Costa Rica is located in Central America, between Nicaragua and Panama. The country has adopted several rather, depending on your view, "socialist" or "libertarian" policies (what's the difference eh?) including the abolition of its army in 1948. Costa Rica is a democratic republic, and in civil and political terms it is remarkably stable compared to most of its neighbors. Costa Rica has a sizable ex-pat community from the United States which has caused the crime rate, formerly so low it wasn't even worth mentioning, to rise to about the level of that in Panama, which coincidentally also has a sizable U.S. ex-pat community. This may or may not be a spurious correlation; however, don't bet your life on it. In fact, stay out of Costa Rica. The scuba diving there, at least on the Atlantic side, is too good to share with the likes of you.
Costa Rica's flag is - totally by accident - the exact inverse of the flag of Thailand (which incidentally is also a favorite destination for expats and tourists, but has often been run by its army). Like all Central American countries that gained independence in 1821 (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica), Costa Rica was initially part of the short-lived "united provinces of Central America" whose blue-white-blue tricolor serves as the base of all those countries' flags to this day. While the other countries kept the color layout and only added different coats of arms or rotated it by 90 degrees, the Ticos (local Spanish for Costa Ricans) decided to be different and added a red stripe in the middle of the white stripe. Hence they were red, white, and blue before it was cool.
Several small pre-Columbian kingdoms existed in the region that is now Costa Rica, influenced by but fully independent from the main neighboring powers, the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, a regional isolationism that was passed on to future Costa Ricans. Christopher Columbus visited modern-day Limón province on his fourth and last trip and reported vast quantities of gold jewelry worn by the natives. He called the area "Costa Rica" or "Rich Coast" as a publicity stunt to attract colonists, which failed. Costa Rica was in fact, poor, and had not as much gold as expected. Legend has it that this is the reason why Costa Ricans do not have such hierarchic social structure as other countries in Latin America as the lack of resources in the then Spanish Empire's colony made everyone, including the governor, work the land. Of course, this idea has been questioned by many historians, but it is true that Costa Rican society, while dominated by a rich oligarchy, was never as hierarchic as its neighbors.
In any case, after a little over 300 years of Spanish domain (excepting the area of Talamanca, which remained essentially unconquered), around 1821 Costa Rica gained independence by default only because the Spanish Empire crumbled thanks to the rebels in other areas. As the rest of Central America was temporarily part of the First Mexican Empire with near to zero political influence from Mexico, and after the fall of the empire, Costa Rica became a member of the Central American Federal Republic. This entity disbanded in 1848 after a bloody civil war, making Costa Rica fully independent for the first time.
Unlike other Latin American countries it didn’t have wars between liberals and conservatives. Liberals (and mostly Masons) had full domain and hegemony over the country. All presidents from independence to the 40s were liberals with two exceptions, Vicente Herrera,, who was conservative (but the puppet of Liberal ex dictator Tomás Guardia), and José Joaquín Rodríguez, who won thanks to the Catholic Church's support but soon after broke up with them much to their annoyance. Many of these governments were quite progressive in many regards but also very authoritarian.
During the 20th century Costa Rica had a brief dictatorship of two years when President Alfredo González was overthrown by his War Minister Federico Tinoco for trying to increase taxes to the rich. In an amazingly uncommon response the US did not endorse the coup and actually supported the opposition, which probably helped the final defeat of Tinoco, who is to this day quite hated, to the point of having his picture taken away from the Presidents' Hall in the Parliament building.
