graft' charges (Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría). Despite this, the country remains Central America's most stable and developed nation.

2006 - 2010

Óscar Rafael Arias Sánchez

President for a second time. PLN.

2010 - 2014

Laura Chinchilla

First female president. PLN.

2014 - 2018

Luis Guillermo Solís

President. Citizens Action Party (PAC).


Costa Rica wins a long-standing territorial row with Nicaragua after the International Court of Justice rules that it holds sovereignty over a small patch of wetlands on the San Juan river which are known as Isla Portillo.

Islas Portillos Costa Rican wetlands
The coastal wetlands area known as Isla Portillos, or Isla Calero (Nicaragua calls it Harbour Head Lagoon), underwent their latest episode of an ongoing border dispute between the two countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua

2018 - 2022

Carlos Alvarado

President. PAC.

2022 - On

Rodrigo Chaves

President. Social Democratic Progress Party (PSD).


The same country which, in 2021, had considered a total ban on the exploitation of fossil fuels now appears to have given up on phasing out oil and gas production. Instead Costa Rica is considering a reintroduction of drilling into its economy. To do so, its centre-right government could reverse a decree from the previous administration which had ordered an oil and gas exploration moratorium.

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