U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Costa Rica

    Costa Rica is a well-established, stable constitutional democracy with a unicameral Legislative Assembly that is directly elected in elections that have been free and fair. Jose Maria Figueres won the February presidential election, in which approximately 80 percent of eligible voters participated. The 1949 Constitution abolished Costa Rica's military. The Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Government, and the Ministry of the Presidency share responsibilities for law enforcement and national security. The Judicial Police, under the Supreme Court, is an investigative force, while the San Jose Metropolitan Police and the Transit Police within the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation also have limited police functions. Public security forces generally observe procedural safeguards established by law and the Constitution. The economy is based on agriculture and light industry as well as tourism. Economic growth in 1993 was about 6.1 percent but slowed to 4.5 percent in 1994, and the Government faced a growing fiscal deficit. The right to own private property is protected by the Constitution; however, foreign and Costa Rican property owners who have had land expropriated for national parks, Indian reserves, or squatters have had significant difficulties receiving adequate and timely compensation. Costa Ricans enjoy a wide range of individual rights and freedoms, although there have been well-founded complaints concerning the occasional use of excessive force by police and lengthy pretrial detentions. Discrimination against blacks, Indians, and women has also been reported, and many women are victims of domestic violence.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings and one credible report of an extrajudicial killing. In August the authorities arrested four officers of the Judicial Police for the murder and mutilation of suspected drug dealer Ciro Monge. The police dismissed all four and the investigation continued. Although the police initially jailed all four, they were free on bail at the end of the year. In 1993 the authorities dismissed seven Judicial Police officers in the beating death in custody of suspected gang member William Lee Malcom. Their trial was scheduled but had not begun by year's end. The Monge and Lee Malcom cases, plus alleged instances of corruption, led many sectors of society to call for a reorganization of the Judicial Police. The trial of the 2 commanding officers of a 13-member Rural Guard unit (the "Cobra Command") for the 1992 murder of 2 drug suspects and the rape and abuse of indigenous people, although scheduled in the fall, had not begun by the end of the year. The authorities have charged 12 ex-members of the Cobra Command with murder, rape, and deprivation of liberty.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated abductions or secret arrests.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits cruel or degrading treatment and holds invalid any statement obtained through violence. The authorities generally respected these prohibitions in practice, although a study by the National Ombudsman's office found that reports of isolated instances of beatings and other physical abuse by police agents were credible. The Ombudsman's office is limited to responding to complaints that are filed with it. The Ombudsman's office can and does investigate and file suit against the officials involved. There were also limited instances of police using excessive force in controlling crowds, including squatter evictions in Pavas and an April labor conflict in Sarapiqui. The press and labor groups severely criticized the police for failing to negotiate a peaceful end to the confrontations and for their ready resort to force. In particular, the media and unions strongly condemned the police for using firearms to clear the strikers' blockade of the main road in Sarapiqui. In the face of escalating crime, there was considerable debate over the competence and adequacy of the law enforcement system. In an effort to professionalize and depoliticize the police force, the Assembly enacted a bill intended, over a period of years, to reduce patronage in the appointment of police officers and increase the level of training. Prisoners generally receive humane treatment in Costa Rica. Physical abuse by prison guards is uncommon. Other forms of abuse by guards, such as extortion, do occur with some frequency. However, the Prison Rights Ombudsman investigates cases and refers serious cases of abuse to the public prosecutor. Authorities have dismissed guards who have been found to have committed physical and other abuses. While public concern exists about crowded penitentiaries, the availability of weapons in prisons, occasional rioting, and assault within the prisons, the Government has achieved limited progress in the repair and improvement of the more run-down prison facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law requires judicial warrants for arrests and that an officer of the court arraign a detainee within 24 hours of arrest. The Constitution entitles a detainee to a judicial determination of the legality of the detention. The authorities generally respected these rights, although persons charged with serious offenses often remain in pretrial custody for long periods due to judicial backlogs. The past several years brought some improvement in this regard. The average number of prisoners awaiting trial fell from 20.9 percent of all prisoners in 1991 to 18.0 percent in 1994. As of the end of March 1992, 134 prisoners had spent more than 9 months in detention without being sentenced. Estimates from the Ministry of Justice for 1994 were similar. The law provides for the right to bail, and the authorities observed it in practice. Generally, the authorities do not hold detainees incommunicado. With judicial authorization, the authorities may hold suspects for 48 hours after arrest or, under special circumstances, for up to 10 days. The judiciary has proven effective at ensuring the observance of legal and constitutional safeguards. The authorities arrested four Venezuelans in June in connection with a series of violent bank robberies and assaults, and summarily deported them to Venezuela without resort to the courts. The executive branch defended the expulsions on the grounds that continued detention of the suspects invited retaliation and represented a threat to Costa Rican lives. Many members of the judiciary criticized the action as arbitrary and outside established legal procedure. The Venezuelans filed suit, which resulted in a judgment that three government ministers may be financially liable for the expulsions and may also lead to formal charges against them. Any further civil or criminal charges against the ministers will depend on the removal of the immunity inherent in their office. The Constitution bars exile as punishment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is independent and assures a fair public trial. The Supreme Court supervises the work of the lower courts, known as tribunals. The Legislative Assembly elects the 24 Supreme Court magistrates to 8-year terms, which are automatically renewed unless the Assembly votes against a renewal by a two-thirds majority. Accused persons may select an attorney of their choice, and the law provides for access to legal counsel at state expense for the indigent. There are no political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