In any case, around the 30s social unrest, workers' strikes and the first left-wing parties (social democrats, socialists, communists, anarchists, etc.) started to question the liberal-led economic system. Around this time progressive physician Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia becomes president. Influenced by the Church's Social Doctrine and in alliance with the Communists, he instituted a general social reform creating many of Costa Rica's social institutions, labor laws, and establishing universal healthcare. These reforms, plus accusations of voter fraud and corruption, eventually led to the 1948 Civil War. The rebel faction led by José Figueres Ferrer and his National Liberation Army won the war, ruling de facto for 18 months and then giving power to democratically elected President Otilio Ulate, a liberal. After that what was basically a two-party system was born between the two main factions of the war: the Figueristas around the center-left National Liberation Party, and the Calderonistas who, in alliance with the liberals (like Ulate who switched allegiances after the war) formed several center-right alliances that eventually merged into the Social Christian Party. The Constitution made the creation of anti-democratic parties illegal in 1949, effectively outlawing Communist parties (the only ones this prohibition was ever applied to) but as post-war tensions subsided, Communist parties were de facto (albeit not de jure) tolerated, as long as they used some other name like “Socialist” instead of Communist. The prohibition was lifted in 1978.
This two-party system was kept more or less until 2002 when after a series of corruption scandals with the two main parties, new political forces, most notably the left-leaning Citizens' Action Party, started to rise in the political landscape, turning it into a multi-party system. PAC would eventually win the 2014 election with its candidate historian and sociologist Luis Guillermo Solís.
The 2018 elections
The 2018 presidential election was especially peculiar to say the least. A series of corruption scandals involving all branches of government caused an uproar in public opinion, at first making ambulance-chaser lawyer and local nutjob Juan Diego Castro the frontrunner. Nicknamed by The New York Times the "Tropical Trump", in reality Castro is more like Costa Rica's version of Alex Jones: a conspiracy theorist posting crazy videos online against the political establishment. But his anti-corruption right-wing populist rhetoric did help him at first, being compared to guys like Trump, LePen and Duterte. Thankfully Castro's craziness started to scare any normal Tico, thus affecting his support in polls for late November.
After the IACHR's ruling over same-sex marriage the backlash from the conservatives and counter-reaction from the progressives pretty much split the election, pushing two candidates into the second round: Fabricio Alvarado, a Christian singer, preacher and then sole Congressman of the National Restoration Party (PREN), and Carlos Alvarado, writer, political scientist and former minister of Labor from then ruling Citizens’ Action (PAC). Before neither of them had any real chance as they were fifth and sixth on the polls. The former was because he comes from a minor party supported only by the Evangelical minority and some of the ultra-conservative Catholics, the latter because despite coming from a major party he was affected by the government’s unpopularity. But things change as people against gay marriage, including some Catholics and non-religious, chose Fabricio "to make a stand" on the issue, whilst all the progressives voted for Carlos to counter them.
Of course once the first round past and no candidate reached 40% as is required to win, a second round was called with the two Alvarados. Then other topics besides whether homosexuals should marry or not started to surface: like tax reform, foreign debt, fiscal crisis and the economy. Most polls showed Fabricio's advantage over Carlos of some 20%, except the Universidad de Costa Rica0s poll which showed a tie, and Universidad Nacional's that showed Carlos winning by 20%. Nevertheless, several things including Carlos’ performance in the debates, the support given by popular politician Rodolfo Piza and several screwups from Fabricio helped change things. Probably one of the more meaningful – ironically — was a news report about Fabricio’s "spiritual father" and mentor tele-evangelist Ronny Chaves calling Costa Rica's patron saint "La Negrita" (la Virgen de los Ángeles) a demon, causing outrage from the Catholics, whilst Carlos on the contrary made a certain emphasis on the fact that he, himself, was Catholic despite his progressive views in certain topics. Thus, curiously, Carlos Alvarado was able to gain the support of both the (moderate) Catholics and the secular progressives. Costa Rica dodged the bullet with Carlos winning 60% over Fabricio's 39%, showing that it wasn't going to follow the right-wing populist route of other countries.
Of course, the Parliament ended with 14 ultra-conservative deputies out of 57 (as legislative elections are held at the same time as the presidential first round) and the consequences of such are yet to be seen.
