Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 4,200,000
GNI/Capita: $4,070
Life Expectancy: 79
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (76.3 percent), Evangelical (13.7 percent), other (10 percent)
Ethnic Groups: White and Mestizo (94 percent), black (3 percent), Amerindian (1 percent), other (2 percent)
Capital: San Jose

Ratings Change
Costa Rica's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to the indictment of three former presidents for corruption, along with free press coverage of the processes.


The year 2004 saw the indictment on corruption charges of three former presidents of Costa Rica, one of whom was serving as secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and became a republic in 1848. In the 1994 elections, Jose Maria Figueres, son of the legendary president Jose "Pepe" Figueres, defeated Miguel Angel Rodriguez of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). The outgoing president, Rafael A. Calderon, Jr., also of the PUSC, had promoted neoliberal economic policies, against which Figueres campaigned. Despite his campaign pledges, Figueres's last two years in office saw the adoption of free market policies. In the 1998 elections, Rodriguez bested Jose Miguel Corrales of the National Liberation Party (PLN).

For many years, there has been a consistent flow of Nicaraguans searching for employment in Costa Rica. There are more than 400,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, many of whom work without papers on farms where they are paid subsistence wages. In 1998, Costa Rica declared a temporary amnesty for these and other illegal Central American immigrants, and more than 200,000 Nicaraguans legalized their status. Simmering tensions with Nicaragua were exacerbated in 2001 when the Costa Rican government began to build a seven-foot-high fence along the Penas Blancas border crossing on the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific Coast. Claims that the wall was being built to control heavy traffic in goods in a region that has become a favored route for drug smuggling were dismissed in Nicaragua.

When no single candidate received the constitutionally required 40 percent of the vote in the February 2002 presidential election, a second round run-off was held in April. Although Abel Pacheco of the PUSC was victorious in the second round, improprieties in the financing of his election tarnished his image. After increasing voter dissatisfaction with the two traditional parties – the PUSC and the PLN – two smaller upstarts, the Citizens Action Party (PAC) and the Libertarian Movement (ML), received significant support in the February legislative poll. PUSC candidates won 19 of the assembly's 57 seats, while the PLN captured 17, followed by the PAC with 14, the ML with 6, and the Costa Rican Renovation Party with 1.

Although Costa Rica is usually seen as a paragon of law and order, the political waters have been muddied since the presidential elections by continuing allegations of illegal funding of Pacheco's campaign. Nevertheless, his problems appeared to pale in comparison to the successive indictments, on charges of corruption, of two of his recent predecessors – Rodriguez (1998-2002) and Calderon (1990-1994) – in 2004. Rodriguez, moreover, abruptly resigned as head of the OAS. Similar accusations against former PLN president Jose Maria Figueres (1994-1998) forced his resignation as managing director of the World Economic Forum. Pacheco's own government has been singularly unstable, having lost 14 ministers since his coming to office.

Costa Rica's once stable economy has been buffeted by a decline in the value of its agricultural exports and a growing gap between the earnings of this traditional sector and the income gains of workers in high-tech production. Continuing efforts to limit and reduce the public debt, along with relatively high inflation, have led to numerous labor actions, many of which have paralyzed the economy.

Despite the relative calm, the increase in gang-related violent crime has led public security forces to coordinate actions with Costa Rica's neighbors since September 2003. While not yet as dangerous or numerous as in neighboring countries, the gangs active in the country have increased the levels of violence faced by the now beleaguered Costa Ricans.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Democratic government change takes place with free and fair elections. The president and the 57-member Legislative Assembly are elected for a four-year term and were banned from seeking a second term until the Supreme Court overturned this law in 2003. There are guarantees for the right to organize political parties. In response to allegations of drug money financing the elections, new campaign laws have been passed to make party funding more transparent.

Following the indictments on charges of corruption of three former presidents in 2004, the most popular public figure is Francisco Dall'Anese, the public prosecutor who has taken on all of the major cases of official corruption. According to Dall'Anese, "Here [in Costa Rica] there are no untouchables." Costa Rica was ranked 41 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

The press, radio, and television are generally free. Ninety percent of the population is literate, and there are six major privately owned dailies. Television and radio stations are both public and commercial, with at least four private television stations and more than 90 private radio stations. Article 309 of the criminal code, which had allowed up to two years in prison for anyone damaging the reputation or insulting the rank of a government official, was repealed in February 2002. However, other similar laws are still on the books, including one allowing people who feel that their reputation was impugned by an item of news to sue. Article 149 of the criminal code places the burden on journalists to prove their innocence, and Article 152 punishes anyone who repeats offensive remarks. The unrestrained outcry of the media over the recent accusations of corruption in government have not been restricted by either the government or the individuals accused of malfeasance.

Freedom of religion is recognized, and there is complete academic freedom.

The constitution provides for the right to organize civic organizations. Numerous nongovernmental organizations are active in all parts of society and the country. Labor can organize freely, but there has been a noticeable reluctance to expand labor rights. Frequent labor actions, ranging from local to nationwide protests, take place with a minimum of governmental restraints. Minimum wage and social security laws are often ignored, and the consequent fines are insignificant.

The judicial branch is independent, with members elected by the legislature. The legal system includes a Supreme Court, courts of appeals, and district courts. The Supreme Court can rule on the constitutionality of laws and chooses an independent national election commission. There are long delays in the justice system, partly as a result of budget cuts. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded, but generally meet international standards.

A 1994 Police Code and the 2001 Law for Strengthening the Civilian Police were designed to depoliticize and professionalize the police in order to create a permanent career path within the institution. The law replaced military ranks with civilian titles and required the police academy to develop a course and diploma in police administration. The Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of the Presidency share responsibility for law enforcement and national security. Several entities, including the Border Guard, the Rural Guard, and the Civil Guard, were merged into a single "public force." The 1949 constitution bans the formation of a national army.

Independent rights monitors report increases in allegations of arbitrary arrest and brutality. Human rights complaints are investigated by an ombudsman who has the authority to issue recommendations for rectification, including sanctions against government bodies, for failure to respect rights. Corruption is not considered a serious problem in the public security forces and, when discovered, is usually dealt with in a decisive manner.

The country is a regional leader in the enactment of progressive antidrug statutes, including the use of wiretaps, controlled deliveries, and undercover agents. Financial institutions must report any transactions involving more than $10,000. In 1999, the Legislative Assembly passed legislation allowing for U.S. antidrug patrols to operate in Costa Rican waters.

Indigenous rights are not a priority, but in general, conditions for native peoples are better than those in neighboring countries.

The government is making significant efforts to combat human trafficking; Costa Rica is a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. Often, women workers are sexually harassed, made to work overtime without pay, and fired when they become pregnant. Violence against women and children is a problem, although the government has shown concrete support for programs and policies to combat it. A law criminalizing sex with minors was passed in 1999 in an attempt to crack down on the country's growing sex tourism industry.

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