Costa Rica

PR Political Rights 38 40
CL Civil Liberties 53 60
Last Year's Score & Status
91 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments in 2022

  • In April, Rodrigo Chaves of the Social Democratic Progress Party (PPSD) was elected president with 53 percent of the vote, defeating former president José María Figueres of the National Liberation Party (PLN) in the runoff. All elections held during the year were considered free and fair.
  • General elections were held in February, and saw the PLN win 19 seats to become the largest party in the legislature, followed by the PPSD with 10 seats. No party won a majority.
  • The number of asylum seekers in Costa Rica has risen sharply in recent years; government officials confirmed there were over 200,000 pending asylum applications—as well as 50,000 people waiting to make a formal application—as of September. Approximately 96 percent of those seeking asylum in Costa Rica are from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2022, Rodrigo Chaves of the center-right Social Democratic Progress Party (PPSD) was elected president, winning 53 percent of the vote in the runoff to defeat former president José María Figueres of the National Liberation Party (PLN). The elections were free and fair, but both rounds featured a low voter turnout.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. No party won a majority in the February 2022 general elections, which saw the PLN become the largest party in the legislature after winning 19 seats, followed by the PPSD, which won 10. Four other parties entered the legislature with fewer than 10 seats each.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 new parties gain traction, leading to the collapse of the traditional two-party system. Both the Liberal Progressive Party, founded in 2016, and the New Republic Party, founded in 2018, won legislative representation for the first time following the February 2022 elections.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 little representation of Indigenous Costa Ricans, who comprise 2.4 percent of the population. Sonia Rojas Méndez, who was elected to the legislature in February 2022, is the country’s first deputy who identifies as an Indigenous woman. 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 approximately 47 percent of seats in the Legislative Assembly held by women.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

Several high-profile corruption investigations remained ongoing in 2022, including the investigation into the so-called Cochinilla case, a corruption scandal that reportedly involved state agencies accepting bribes from private construction companies in return for government contracts. Similarly, investigations into the Diamante case—an alleged bribery scheme related to public works contracts that led to the 2021 arrests of several politicians—continued during the year. Legal proceedings also advanced in a third high-profile scandal known as the Cementazo case, which was uncovered in 2017 and involved influence peddling related to Chinese cement exports to Costa Rica.

In September 2022, Costa Rica’s legislature opened an investigation into allegations that President Chaves’s electoral campaign had received illicit funding; Vice President Stephan Brunner was charged for his alleged role in the scheme in October. Chaves has called the allegations politically motivated.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

Now president Chaves repeatedly denounced the press in 2022. During his presidential campaign in February, Chaves promised to “destroy” Costa Rican newspaper La Nación and the private television station Canal 7; both outlets had reported on sexual harassment allegations made against him. The Chaves administration has also introduced restrictions on what information government employees can share with members of the media; in August, the director of Costa Rica’s journalists’ association asked the Constitutional Chamber to nullify newly issued instructions allegedly preventing civil servants from interacting with the press.

In July 2022, the Chaves administration suspended the operating permit for an events arena owned by Grupo La Nación, a business group that owns La Nación. The suspension was perceived by many as retribution for the newspaper’s critical reporting on the administration, and was widely criticized by press freedom groups. The Constitutional Chamber annulled the suspension in October.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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, and in August 2022, the Constitutional Chamber declared it unconstitutional.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 occasionally fire workers who attempt to form unions. In 2020, then president Carlos Alvarado Quesada 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.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3.003 4.004

Violent crime has increased in recent years. Authorities estimated a homicide rate of 12 per 100,000 people in 2022. Criminal groups transport drugs along the coasts, 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 prisons. Recurrent abuse by prison police has not been thoroughly investigated due to victims’ reluctance to file formal complaints.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 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. In August 2022, an Indigenous rights organization reported that Indigenous communities and individuals in Costa Rica had been subjected to at least 63 violent attacks in 2021, including incidents of harassment, arson, and physical assault. At least 26 attacks were reportedly perpetrated or permitted by police forces.

Costa Ricans of African descent have faced discrimination in health care, education, and employment. A law recognizing the historical discrimination against Afro–Costa Ricans stipulates that, for a period of 10 years, 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 recent years, femicide laws have been expanded and penalties for the crime increased.

Executive orders prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, law enforcement officials have discriminated against LGBT+ people, and there have been reports of attacks by police on transgender sex workers.

The number of people seeking asylum in Costa Rica has risen sharply in recent years. In September 2022, government officials confirmed there were over 200,000 pending asylum applications, and another 50,000 people waiting to make a formal application. Although the law entitles asylum seekers to access public services, discrimination sometimes prevents such access in practice. In November 2022, President Chaves signed two immigration-related decrees. The first decree, effective at the time of publication, reformed the country’s refugee regulations: among other things, refugees will no longer be immediately issued a work permit, and asylum seekers are prohibited from leaving the country while their applications are being processed. The second decree, which had not come into effect as of year-end 2022, provides a way for migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—who account for approximately 96 percent of asylum seekers in the country—to regularize their immigration status.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 transit restrictions were lifted in March 2022.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. The business climate is relatively open, and individuals are free to establish businesses, although complicated bureaucracy can deter entrepreneurs from doing so.

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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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, then president Alvarado signed a bill increasing the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases from 10 to 25 years, and in 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. In 2019, then president Alvarado signed a technical decree to facilitate limited access to abortion, though conditions remain restrictive.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 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 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report highlighted the government’s “significant efforts” to combat trafficking, including implementing a national antitrafficking action plan. However, the report also noted that antitrafficking efforts are underfunded, and the government failed to prosecute or convict any labor traffickers in 2021 and 2022.

On Costa Rica

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  • Global Freedom Score

    91 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    88 100 free