Although Costa Rica shares much of its history up to the 19th century with the other Central American states (and in fact gained independence on the same day as Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), which is still visible in the basic blue-white-blue flag of all these countries (Costa Rica simply added a red stripe in the middle of the white), there are some notable differences. The most visible today is that in Costa Rica, European colonisation took place mainly in the Central Valley, which became the economic and political heart of the country and whose ancestry is decidedly European. While the political climate was not that different from the rest of Central America (think coups and rigged elections) until the short-lived civil war in 1948 (won by Jose Figueres Ferer, who later became president three times and is one of Costa Rica’s most influential politicians), it has improved greatly since then, and all elections since 1949 have been peaceful and in line with international democratic standards. One of the reasons for this is that Figueres, when he came to power, abolished the military and Costa Rica is still one of the few countries without one, which has led to fewer coups and more money for education and social programmes. However, this has led to Costa Rica being heavily under the influence of the United States and being one of the closest US allies in the region.
In the 1980s, almost all of Central America was plagued by civil wars and fragile, unpopular governments. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez made a peace proposal that got almost all sides of war-torn Nicaragua to sit down and talk, leading to a lasting peaceful solution and democratic elections in 1990. However, relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica have deteriorated in recent years and dominated the political agenda of Arias Sanchez’s second term in office in the 2000s. The Rio San Juan, which belongs to Nicaragua but lies on the border, has become a hot topic. One of the points of contention has been Nicaraguan drainage works on the river, which Nicaragua claims are for safe navigation but which Costa Rica claims have illegally encroached on its territory (Nicaragua invoked Google Maps in its defence). Another point of contention is whether Costa Rica should pay a fee for tourist trips on the river. Costa Rica claims that an old treaty guarantees both countries free navigation on the river, while Nicaragua claims that the only thing the treaty says is that Costa Rican ships can carry “goods” without paying a fee, and that people are not in fact goods. The situation worsened when Laura Chinchilla, Arias Sanchez’s successor, insisted on building a controversial highway right next to the river, despite Nicaragua’s protests, which Nicaragua says will not only hurt Costa Rica’s natural reserves but could also overload the river with sediment. The problem is further complicated by the number of Nicaraguans, ranging from several hundred thousand to one million, who live in Costa Rica under varying conditions of legality. They are not always treated very well. However, there are signs of reconciliation on both sides, and a new bridge now crosses the Rio San Juan at San Carlos (Nicaragua), allowing land access to Los Chiles. The two countries consider themselves “pueblos hermanos” (brotherly peoples), even if they are sometimes unpleasant and annoying brothers.