Costa Rica is a democratic presidential republic. It’s sometimes nicknamed “the oldest democracy in Latin America” which might be true; its last coup was in 1948 and since then the political system has been quite
boring stable. Costa Rica’s President is elected once each four years with no consecutive reelection allowed (the President must let at least one presidential period pass before seeking reelection). It has four (yes four, not three) branches of government: Executive, Legislative, Judicial and Electoral. The Electoral Court is constitutionally established as a separate fourth branch (take that, Rousseau). The Parliament, named the Asamblea Legislativa (Legislative Assembly), is composed of 57 democratically elected deputies from each of the country's provinces in closed party lists with proportional representation. The Supreme Court is composed of 22 justices appointed by the deputies and can’t be members of any party or have any political affiliation, at least in principle.
Costa Rican politics is full of paradoxes. On one hand it's considered one of the most hardcore anti-Communist countries in the region, with leftist parties rarely achieving over 3% of the vote, both when they were technically illegal but tolerated and when they were legal once again. But at the same time it has a noticeably “big government” with universal healthcare since the 40s, what is basically a welfare state, free education and very big state-run corporations for things like insurance, electricity and water which sounds pretty socialistic if you ask Fox News. Indeed during its long two-party system one party was social democratic and the other Christian Socialist.
To be fair, in the same way that far-left politics is generally rejected, so is the far right. No party with nationalistic or fascistic tendencies has ever had any kind of relevance. The Libertarians have the same problem, receiving similar electoral support to the Left. This is why the Costa Rican electorate is generally considered to be the epitome of centrism, generally fearing abrupt changes and radical proposals and always keeping things between center-left and center-right.
In general, the country hasn't had a dictatorship or authoritarian government in 70 years, unlike the rest of Latin America, but at the same time the status quo is so ingrained that making political changes and reforms is very hard. In a similar vein, whilst it indeed has a big government and a welfare state, since the 80s a lot of its policies were accused of neoliberalism and Washington consensus.
As the country has no army it has focused its efforts in diplomacy (probably as a way to cover its back in case someone wants to invade), trying to present itself as a diplomatic referee. The country is also officially neutral, albeit this neutrality is in paper only and it was a trusted ally of the US for all practical purposes.
Also critics said that the no army thing, like in the case of Japan, is In Name Only as the Public Force have some limited military capacities. In any case, the money it saves in not having a standing army was redirected toward education and health, which goes a long way. Costa Rica has a nearly 99% rate of literacy, a life expectancy superior to the US (78), one of the lowest infancy death rates in the world and better health indicators for the poor and elderly than, again, the US. Though to be fair, that's not hard.
The main political parties are:
- Citizens' Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana) or PAC: Currently in power, it is essentially a Progressive culturally liberal center-left party founded in 2000 as an alternative to the two traditional parties and led by the charismatic Ottón Solís. It managed to break the two-party system and was the main opposition for a decade, reaching government in 2014 with candidate Luis Guillermo Solís (no relation to Ottón). It endorses same-sex marriage and has a strong base among the LGBT community; it also has some environmental principles although they were not fully applied during its first government. They expanded healthcare benefits to same-sex couples, legalized In Vitro Fertilization, promoted lay scientific education and self-sued themselves in the Inter-American Human Rights Court to force the State to recognize same-sex marriage, maybe changing the whole continent. Despite having a somewhat unpopular government under Luis Guillermo Solís including a corruption scandal, it was re-elected thanks to its candidate Carlos Alvarado winning in 2014 election with more than 60% on second round, although it helped that his rival was a far-right ultra-Conservative Christian preacher. It’s a member of the Progressive Alliance.
