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President Abel Pacheco and his administration were beset by new corruption scandals in 2005, including allegations of illegal campaign contributions, conflicts of interest, and unpaid airplane flights. Meanwhile, corruption allegations against three former presidents continued to fester. The government took steps to deal with the burgeoning problem of underage sex tourism Costa Rica.
Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and became a republic in 1848. Many trace a deepening of democratic rights to the 40-day civil war fought in 1948, during which Jose "Pepe" Figueres led a fight to restore to power the rightful winner of the 1948 presidential elections; Figueres also successfully pushed to disband Costa Rica's military. He later served as president for two separate terms under the banner of the National Liberation Party (PLN). Since 1948, power has passed back and forth multiple times between the PLN and Costa Rica's other main party, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). The PUSC's Abel Pacheco was the winning candidate in the 2002 elections; he was preceded by Miguel Angel Rodriguez, also of the PUSC. The PLN last held the presidency from 1994 to 1998 under Jose Maria Figueres, the son of Costa Rica's civil war hero.
In 2004, Jose Maria Figueres was one of three former presidents accused of corruption. Figueres was accused of accepting a kickback valued at $906,000 from the French telecom firm Alcatel, which had signed a $149 million contract with the Costa Rican government while Figueres was in office. Figueres claimed the payment was for legitimate consulting services after he had left office, but he refused to return from Switzerland to answer questions from a special committee established by the Legislative Assembly to look into corruption.
Other former presidents were jailed and then eventually put on house arrest while facing accusations of high-level corruption. Rodriguez was accused of taking illegal financing from Taiwan's government during his election campaign, and of accepting a bribe of $1.4 million from Alcatel. Likewise, former president Rafael Angel Calderon (1990-1994), also of the PUSC, was accused of taking an $800,000 kickback from the Finnish firm Instrumentarium, which had sold the Costa Rican social security system a variety of medical equipment. However, Costa Rican chief prosecutor Francisco Dall'Anese failed to bring these former presidents to trial, and both were freed from house arrest by the end of 2005. Costa Rican prosecutors may yet go to trial with the corruption charges, which could keep these scandals resonating throughout the political system for some time.
In 2005, Pacheco faced charges that he accepted illegal contributions-$100,000 from Alcatel and $500,000 from a Taiwanese businessman-during his 2002 presidential campaign. A special committee of the Legislative Assembly initially backed away from investigating the charges, despite the fact that campaign contributions from foreign sources are illegal in Costa Rica. Significantly, however, the law does not spell out the penalty for such contributions. (The law caps campaign contributions from Costa Rican citizens at $28,000 per person.) A legislative committee did officially censure the president for his failure to oversee his election treasury in a firmer manner. During 2005, the Legislative Assembly also discussed new campaign finance laws, which would provide prison sentences for both foreigners and members of Costa Rican campaign staffs involved in the illegal donation of funds. The Organization of American States issued a formal report in the spring of 2005 criticizing the campaign finance laws in Costa Rica. The report said that campaign donations in Costa Rica were easily manipulated by powerful interests seeking political favors and that drug traffickers often used donations to their advantage.
The campaign finance scandal was not the only brush with corruption for the Pacheco administration. During 2005, the president's ties to Spanish businessman Bernardo Martin Moreno came under scrutiny. Pacheco traveled to Spain to name Martin an honorary consul for Costa Rica in Spain. In addition to being the publisher of one of Pacheco's books of poetry, Martin is a partner in a firm that owns a Costa Rican resort; that firm gained permission from the Pacheco government to fully develop its holdings. In May, Pacheco was also forced to admit he had accepted free flights from Taca Regional Airlines for personal travel. Pacheco's political opponents asked him to renounce his presidential immunity so prosecutors could further pursue these allegations, but Pacheco declined. In a separate incident, Costa Rican prosecutors began investigating how $1.6 million was siphoned from the government-run National Insurance Institute for personal travel by members of the government.
In addition to the corruption scandals, economic conditions caused Pacheco's government to be increasingly unpopular. Rising fuel and food prices, an inflation rate of 13 percent, and the highest poverty rate in a decade-about 22 percent of the population now live in poverty-combined to undercut Pacheco's appeal.
Poor economic conditions have caused Costa Ricans to reconsider their immigration policies. At least 500,000 Nicaraguan immigrants live in the country without proper documentation and in violation of Costa Rican immigration laws, a situation that has proven controversial in a country with a population of just over four million. The Legislative Assembly has debated new immigration policies that might require the expulsion of as many as 170,000 illegal Nicaraguan immigrants. However, the Pacheco government did extend deadlines for Nicaraguan and other illegal immigrants seeking amnesty and proper documentation to work legally in the country.
Violence linked to drug gangs and narcotics traffickers continues to be of concern in Costa Rica. However, the country is not as dangerous as many of its neighbors.
Citizens of Costa Rica can change their government democratically. The president and the 57-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly are elected for four-year terms and were banned from seeking a second term until the Supreme Court overturned this law in 2003.
Five parties hold seats in the Legislative Assembly: the PUSC holds 19 seats, the PLN holds 17, the Citizens Action Party holds 14, the Libertarian Movement Party holds 6, and the Costa Rican Renovation Party holds 1.
Corruption is a major problem in Costa Rica: all four of the country's most recent presidents are under investigation for corrupt practices while in office. Costa Rica was ranked 51 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The oldest democracy in Latin America, Costa Rica also has a press freedom law that is the oldest in Central America, dating from 1835. The press, radio, and television are generally free. Ninety percent of the population is literate, and there are six privately owned dailies. Television and radio stations are both public and commercial, with at least four private television stations and more than 100 private radio stations. The government is reviewing its libel and defamation laws after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, struck down a defamation conviction against Costa Rica's leading daily, La Nacion. The media have freely reported on the various corruption scandals that have buffeted the Costa Rican political scene. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is recognized, and there is complete academic freedom.
The constitution provides for the right to organize civic organizations. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active in all parts of society and throughout the country. Labor can organize freely. Frequent labor actions, ranging from local to nationwide protests, take place with a minimum of governmental restraint. Nevertheless, minimum wage and social security laws are often ignored, and the consequent fines are insignificant.
The judicial branch is independent, with members elected by the legislature. The legal system includes 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. Long delays in the justice system are partly the result of budget cuts. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded, but generally meet international standards.
Several entities, including the Border Guard, the Rural Guard, and the Civil Guard, were merged into a single "public force." The 1949 constitution bans the formation of a national army.
Indigenous rights are not a priority, but in general, conditions for native peoples are better than those in neighboring countries.
Violence against women and children is a problem, although the government has shown support for programs aimed at stopping the problem. The government is making efforts to combat human trafficking; Costa Rica is a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. A law criminalizing sex with minors was passed in 1999 in an attempt to crack down on the country's growing sex-tourism industry. However, NGOs such as EPCAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) have criticized Costa Rica during 2005 as one of the top world destinations for those seeking underage sex partners. Significantly, the Costa Rican government combined with the FBI in the United States to set up a sting operation at a travel agency. The result in 2005 was the conviction of 11 U.S. citizens who had sought underage sex partners in Costa Rica.