July 20th, 2009

Costa Rica v. Nicaragua: Border Dispute Resolved

For the past four years, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been embroiled in a dispute over the San Juan River, which runs between the two countries. Fishermen, tour boat operators and pleasure boaters from both countries have, for many years, shared the river relatively peacefully, although undercurrents of conflict have existed for two centuries.

The Cañas-Jerez treaty of April 15, 1858 demarcated the border between the two countries. Under the treaty, the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua, and the border runs along the Costa Rican side of the river. However, Nicaragua recently argued that its possession of the river allowed it to control river traffic as well. The Nicaraguan government refused to allow Costa Rican law enforcement officials to patrol the river. In addition, Nicaragua demanded that passengers on river boats have Nicaraguan tourist visas, arguing that these passengers needed to purchase tourist passes in order to travel along the river. Costa Rica argued that its commercial and police vessels had a right to freely navigate the San Juan River. Conflict escalated.

On September 29, 2005, Costa Rica took its case to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague. At issue was the interpretation of the Cañas-Jerez treaty. Costa Rica claimed that the treaty did not allow Nicaragua to restrict navigation of Costa Rican police along the river and that such restriction violated the 1858 treaty.

On July 13, 2009, the court reached a decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua, granting most of the demands of the Costa Rican government. The court recognized the right of Costa Rican tour and passenger boats to freely navigate the river for commercial purposes. Passengers on these boats do not have to procure Nicaraguan tourist visas. In addition, Costa Ricans can use the river for daily transportation requirements—to ferry children to and from school, to deliver food and other necessities to people living in the region and for subsistence fishing.

Interestingly, Costa Rica lost on the one issue it originally brought before the court—whether Costa Rican police had the right to patrol the river. The court held that Costa Rican police had no right to this activity. In addition, Costa Rica can no longer use the river to transport weapons or supplies to police stations in the San Juan River region. The court also granted Nicaragua the right to inspect Costa Rican ships and their passengers at various predetermined checkpoints along the river.

On the whole, Costa Rica is satisfied with the decision, and Costa Ricans hope that tension in the San Juan River area will dissipate.

Read about Costa Rica v. Nicaragua in La Nación.

Read the International Court of Justice’s complete decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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April 6th, 2009

Bananas: A Mini History

During the middle-to-late 19th century, coffee accounted for nearly 90% of Costa Rica’s export revenue. The success of the coffee trade prompted business-minded entrepreneurs to seek other lucrative agricultural markets. Thus, the late 1800s witnessed the growth and development of the banana production and export business.

Until the end of the 1800s, Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast was all but inaccessible from the rest of the country. Its jungles and thick vegetation made trade with the area next to impossible, and politicians decided to finance the construction of a railroad that would link the Atlantic coast to the rest of the country. Construction of the railroad took longer than expected, and costs went significantly over budget.

In the end, an American contractor, Minor C. Keith, completed the railroad project, a fact which tied American interests to the Atlantic region for many unhappy years. As part of his contract for completing the railroad, Keith received large tracts of land in the Atlantic region. He used this land as a banana plantation and financed part of the railroad construction with banana exports. Keith exported many of his bananas to the United States and played an important role in forming the United Fruit Company.

The United Fruit Company soon developed a monopoly over banana production in the Atlantic Region, expanding its agricultural holdings across the region. Before long, the United Fruit Company—or “Yunai,” as it was known among agricultural workers—came to symbolize the worst of American imperialism. Banana workers suffered in the harsh coastal conditions, and Costa Ricans protested their mistreatment and the fact that workers received almost none of the profit from the lucrative banana exports. The Costa Rican Communist party emerged as a significant force in the clash between the United Fruit Company and its Costa Rican workers.

Revenue from banana exports soon equaled that from coffee exports, and a new chapter in Costa Rican agricultural history had begun.

The United Fruit Company influenced Costa Rica’s literary history as well. For more information about the United Fruit Company in Costa Rican literature, click here.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 30th, 2009

Coffee: A Mini History

For over one hundred years, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary export products and a great source of wealth for many Costa Rican families. The history of coffee cultivation is closely related to the history of the country itself.

