Costa Rica | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The 2002 elections were unusual in leading to a four-way draw. After increasing voter dissatisfaction with the two traditional parties--the Social Christian Party (PUSC) and the National Liberation Party (PLN)--two smaller upstarts, the Citizens Action Party (PAC) and the Libertarian Movement (ML), received significant support. Only 69 percent of the population cast votes. Abel Pacheco of the PUSC won the runoff election. By 1998, economic diversification had succeeded in earning the country more from high technology than from the traditional reliance on coffee, bananas, and tourism. The global economic downturn that began in 2001 severely affected Costa Rica, as it included the burst of the technology bubble and a drop in tourism revenue following the terrorist attacks in the United States.

Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and became a republic in 1848. The 1949 constitution bans the formation of a national army. In the 1994 elections Jose Maria Figueres, son of the legendary President Jose "Pepe" Figueres, defeated Miguel Angel Rodriguez of the PUSC. The outgoing president, Rafael A. Calderon, Jr., of the PUSC had promoted neoliberal economic policies, and Figueres campaigned against them. Despite his campaign pledges, Figueres's last two years in office saw the passing of free-market policies championed by his opponent in the presidential elections. In the 1998 elections Rodriguez bested Jose Miguel Corrales of the PLN.

Simmering tensions with the country's northern neighbor, Nicaragua, were exacerbated in 2001 when the Costa Rican government began to build a seven-foot-high fence along the Penas Blancas border crossing on the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific Coast. Claims that the wall was to control heavy-goods traffic in a region that has become a favored route for drug smuggling were dismissed in Nicaragua. For many years there has been a consistent flow of Nicaraguans searching for employment in Costa Rica. There are more than 400,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, many of whom work without papers on farms where they are paid subsistence wages. In 1998, Costa Rica declared a temporary amnesty for these and other illegal Central American immigrants, and some 160,000 Nicaraguans legalized their status.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Democratic government changes take place with free and fair elections. There are guarantees for the freedom of religion and the right to organize political parties and civic organizations. In response to allegations of drug money financing the elections, new campaign laws have been passed to make party funding more transparent. The president and the 57-member Legislative Assembly are elected for a 4-year term and are banned from seeking a second term.

The judicial branch is independent, with members elected by the legislature. There is a supreme court, courts of appeals, and district courts. The Supreme Court can rule on the constitutionality of laws and chooses an independent national election commission. There are long delays in the justice system partly as a result of budget cuts. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded. A 1994 police code was designed to depoliticize and professionalize the police in order to create a permanent career path within the institution. Independent rights monitors report increases in allegations of arbitrary arrest and brutality. Human rights complaints are investigated by an ombudsman who has the authority to issue recommendations for rectification, including sanctions against government bodies, for failure to respect rights. Corruption is not considered to be a serious problem in the public security forces and, when discovered, is usually dealt with in a decisive manner.

Illegal narcotics trafficking and money laundering have increased in Costa Rica. The country is a regional leader in the enactment of progressive antidrug statutes, including the use of wiretaps, controlled deliveries, and undercover agents. 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.

The press, radio, and television are generally free. The population is 90 percent literate and there are 6 major privately owned dailies. Television and radio stations are both public and commercial, with at least six private television stations. Libel laws continue to inhibit the press. The assassination of a prominent journalist in the summer of 2001 sparked protests around the country. Freedom of religion is recognized.

Labor can organize freely, but there has been a noticeable reluctance to expand labor rights. Minimum wage and social security laws are often ignored, and fines are insignificant. Often, women workers are sexually harassed, made to work overtime without pay, and fired when they become pregnant. A law criminalizing sex with minors was passed in 1999 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. Indigenous rights are not a priority. The government is making significant efforts to combat human trafficking; Costa Rica is a transit and destination country for trafficked persons.