Costa Rica

January 20, 2011 § 4 Comments

Costa RicaWho lives there?: Around 4.6 million people. Officially 95% are white or mestizo – most of whom are Spanish speaking and Catholic (although there is a sizeable Jewish population). The rest are a mixture of Costa Ricans of African origin (most of whom speak predominantly English creole) and native American inhabitants.

What those statistics don’t show is the large number of undocumented Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica, either as refugees or economic migrants (the latter largely as seasonal workers). As a result it is estimated that at any one time 10-15% of the population is made up of Nicaraguans.

How does the system work? (the theory): Costa Rica has an American style system of government whereby the president exercises executive power but there are multiple checks and balances between the legislative and the executive. Voting is compulsory but there is no enforcement of sanctions against those that defy the law.

The president is elected every four years by direct one round FPTP. The president is limited to two terms in the course of their lifetime and these two terms cannot be consecutive. The President is elected on  a ticket with two vice presidents who form powerful figures within the administration and appoint an executive cabinet.

The 57 person legislative assembly is elected at the same time for four year terms. Deputies are elected by largest remainder PR, the provinces act as constituencies. To my knowledge uniquely, Costa Rica has a rule stating that no deputy can serve two consecutive terms, this ensures that there is an 100% change of personell at every election. It also means that national politicians tend to dip in and out of politics, doing four years in parliament, four years out etc..

Costa Rica does not have strong local governments. It is divided into seven provinces but since the abolition of provincial governors in 1998 provinces serve no real function. Provinces are subdivided into cantons, and cantons are the only level at which local government exists at all. Each canton is presided over by a mayor and a number of cantonial representatives – all of them directly elected – who administer local services. The cantons are subdivided into districts but districts perform a purely administrative function.

How does the system work? (the practice): Costa Rica is by some distance the most stable and democratic country in central and south America, and the only country in that region to go coupless since 1950. There is a potentially endemic corruption problem linked to the cocaine trade, but Costa Rica’s seriousness in dealing with the problem was demonstrated this year when PSUC leader, former president, and at-the-time presidential candidate Rafael Angel Calderon was sentenced to five years in prison for his part in aiding corruption during his years as president.

How did we get here?: Costa Rica traditionally occupied a no-man’s-land: too far south for the Mesoamerican (Aztec and Maya) civilisations and too far north for the Andean (Inca etc..) civilizations. It had civilizations of its own but none were of great size.

When the Spanish colonised it they too considered it as something of a no-man’s-land: not being entirely sure weather to rule it from the north (Guatamala) or the south (Colombia) and so alternating between the two. Having very few indigenous inhabitants who could be used as slaves, Costa Rica became one of the few Spanish possessions where the majority of manual labour was conducted by Spaniards themselves. As such it was an unpopular, and unfavoured, posting and became something of  backwater and thus, over time, a very very poor backwater.

Costa Rica celebrates its independence as having happened on September 15th 1821 along with the rest of central America but this rather overstates how proactive Costa Ricans were. That was the date at which Costa Rica became independent by default, the Spanish having been driven out by a Mexican uprising in which no central American nation took part. Still very much a backwater, Costa Rica continued to be pretty much ignored by all subsequent powers and so became by default, in theory at least, first a part of the Mexican Empire and then, following its rapid collapse, a part of the Federal Republic of Central America. This body rapidly collapsed as well, but nobody really bothered to tell Costa Rica, who continued to call themselves a member long after it had ceased to be and all the other constituent parts had gone their separate ways. Finally, in 1838, Costa Rica “declared independence”, ending many years of entirely nominal rule.

However what had previously been seen as shortcomings, now became blessings. With Costa Rica so utterly cut off geographically from the rest of Central America, and considered such a backwater, it was not involved in the many wars, insurrections and coups that plagued the region. And not having much of a culture of slavery (whilst it certainly did exist) the inevitable social, political, and economic turmoil that slavery and its eventual abolition brought were much more muted in Costa Rica than in neighbouring countries. That, and the discovery that Coffee was perfectly suited to growing in Costa Rica, led to a complete economic transformation, causing Costa Rica to become – as it is today – one of the richest, most stable, and most developed nations in the region.

