Capital: San Jose
Population: 4,509,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free


Former vice president Laura Chinchilla was elected as Costa Rica's first female president in February 2010. As crime and insecurity continued to increase, President Chinchilla in May announced the creation of a national anti-drug commission and in September accepted 13,000 foreign troops to help combat regional drug trafficking and organized crime.

Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and gained full sovereignty in 1838. The country enjoyed relative political stability until 1948, when José "Pepe" Figueres launched a 40-day civil war to restore power to the rightful winner of that year's presidential election and successfully pushed to disband Costa Rica's military. In 1949, the country adopted a new constitution that ultimately strengthened democratic rule. Figueres later served as president for two separate terms under the National Liberation Party (PLN). Since 1949, power has alternated between the PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

The PUSC's Abel Pacheco succeeded Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, also of the PUSC, in the 2002 presidential election. Former president Óscar Arias recaptured the presidency for the PLN in 2006. The PUSC has since been plagued by a series of damaging corruption scandals, including the 2010 sentencing of former president Rafael Ángel Calderón.

In February 2010, former vice president Laura Chinchilla of the PLN became Costa Rica's first female president, capturing nearly 47 percent of the vote in the first round. Chinchilla defeated Ottón Solís of the Citizens' Action Party (PAC), who won 25 percent, and the Libertarian Movement Party (PML)'s Otto Guevara, who finished with approximately 21 percent. The balloting resulted in a divided Legislative Assembly: the PLN lost two seats for a total of 24 seats, the PAC won 11, the PML captured 9, the PUSC took 6, and Accessibility without Exclusion captured 4 seats, while the remaining 3 seats went to other smaller parties.

Chinchilla began her presidency in May with a strong mandate and immediately signed three decrees: a ban on open-pit gold mining, the establishment of an anti-drug commission, and the creation of national elder and child care networks. The decrees were symbolic of her policy priorities: environmental protection, security, and family welfare. While she maintained a strong public approval rating during her first hundred days in office, members of the opposition insisted that her administration was an extension of Oscar Arias's government and did not represent a serious shift in policy. Several civil society organizations were also skeptical about her policy objectives.

Concerns over public security, crime, and narcotics trafficking continued in 2010. The spread of violent crime has been closely tied to drug trafficking, as Costa Rica is increasingly being used as a narcotics storage and transportation route. Organized criminal networks are also suspected of having infiltrated police and political institutions. President Chinchilla took several steps to fight crime in 2010, such as creating a national anti-drug commission, hiring 700 new police officers, introducing a gambling tax to increase police funding, earmarking an additional $6.5 million for the country's judicial investigation agency (Organismo de Investigacion Judicial), and making plans to expand prison capacity. Additionally, the president in July agreed to station more than 13,000 U.S. military personnel, including 7,000 U.S. Marines, on Costa Rican territory to lead regional anti-drug efforts. As Costa Rica has no standing army, these U.S. troops will comprise the largest military presence in the country since 1821, which has raised some concern among social organizations.

While the quality of life in Costa Rica is relatively high for the region, economic growth is hampered by the national debt, inflation, and cost-of-living increases. The global economic crisis has further threatened economic stability in the country, with unemployment rates reaching a 20-year high in 2009 of nearly 7.3 percent. Chinchilla introduced new social programs in 2010 and planned to explore free trade agreements with the European Union, South Korea, China and Singapore in an effort to increase foreign investment and reverse the trend of growing poverty.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Costa Rica is an electoral democracy. The 2010 Legislative and presidential elections were considered free and fair. The president and members of the 57-seat, unicameral Legislative Assembly are elected for single four-year terms and can seek a nonconsecutive second term. The main political parties are the PLN, the PAC, the PML, and the PUSC. A special chamber of the Supreme Court chooses an independent national election commission. Ahead of the 2010 elections, Costa Rica approved reforms to its electoral law, including the prohibition of anonymous and foreign campaign donations, revised regulations surrounding government financing of political parties, and new quotas designed to promote women's leadership roles within political parties.

Every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office, with the exception of Óscar Arias. In 2010, Rodrigo Arias, brother of Óscar Arias, was accused of misusing funds from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration. The case was investigated by the government but quickly dropped due to pressure from Arias' allies. Costa Rica was ranked 41 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The Costa Rican media are generally free from state interference. There are six privately owned dailies, and both public and commercial broadcast outlets are available, including at least four private television stations and more than 100 private radio stations. Abuse of government advertising and direct pressure from senior officials to influence media content has been reported. A February 2010 Supreme Court ruling removed prison terms for defamation, though Internet access is unrestricted.

The government recognizes freedom of religion. President Arias backed a 2009 bill which sought to declare Costa Rica a "secular state," rather than a Roman Catholic state, which created tension between his government and the church; however, the bill was not adopted by the legislature as of the end of 2010. However, President Laura Chinchilla made efforts in 2010 to repair government relations with the Catholic Church by putting a government representative in the church: Fernando Sanchez. Academic freedom is respected.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active. Although labor unions organize and mount frequent protests with minimal governmental interference, employers often ignore minimum-wage and social security laws, and the resulting fines are insignificant.

The judicial branch is independent, with members elected by the legislature. However, there are often substantial delays in the judicial process and long pretrial detention. There have been complaints of police brutality, which are collected by an ombudsman's office. In September 2010, the Supreme Court outlawed police use of roadblocks and random searches as preventative security measures, deeming them a violation of civil rights. However, many Costa Ricans opposed the decision, saying these tactics were important tools in fighting against drug trafficking and other crime. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded and offer inadequate medical services; in September 2010, the government received a $200 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to increase the capacity of its prison system for an additional 3,000 inmates.

As the drug trade expands in Costa Rica, the country has experienced a significant increase in homicides, with a homicide rate in 2010 of approximately 11 murders per every 100,000 people. Costa Rica has become a popular location for the warehousing and transport of cocaine destined for the United States. Between 2005 and 2010, Costa Rica captured a total of 194 tons of cocaine. However, despite such efforts, the United States included Costa Rica, which is a transshipment point between Colombia and Honduras, on its list of countries with major drug trafficking operations. At least 500,000 Nicaraguan immigrants live in the country illegally. A 2006 law permits security forces to raid any home, business, or vehicle where they suspect undocumented immigrants, who can then be detained indefinitely. Abuse and extortion of migrants by the Border Guard have also been reported. Reforms made to migration law that went into effect in March 2010 include implementing fines against employers who hire illegal immigrants and creating stricter controls over marriages between Costa Ricans and foreigners in an effort to prevent "marriages of convenience."

Indigenous rights are not a government priority, and NGOs estimate that about 73 percent of the country's 70,000 indigenous people have little access to health and education services, electricity, or potable water. Costa Ricans of African descent have also faced racial and economic discrimination.

Women still face discrimination in the economic realm, and only about a third of the economically active population is female. Most female employment is in the informal sector, where women on average earn 50 percent less than men. There are 22 women in the Legislative Assembly, occupying approximately 39 percent of legislator positions. Violence against women and children is a major problem. The number of female homicides in Costa Rica more than doubled between 2007 and 2010, from 16 to 38.Domestic workers have long been subject to exploitation; they lack legal protection, receive the lowest minimum wage, and are excluded from social security programs. An increasing number of sex tourists visit Costa Rica, and approximately 3,500 children were victims of sexual exploitation in 2007. Costa Rica has failed to enforce anti-trafficking legislation and remains a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. In July 2010, President Chinchilla faced criticism from civil society organizations and gay rights advocates when she supported a referendum put forth by conservative groups against same sex unions. However, the Constitutional Court ruled in August that holding a referendum on this issue was unconstitutional.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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