- National Libertation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional) or PLN: Currently the main opposition. Officially social democratic and member of the Socialist International, in practice generally considered to be right-wing, at least since the 80s. Founded by the winning side of the Civil War in 1948 using the old Social Democratic Party as a basis it had a progressive leaning during most of its history and became a dominant party having most governments between 1949 and 1982 until the two-party system was born. At some point in the 80s it started to switch more toward neoliberal policies, particularly during the Oscar Arias presidency and since then it’s been basically considered center-right. Due to its historical origins, enormous size (it is by far the biggest and most well-organized party) and multiple corruption scandals, most non-traditional voters hate it and generally people of all other parties, disregarding ideological considerations, will side with whatever candidate faces the PLN in second round. The most egregious example of this is the 2014 second round with PLN’s candidate and San José Mayor Johnny Araya losing to PAC’s Luis Guillermo Solís 20% to 80%. The party is much more socially conservative than PAC (opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, albeit accepting same-sex civil partnerships) which kind of contradicts its alleged social-democratic principles, although this social conservativism is more or less for electoral purposes and will probably change in the future.
- Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana) or PUSC: Founded in 1982 with the merger of four center-right parties. Members of the so-called Unity Coalition that won over PLN in 1978, it was the political heir of Calderon Guardia's faction that lost the 1948 Civil War, for which members were often known as “Calderonistas”. Nevertheless the party had several internal currents including Liberals and Christian Democrats. It was part of the two-party system between 1982 and 2006, generally switching position as government and opposition with PLN. But, affected by notable corruption scandals that caused two of its former Presidents to end up in jail (one of them convicted and the other released on a technicality) the party crumbled electorally, reaching bottom support of around 3% and quickly replaced by PAC as PLN’s main alternative. After the 2013 primary election the Calderonista candidate won the election, but resigned after a couple months due to internal fighting. The Calderonistas made their own party; the Social Christian Republican left the Liberals in full control of PUSC. The party saw a recovery for the 2018 elections with its candidate Rodolfo Piza among the first places (fourth place and 15% support). Ideologically it is Democratic Christian in name only–similar to how PLN is Social Democratic—having more of a neoliberal position in economics. Relatively socially liberal for a Christian Democratic party in Latin America, it supports same-sex partnerships and In Vitro Fertilization, but it has some conservative-leaning ideas especially regarding sex ed and gay marriage (again, most likely due to electoral worries). Its offspring PRSC is much more Conservative in every way.
- Broad Front (Frente Amplio) or FA: The most left-wing party apart from some marginal extra-parliamentary Trotskyist groups. It's a member of the Sao Paulo Forum and ideologically close to Bolivarianism and 21 first Century Socialism. It endorses same-sex marriage and government-paid sex change operations. Ironically it’s also the only party that made some (former) Catholic priests deputies, though they were Liberation Theology adherents. Its best electoral performance to date was in 2014 with its candidate José María Villalta reaching 17% of the vote, a historical high for the Left, but current polls show normal support (if not lower) for the 2018 election. Having a fetish for Venezuela might have something to do with it.
- Libertarian Movement (Movimiento Libertario) or ML: Founded in 1994, it was originally faithful to its name as a libertarian party with very radical ideas for the time including endorsing same-sex marriage, decriminalization of recreational drugs, privatization of state companies and small government. Of these, only the small government part remains. As the party started to have more popular support its perennial candidate Otto Guevara started to switch its positions to suit them better to (what he judged) what the electorate wanted to hear, thus setting aside things like privatization of state companies (a taboo subject in statist Costa Rica), changing “legalization of drugs” to actually hardline war on drugs and crime, and of course changing support to same-sex marriage and abortion to defending "family" and Christian values. This didn't really work out for him as its liberal base just went away to other parties and no one on the conservative side really bought it so his electoral support diminished in every election. Of course, several corruption scandals involving the party certainly didn’t help matters. It was a member of the Liberal International but was expelled after a corruption scandal involving funds from it.
