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Costa Rica experienced an increase in violent and organized crime in 2008. The security minister resigned after suggesting that politicians had ties to criminal groups, and two former presidents went on trial for alleged corruption. Meanwhile, President Oscar Arias failed to secure long-delayed congressional approval for a regional free trade agreement by year’s end. Conditions worsened for the poorest segments of the population due to inflation and the rising cost of living.
Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and gained full sovereignty in 1838. For most of its subsequent history, the country enjoyed relative political stability, with an economy based on agricultural exports. In 1948, Jose “Pepe” Figueres launched a 40-day civil war to restore power to the rightful winner of that year’s presidential election, and he successfully pushed to disband Costa Rica’s military. 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 1949, power has alternated between the PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).
The PUSC’s Abel Pacheco won the 2002 presidential election, succeeding Miguel Angel Rodriguez, also of the PUSC. However, in 2006 former president Oscar Arias recaptured the presidency for the PLN, narrowly defeating Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) candidate Otton Solis. Meanwhile, the PUSC lost its former prominence after Rodriguez was sentenced on corruption charges. The 2006 balloting also resulted in a divided Legislative Assembly; the PLN won 25 seats, the PAC 17, the Libertarian Movement Party (PML) 6, and the PUSC 5. Other small parties won the remaining 4 seats.
In October 2008, Vice President Laura Chinchilla, who also served as justice minister, resigned with the intention of seeking the PLN presidential nomination in 2009, ahead of the 2010 election. San Jose mayor Johnny Araya and former security minister Fernando Berrocal were also expected to compete for the PLN nomination.
Berrocal had resigned as security minister in March 2008 after suggesting that possible links between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group and Costa Rican politicians had been discovered on a laptop seized by Colombian authorities during a raid. Amid broader concern about crime and drug trafficking, the government in May announced the creation of a new entity to fight organized crime. Also during the year, police began an anticrime initiative focusing on Limon, where 15 officers were dismissed on corruption charges. About 1,500 police corruption cases remain open in Costa Rica, but only 103 officers have been dismissed on corruption charges in the past six years.
The Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States, which Costa Rican voters had narrowly approved in an October 2007 referendum, had yet to secure congressional ratification at the end of 2008. In September 2008, Costa Rica’s Supreme Court struck down an intellectual property rights law that was crucial to the pact, finding that it violated the constitution. The country was granted a 90-day extension on October 1, during which time it had to pass 13 remaining bills associated with the treaty.
While quality of life in Costa Rica is relatively high for the region, incomes have declined for the bottom fifth of the population in recent years, and economic growth is hampered by the national debt, inflation, and a rising cost of living. Since 2001, Costa Rica’s rank in the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index has consistently worsened; it placed 48 out of 177 countries surveyed in the 2008 index.
Costa Rica is an electoral democracy. Legislative and presidential elections held in 2006 were generally considered free and fair. The president and members of the 57-seat, unicameral Legislative Assembly are elected for single four-year terms; they were banned from seeking a nonconsecutive second term until the rule was overturned in 2003. The main political parties are the PNL, the PAC, the PML, and the PUSC. There are 22 women in the Legislative Assembly, including seven committee chairwomen. There is one black member, but there are no indigenous members. A special chamber of the Supreme Court chooses an independent national election commission.
Every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office. In 2005, investigators reopened a probe into alleged illegal donations to former president Abel Pacheco’s 2002 presidential campaign by French telecommunications firm Alcatel and a Taiwanese businessman, in addition to suspected kickbacks from other foreign firms. Former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1998–2002) began pretrial proceedings in September 2008 for allegedly taking illegal campaign financing from Taiwan’s government and a bribe of $1.4 million from Alcatel. Meanwhile, former Alcatel executive Christian Sapsizian was sentenced in a U.S. court in September 2008 after admitting to paying $2.5 million in bribes to Costa Rican officials between 2000 and 2004. Former president Rafael Angel Calderon (1990–94) was convicted in February 2008 of taking an $800,000 kickback from the Finnish firm Instrumentarium. He faced trial again in November 2008 on charges related to a loan from the Finnish government to the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, a government institution. Costa Rica was ranked 47 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Costa Rican media are generally free from state interference. There are six privately owned dailies, and 90 percent of the population is literate. Both public and commercial broadcast outlets are available, including at least four private television stations and more than 100 private radio stations. The government had not modernized its defamation laws or removed excessive penalties as of the end of 2008. However, in September the Supreme Court ruled in favor of journalists’ right to protect confidential sources. An Open Society Institute (OSI) report in 2008 shed light on the abuse of government advertising and direct pressure from senior officials to influence media content. OSI has called on Costa Rica to pass legislation to regulate government advertising and adopt a law on access to information for public bodies. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is recognized, and there is complete academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active. Although labor unions organize and mount frequent protests with minimal governmental restraint, 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. There are often substantial delays in the judicial process, including long pretrial detention. In May 2008, three judges from the Administrative Environmental Tribunal reported receiving death threats after working on a real-estate development case. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded and offer inadequate medical services, though the government has made efforts to reduce overcrowding. There have been some police brutality complaints, which are collected by an ombudsman’s office.
In 2006, the UNDP reported that 38.7 percent of Costa Rican households had been affected by some form of violence, and 77 percent of citizens perceived the country to be unsafe. Rates of violence and delinquency by minors increased by 145 percent between 2006 and 2007.The number of homicides in Costa Rica has also risen in recent years, from 349 homicides committed in 2007 to 435 in 2008. The number of homicides in the capital, San Jose, also rose from 172 in 2007 to 214 in 2008, but the largest increase was seen in Cartago, where the number of homicides doubled in 2008.
At least 500,000 Nicaraguan immigrants live in the country illegally, and a 2006 law permits security forces to raid any home, business, or vehicle where they suspect the presence of undocumented immigrants, who can be detained indefinitely. There have been reports of abuse and extortion of migrants by the Border Guard.
Indigenous rights are not a government priority, and it is estimated by NGOs that about 73 percent of the country’s 70,000 indigenous people have little access to health and education services, electricity, or potable water. The infant mortality rate in indigenous communities is 13.1 per 1,000 births and can reach 18.4 in some areas, compared with a national rate of 9.2. According to UNICEF, only 21 percent of indigenous youth have more than a primary-school education, and just 0.001 percent attend college. 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. Most 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. The number of female homicides in Costa Rica more than doubled from the previous year, with 16 reported in 2007 and 37 reported in 2008. Costa Rica in June 2008 passed a law banning the physical punishment of children. The National Children’s Hospital receives two to three cases of physical child abuse a day. An increasing number of sex tourists visit Costa Rica, and a 1999 law criminalizing sex with minors has failed to curb the problem. The Patronato Nacional de la Infancia reports that approximately 3,500 children were victims of sexual exploitation in 2007. 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 human trafficking, but few of the hundreds of investigations launched resulted in convictions. Among other provisions, a law passed in July 2007 criminalizes the possession of child pornography and makes sex with minors punishable by 13 to 16 years in prison.