Costa Rica has a long history of democratic stability, with a multiparty political system and regular rotations of power through credible elections. Freedoms of expression and association are robust. The rule of law is generally strong, though presidents have often been implicated in corruption scandals, and prisons remain overcrowded. Among other ongoing concerns, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community and indigenous people face discrimination, and land disputes involving indigenous communities persist.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In April, Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the governing Citizen Action Party (PAC) was elected president in the second round of voting. International observers deemed the election credible.
- In January, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion stating that member states of the American Convention on Human Rights, including Costa Rica, are obligated to legally recognize same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court then ruled in August that the prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. However, the court allowed the legislature up to 18 months to pass legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.
- The Cementazo corruption scandal over Chinese cement exports to Costa Rica, which in 2017 implicated a number of high-level government officials, continued to roil the country’s politics during the year. In April, the Public Ethics Office of the Attorney General, which investigated former president Luis Guillermo Solís for his alleged role in the scandal, cleared him of wrongdoing, although some members of the Legislative Assembly claimed that the office mishandled the case.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 38 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The president is directly elected for a four-year term and can seek a nonconsecutive second term. Presidential candidates must win 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. In April 2018, Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the governing PAC was elected president in the second round of voting. Alvarado faced Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the evangelical National Restoration Party (PRN) in the runoff and won decisively, with over 60 percent of the vote. Both rounds of voting were deemed credible by international observers.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Elections for the 57-seat unicameral Legislative Assembly occur every four years, and deputies are elected by proportional representation. Deputies may not run for two consecutive terms, but may run again after skipping a term. In the February 2018 legislative elections, which were held concurrently with the first round of the presidential poll, no party came close to winning a majority. The PAC took 10 seats, the PRN won 14, and the National Liberation Party (PLN), historically one of the most powerful parties in Costa Rican politics, won 17 seats. As with the presidential election, the legislative elections were deemed credible by international observers.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
A special chamber of the Supreme Court appoints the independent national election commission, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is responsible for administering elections. The TSE carries out its functions impartially and the electoral framework is fair.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
People have the right to organize in different political parties without undue obstacles. The historical dominance of the PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) has waned in recent years, as newly formed parties have gained traction, leading to the collapse of the traditional two-party system. (Seven parties won seats in the 2018 legislative elections). The PRN, which was founded in 2005, emerged as a major force in politics in 2018, as evidenced by Alvarado Muñoz’s second-place finish in the presidential election and relatively strong showing in the legislative elections.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Power regularly alternates in Costa Rica and opposition parties compete fiercely in presidential and legislative elections. Luis Guillermo Solís won the 2014 presidential election as the candidate of PAC, an opposition party at the time. Parties along a wide spectrum of the political order freely competed in the 2018 elections, and the PRN made major gains, winning 14 seats in the legislature after capturing just 1 seat in the 2014 contest.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
Citizens’ political choices are free from domination by unelected elites and foreign powers.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
In 2015, the legislature passed a constitutional amendment declaring Costa Rica to be “multiethnic and plurinational.” However, indigenous rights have not historically been prioritized by politicians, and there are no indigenous representatives in the legislature.
Women are represented in government—46 percent of seats in the Legislative Assembly are held by women following the 2018 elections. Five of the six key leadership roles in the Legislative Assembly, including the presidency of the legislature, are held by women. Epsy Campbell Barr became the first Afro-Costa Rican woman to serve as vice president in 2018. The government has introduced initiatives to increase women’s political participation, such as the institution of gender quotas in order to ensure gender parity in political parties.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 11 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Costa Rica’s freely elected government and lawmakers set and implement state policy without interference. However, legislative gridlock has been a major issue in recent years. After failing for years to pass legislation to address the country’s growing national debt, in December 2018 the Legislative Assembly passed a controversial law that raised taxes and imposed limits on public spending.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Costa Rica has effective laws against corruption, which are generally well enforced. Despite its functioning anticorruption mechanisms, nearly every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office. In 2017, former president Luis Guillermo Solís was implicated in the Cementazo scandal, involving influence peddling related to Chinese cement exports to Costa Rica. A legislative commission found that close to 30 people, including prominent officials from all three branches of government, were involved in the scandal. In April 2018, the Public Ethics Office of the Attorney General, which investigated Solís based on the commission’s findings, cleared him of wrongdoing, although some members of the Legislative Assembly claimed that the office mishandled the case. In July, the president of the Supreme Court resigned over his role in the scandal.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
Citizens generally have access to government information. However, there are some deficiencies in the reporting of budgets to the public, including a lack of transparency in communicating the objectives of the annual budget. Senior government officials are required to make financial disclosures, but that information is not available to the public.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 53 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
Freedom of the press is largely respected in Costa Rica. Defamation laws are on the books, but imprisonment was removed as a punishment for defamation in 2010.