There were no reports of extralegal invasions of privacy conducted by, or with the knowledge of, the Government. The law requires judicial warrants to search private homes, and police seldom fail to comply. In August the Legislative Assembly approved legislation permitting government-authorized wiretaps in certain restricted circumstances, primarily to combat narcotics trafficking.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution specifically provides for freedom of speech and press, and these freedoms are generally respected in practice. However, courts sometimes construe libel and defamation laws so broadly as potentially to inhibit free expression. A judge sentenced journalist Bosco Valverde to 1 year in prison for "disrespect" displayed in an editorial he wrote about the judges presiding in an important fraud trial. Although a court later reduced the sentence to probation and a fine, the case raised concerns that journalists would be less likely to criticize public figures in the course of covering public events. A 1969 law requires that journalists must have a degree in journalism from a Costa Rican university and a license from the government-sponsored journalists' guild. Journalists have attempted to challenge the law in court several times, but without success. Nine major privately owned newspapers, several periodicals, 6 privately owned television stations, and over 70 privately owned radio stations pursue independent editorial policies. The media freely criticize the Government, and there has been little evidence of self-censorship or governmental intimidation. An office of censorship rates films and has the authority to restrict or prohibit their showing; it has similar powers over television shows and stage plays. A censorship tribunal reviews appeals of the office's actions.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government fully respected these rights. The law requires permits for parades or similar large-scale gatherings, which the authorities routinely grant.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution protects freedom of religion, and the authorities generally observed it in practice. Foreign missionaries and clergy of all denominations work and proselytize freely. Roman Catholicism is the official state religion, and the Catholic Church benefits from certain privileges which non-Catholic persons and institutions are denied. For example, non-Catholic churches are required by law to comply with building codes from which Catholic churches are exempt, and Catholic priests may perform marriages, whereas non-Catholic religious marriages are not valid without an additional civil marriage. The law on career educators stipulates that all teachers of religion, including non-Catholic teachers, must be approved by the Catholic Church's Episcopal Conference.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