Isolation from the rest of Central America also required a search for new allies, a search which resulted in a very close relationship with the USA – which also exists to this day. The USA did, at points, take a very pro-active approach to Costa Rican politics, insisting on certain Presidents resigning and otherwise interfering. Whilst not directly linked to the USA this did exacerbate a period of political turmoil in the first half of the 20th century which culminated in the 1948 Costa Rican civil war (a fight, in essence, over a disputed election). Whilst only 2,000 were killed, this was the most bloody confrontation in Costa Rican history, and left civil society with a determination that the event was not to be repeated.

With that in mind the army of Costa Rica was abolished in 1950, making Costa Rica the only nation in the world with no standing army. This has had two long term effects:

Firstly, with no military to lead a coup, Costa Rica is the only country in the whole of central and south America to not only remain a democracy, but not even to have a single rebellion or coup since 1950. In that time there have been at least 56 coups in that region (an average of 2.6 per nation) so this is no small feat.

Secondly, with no army to defend themselves, Costa Rica has become increasingly dependent upon the USA to provide protection for the nation. This has certainly come with a quid-pro-quo in terms of a close alignment of international priorities and Costa Rica (a perennial elected member to the UN security council) supporting the USA in international matters. However, surprisingly perhaps, the US has not overtly interfered in Costa Rican domestic politics in the way it has with the politics of many of its neighbours. Thus, whilst Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and many other nations in the region were plagued with CIA inspired coups, Costa Rica  – perhaps the USA’s closet ally – was allowed to elect overtly socialist governments both during and after the cold war without so much as an eyelid batted. Two main reasons have been suggested for this:

1) The USA doesn’t really care what Costa Rica does in its own country provided it supports the USA abroad. The leaders of Costa Rica can be as left-wing as they like domestically, but had they elected a Chavez or a Castro who had started to throw their weight around on the international stage, then there would have been trouble. Coupled to this is the fact that most of Costa Rica’s socialist leaders were, in fact, fairly moderate.

2) Without an army within which to foster an alternative government of the right, there was no easy vehicle for regime change. So direct intervention in Costa Rican politics would have required outright invasion and colonisation or hands-on proxy rule – which is more trouble than it is really worth. That said, this did not prove a problem in Grenada or Puerto Rico.

Who’s in charge?: Traditionally two parties have dominated:

On the left you have the PLN, they were the winners of the Costa Rican civil war, the party that abolished the army, and in many ways the natural party of government in Costa Rica – having been in power for 36 of the first 50 years following the civil war. Initially dominated by the figure and family of civil war hero José Figueres Ferrer, they have in recent years been dominated by two time president (1986-1990 and 2006-2010) and Nobel Peace prize winner Óscar Arias Sánchez. He mixed radical secularism with moderate social democracy, and led the PLN away from its socialist roots and towards the embracement of free market economics.

Traditionally the dominant force on the right has been the Christian Democrat PUSC. They (and their predecessor parties) were the only other party to win the presidency post civil war and scored a considerable victory in 2002 when they won their first ever set of back to back elections, keeping the PLN out of power for a record 8 years.

However the PSUC fell apart utterly in 2009 amidst allegations of fraud against two former PSUC presidents: Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (who until weeks before the 2010 election was still the official 2010 PSUC presidential candidate) and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez. Hoping to cash in on the PSUC’s collapse, the PLN selected Laura Chinchilla (one of  Arias’ vice presidents and seen as being on the right of the party) as a candidate, the logic being she was a good person to reach out to disaffected PSUC voters.

However, she was a controversial choice. Many on the right were not entirely sold on the idea of voting for a woman (she was Costa Rica’s first serious female presidential candidate) – far less a divorcée now married to a Canadian. Meanwhile those on the left questioned why, in an election the PLN were in any case virtually guaranteed to win, they were running a candidate who was openly opposed to gay marriage, anti contraception, and determined to roll back Arias’ secularisation of the state. This gave an opportunity for some of the smaller parties to come to the fore:

The Citizens Action Party (PAC) came about over a split amongst the PLN over whether to support a free trade agreement with the Dominican Republic. They led the no campaign against Óscar Arias and lost a 2007 referendum on the subject by just 1% of the vote. Aside from their objection to the free trade area there is not much difference between the PAC and the PLN and they both espouse a broadly left agenda.