There are six privately owned daily newspapers. Both public and commercial broadcast outlets are available, including at least 6 private television stations and more than 100 private radio stations.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Roman Catholicism is the official religion, but the constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is constitutionally protected and generally upheld.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Private discussion is free and the government is not known to surveil the electronic communications of Costa Ricans.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected, and this right is largely upheld in practice. A diverse range of groups, including LGBT and environmental organizations, hold regular rallies and protests without government interference.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations, including those engaged in human rights work, are active and do not encounter undue obstacles.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Although labor unions are free to organize and mount frequent protests and strikes with minimal governmental interference, the law requires a minimum of 12 employees to form a union, which may negatively impact union rights at small enterprises. Rates of union membership in the private sector are low, due in part to discrimination by employers against union members. Employers have been known to occasionally fire workers who attempt to form unions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 13 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judicial branch is generally independent and impartial. Supreme Court judges are elected by a supermajority of the legislature.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
Due process rights are enshrined in the constitution, and they are protected for the most part. However, there are often substantial delays in the judicial process, resulting in lengthy pretrial detentions.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Violent crime in Costa Rica has increased in recent years. In 2018, the country documented 586 murders, a rate of 11.7 murders per 100,000 people. The Pacific coast serves as a drug transshipment route, and the government has reported that many homicides are related to organized crime and drug trafficking. There are reports of occasional police abuse, including violence and degrading treatment; confirmed cases are generally investigated and prosecuted.
Overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient access to healthcare, and violence remain serious problems in Costa Rica’s prisons. Recurrent abuse by prison police has not been thoroughly investigated due to victims’ reluctance to file formal complaints.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
The constitution outlines general equal rights for all people, but those rights are not always respected. Indigenous people, who compose 3 percent of the population, continue to face discrimination, particularly in regard to land rights and access to basic services. Costa Ricans of African descent have also faced discrimination in health care, education, and employment.
Women experience discrimination due to entrenched gender stereotypes, which can limit their equal access to employment, health services, and the justice system. Executive orders prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the government has expressed commitment to the protection of the LGBT community. However, law enforcement officials have discriminated against LGBT people, including attacks on transgender sex workers. In 2016, a new law provided disabled people greater personal autonomy. Prior to the law’s passage, family members often had legal guardianship over some disabled people.
The number of asylum seekers from Nicaragua increased sharply in 2018. More than 23,000 Nicaraguans filed asylum claims in Costa Rica during the year, compared to 2,700 registered Nicaraguan asylum seekers globally in 2017. Thousands more had not yet filed their official claims at year’s end due to backlogs in the overburdened registration system. Although the law entitles asylum seekers to access public services, discrimination sometimes prevented them from taking advantage of those benefits, and legal restrictions limit employment opportunities for asylum seekers.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Freedom of movement is constitutionally guaranteed and Costa Ricans enjoy relative freedom in their choice of residence and employment.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Property rights are generally protected. However, laws protecting intellectual property are not always adequately enforced in practice.
Individuals are free to establish businesses, and the business and investment climate is relatively open, although the complicated bureaucracy can deter entrepreneurs seeking to establish a business.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Despite the existence of domestic violence legislation, violence against women and children remains a problem. In 2017, the National Women’s Institute, a government agency committed to advancing women’s rights, revealed a plan to combat violence against women and address the social and cultural factors that contribute to it.
In January 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion stating that member states of the American Convention on Human Rights, including Costa Rica, have an obligation to legally recognize same-sex marriage. The issue became central to the presidential election, with Alvarado Muñoz expressing strong opposition to same-sex marriage in his campaign, which, according to some analysts, contributed to his strong showing in the first round. In August, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. However, the court allowed the legislature up to 18 months to pass legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, leaving the current ban in place (although same-sex couples can obtain common-law marital status). President Alvarado also signed decrees in December requiring residency cards to recognize transgender people’s preferred identity, and compelling insurers to cover hormone treatments for transgender people.
Abortions are illegal in Costa Rica except when the health of the mother is in danger. Health professionals’ lack of knowledge of the law and fear of repercussions make it difficult for women to secure even a legal abortion.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Despite legal protections, domestic workers, particularly migrant workers, are subject to exploitation and forced labor. Employers often ignore minimum wage and social security laws, and the resulting fines for violations are insignificant. Child labor is a problem in the informal economy.
Sex trafficking and child sex tourism are also serious problems. A law that took effect in 2013 established penalties for human trafficking and organ trafficking, as well as a fund for victims and prevention efforts. The US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report found that government antitrafficking efforts were improving, noting the increased number of trafficking convictions and trafficking victims identified. However, there were issues with the disbursement of antitrafficking funds and the government did not provide adequate victim care services.