There are no restrictions on travel within the country, and emigration and the right of return are not restricted. Costa Rica supports multinational refugee programs and has accepted many refugees from Central and South America. The Constitution specifically prohibits repatriation of anyone subject to political persecution. The Government considers large numbers of undocumented Nicaraguans to be economic migrants and frequently expels them summarily.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens exercise this right through free, secret ballot elections every 4 years. The independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal insures the integrity of elections, and the authorities and the citizens respect the election results. The Constitution bars the President from reelection; Assembly members may seek reelection after at least one term out of office. National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Jose Maria Figueres won the February elections, in which the PLN gained a plurality in the 57-member Legislative Assembly with 28 seats. The opposition Social Christian Unity Party won 25 seats. A leftist coalition party holds two seats, and two independent provincial parties hold one each. There are no legal impediments to participation by women or minorities in politics. Although women are underrepresented in leadership positions in government and politics, this has begun to change. Two Cabinet ministers, seven vice ministers and nine members of the Legislative Assembly are women. In addition, one of the two vice presidents is a woman. Costa Rica's 30,000 blacks, who reside largely on the Caribbean coast, enjoy full fights of citizenship, including the protection of laws against racial discrimination. The Legislative Assembly includes one black member; one member of the Cabinet is black. Indigenous people are free to participate in politics and government. However, they have not had a significant presence in either except on issues directly impinging on indigenous rights. This lack of political role and influence stems from historical neglect, discrimination, physical isolation, and the very small number of indigenous people relative to the total population.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

At least three nongovernmental groups monitor and report on human rights free of government restriction: the Costa Rican Commission for Human Rights; the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America; and the Family and Friends of Political Prisoners of Costa Rica. The Ministry of Justice houses an official Ombudsman, empowered to hear individual complaints concerning human rights abuses. The Government is open and responsive to concerns expressed by international human rights groups and has invited the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit the country whenever it wishes.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution pronounces all persons equal before the law.


While there is no legal discrimination, and in fact a number of laws seek to protect women from sex discrimination in such areas as property ownership, employment, and inviolability of person, in practice women face a number of inequalities. Official statistics indicated that 30 percent of working-age women earn wages, as opposed to 79 percent of working-age men. The law requires that women and men receive equal pay for equal work, but due in part to limited resources the Government has not effectively enforced it. On average, women's salaries are 20 percent below men's. The National Ombudsman's office in June reported that women and children were the targets of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse in a significant proportion of all households. The Government regularly prosecutes physical abuse of women, including domestic violence, which is increasingly recognized as a serious problem, and often imposes stringent punishment.


The Government is committed to children's rights and welfare, spending more than 4 percent of gross domestic product on education and over 5 percent on medical care. This has contributed to a high rate of literacy and a low rate of infant mortality. Public awareness of crimes against children has grown. The National Institute for Infancy reported that in the first 3 months of 1994, there were 376 cases of physical mistreatment of minors, 314 cases of sexual abuse, and 47 of psychological abuse; compared to a total of 625 new cases of mistreatment or sexual abuse for the first 3 months of 1993. Traditional family attitudes and the fact that such crimes are treated as misdemeanors hampered legal proceedings against those who committed crimes against children.

Indigenous People

Costa Rica's population of 3.2 million includes some 24,000 indigenous people. Most live in traditional communities on 21 reserves which, in part because of their remote location, often lack access to schools, health care, electricity, and potable water. The Government established the National Indigenous Commission (CONAI) to address concerns of indigenous people, but many indigenous people have complained CONAI is paternalistic and does not adequately represent their views. The Ombudsman has also established an office to investigate violations of indigenous rights and to strengthen its oversight of these rights.

