Costa Rica has a long history of democratic stability, with a multiparty political system and regular rotations of power through credible elections. Freedoms of expression and association are robust. The rule of law is generally strong, though presidents have often been implicated in corruption scandals. Among other ongoing concerns, Indigenous people face discrimination, and land disputes involving Indigenous communities persist.
- Costa Rica successfully managed the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but cases rose continuously during the second half of the year; according to researchers at the University of Oxford, the country registered over 169,000 cases and nearly 2,200 deaths by year’s end.
- In May, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to permit same-sex marriage.
- Attacks against Indigenous activists related to land disputes were a cause for serious concern, with one leader killed and another wounded in February.
- Large-scale protests broke out in October in response to a proposed tax hike linked to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan agreement. Protesters responded violently to police sent to dismantle road blockades, resulting in arrests and injuries.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president is directly elected for a four-year term and can seek a nonconsecutive second term. Presidential candidates must win 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. In April 2018, Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the governing Citizen Action Party (PAC) was elected president in the second round of voting. Alvarado faced Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the evangelical National Restoration Party (PRN) in the runoff and won decisively, with over 60 percent of the vote.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Elections for the 57-seat unicameral Legislative Assembly occur every four years, and deputies are elected by proportional representation. Deputies may not run for two consecutive terms, but may run again after skipping a term. In the February 2018 legislative elections, which were held concurrently with the first round of the presidential poll, no party came close to winning a majority. The PAC took 10 seats, the PRN won 14, and the National Liberation Party (PLN), historically one of the most powerful parties in Costa Rican politics, won 17 seats.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
A special chamber of the Supreme Court appoints the independent national election commission, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is responsible for administering elections. The TSE carries out its functions impartially and the electoral framework is fair.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
People have the right to organize in different political parties without undue obstacles. The historical dominance of the PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) has waned in recent years, as newly formed parties have gained traction, leading to the collapse of the traditional two-party system. (Seven parties won seats in the 2018 legislative elections). The PRN, which was founded in 2005, emerged as a major force in politics in 2018, as evidenced by Alvarado Muñoz’s second-place finish in the presidential election and the party’s relatively strong showing in the legislative elections.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Power regularly alternates in Costa Rica and opposition parties compete fiercely in presidential and legislative elections. Parties along a wide spectrum of the political order freely competed in the 2018 elections, and the PRN made major gains, winning 14 seats in the legislature after capturing just 1 seat in the 2014 contest.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
Citizens’ political choices are free from domination by unelected elites and other undemocratic powers.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Members of religious, racial, ethnic, and other minority groups enjoy full political rights in Costa Rica, though some groups remain underrepresented in government. Indigenous rights have not historically been prioritized by politicians, and there are no Indigenous representatives in the legislature. Afro-Costa Ricans are also underrepresented in national-level government, though in 2018 Epsy Campbell Barr became the first Afro-Costa Rican woman to serve as vice president. In May 2020, Eduardo Cruickshank became the first Afro-Costa Rican to be elected president of the legislature. In 2018, the first openly gay legislative deputy was elected.
The government has introduced initiatives to increase women’s political participation, such as the institution of gender quotas in order to ensure gender parity in political parties. Women and women’s interests are represented in government—46 percent of seats in the Legislative Assembly are held by women following the 2018 elections.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Costa Rica’s freely elected government and lawmakers set and implement state policy without interference. However, legislative gridlock remains a systemic issue.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Costa Rica’s anticorruption laws are generally well enforced. However, despite its functioning anticorruption mechanisms, nearly every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office. In 2017, former president Luis Guillermo Solís was implicated in the Cementazo scandal, involving influence peddling related to Chinese cement exports to Costa Rica. A legislative commission found that close to 30 people, including prominent officials from all three branches of government, were involved in the scandal. Although he was cleared of wrongdoing by the Public Ethics Office of the Attorney General in April 2018, in July 2019 the attorney general announced that Solís was being investigated.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
Citizens generally have access to government information. However, there are some deficiencies in the reporting of budgets to the public, including a lack of transparency in communicating the objectives of the annual budget. Senior government officials are required to make financial disclosures, but that information is not available to the public.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of the press is largely respected in Costa Rica. Defamation laws are on the books, but imprisonment was removed as a punishment for defamation in 2010.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Roman Catholicism is the official religion, but the constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is constitutionally protected and generally upheld.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Private discussion is free and the government is not known to surveil the electronic communications of Costa Ricans.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected, and this right is largely upheld in practice. A diverse range of groups, including LGBT+ and environmental organizations, hold regular rallies and protests without government interference. In October 2020, widespread protests forced the government to withdraw a proposed tax increase and IMF loan agreement. Some of the protests turned violent; authorities reported that more than 100 police officers were injured, including when protesters responded with firebombs and other violence as officers tried to dismantle roadblocks.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including those engaged in human rights work, are active and do not encounter undue obstacles.
In March 2019, Indigenous land rights activist Sergio Rojas was murdered at his home. Prosecutors sought to close the case without resolution in September 2020, but a court ruled in December that the investigation must continue.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Although labor unions are free to organize and mount frequent protests and strikes with minimal governmental interference, the law requires a minimum of 12 employees to form a union, which may negatively impact union rights at small enterprises. Rates of union membership in the private sector are low, due in part to discrimination by employers against union members. Employers have been known to occasionally fire workers who attempt to form unions.
