Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Public confidence in President Laura Chinchilla continued to decline in 2012 as resignations and corruption scandals plagued her administration. While the homicide rate decreased in 2012 for the first time in years, crime rates rose and drug-related violence remained a significant threat. Gains from increased economic growth and foreign investment were undermined by rising poverty and unemployment.
Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and gained full sovereignty in 1838. The country enjoyed relative political stability until 1948, when José “Pepe” Figueres launched a brief 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 National Liberation Party (PLN). Since 1949, power has alternated between the PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).
PLN candidate Óscar Arias, who had served as Costa Rica’s president from 1986-1990, was reelected in 2006. In that year’s parliamentary elections, the PLN captured the largest number of seats.
In February 2010, former vice president Laura Chinchilla of the PLN became Costa Rica’s first female president, capturing nearly 47 percent of the vote in the first round and defeating Ottón Solís of the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) and Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement Party (PML). In concurrent legislative elections, the PLN captured 24 seats, the PAC won 11, the PML took 9, the PUSC won 6, and the Accessibility without Exclusion Party (PASE) captured 4, with the remaining 3 seats going to other smaller parties. In April 2011, the PAC’s Juan Carlos Mendoza was elected president of the Assembly; Mendoza’s election marked the first time in 46 years that the president of the Assembly was not a member of the ruling party.
Chinchilla began her presidency in May 2010 with a strong mandate and clear policy priorities to strengthen environmental protections, security, and family welfare. While she initially enjoyed strong public approval, by July 2011, public confidence in her administration eventually fell due to corruption scandals and the faltering economy. By September 2012, one poll revealed that Chinchilla had the lowest approval rating in the hemisphere—13 percent. Routine cabinet changes during Chinchilla’s term reinforced the lack of confidence in her administration; 13 cabinet ministers resigned for various reasons during her first two years in office.
In February 2011, Chinchilla introduced a 10-year crime reduction plan, which aims to promote inter-agency coordination to combat growing public insecurity, crime, and narcotics trafficking. Improved surveillance and coordination of security agencies were credited with a slight decrease in crime levels in 2011. The country’s homicide rate fell to an estimated 10 murders for every 100,000 people in 2012, the first drop since 2004.
While the quality of life in Costa Rica is relatively high for the region, economic growth is hampered by the national debt, inflation, and cost-of-living increases. Though foreign direct investment in the economy reached record levels in 2011 and the economy grew at a faster than expected rate in 2012, poverty rates and unemployment increased.
Following the failure of proposed tax reform legislation in 2011, Chinchilla introduced a new tax plan in 2012 to address the growing budget deficit. The draft bill—which included the elimination of the national sales tax, the introduction of a new value-added tax, and a 15 percent withholding tax on new companies in the free trade zones—was found unconstitutional by a Supreme Court ruling in April for violating constitutional procedure. Chinchilla ultimately settled for a less ambitious reform plan which included mechanisms to improve tax collection and fiscal transparency.
Costa Rica is an electoral democracy. The 2010 legislative and presidential elections were 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. A special chamber of the Supreme Court chooses an independent national election commission. Ahead of the 2010 elections, Costa Rica approved reforms to its electoral law, including revised regulations on political party and campaign financing, and new quotas for women’s participation in political parties. The main political parties are the PLN, the PAC, the PML, and the PUSC.
Every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office, with the exception of Óscar Arias. In December 2012, the appeals court overturned the corruption conviction of former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez. Rodríguez was convicted in 2011 on corruption charges related to a business deal between the Costa Rican Electricity Institute and Alcatel, a French telecommunications company.
Like her predecessors, Chinchilla’s government has been plagued by corruption scandals. In March 2012, Finance Minister Fernando Herrero; his wife, presidential consultant Floriasbel Rodriguez; and Tax Administrator Francisco Villalobos were accused of tax evasion by undervaluing their property. It was later revealed that Herrero and Rodriguez benefitted from irregular bidding on a state-owned oil refinery project, which led to an investigation of Vice President Luis Lieberman and Minister of Education Leonardo Garnier for influence peddling. Chinchilla’s refusal to dismiss them resulted in a standoff with the legislative assembly. Minister of Public Works Francisco Jimenez resigned in May amid allegations of corruption surrounding a road project along the San Juan River. Costa Rica was ranked 48 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index.
The Costa Rican media are generally free from state interference. A February 2010 Supreme Court ruling removed prison terms for defamation. 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. There have been reports of abuse of government advertising and direct pressure from senior officials to influence media content. Internet access is unrestricted.
The government recognizes freedom of religion. President Arias backed a 2009 bill that sought to declare Costa Rica a “secular state” rather than a Roman Catholic state. However, the bill, which was not supported by current president Laura Chinchilla, had not been adopted by the end of 2012. Academic freedom is respected.
The constitution provides for freedoms 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. However, there are often substantial delays in the judicial process resulting in lengthy pretrial detention. There have been complaints of police brutality, and organized criminal networks are suspected of having infiltrated law enforcement institutions. An attempted prison break at a maximum-security facility in May 2011 led to an investigation of prison conditions, which revealed corruption, overcrowding, guard shortages, and guard-initiated abuse. Deadly prison riots in January and October 2012 underscored the severity of overcrowding in prisons, which has more than quintupled since 2009.
The country’s Pacific Coast serves as a major drug transshipment route. During her first year in office, President Laura Chinchilla created a national antidrug commission, hired 1,000 new police officers, earmarked additional funds for the country’s judicial investigation agency, and made plans to expand prison capacity. As Costa Rica has no standing army, Chinchilla also agreed in 2010 to station more than 13,000 U.S. military personnel on Costa Rican territory to lead regional antidrug efforts.
A 2006 law permits security forces to raid any home, business, or vehicle where they suspect undocumented immigrants, who can then be detained indefinitely. Abuse and extortion of migrants by the Border Guard have also been reported. Legislation governing migration issues imposes fines for employers who hire undocumented immigrants and stricter controls over marriages between Costa Ricans and foreigners.
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. Costa Ricans of African descent have also faced racial and economic discrimination.
Women face discrimination in the economic realm. Female domestic workers are subject to exploitation and lack legal protections. Despite the existence of domestic violence legislation, violence against women and children is a major problem. Women were elected to 39 percent of the Legislative Assembly seats in the 2010 elections. Costa Rica has failed to enforce antitrafficking legislation and remains a transit and destination country for trafficked persons.
Chinchilla faced criticism from civil society organizations and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights advocates when she supported a referendum put forth by conservative groups against same-sex unions. However, the Constitutional Court ruled in 2010 that holding a referendum on this issue was unconstitutional. In October 2011, the Supreme Court ruled against sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination by overturning a regulation that had prohibited conjugal visits for same-sex prisoners. In May 2012, PLN legislator Justo Orozco, known for his anti-gay views, was elected president of the Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. His election was criticized by the LGBT community, which called on Chinchilla to speak out in support of LGBT rights.