People with Disabilities

There are no laws prohibiting discrimination against those with disabilities, nor mandating access for such persons, although certain public and private institutions have made individual efforts to improve access.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law specifies the right of workers to join unions of their choosing without prior authorization, although barriers exist in practice. Approximately 15 percent of the work force is unionized, almost entirely in the public sector. Unions are independent of government control and are generally free to form federations and confederations and to affiliate internationally. Certain trade unions contend that the "solidarismo" (solidarity) movement has hurt unions' right of association. The movement espouses employer-worker cooperation and offers the latter such benefits as credit unions and savings plans in return for their renunciation of the right to strike and bargain collectively (although, in practice, solidarity associations have in the past acted as collective bargaining agents). Employers partly finance solidarity associations; the law allows them to offer a range of services and engage in profit-making activities, which unions are not permitted to do."Permanent workers' committees" made up of members of solidarity associations have entered into direct agreements with their employers, sometimes in order to stop attempts by an established union to negotiate a collective bargaining pact. The International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association concluded a 2-year investigation in June 1991 and ruled that management's use of solidarity and the associations' involvement in trade union activities such as collective bargaining were violations of freedom of association. In June the ILO's Committee of Experts ruled that, with the changes to the Labor Code enacted in 1993 and the promises of further reforms, Costa Rican workers have made progress towards greater freedom of association. There are no restrictions on the rights of private workers to strike, but very few private sector workers are union members, and strikes in the private sector are rare. In April a labor dispute between Geest Caribbean Company and the workers at Geest's banana plantation in Sarapiqui escalated into violence. There were numerous injuries, and the police arrested several strikers for inciting violence. The law restricts the right of public sector workers to strike. In April the Government introduced a bill that would guarantee collective bargaining rights to all public sector workers and afford the right to strike to public workers who are not in "essential services" as defined by the ILO, but the Assembly had not passed it by year's end. Public sector labor disputes produced a scattering of demonstrations and brief work stoppages.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution protects the right to organize. Specific provisions of the 1993 labor code reforms provide protection from dismissal for union organizers and members during the period of union formation. The revised provisions of the Labor Code require employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities. Public sector workers cannot engage in collective bargaining because the Public Administration Act of 1978 makes labor law inapplicable in relations between the Government and its employees. Private sector unions have the legal right to engage in collective bargaining but, owing to the dearth of unions, it is not a widespread practice. All labor regulations apply fully to the country's nine export processing zones (EPZ's). The Labor Ministry oversees labor regulations within the EPZ's, but acknowledged that it has only one inspector for every 30,000 workers.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there were no known instances of either.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution provides special employment protection for women and minors and establishes the minimum working age at 12 years, with special regulations in force for workers under 15. Children older than 15 but under 18 can work a maximum of 7 hours a day and 42 hours weekly. For children between the ages of 12 and 15, the limit is 5 hours a day and 30 hours weekly. The National Children's Agency, an autonomous government institution, in cooperation with the Labor Ministry, is reasonably effective in enforcing these regulations in the formal sector. In response to the deaths of two adolescents by chemical poisoning while working on banana plantations, the authorities prohibited further employment of youths under the age of 18 in the banana industry. Nonetheless, child labor continues to be an integral part of the large informal economy.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Constitution provides for a minimum wage. A National Wage Board, composed of three members each from government, business, and labor, sets minimum wage and salary levels for all sectors. The monthly minimum wage, which was last set in July for the private sector, ranges from $115 (18,176 colones) for domestic servants to $557 (88,023 colones) for certain professionals. Public sector negotiations, based on the private sector minimum wage, normally follow the settlement of private sector negotiations. The Ministry of Labor enforces minimum wages. It has been reasonably effective, more so in the San Jose metropolitan area than in rural areas. Workers at the low end of the wage scale often find it difficult to maintain an acceptable standard of living, whether they have a family to support or not, and must spend an inordinate proportion of their pay on basic human needs. The Constitution sets the workday hours, remuneration for overtime, days of rest, and annual vacation rights. It requires compensation for discharge without due cause, although this provision is often circumvented in practice. Maximum work hours are 8 during the day and 6 at night, up to weekly totals of 48 and 36 hours, respectively. Nonagricultural workers receive an overtime premium of 50 percent of regular wages for work in excess of the daily work shift. Agricultural workers are not paid overtime, however, if they work beyond their normal hours voluntarily. There is little evidence that employers coerce such overtime from employees. A 1967 law governs health and safety in the workplace. This law requires industrial, agricultural, and commercial firms with 10 or more workers to establish a management-labor committee and allows the Government to inspect workplaces and to fine employers for violations. Most firms required to set up such committees have followed the letter of the law, but often made little effort to utilize the committees or turn them into effective instruments for improving the workplace. Workers have the right to leave work if conditions are dangerous. In practice, however, workers who leave the workplace may find their jobs in jeopardy unless they file a written complaint with the Labor Ministry. Due in part to budgetary constraints, the Government has not fielded enough labor inspectors, especially outside the capital, to ensure that minimum conditions of safety and sanitation are always maintained.

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