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.
- In June, more than two dozen officials were detained when police raided the presidential office in connection with an investigation into alleged corruption in public procurement processes; a second high-profile corruption investigation, also involving public works contracts, led to the arrests of several more politicians in November. Both investigations were ongoing at year’s end.
- Numerous protests against a controversial public employment bill, intended to curtail excessive government spending on salaries paid to public sector employees, were held during the year. Other protests, including demonstrations against proposed pension reforms and a loan agreement between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), also took place.
- The number of Nicaraguan asylum seekers in Costa Rica rose sharply during the year, beginning after the Nicaraguan government launched a crackdown against its opponents in May. According to Costa Rican authorities, 53,000 Nicaraguans sought asylum in the country by year’s end—more than in the previous three years combined.
|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. 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. Deputies, elected by proportional representation, may not run for two consecutive terms, but may run again after skipping a term. In the February 2018 legislative elections, no party won 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. The PRN, which was founded in 2005, emerged as a major force 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.
As of September 2021, a total of 28 parties had registered to participate in the 2022 general 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.
|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. Some groups remain underrepresented in government. Indigenous rights have not historically been prioritized, and there is no representation of Indigenous Costa Ricans, who comprise 2.4 percent of the population, in the legislature. Afro–Costa Ricans, who make up almost 8 percent of the population, are also underrepresented in government.
Women and women’s interests are represented in government, with 47 percent of seats in the Legislative Assembly held by women. In May 2021, Silvia Hernández of the PLN was elected president of the legislature—the fourth woman ever to hold the post.
|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 the existence of 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. Although he was cleared of wrongdoing by the Public Ethics Office of the Attorney General in 2018, the attorney general’s office ordered the reopening of investigations into Solís’s role in the scandal in 2020. In August 2021, interim attorney general Warner Molina Ruiz reduced the number of prosecutors investigating the Cementazo case.
Numerous politicians and government officials were implicated in high-profile corruption investigations during 2021. In June, police raided the presidential office and detained more than two dozen officials in connection with the so-called Cochinilla case, a corruption scandal that reportedly involved state agencies accepting bribes from private construction companies in return for government contracts. The investigation into the scandal, which allegedly caused a deficit of over $125 million in the country’s road works budget between 2018 and 2020, was ongoing at year’s end. Another high-level corruption investigation, known as the Diamante case, involving an alleged bribery scheme related to public works contracts, led to the November arrests of several politicians, including the mayor of San José.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
Citizens generally have access to government information. 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. The government has also faced criticism from information rights activists for failing to make data on the beneficiaries of the country’s COVID-19-related financial relief programs publicly available.
|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. In November 2021, controversy arose when the National Association of Educators alleged that the Ministry of Public Education had gathered sensitive information on students’ personal and socioeconomic backgrounds via survey questions included on the 2021 national FARO exams.
|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. However, widespread concern over possible government surveillance arose following the February 2020 publication of an executive decree creating a Presidential Data Analysis Unit (UPAD) with the power to access “confidential information held by public institutions when required.” The decree was quickly repealed, but investigations into whether UPAD illegitimately accessed sensitive information remained ongoing through 2021.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected. This right is largely upheld in practice. A diverse range of groups hold regular rallies and protests without government interference.
A number of protests against a controversial public employment bill, intended to curtail excessive government spending on salaries paid to public sector employees, occurred in 2021, alongside demonstrations against a related loan agreement between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, these protests were of a much smaller scale than the 2020 demonstrations against a proposed tax increase and IMF loan agreement, some of which turned violent.
|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.
|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 impact union rights at small enterprises. Rates of union membership in the private sector are low, due in part to discrimination by employers against members. Employers have been known to occasionally fire workers who attempt to form unions.
In 2020, President Alvarado enacted a law restricting strikes by public sector employees, which includes limits on permitted justifications for strikes and salary suspensions for workers who participate in strikes deemed illegal. Unions organized several demonstrations in 2021, and were prominently involved in protests against both the proposed public employment law and proposed pension reforms that would, among other things, increase the retirement age for Costa Ricans.
|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 judges are able to investigate public officials. In June 2021, then attorney general Emilia Navas Aparicio stepped down, reportedly to avoid “perceived conflicts of interest” regarding her ties to the Cochinilla corruption case, in which her husband represents a number of the defendants.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Due process rights are enshrined in the constitution and are generally protected. However, there are often substantial delays in judicial processes, sometimes 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 2021, Costa Rica registered 588 homicides, a rate of approximately 11.5 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; 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. 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 rights are upheld unevenly. Indigenous people, who compose 2.4 percent of the population, continue to face discrimination, particularly regarding land rights and access to basic services. In recent years, conflict over land disputes has led to Indigenous groups being targeted by lawsuits and violence. Bribri leader Sergio Rojas was murdered in 2019, and in 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). Though the attorney general’s office dismissed the Rojas case in 2020, in January 2021, the Criminal Court of Buenos Aires ruled that the investigation into Rojas’s assassination case must continue.
Costa Ricans of African descent have faced discrimination in health care, education, and employment. In August 2021, a law recognizing the historical discrimination against those of African descent came into force. The law stipulates that for a period of ten years, all public institutions must allocate at least 7 percent of vacant positions annually to people of African descent. The law also mandates the inclusion of the legacy of Afro–Costa Ricans in the country’s history in public education curriculums.
Women experience discrimination due to entrenched stereotypes, which can limit their equal access to employment, health services, and the justice system. In August 2021, President Alvarado enacted a law expanding the definition of femicide and introducing penalties of up to 35 years in prison for the crime. 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 January 2021, the legislature approved a new law intended to protect the rights of people with autism.
In 2019, the government modified legislation on HIV/AIDS to facilitate condom distribution and expand screenings, counseling, and privacy protections for HIV/AIDS patients. A pilot program providing preventative HIV treatment to people deemed at high risk for contracting the virus was launched in July 2021.
The number of asylum seekers from Nicaragua, which initially increased following a political crisis that erupted there in 2018, rose significantly after the Nicaraguan government began a crackdown against its opponents in May 2021. Between 2018 and 2020, over 80,000 Nicaraguans fled to Costa Rica, and approximately 50,000 applied for asylum; according to Costa Rican authorities, 53,000 Nicaraguans sought asylum in Costa Rica in 2021 alone. Although the law entitles asylum seekers to access public services, discrimination sometimes prevents it in practice. Legal restrictions limit employment opportunities for asylum seekers. Anti-Nicaraguan discrimination rose in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
|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. Costa Ricans enjoy relative freedom in their choice of residence and employment. COVID-19-related restrictions on transit at night and on weekends reduced freedom of movement in 2020 and 2021.
|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 complicated bureaucracy can deter entrepreneurs seeking to establish a business.
Land disputes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples have been a source of conflict for years, and Indigenous groups sometimes face harassing lawsuits and violence. 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.
|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, and in August 2021 he signed a bill expanding the definition of femicide and increasing the penalties for those convicted of the crime.
In 2020, 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 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 conditions remain restrictive.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Despite legal protections, domestic 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 serious problems. The US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report highlighted the government’s adoption of new investigative techniques in trafficking cases; however, the report also noted a decrease in funding for antitrafficking efforts and the closure of a dedicated shelter for trafficking victims.
On Costa Rica
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Global Freedom Score91 100 free
Internet Freedom Score87 100 free