Costa Rica was a Spanish colony until 1821, when all of Central America received its independence from Spain. During Costa Rica’s colonial period, sugar cane and cacao were important agricultural products, but neither was lucrative enough to allow the colony to enter the global agricultural market. Livestock, lumber and mining provided income to a few entrepreneurs, but none became a national economic force. Throughout this time, small coffee plantations existed in Costa Rica, but they were not yet productive enough to generate significant income.

In the 1820s, the Costa Rican government took an active interest in the production of coffee, hoping to enliven the Costa Rican economy by encouraging coffee cultivation. Some sources indicate that the government became involved in land distribution, providing land grants to small coffee cultivators. Wealthy landowners also amassed large holdings, growing coffee in their vast plantations. Costa Rica’s climate proved ideal for coffee production, and coffee growers were soon producing large crops. By the first half of the 1800s, coffee production was booming, and the country finally gained a foothold in the world economy.

At first, Costa Rica exported its coffee to Chile, where it was repackaged as Chilean coffee and then shipped to Great Britain. Later, Costa Rica exported coffee directly to Great Britain, the real start of the foreign coffee export business. Other countries joined Great Britain in buying Costa Rican coffee. The lucrative coffee bean soon became known as “el grano de oro,” or the golden bean.

The wealthiest of coffee growers were those who owned beneficios, or coffee processing plants. In the earliest years, beneficios used a “humid” method to shell and process the raw coffee beans. More recently, beneficios have becoming increasingly mechanized, automating processes that were once done by hand.

Coffee revenue changed Costa Rican culture, architecture and society. Major coffee growers built expensive mansions and large commercial buildings in San José. Coffee magnates financed the construction of schools, cultural centers and of the National Theater building in the capital. Wealthy coffee growers took an interest in European culture, introducing the country to Old World literature, entertainment and activities. Most importantly to the country’s history, coffee money financed the construction of the first railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast.

By the end of the 1800s, coffee had become Costa Rica’s predominant agricultural product. However, the turn of the century also witnessed the emergence of a new and very important cash crop—the banana. Its cultivation brought with it a host of new social and political problems for Costa Rica.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 15th, 2008

Juan Santamaría May Not Be Who We Think He Is

Juan Santamaría is Costa Rica’s most important hero, although the reason for his fame is the subject of some debate. In the mid-1800s, Costa Rica nearly fell under the control of American forces led by William Walker. Because Costa Rica did not have an army, the country’s defense rested in the hands of farmers and other civilians, who fought off the Americans with various tools and farm implements. Juan Santamaría, a young boy from the province of Alajuela, joined Costa Rica’s makeshift defense team.

The Costa Rican contingent fought fiercely, according to legend, and William Walker’s gang took refuge in a large house in Guanacaste—La Casona. As the Costa Ricans lay siege to La Casona, it became apparent that the only way to defeat the Americans would be to burn down the building itself. The leader of the Costa Rican fighters asked his forces to line up facing him. Then, the leader asked for a volunteer to step forward and take up the torch that would burn down La Casona. Juan Santamaría bravely stepped forward and seized the flaming torch, asking only that his mother be taken care of, in the event of his death. Juan Santamaría then set fire to La Casona and defeated the American forces, collapsing to his death moments later, from a bullet wound.

All across Costa Rica, Juan Santamaría is celebrated. Several statues depict him with his flaming torch. One of the most well-known stands in front of the Asamblea Legislativa, Costa Rica’s congressional building, and the other is in Alajuela, Juan Santamaría’s home. Costa Rica’s main airport is named after Juan Santamaría, and April 11 is a national holiday commemorating the day of Juan Santamaría’s death.

However, there is another side to the Juan Santamaría story. Costa Ricans never take themselves—or their national heroes—too seriously. Every Costa Rican schoolchild learns, in the classroom, the story of Juan Santamaría’s heroism. Outside the classroom, those same children laugh about a less heroic Juan Santamaría. In this other account, Juan Santamaría was more foolish than brave. He joined the Costa Rican fighters without fully understanding the conflict. When the Costa Rican forces lined up to face their leader and one brave soul was asked to step forward, the foolish Juan Santamaría stayed standing where he was. His more wily fellows each took a step backward, leaving Juan Santamaría a step ahead of them. He became the unwitting volunteer who had to take up the torch. All across the country, this other Juan Santamaría is the subject of many jokes.

Juan Santamaría’s name is a source of joy for all Costa Ricans—joy for a national hero and joy for a national myth gleefully subverted.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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