- The Christian parties: Costa Rica has four religious parties: Costa Rican Renewal (the oldest one), Costa Rican Restoration, Christian Democratic Alliance and Accessibility without Exclusion. This last one was actually a secular party intended to represent people with disabilities but for unknown reasons sides with the Christians in everything. The first three basically pander to the ultra-conservative Evangelical minority and are something like Costa Rica’s version of the Tea Party. Their positions on social matters should be pretty obvious. Of these parties only National Restoration seems to have a notable impact in the recent election, mainly due to some backlash around the Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, plus its presidential nominee's fame as a Christian singer, reaching unusual support and even gathering some of the Catholic vote for the first time. Thankfully it didn't worked.
Culture, LGBT rights, and other topics
Costa Rica is generally considered one of the most socially liberal and gay-friendly countries among its neighbors (though that's not saying much). Costa Rica is included among gay-friendly touristic destinations. Both the private sector and the Ministry of Tourism have taken efforts to promote the country for gay tourism. As with other many things, Costa Rica is paradoxical and mostly follows a “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” ideology. In that sense, openly homosexual behavior might face prejudice (though rarely violence) but too extreme homophobic positions may face rejection too. The average position is somewhere in between with the average Costa Rican being more or less conservative but tolerant of homosexuality as long as it's discreet, and at the same time rejecting violent or hateful public speech including homophobia. The “centrism” once again.
During Luis Guillermo Solís's tenure several actions in favor of the LGBTI community were taken including: healthcare for same-sex couples, medical treatment for transgender people including hormonal treatment, counseling and sex change operations if needed, and bills for the recognition of same-sex couples were presented by the Executive in the Assembly (although it was frontally stopped by filibusters by the Evangelical parties). All of these measures were pretty controversial. Most polls show that most Costa Ricans oppose gay marriage, but by a relatively slight margin, and the opposition is mostly among older generations whereas its support among younger people is in the majority. Same-sex civil unions have more support and some polls put it the majority or at least even. Adoption has always been legal as no law ever forbade it but until recently could only be made by gay individuals and not couples. As it has no army the issue about openly gay members in the military does not apply, but openly gay and lesbian people can be members of the country’s
almost army Public Force (the civil defense/police agency). Gay marriage was legalized by Court ruling, specifically the Inter-American Court of Human Rights after a motion lodged by the government to clarify the extent of how the American Convention of Human Rights covers same-sex couples. The government didn't fool anyone as it was obvious it already knew what the answer was going to be, but never mind… The Court ruled as expected, granting the same rights to all same-sex couples including marriage. The Electoral Court (in charge of marriage licenses) announced that it will abide by the decision. Costa Rica’s constitution recognizes the IACHR as the maximum appealing court thus it’s expected the Supreme Court will also abide by the sentence in future rulings. The effect of the ruling might be regional as 22 countries recognize the IACHR as the highest appealing court which might force them to comply too (of which Panama has already announced it will) thus, yeah, pretty much Costa Rica made gay marriage legal in Latin America.
This of course caused both celebrations and outrage, the latter especially among the Catholic Church, Evangelicals and conservatives. Curiously the two candidates with the clearest positions in favor and against it, Carlos Alvarado of PAC (in favor) and Fabricio Alvarado of PREN (against), saw an increase in their social media poll support, maybe due to polarization among progressive and conservative voters in the wake of the ruling.
Therapeutic abortion is legal since 1978, though applying the statute may face problems as it is very loosely defined. The Solís Administration has been working on a code to regulate (with, naturally, the opposition of the Catholic Church, the Evangelicals and Conservative politicians). Expanding abortion apart from therapeutic is such a taboo subject that none of the main parties support it and no mainstream politician dares to speak openly about it. The closest thing is that some politicians like Luis Guillermo Solís supported extending it to cases of rape (and that was pretty controversial). Some far-left groups support full legalization of abortion.
