Freedom in the World 2008


The debate over a free-trade agreement with the United States and other countries in the region, known as DR-CAFTA, dominated Costa Rican politics in 2007, even causing social unrest. The trade agreement was finally approved in an October 2007 referendum. President Oscar Arias then faced the challenge of restoring confidence in his government after a related scandal forced his vice president to resign. Meanwhile, Costa Rica experienced worsening living conditions for the poorest segments of the population, including indigenous communities.

Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 but belonged to larger political formations in the region until it gained full sovereignty in 1838. For most of its subsequent history, the country enjoyed relative political stability, with an economy based on cultivation of coffee and other agricultural exports. In 1948, Jose “Pepe” Figueres launched a 40-day civil war to restore power to the rightful winner of that year’s presidential election, which the incumbent had sought to invalidate. Figueres also successfully pushed to disband Costa Rica’s military, and 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 passed back and forth multiple times between the PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

The PUSC’s Abel Pacheco was the winning candidate in the 2002 elections; Miguel Angel Rodriguez, also of the PUSC, had preceded him. However, in February 2006, the PLN regained the presidency for the first time since 1998 as Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president Oscar Arias was reelected. Meanwhile, the PUSC lost its former prominence after Rodriguez was sentenced on corruption charges. In the 2006 contest, the closest presidential election in Costa Rican history, Arias defeated Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) candidate Otton Solis by a mere 1.12 percentage points, 40.92 percent to 39.80 percent. The elections also resulted in a politically fractured Legislative Assembly; the PLN won 25 seats, the PAC 17, the Libertarian Movement Party (PML) 6, the PUSC 5, and other small parties won the remaining 4 seats.

The Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States continued to be a dominant political issue in 2007, prompting demonstrations and strikes by opponents. A national referendum on DR-CAFTA was held in October 2007, with voters narrowly approving the trade agreement; Costa Rica was the final signatory country to ratify the pact. Critics of the trade agreement claimed that it was not in country’s best interests and could hurt vulnerable portions of the population, such as farmers and indigenous groups. The revelation in October 2006 that local representatives of U.S. weapons manufacturer Raytheon had donated funds to Arias’s presidential campaign raised questions about his motives in promoting DR-CAFTA, with critics arguing that a decree he had signed in August of that year effectively paved the way for weapons production on Costa Rican soil. In response, Arias in October signed a law banning arms manufacturing, including in duty-free industrial zones.

Arias came under criticism in 2007, when a memo from Vice President Kevin Casas became public, outlining controversial tactics to garner support for DR-CAFTA, including a “campaign of fear.” Casas resigned in September 2007 in the wake of the scandal. Social unrest increased in the final days before the national referendum on DR-CAFTA, as opponents staged demonstrations and mobilized over 100,000 people. However, voters approved the treaty in the October 7 referendum, which was generally considered free and fair.

While quality of life in Costa Rica is relatively high for the region, incomes have declined for the bottom fifth of the population in recent years, and economic growth is hampered by the national debt and inflation. Indigenous groups and the large numbers of Nicaraguan migrants in the country suffer from high poverty rates and low education levels. According to UNICEF, indigenous communities in 2007 displayed the same health indicators as Costa Rica as a whole did in 1980. Since 2001, Costa Rica’s rank in the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index has consistently worsened; it placed 48 out of 177 countries surveyed in the 2007 index. Public opinion polls in 2007 showed plummeting approval of Arias’s performance in fighting poverty.

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; they were banned from seeking a nonconsecutive second term until the rule was overturned in 2003. The main political parties are the PNL, the PAC, the PML, and the PUSC. There are 22 women in the Legislative Assembly, including 7 committee chairwomen, 1 black member, and no indigenous members.

Every president since 1990 has been accused of corruption after leaving office. In December 2005, investigators reopened a probe into alleged illegal donations to former president Abel Pacheco’s 2002 presidential campaign by French telecommunications firm Alcatel and a Taiwanese businessman, in addition to suspected kickbacks from other foreign firms. Former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1998–2002) is awaiting sentencing for allegedly taking illegal campaign financing from Taiwan’s government and a bribe of $1.4 million from Alcatel. Former president Jose Maria Figueres (1994–98) has allegedly admitted to accepting $900,000 in “consulting fees” from Alcatel after leaving office. Former president Rafael Angel Calderon (1990–94) was accused of taking an $800,000 kickback from the Finnish firm Instrumentarium and was convicted in February 2008. Costa Rica ranked 46 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The Costa Rican press, radio, and television are generally free from state interference, thanks in part to a press freedom law dating to 1835. Ninety percent of the population is literate, and there are six privately owned dailies. Both public and commercial television and radio stations are available, including at least four private television stations and more than 100 private radio stations. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, struck down a 1999 defamation conviction against leading daily La Nacion in 2004, but the government had not modified its antiquated libel and defamation laws or removed excessive penalties as of the end of 2007. The media have freely reported on the various corruption scandals that have buffeted the Costa Rican political scene. Internet access is unrestricted.

Freedom of religion is recognized, and there is complete academic freedom.

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 restraint, 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. The legal system includes a Supreme Court, courts of appeal, and district courts. A specialized chamber of the Supreme Court (known as Sala Cuarta) can rule on the constitutionality of laws and chooses an independent national election commission. There are often substantial delays in the judicial process, including long pretrial detention. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded and offer inadequate medical services, though the government has made efforts to reduce overcrowding. There have been some police brutality complaints, which are collected by an ombudsman’s office.

The 1949 constitution bans the formation of a national army; security and law enforcement bodies are overseen by the Ministry of Public Security. In 2006, the UNDP reported that 38.7 percent of Costa Rican households have been affected by some form of violence, including domestic violence, child abuse, homicides, and assaults as a result of organized crime. According to the same UNDP survey, 77 percent of citizens perceive the country to be unsafe.

At least 500,000 Nicaraguan immigrants live in the country illegally, causing some alarm given the overall population of 4.5 million. In August 2006, the legislature enacted a law that permits security forces to raid any home, business, or vehicle where they suspect the presence of undocumented immigrants, and allows police to detain immigrants indefinitely. There have been reports of abuse and extortion of migrants by the Border Guard.

Indigenous rights are not a government priority, and it is estimated by NGOs that about 73 percent of the country’s 70,000 indigenous people live in remote areas with little access to health and education services, electricity, or potable water. The infant mortality rate in indigenous communities is 13.1 per 1,000 births and can reach 18.4 in some areas, compared with a national rate of 9.2. According to UNICEF, only 21 percent of indigenous youth have more than a primary-school education, and only 0.001 percent attend college. 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. The majority of female employment is in the informal sector, where women on average earn 50 percent less than men. According to a study cited by Inforpress Centroamericana, Costa Rica is ranked 128 out 144 countries rated for gender equality in the workplace.

Violence against women and children is a major problem. The Patronato Nacional de la Infancia reports that approximately 3,500 children were victims of sexual exploitation in 2007. An increasing number of sex tourists visit Costa Rica as a negative offshoot of the country’s successful tourism industry, and a 1999 law criminalizing sex with minors has failed to curb the problem. Costa Rica is also a transit and destination country for trafficked persons. In 2005, the Judicial Investigative Police created a new unit dedicated to combating human trafficking, but few of the hundreds of investigations launched resulted in convictions. Costa Rica passed a law in July 2007 that, among other things, criminalizes the possession of child pornography and makes sex with minors punishable by 13 to 16 years in prison.

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)