Costa Rica | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Costa Rica's two traditional parties, the social democratic National Liberation (PLN) and the conservative Social Christian (PUSC), were joined in 2001 by a new party, the Citizen's Action Party (PAC), campaigning for the February 3, 2002, presidential contest. Popular dissatisfaction with the two groups that together have dominated Costa Rican political life since the 1950s was evidenced by polls at the end of 2001 that showed the PAC candidate had pulled almost even in the bitterly contested race with the PLN candidate. Continuing tensions with Nicaragua over a decision made earlier in the year by the Costa Rican government to put up a wall in a contested frontier region led Nicaraguan authorities to declare at year's end that they would investigate alleged Costa Rican contamination of a river flowing between the two countries.

The Republic of Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and became a republic in 1848. Democratic government was instituted in 1899 and briefly interrupted in 1917 and again in 1948, when the country was torn by a brief but brutal civil war. The 1949 constitution, which bans the formation of a national army, has proved to be the most durable in Latin America.

The PLN was the dominant party for nearly three decades. In the 1994 elections, Jose Maria Figueres narrowly defeated Miguel Angel Rodriguez, a conservative congressman and respected economist, of the PUSC. Figueres, son of the legendary former president Jose "Pepe" Figueres, had campaigned against the neoliberal economic policies of the outgoing president, Rafael A. Calderon, Jr., of the PUSC. Rodriguez had proposed to deepen structural reforms.

The country's economic woes result in part from a vast reduction in levels of foreign aid and international lending from governments that had been eager to keep Communists at bay. Despite his earlier campaign pledges, Figueres's last two years in office were characterized by some of the free market policies championed by his opponent in the presidential elections.

In the February 1, 1998, presidential contest, Rodriguez returned as the PUSC's standard-bearer and bested, with 47 percent of the vote, the anticorruption maverick crusader Jose Miguel Corrales of the PLN, a former congressman and soccer star. The PUSC, however, failed to win a working majority in the unicameral national assembly and was forced to make an alliance with smaller parties to sustain its legislative program.

Despite a booming economy, Rodriguez appeared to have had problems winning public approval for his government. Public safety remained a primary concern of the residents of the capital, San Jose. A much-touted 1999 reform of the Costa Rican legislature ended up creating more controversy than real change.

Support for the potential candidacy of 58-year-old Oscar Arias Sanchez signaled the degree to which Costa Ricans, who have a tradition of participation in electoral politics, were growing dissatisfied with the two traditional parties. In September 2000, Costa Rica's constitutional court had rejected Nobel laureate and former President Arias's attempt to run for the office again in the February 2002 by refusing to declare unconstitutional the country's prohibition on additional presidential terms. The move put to an end his attempt to reassume the office he held when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Previously, Arias had won 88 percent of the vote in a nonbonding, privately organized and financed poll in which Costa Ricans were asked if they would support ending a ban on second terms for presidents. The court decision left Arias supporters scrambling to find a figure who could push forward free market reforms they say are necessary for Costa Rica to compete in a globalized economy.

In June 2001, the Costa Rican government began construction of a seven-foot high fence along the Penas Blancas border crossing with Nicaragua on the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific Coast. Officials in San Jose claimed the wall was not meant to keep Nicaraguans out of their country, but rather to control heavy goods traffic in a region that has become a favored route for drug smuggling, an explanation deemed unsatisfactory in Managua. Meanwhile, the PUSC chose parliamentary deputy and psychiatrist Abel Pacheco as its presidential standard-bearer, while the PLN selected chemical engineer and television commentator Rolando Araya Monge as its candidate. However, by year's end it was the surprise performance of PAC nominee Otton Solis, who pulled even with Araya in public opinion polls, that created the most comment.

The winner of the February 2002 election will face continuing tensions with Nicaragua, the home country of several hundred thousand guest workers in Costa Rica, many of whom work without papers on farms where they are paid subsistence wages. A crisis in the agricultural sector was one of the main issues in the presidential contest, in a country where coffee--one of Costa Rica's biggest foreign exchange earners--has lost more than half its value in recent years on the international market.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Costa Ricans can change their government democratically. The 1998 victory of presidential candidate Miguel Angel Rodriguez reflected the fact that the PLN and PUSC dominate the political landscape, although numerous other parties exist. Allegations about drug-tainted campaign contributions continue to dog both major parties. New campaign laws have been instituted to make party financing more transparent.

The 1949 constitution provided for three independent branches of government and abolished the military. The president and the 57-member legislative assembly are elected for four years and are prohibited from seeking a second term. The assembly has power equal to that of the president, including the ability to override presidential vetoes.