Sex education was another controversial topic. Solís’ government started a new type of secular and scientifically based Sex education guides to be applied in all high schools. These quickly evolved in accusation of promoting homosexuality and “gender ideology”, mainly because the guides were not openly homophobic and did not consider sex to be sinful. Supporters and opponents debated in social media for months and many politicians tried to take advantage of the polemic mainly siding with the opponents (who were perceived to be the majority) with the hope of gaining votes. The Catholic Church organized an anti-Sex ed guides rally gathering around 800,000 participants and most presidential candidates (excepting of course PAC’s and FA’s). Although the rally was clearly a show of strength on behalf of the opponents, it’s unclear how large the supporters of sex-ed are, as Costa Rica also has a notable secular and liberal segment of the population that hates to go to rallies, but votes.
Costa Rica is generally included among the richest countries of Latin America, alongside Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. And, curiously, like these countries it also has some of the highest income gaps. In general poverty is around 13%, which is pretty low by Latin American standards, and it has a very large and noticeable middle class, to which most Costa Ricans belong.
Costa Rica depends mostly on export of commodities, especially coffee and bananas. As other giants of coffee production like Brazil and Colombia are almost impossible to beat in quantity, Costa Rican coffee focus on quality. Tourism is another important source of income, including the now popular medical tourism
and the always popular sex tourism . As it has one of the highest levels of English proficiency in the region, call centers are very common. It is also starting to try its hand at manufacturing and exporting technology.
The Costa Rican welfare state has certainly helped most of its good indicators, including high levels of health, education and life expectancy by Latin American standards, and the relatively low poverty levels which are almost unique in Central America (alongside Panama). But it has other problems, such as an asphyxiating bureaucracy, terrible infrastructure and a dangerous fiscal deficit.
The debate for tax reform is in the political arena since Abel Pacheco's government in 2002-2006 period, with all presidents since him trying to increase taxes to no avail.
Religious affiliation is not included in the census so the numbers are generally taken from statistics and polls. Costa Rica’s main religion is Roman Catholicism, followed by around 60-65% of the population, with only around 40% considering themselves practicing Catholics. This is one of the lower percentages in Latin America, yet the Catholic Church is still very influential and the Constitution established it as the official religion, turning Costa Rica into the only confessional state of the Americas. Even so, Catholicism is in steep decline, reducing in numbers every year. On the other hand, the number of Evangelical Christians (around 21%) and atheist/agnostics/irreligious (around 9-11%) increases every year. So, obviously most people are leaving the Catholic Church for those two. As expected, Evangelicals are extremely socially conservative whilst agnostics tend to be liberals, Catholics are kind of in between with the conservative Catholics usually more moderate than the Evangelicals and, in compensation, the liberal Catholics generally less secularist than the agnostics. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses also exist in the thousands which is a problem given their custom of waking up people on Saturday mornings.
Buddhists made the next largest group with some 100,000, around 2% of the population, the largest community in Central America and one of the largest in the Americas. It's mostly Asian migrants but with a sizable number of converts. There are also some 3000 Jews, 500 Muslims and an undefined (but minor) number of Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, Taoists, Neo-Pagans, Rastafarians, and Luciferians. The traditional shamanic religion is still practiced among some of the indigenous peoples, most notably the Bribris.
The Theosophical Society had an interesting role in Costa Rica, introducing many new ideas. Founded in the country in the late 19th century it was popular among several intellectuals, artists, poets and politicians. It was responsible for the introduction of the first Buddhist ideas outside of the Asian community and into the mainstream. It was also a theosophist, poet and educator, Roberto Brenes Mesén, who first taught the theory of evolution in the country as a principle of the Liceo de Heredia, which caused an uproar and reaction from the Church and angry parents back in the 30s.
The Church of Scientology also has a branch in Costa Rica but hasn't drafted any celebrities yet.
- Rush Limbaugh once said that if Obama's Affordable Care Act ever passed he would move to Costa Rica, a country that ironically has universal healthcare since 1941. Predictably, he didn't follow through on his promise.
- Costa Rica is the country with the eighth largest number of Americans overseas, but as they are generally white and rich they are not immigrants, but expats.
- Diquis spheres, the stone spheres of Costa Rica
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