Freedom in the World 2017 - Costa Rica

Freedom Status: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 

Costa Rica has a long history of democratic stability, with a multiparty political system and regular rotations of power through free and fair elections. Freedoms of expression and association are robust. The rule of law is generally strong, though past presidents have often been implicated in corruption scandals, and prisons remain overcrowded. Among other ongoing concerns, indigenous people and other ethnic minorities face some forms of discrimination, and land disputes involving indigenous communities persist.

Key Developments in 2016: 
  • The opposition National Liberation Party (PLN) won a majority of municipalities in February local elections, while the president’s Citizens’ Action Party placed a distant third.  
  • In May, the Legislative Assembly elected Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the PLN as its president, confirming opposition control over the body for another year.
  • In an October ruling, the Supreme Court rebuked a state-owned bank for withdrawing advertising from a major newspaper over its critical reporting.
Executive Summary: 

Opposition parties maintained control over the Legislative Assembly during 2016, complicating President Luis Guillermo Solís’s attempts to pass legislation that would address the country’s annual fiscal deficits. The deficit for the year was about 5.2 percent of gross domestic product, slightly better than expected, but significant tax and spending reform bills stalled in the legislature.

In a positive sign for transparency and accountability, President Solís compelled Labor Minister Víctor Morales to resign in March, just a day after the newspaper La Nación reported that the minister’s niece had been hired by the ministry in violation of an ethics code adopted the previous year.

In July, La Nación accused the state-owned Banco Nacional of withdrawing official advertising as a means of penalizing the paper for a series of investigative reports on alleged irregularities at the bank. An October ruling by the Supreme Court confirmed the newspaper’s claims, ordering the bank to adhere to its previous media spending plan and refrain from future attempts at indirect censorship.

The homicide rate continued to increase in 2016, reaching 11.8 per 100,000 residents; the figure was comparable to those in Costa Rica’s immediate neighbors, but still far below the rates in the region’s worst performers. A total of 579 murders were reported, compared with 566 in 2015. Overcrowding in prisons has been a chronic problem, and the courts intervened on several occasions during 2016 to force the government to ease crowding at specific facilities. Pretrial detainees account for less than a fifth of the prison population.

Political Rights

Political Rights 38 / 40 (+1)

A. Electoral Process 12 / 12

A1. Is the head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
A2. Are the national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework 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 open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
B2. Is there a significant opposition vote and a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?
B4. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups have full political rights and electoral opportunities?


C. Functioning of Government 11 / 12 (+1)

C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
C2. Is the government free from pervasive corruption?
C3. Is the government accountable to the electorate between elections, and does it operate with openness and transparency?


Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties 53 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief 16 / 16

D1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression?
D2. Are religious institutions and communities free to practice their faith and express themselves in public and private?
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
D4. Is there open and free private discussion?


E. Associational and Organizational Rights 11 / 12

E1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations?
E3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?


F. Rule of Law 13 / 16

F1. Is there an independent judiciary?
F2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Are police under direct civilian control?
F3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies?
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights 13 / 16

G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of travel or choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education?
G2. Do individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, political parties/organizations, or organized crime?
G3. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?
G4. Is there equality of opportunity and the absence of economic exploitation?


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology

Explanatory Note: 

This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Costa Rica, see Freedom in the World 2016.