The judicial branch is independent, its members elected by the legislature. A supreme court with power to rule on the constitutionality of laws is in operation, as are four courts of appeals and a network of district courts. An independent national election commission is chosen by the supreme court. Delays in the justice system, particularly the slow pace in processing criminal cases, in part due to budget cuts, have created volatile situations in overcrowded, violence-prone prisons. There are some 5,300 prisoners in Costa Rica jammed into facilities designed to hold less than half that number. Illegal narcotics are widely available in the prisons, and drug abuse there is common.

The police have a tradition of being highly politicized, with a large number owing their appointments to political sponsors. However, the Rodriguez administration moved forward with implementation of a 1994 police code designed to depoliticize and professionalize the force in order to create a permanent career path within the institution. Local law enforcement agencies have limited capabilities, especially in remote rural areas. Numerous charges of human rights violations by the heavily armed police are still made, and independent rights monitors report increases in allegations of arbitrary arrest and brutality. Corruption is not considered to be a serious problem in the public security forces, and when it is discovered, it is usually dealt with in a decisive manner. In 2001, the minister of public security fired 21 personnel from the maritime service for corruption and incompetence in the wake of the passage of the Coast Guard Professionalization Law.

A rise in violent crime and clashes in rural areas between squatters and landowners are blamed on a large immigrant population. An estimated 420,000 Nicaraguans--15 percent of Costa Rica's total population--live in the country, more than half illegally. In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Costa Rica declared a temporary amnesty for these and other illegal Central American immigrants, and some 160,000 Nicaraguans took advantage of the opportunity to legalize their status.

Illegal narcotics trafficking has spurred growing urban gang violence: various groups compete for control of distribution areas, as domestic consumption has risen dramatically in recent years. However, Costa Rica, which is also a haven for drug money laundering, is also a regional leader in the enactment of progressive antidrug statutes, including the use of wiretaps, controlled deliveries, and undercover agents. Information obtained during investigations by its judicial authorities suggest that the wiretap law has disrupted criminal organizations. Evidence gathered under the wiretap law has also facilitated narcotics prosecutions in foreign countries. Under a 1998 law, financial institutions have to report any transactions involving more than $10,000. In 1999, the legislative assembly passed legislation allowing for U.S. antidrug patrols to operate in Costa Rican waters.

An official ombudsman provides recourse for citizens or foreigners with human rights complaints. The ombudsman has the authority to issue recommendations for rectification, including sanctions against government bodies, for failure to respect rights.

The press, radio, and television are generally free. Six major privately owned dailies serve a society that is 90 percent literate. Television and radio stations are both public and commercial, with at least six private television stations providing an influential forum for public debate. However, restrictive libel laws continue to dampen full exercise of press freedoms. In the summer of 2001, the assassination of a prominent national journalist sparked several protests around the country.

Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of religion and the right to organize political parties and civic organizations are respected. In recent years, however, a reluctance to address restrictions on labor rights has been noticeable.

Solidarity, an employer-employee organization that private business uses as an instrument to prevent independent unions from organizing, remains strong and has generally been tolerated by successive governments. Solidarity remains entrenched in Costa Rica's free-trade zones, where labor abuses by multinational corporations are rife. Minimum wage and social security laws are often ignored, and fines for noncompliance are minuscule. In 1999, the Costa Rican affiliate of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions brought a complaint before the International Labor Organization concerning an attack and death threats against a banana workers' leader. Women workers are often sexually harassed, made to work overtime without pay, and fired when they become pregnant.

Costa Rica's Indian population have demanded the right to self-government and ownership of their traditional lands. Most live in traditional communities on 22 reserves that, as they are found in remote areas, often lack schools, health care, electricity and potable water. In 1999, the official National Indigenous Commission completed distribution of identification cards to facilitate native peoples' access to public health facilities.

In 1999, the legislative assembly passed a law criminalizing sex with minors, in an attempt to crack down on the country's growing sex tourism industry. Violence against women and children is a problem, although the government has shown concrete support for programs and policies to combat it. Costa Rica is a transit and destination country for trafficked persons, particularly for persons from Asia being sent to the United States. Girls from the Philippines are also reportedly trafficked to the country for the purpose of sexual exploitation. There have also been a few cases of trafficking involving persons from Africa, Bolivia, China, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Middle East. Despite resources constraints, the government is making significant efforts to combat trafficking. Costa Rica's criminal code prohibits trafficking in women and minors for the purpose of prostitution, but it does not address all severe forms of trafficking. There are government-sponsored prevention programs to combat sexual exploitation of minors and trafficking, and while there are limited formal mechanisms specifically designed to aid trafficked victims, the government does offer indirect assistance to child victims of trafficking. Victims do not receive temporary or permanent residence status, and usually are deported immediately to their country of origin.