There were recurring strikes in 2019, including a strike by Social Security Service workers. In January 2020, President Alvarado signed into law a bill restricting strikes by public sector employees. Among its features are limits on permitted justifications for strikes, and salary suspensions for workers who participate in strikes deemed illegal.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judicial branch is generally independent and impartial. Supreme Court judges are elected by a supermajority of the legislature. Prosecutors and the judges are able to investigate public officials. In February 2020, the Attorney General’s Office opened a criminal investigation into President Alvarado and other high-ranking officials in connection with alleged misuse of Costa Ricans’ personal information by a data analysis office within the presidency. The investigation, along with a parallel inquiry by legislators, continued at year’s end.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Due process rights are enshrined in the constitution, and they are protected for the most part. However, there are often substantial delays in judicial processes, at times resulting in lengthy pretrial detention.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Violent crime in Costa Rica has increased in recent years. In 2020, the country documented 568 murders, a rate of approximately 11.1 murders per 100,000 people. Criminal groups transport drugs along the Pacific coast, and the government has reported that many homicides there are related to organized crime and drug trafficking. There are reports of occasional police abuses of detainees and civilians, including violence and degrading treatment; confirmed cases are generally investigated and prosecuted.
Overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient access to health care, and violence remain serious problems in Costa Rica’s prisons. Although Costa Rica did not have a reported case of COVID-19 in prisons until July 2020, by mid-December over 2,700 prisoners and staff had tested positive for the virus, and 13 prisoners had died. Recurrent abuse by prison police has not been thoroughly investigated due to victims’ reluctance to file formal complaints.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution outlines equal rights for all people, but these rights are upheld unevenly. Indigenous people, who compose 3 percent of the population, continue to face discrimination, particularly in regard to land rights and access to basic services. Land disputes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples have been a source of tension for years. A 1977 Indigenous Law formalized Indigenous groups’ exclusive rights to some territories, but the government has failed to implement the law or provide compensation to non-Indigenous settlers who continue to occupy the land. Conflict with settlers has resulted in Indigenous groups being targeted in recent years by harassing lawsuits and violence committed with impunity. Bribri leader Sergio Rojas was murdered in 2019, and in February 2020 Brörán leader Yehry Rivera was killed and Bribri leader Mainor Ortíz Delgado was shot and wounded in connection with land disputes. All three had previously been granted protectionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Costa Ricans of African descent have also faced discrimination in health care, education, and employment. In July 2020, the legislature passed a law punishing acts of racism and xenophobia that occur in sports venues.
Women experience discrimination due to entrenched gender stereotypes, which can limit their equal access to employment, health services, and the justice system. Executive orders prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the government has expressed commitment to the protection of LGBT+ people. However, law enforcement officials have discriminated against LGBT+ people, and there have been reports of attacks by police on transgender sex workers.
In 2016, a new law provided disabled people greater personal autonomy. Prior to the law’s passage, family members often had legal guardianship over disabled people.
In 2019, the government modified the General Law on HIV/AIDS to facilitate condom distribution and expand screenings, counseling, and privacy protections for HIV/AIDS patients.
The number of asylum seekers from Nicaragua has increased sharply since a political crisis erupted there in 2018. More than 80,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica, and approximately 50,000 have applied for asylum. Although the law entitles asylum seekers to access public services, discrimination sometimes prevents them from taking advantage of those benefits, and legal restrictions limit employment opportunities for asylum seekers. Anti-Nicaraguan discrimination rose in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as Nicaraguan migrants’ economic precarity increased.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of movement is constitutionally guaranteed and Costa Ricans enjoy relative freedom in their choice of residence and employment. During the October 2020 protests, nearly 60 roadblocks were erected throughout the country, preventing free movement for several weeks.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Property rights are generally protected. Individuals are free to establish businesses, and the business and investment climate is relatively open, although the complicated bureaucracy can deter entrepreneurs seeking to establish a business. In 2020, the Superintendency of Financial Institutions (SUGEF) was given oversight over real estate agencies to improve the transparency of real estate transactions. Costa Rica was also removed in 2020 from the Office of the United States Trade Representative’s watch list regarding the protection of intellectual property rights.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Despite the existence of domestic violence protections, violence against women and children remains a problem. In 2019 the president signed a bill increasing the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases from 10 to 25 years.
In 2018, the Supreme Court, following an IACHR advisory opinion, ruled that the prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and gave the legislature 18 months to pass legislation overturning the ban. In May 2020, the 18-month period concluded with no legislative consensus and Costa Rica became the first Central American country to permit same-sex marriage.
Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica except when a woman’s health is in danger due to a pregnancy. In December 2019, President Alvarado signed a technical decree intended to facilitate limited access to abortion by outlining the circumstances under which an abortion may be performed legally, though the conditions remain restrictive. For example, in addition to a woman’s health being deemed at risk, she must agree to mandatory evaluation by three medical professionals.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Despite legal protections, domestic workers, particularly migrant workers, are subject to exploitation and forced labor. Employers often ignore minimum wage and social security laws, and the resulting fines for violations are insignificant. Child labor is a problem in the informal economy.
Sex trafficking and child sex tourism are also serious problems. The US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report noted an increased number of investigations and convictions and an increase in anti-trafficking funds. However, the report noted ongoing failures to adequately disburse anti-trafficking funds and effectively coordinate referral mechanisms with civil society groups.
On Costa Rica
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Global Freedom Score91 100 free
Internet Freedom Score87 100 free