Freedom in the World 2014 - Costa Rica


Public confidence in President Laura Chinchilla’s administration continued to decline in 2013 as resignations and corruption scandals plagued her government. Crime and drug-related violence remained a significant threat as Mexican drug cartels increased their activity in Costa Rica. Corruption, insecurity, and unemployment were the chief concerns of Costa Ricans as the country prepared for national elections in February 2014.

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 reached record levels in 2011, and the economy grew in 2012 and 2013, poverty rates and unemployment also increased. Difficulties in passing reforms to deal with the growing public debt led the Moody’s rating agency to downgrade the outlook for Costa Rica’s bond rating from stable to negative in September 2013.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 37 / 40 (-1) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

The president of Costa Rica 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 National Liberation Party (PLN), the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), the Libertarian Movement Party (PML), and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

In February 2010, Laura Chinchilla of the PLN became Costa Rica’s first female president. She captured nearly 47 percent of the vote, defeating Ottón Solís of the PAC and Otto Guevara of the 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.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Since 1949, power in Costa Rica has alternated between the PLN and the PUSC. Dissatisfaction with party politics and political scandals resulted in defections from the PLN in the early 2000s. The newly formed PAC then became a rising force in Costa Rican politics as the PUSC collapsed under the weight of scandal.


C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12 (-1)

Every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office, with the exception of Óscar Arias, who served from 2006 to 2010. In December 2012, an 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. He returned to court in October 2013 to face embezzlement charges. Costa Rica was ranked 49 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

As with her predecessors, President Chinchilla’s government has been plagued by corruption revelations. Scandals and routine cabinet changes reinforced the lack of confidence in her administration; 13 cabinet ministers resigned for various reasons during her first two years in office.

In March 2012, Finance Minister Fernando Herrero; his wife, presidential consultant Floriasbel Rodriguez; and Tax Administrator Francisco Villalobos were accused of evading taxes by undervaluing their property. Herrero and Rodriguez had also benefited 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 2012 amid allegations of corruption surrounding a road project along the San Juan River.

In May 2013, a jet used by Chinchilla to travel to Peru and Venezuela was reportedly linked to drug traffickers. The scandal forced the resignation of three administration officials, including Presidency Vice Minister Mauricio Boraschi, who was also head of the Office of Intelligence and Security and the antidrug commissioner.

The lack of confidence in the Chinchilla administration has had a dramatic impact on citizen attitudes toward democracy, as support for the political system have declined during her presidency. A September 2012 opinion poll indicated that Chinchilla had the lowest approval rating in the hemisphere. In October 2013 her approval rating dropped to 9 percent.


Civil Liberties: 53 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

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.

In April 2013, lawmakers removed a controversial provision from a 2012 law that threatened prison terms for those who published secret political information. Journalists had challenged the original measure at the Supreme Court. The revised law excludes prison sentences when the information’s release is in the public interest.

The government upholds freedom of religion. Academic freedom is respected.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12

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.


F. Rule of Law: 13 / 16

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. Analysts have noted the presence of several Mexican drug cartels operating within the country.

During her first year in office, President 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. In February 2011, she introduced a 10-year crime reduction plan, which aimed to promote interagency coordination to combat growing public insecurity, crime, and narcotics trafficking. The country’s homicide rate fell to an estimated 10 murders for every 100,000 people in 2012, the first drop since 2004. In 2013, it was reported that more than 80 percent of the arrests in the country were related to drug trafficking. There have been concerns that crime is overwhelming local courts and other state institutions in some areas in the south of the country.

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 controls on 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.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 / 16

Women face discrimination in the economic realm. Female household 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.

Costa Rica remains a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. In 2013, Costa Rica was a Tier 2 country in the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. A new law against human trafficking went into effect in February 2013. In addition to establishing penalties for human trafficking and organ trafficking, the law established a fund for victims and prevention efforts, to be financed by a $1 dollar increase in the exit tax paid by visitors upon departure.

Chinchilla faced criticism from civil society organizations and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights advocates in 2010 when she supported a referendum put forth by conservative groups against same-sex unions. However, the Constitutional Court ruled that year 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 same-sex conjugal visits for prisoners. In May 2012, PLN legislator Justo Orozco, known for his antigay 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. In July 2013 the legislature passed the Law of Young People, which some believed created a loophole for the legalization of gay marriage. However, the Family Court ruled in September that the language in the bill applied only to unions between a man and a woman.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology

2014 Scores



Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)