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The debate over Costa Rica’s free trade agreement with the United States and other countries in the region, known as DR-CAFTA, dominated the 2006 presidential election and continued to cause social unrest. Former president Oscar Arias reclaimed his old post in the election, and his new administration faced the divisions over DR-CAFTA as well as worsening living conditions for the poorest segments of the population. Meanwhile, the legislature in August passed a bill granting law enforcement agencies greater powers to curb illegal immigration, reflecting growing concern about the large numbers of undocumented Nicaraguan workers in the country.
Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 but belonged to larger political formations in the region until it gained full sovereignty in 1838. In 1948, Jose “Pepe” Figueres launched a 40-day civil war to restore power to the rightful winner of that year’s presidential election, which the incumbent had sought to invalidate. Figueres also successfully pushed to disband Costa Rica’s military, and in 1949 the country adopted a new constitution that ultimately strengthened democratic rule. Figueres 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 major party, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). The PUSC’s Abel Pacheco was the winning candidate in the 2002 elections; Miguel Angel Rodriguez, also of the PUSC, had preceded him. However, in February 2006 the PLN regained the presidency for the first time since 1998 as Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president Oscar Arias was reelected, while the PUSC lost all its presence and tradition after former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez was prosecuted and sentenced on corruption charges. In the closest presidential election in Costa Rican history, Arias defeated Citizens’ Action Party candidate Otton Solis by a mere 1.12 percentage points . The Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s final count gave Arias 40.92 percent of the vote, with Solis trailing behind with 39.80 percent in an election that was generally considered free and fair. Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement Party received 8 percent of the vote, and Ricardo Toledo of the Social Christian Unity Party received 3 percent.
As a result of the 2006 elections, the 57-member Legislative Assembly became more politically divided than at any other time in the nation’s history. The PLN won 25 seats, the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC) won 17, the PUSC won 5, and other small parties won the remaining 4 seats.
The Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States continues to be a dominant political issue in Costa Rica in 2006 and 2007, prompting anti-free trade demonstrations and strikes by opponents. The country is the only signatory to DR-CAFTA that has yet to ratify it, and opposition to the free trade agreement played a major role in the year’s elections. Arias, who had pledged to move forward with the treaty, was able to defeat DR-CAFTA opponent Otton Solis with a lead of 18,167 votes. Critics of the trade agreement claimed that it was not in the best interests of the nation and could hurt vulnerable portions of the population, such as farmers and indigenous groups. In January 2006, the Commission of International Affairs, a committee of the Legislative Assembly, had voted nearly unanimously to deny indigenous communities the right to be consulted as part of the trade negotiations.
Another issue that played a large role in the elections was the proposed introduction of tax reforms that would target wealthy Costa Ricans to help pay for infrastructure projects, rising costs of living accompanied by falling wages, government corruption, and deteriorating public security.
Arias’s approval rating fell after he took office, according to polls conducted in August by CID-Gallup for the daily newspaper La Republica . Although 44 percent of those polled thought that Arias’s work during his first 100 days in office had been positive, 16 percent thought that it was poor or very poor. Some critics complained that Arias devoted more time to international diplomacy than he did to domestic issues, and said he had failed to engage in a meaningful dialogue with DR-CAFTA’s many opponents.
One of the most controversial aspects of the DR-CAFTA debate to emerge in 2006 was the treaty’s connection to the fabrication of weapons on Costa Rican territory. In August 2006, Arias signed a decree from the Ministry of Health that included norms and regulations for commercial and industrial activities, including the production of weapons and enrichment of radioactive materials. Opponents of DR-CAFTA claimed that Arias was paving the way for the production of weapons on Costa Rican territory connected to U.S. weapons manufacturer Raytheon, which is poised to begin operations in Costa Rica following the ratification of the trade agreement. The revelation in October that representatives of the Raytheon Company in Costa Rica had made donations to Arias’s presidential campaign, raised questions about his motives in promoting the free trade agreement. In October 2006, Arias signed into law a ban on arms manufacturing, including in duty-free industrial zones. The law also limited the number of weapons a person could own and prohibited the sale of guns to minors.
While quality of life in Costa Rica is relatively high for the region, Arias also faced the challenge of combating poverty among the country’s most vulnerable residents. While gross per capita income has improved over the last five years, incomes have declined within the bottom fifth of the population. Income and education levels are also lower for the large numbers of Nicaraguan migrants living in Costa Rica. Efforts to promote economic growth have been hampered by the country’s high debt and high inflation. Since 2001, Costa Rica’s rank in the UN Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index has consistently worsened, and it placed 48 out of 177 countries surveyed in the 2006 index. According to UNDP, 2.2 percent of Costa Ricans, or about 86,000 people, live on less than $1 a day, while 7.2 percent, or about 322,000 people, live on less than $2 a day. Costa Rica’s falling rating was for the most part due to increasing income inequality, as well as a decrease in per capita gross domestic product since 2005.
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 caused some alarm given the country’s overall population of just 4.3 million. In August 2006, the Costa Rican legislature enacted a new immigration law that critics argue will violate the civil rights of immigrants. It permits security forces to raid any home, business, or vehicle where they suspect the presence of undocumented immigrants, and allows police to detain apprehended immigrants indefinitely. There have also been reports of abuse and extortion by the Border Guard.
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.
