Freedom in the World
President Laura Chinchilla’s first year in office was marked by declining approval ratings and persistent concerns about rising crime. Control of the Legislative Assembly fell to an opposition coalition for the first time in decades, an indication of her waning support. Meanwhile, Chinchilla revealed a 10-year crime plan in February 2011 to combat growing crime and drug trafficking.
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 brief 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.
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, and defeating Ottón Solís of the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) and Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement Party (PML). 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 the Accessibility without Exclusion Party (PASE) captured 4 seats, while the remaining 3 seats went to other smaller parties.
In April 2011, a broad coalition of opposition parties forged an alliance to depose the ruling PLN from the directorate of the legislature. A brief crisis ensued when the PLN legislators voted to re-elect Luis Gerardo Villanueva as Assembly president without a quorum, as required by the body’s procedural rules. Following opposition protests, Villanueva resigned hours later and the PAC’s Juan Carlos Mendoza was elected president of the Assembly. For the first time in 46 years, the president of the Assembly and the ruling party are from different parties.
Chinchilla began her presidency in May 2010 with a strong mandate and clear policy priorities to strengthen environmental protections, security, and family welfare. While she initially enjoyed strong public approval, by July 2011, public opinion polls demonstrated that only about one-quarter of those surveyed had confidence in her administration. Five cabinet ministers resigned during her first fifteen months in office.
In February 2011, Chinchilla revealed a 10-year crime plan, which aims to promote inter-agency coordination to combat growing public insecurity, crime, and narcotics trafficking. However, the plan lacks concrete policy proposals. Chinchilla’s proposal for a 15 percent gambling tax to fund security initiatives faltered in March 2011 after intense lobbying efforts against the bill.
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, though the economy posted a modest recovery in 2010 and 2011. Chinchilla signed free trade agreements with China, which went into effect in 2011, and Singapore in April 2010 in an effort to increase foreign investment and reverse the trend of growing poverty.
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 revised regulations on political party and campaign financing, and new quotas for women’s participation in political parties. Women were elected to 39 percent of the Legislative Assembly seats in the 2010 elections.
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. Although the initial investigation by the government was quickly dropped due to pressure from Arias’ allies, the investigation was re-opened in 2011; he was ultimately absolved by the Supreme Court. In April 2011, former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez was sentenced to five years in prison following his conviction on corruption charges. In 2009, former president Rafael Ángel Calderón was convicted on embezzlement charges. Though his conviction was upheld in May 2011, his five-year sentence was reduced. Costa Rica was ranked 50 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Costa Rican media are generally free from state interference. A February 2010 Supreme Court ruling removed prison terms for defamation. 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. There have been reports of abuse of government advertising and direct pressure from senior officials to influence media content. Internet access is unrestricted.
The government recognizes freedom of religion. President Arias backed a 2009 bill that sought to declare Costa Rica a “secular state,” rather than a Roman Catholic state; however, the bill, which is not supported by current president Laura Chinchilla, had not been adopted by the end of 2011. Academic freedom is respected.
The constitution provides for freedoms 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. An attempted prison break at a maximum-security facility in May 2011 led to an investigation of prison conditions, which revealed corruption, overcrowding, guard shortages and guard-initiated abuse.
Growing public insecurity, crime, and narcotics trafficking have been closely tied to the country’s Pacific Coast serving as a major drug transshipment route. Organized criminal networks are also suspected of having infiltrated police and political institutions. The United States Department of State added Costa Rica to its list of major drug transit and drug trafficking countries in 2010. The country’s homicide rate rose dramatically in 2011 to an estimated 11.3 murders per every 100,000 people. During her first year in office, Chinchilla created a national anti-drug commission, hired 1,000 new police officers, earmarked additional funds for the country’s judicial investigation agency, and made plans to expand prison capacity. As Costa Rica has no standing army, Chinchilla also agreed in July 2010 to station more than 13,000 U.S. military personnel on Costa Rican territory to lead regional anti-drug efforts.
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 fines for employers who hire undocumented immigrants and stricter controls over marriages between Costa Ricans and foreigners.
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. Female domestic workers are subject to exploitation; they lack legal protections, receive the lowest minimum wage, and are excluded from social security programs. Despite the existence of domestic violence legislation, violence against women and children is a major problem. Costa Rica has failed to enforce anti-trafficking legislation and remains a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. The country was downgraded from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in the 2011 US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
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 2010 that holding a referendum on this issue was unconstitutional. In October 2011, the Supreme Court ruled against sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination by overturning a penitentiary regulation that had prohibited conjugal visits for same-sex prisoners.