Costa Rica | Freedom House

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Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Freedom in the World 2010

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Former president and 2010 presidential candidate Rafael Angel Calderon was convicted of corruption in October 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison related to kickbacks obtained during his first presidency. Public perception of crime and insecurity rose unabated in 2009, as did the incidence of the warehousing and transportation of cocaine destined for the United States. President Oscar Arias introduced emergency measures to mitigate the effects of the global economic crisis on Costa Rica’s most vulnerable populations.

Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and gained full sovereignty in 1838. The country enjoyed relative political stability until 1948, when Jose “Pepe” Figueres launched a 40-day civil war to restore power to the rightful winner of that year’s presidential election and 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.
Candidates for the February 2010 general elections began campaigning in 2009, including former vice president Laura Chinchilla of the PLN—who is backed by President Arias—PAC candidate Otton Solis, and the PML’s Otto Guevara. The PUSC’s popularity was further damaged in October when candidate and former president Rafael Angel Calderon was sentenced to five years in jail on corruption charges. With Calderon unexpectedly withdrawing from the race, Guevara was poised to capture many of the PUSC votes. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the 2010 elections, Costa Rica in August approved new reforms to its electoral law, including the prohibition of anonymous and foreign campaign donations, revised regulations surrounding government financing of political parties, and new quotas designed to promote women’s leadership roles within political parties.
Concerns about public security, crime, and narcotics trafficking continued to grow in 2009. A January 2009poll conducted by the company Unimer revealed that 27 percent of Costa Ricans surveyed cited security as a major concern. This fear has manifested itself in a move towards public armament in a country with no standing army; the number of gun licenses issued increased by 73 percent in 2008. The spread of violent crime is closely tied to drug trafficking, as Costa Rica is increasingly being used as a storage and transportation route. Organized criminal networks are also suspected of having infiltrated police and political institutions. In September, ten Costa Rican police officers were arrested for aiding Colombian drug traffickers, including the former head of the antidrug program in the country’s central Pacific region. About 1,500 police corruption cases remained open at year’s end, but fewer than 200 officers have been discharged on corruption allegations in the past six years.

While quality of life in Costa Rica is relatively high for the region, economic growth is hampered by the national debt, inflation, and a rising cost of living. The global economic crisis has further threatened economic stability in the country, causing President Arias in January to announce a 23-point plan to mitigate the effects of the global downturn on the country’s most vulnerable populations. The plan includes a 15 percent increase in welfare payments for the poorest sectors of society and mortgage debt forgiveness for approximately 2,100 families facing foreclosure. The Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States—narrowly approved by voters in a 2007 referendum—went into effect on January 1, 2009, though its impact is yet to be seen.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 and can seek a nonconsecutive second term. The main political parties are the PLN, the PAC, the PML, and the PUSC. 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. Former president Rafael Angel Calderon was convicted in 2008 of taking an $800,000 kickback from a Finnish firm. In October 2009, he was convicted once again for graft, this time related to a loan from the Finnish government, and was sentenced to five years in jail. Costa Rica was ranked 43 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Costa Rican media are generally free from state interference. There are six privately owned dailies, and both public and commercial broadcast outlets are available, including at least four private television stations and more than 100 private radio stations. Abuse of government advertising and direct pressure from senior officials to influence media content has been reported. The government had not modernized its defamation laws or removed excessive penalties as of the end of 2009. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is recognized, and there is complete academic freedom. President Oscar Arias backed a bill in September 2009 proposing that Costa Rica be declared a “secular state,” rather than a Roman Catholic state; the move created controversy in 2009 and was publicly rejected by the Catholic Church.
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 interference, 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. There have been some police brutality complaints, which are collected by an ombudsman’s office. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded and offer inadequate medical services, though the government has made efforts to reduce overcrowding. In July 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Costa Rica had not fully complied with a 2004 ruling regarding the criminal appeals process; Costa Rica took actions in 2009 towards full compliance and submitted a report to the IACHR in October.
As the drug trade expands in Costa Rica, the country has experienced a significant increase in homicides in recent years, with a homicide rate of approximately 11 murders per every 100,000 people. There were 525 homicides reported in 2009, up from 435 in 2008. Costa Rica has become a popular location for the warehousing and transport of cocaine destined for the United States. The number of large shipments (between 500 and 1,000 kilograms) of cocaine passing through the country has increased by an estimated 400 percent between 2008 and 2009, withthe majority of narcotics entering the country through maritime routes. Costa Rican authorities seized 20.6 tons of cocaine in 2009.Costa Rica received $5.3 million in counter-narcotics funding from the United States as part of the Merida Initiative that was introduced in June 2009 to combat drug trafficking and money laundering.
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. Costa Rica reformed its migration law in 2009, implementing fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants and creating stricter controls over marriages between Costa Ricans and foreigners in an effort to prevent “marriages of convenience.”
Indigenous rights are not a government priority, and NGOs estimate that about 73 percent of the country’s 70,000 indigenous people have little access to health and education services, electricity, or potable water. According to UNICEF, only 21 percent of indigenous youth have more than a primary-school education. 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. There are 22 women in the Legislative Assembly. Domestic workers have long been subject to exploitation; they lack legal protection, have the lowest minimum wage of all wage categories, and are excluded from social security programs.
Violence against women and children is a major problem. The number of female homicides in Costa Rica more than doubled in the past two years, with 16 reported in 2007 and 39 reported in 2009. An increasing number of sex tourists visit Costa Rica, and approximately 3,500 children were victims of sexual exploitation in 2007. Costa Rica has failed to enforce anti-trafficking legislation and remains a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. However, reforms to the migration law in 2009 increased jail sentences for human traffickers.