Costa Rica is an electoral democracy. The president and members of the 57-seat, unicameral Legislative Assembly are elected for four-year terms and were banned from seeking a second but not subsequent term until the Supreme Court overturned the rule in 2003. Legislative elections were held in February 2006 and were considered free and fair. The National Liberation Party currently holds 25 seats in the Legislative Assembly, the Citizens’ Action Party 17, the Libertarian Movement 6, and the Social Christian Unity Party 5, with the remaining 4 seats divided between other small parties. There are 22 women in the Legislative Assembly, including seven legislative committee chairwomen, one black member, and no indigenous members.
The Costa Rican presidency has long been plagued by corruption, and every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office. In December 2005, Costa Rica reopened an investigation of foreign donations to former president Abel Pacheco’s 2002 presidential campaign. He was accused of accepting illegal contributions—$100,000 from the French telecommunications firm Alcatel, which was seeking government contracts, and $500,000 from a Taiwanese businessman—in addition to allegedly receiving kickbacks from other foreign firms. Former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1998–2002) 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. Rodriguez was placed in house arrest from 2004 to 2005 on corruption charges and is awaiting sentence. Former president Jose Maria Figueres of the PLN (1994–1998) has allegedly admitted to accepting $900,000 in “consulting fees” from Alcatel after being in office. Figueres remained in Switzerland at the end of 2006 despite a standing request by the Legislative Assembly for his return to Costa Rica for questioning. Former president Rafael Angel Calderon of the PUSC (1990–1994) was accused of taking an $800,000 kickback from the Finnish firm Instrumentarium. Calderon remained under investigation at the end of 2006. Costa Rica was ranked 55 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The oldest democracy in Latin America, Costa Rica has a press freedom law that is the oldest in Central America, dating to 1835. The press, radio, and television are generally free from state interference. Ninety percent of the population is literate, and there are six privately owned dailies. Both public and commercial television and radio stations are available, including 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 1999 defamation conviction against Costa Rica’s leading daily La Nacion in 2004. In general, libel and defamation laws are antiquated and carry excessive penalties. In June, the World Press Freedom Committee sent a letter to President Arias requesting that he change laws jailing journalists for convictions of slander. Costa Rica had not modified its libel and defamation laws in compliance with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling at the end of 2006. 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 freedom of assembly and association as well as the right to form civic organizations. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active in all parts of society and throughout the country. Labor can organize freely. Labor actions, ranging from local to nationwide protests, take place frequently with a minimum of governmental restraint. Nevertheless, employers often ignore minimum-wage and social-security laws, and the resulting fines are insignificant.
The judicial branch is independent, with members elected by the legislature. The legal system includes a Supreme Court, courts of appeal, and district courts. A specialized chamber of the Supreme Court (known as Sala Cuarta) can rule on the constitutionality of laws and chooses an independent national election commission. There are often substantial delays in the judicial process, including long pretrial detention.
In 1995 several entities, including the Border Guard, the Rural Guard, and the Civil Guard, were merged into a single “public force” under the Ministry of Public Security. The 1949 constitution bans the formation of a national army. Security has emerged as an important issue in the minds of many Costa Ricans, and a UNDP survey reveals that more than 19 percent of Costa Ricans believe that security is the number one problem facing the country. Indeed, the UNDP reports that 38.7 percent of Costa Rican households have been affected by some form of violence, including domestic violence, child abuse, and homicides and assaults as a result of organized crime. According to the same UNDP survey, 77 percent of citizens, including more than 80 percent of Costa Rican women, perceive the country to be unsafe.
Prisons are notoriously overcrowded and offer inadequate medical services, although the government has made efforts to reduce overcrowding. Four members of public security forces were convicted in 2005 of beating a suspect, and one former police officer was found guilty of beating a suspect in 2006. The ombudsman’s office received 20 complaints of police misconduct in 2006, 19 of which remained under investigation by year’s end.
Indigenous rights are not a government priority, and it is estimated by NGOs that about 73 percent of the country’s 70,000 indigenous persons live in remote areas with little access to health and education services, electricity, or potable water. The Costa Rican Ministry of Housing estimates that only 27 percent of indigenous people live in homes that are considered to be in good condition. Costa Ricans of African descent have also faced racial and economic discrimination.
Women still face discrimination in the economic realm, and only about a third of the economically active population is female. The majority of female employment is in the informal sector, where women on average earn 50 percent less than men. According to a study cited by Inforpress Centroamericana, Costa Rica is ranked 128 out 144 countries rated for gender equality in the workplace.
Violence against women and children is a major problem. In 2006, the autonomous National Institute for Women provided legal and psychological services for more than 5,000 women and lodging in shelters for more than 200 battered women and 465 children. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Costa Rica had a higher proportion of female homicide victims between 1999 and 2004 than neighboring countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala.
An increasing number of sex tourists visit Costa Rica as a negative offshoot of the country’s successful tourism industry. A law criminalizing sex with minors was passed in 1999 in an attempt to crack down on the problem. However, NGOs such as ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) criticized Costa Rica in 2005 as one of the top world destinations for those seeking underage sex partners. The Costa Rican government recently cooperated with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to set up a sting operation at a travel agency. The result was the conviction in 2005 of 11 U.S. citizens who had sought underage sex partners in Costa Rica. It is estimated that more than 3,000 Costa Rican children are victims of sexual exploitation. Costa Rica is also a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. In 2005, the Judicial Investigative Police created a new unit dedicated to combating trafficking in persons, but while hundreds of investigations were initiated, few have resulted in successful prosecutions.