Then there is the PML or Libertarian Party which is, as its name would suggest, a libertarian party; there is PASE, or Accessibility Without Exclusion who champion the rights of the old and disabled; and there is the Costa Rican Renovation Party, which is a strongly Christian party.

In the end the election was fairly straightforward. Chinchilla won the presidency with 46% of the vote, the PAC coming second with 25% and the PSUC totally humiliated, coming in fourth with a mere 3% of the vote.

The PLN also won 23 seats in the Legislative Assembly: not an outright majority but a sizeable and useful chunk of support, particularly given that the next largest chunk (with 11 seats) went to the similarly minded PAC. The PML won 10 seats, the PSUC 6, PASE 4, and the Costa Rican Renovation Party 1.


Outside of parliament the main forces in the land are the Catholic Church and the USA. The former is a far from unified force: Liberation Theology and official doctrine being the two main factions.

What does it look like?: Costa Rica spans the isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It has some high mountain ranges and some dense dense jungle which separates it from its neighbours and so accounts for its political separation from the rest of the continent. It has the highest density of biodiversity of any nation on the planet.

What are the issues?: We have touched on many of the biggest issues already; the fact that Costa Rica is far more stable and prosperous than any of its neighbours means that bread and butter issues dominate less than they do in neighbouring countries. The role of the church is a biggy, as is the lack of an army and the impact this has on foreign policy: relations with the USA and the nation’s isolation from its neighbours. To take one example, Costa Rica recently (2007) broke with the regional convention and, out of economic expediency, became the first country in central America to recognise Beijing and not Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Then there is the issue of the free trade agreement we touched upon earlier. And, as befits a country which has the luxury to do so, Costa Rica is leading the way internationally on green issues: striving to become the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2021, and topping various measures of global environmentalism.

Then there was the so-called google maps war. This was reported as a kind of quirky “and finally” item on many news reports. The truth is actually somewhat more serious.

This is the San Juan river, the official border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the San Juan moves about quite a bit due to sedimentation and oxbow lakes. Now were one to use an outdated map, or to take the border as been an explicit set of geographical co-ordinates as opposed to an organic construct, then one could make a case for saying that – as the San Juan moves west – elements of the east bank of the San Juan are in Nicaragua.

In November of 2010 Nicaragua moved troops onto the east bank of the San Juan. When asked to explain himself the commander of the troops flippantly pointed out that (for the above reason) according to google maps his troops were still in Nicaragua. It was this that the media seized upon but, to be honest, this was at very most an excuse and in reality an irrelevance, as can be evidenced by the fact that Nicaraguan troops are there to this day (long after google maps have corrected the error) and that Costa Rica (sans army) is having to petition the ICC to remove them (they initially sent police to evict them but the police didn’t fancy the task of arresting a heavily armed foreign battalion).

In actuality this is a dispute that has been raging for over a hundred years. In part it is over whether the boundary should be organic (and shift with the river) or explicit, but in the main it is over who should be allowed to control traffic on the river. An ICC ruling in 2009 stated that it was Nicaragua who held the responsibility for keeping the river navigable; Nicaragua therefore claims that in order to do so they need facilities for dredging on both sides of the river. Costa Rica counters that the river can be easily dredged from facilities based solely on the Nicaraguan side and that dredging is merely an excuse for the annexation of territory. The reason this matters is because China, Iran and Venezuela are keen to give Nicaragua money to build a canal link between Atlantic and Pacific to rival the Panama Canal (and thus avoid US control) using the San Jose but are unwilling to proceed until Nicaragua can demonstrate that it firmly controls the waterway.

A good source of impartial information is: There is a vibrant free press but the libel laws are fairly fierce and so there is not much bite in much of the reporting. The Tico Times is the only English language website I know.

A good book is: The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics is a good one-stop shop for modern essays on Costa Rica. Meanwhile The Quetzal and the Macaw: The Story of Costa Rica’s National Parks actually reveals a lot about the nation and, in particular, its politics.

The next elections are: in 2014


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