Country profile: Costa Rica

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Costa Rica: Country Profile

Gustavo Fuchs looks at the country that people call ‘Central American Switzerland’

When Isaac Felipe Azofeifa studied the history of Costa Rica, he said it thinks it is ‘a country without problems, that must stay isolated from the insanity of the world’.

Its history is very different from its neighbours. It is proud that is one of the most stable democracies in central America. So people call it the ‘Central American Switzerland’.

Democracy in Costa Rica began to be successful at the end of the short civil war in 1948. The head of the Catholic Church, the Communist Party leader and a social-democrat caudillo (Jose Figueres Ferrer) made the Ochomogo agreement. This was the beginning of the modern welfare state (that president Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia had already proposed).

They banned the Communist Party but created a transparent electoral system which is still a good example to the world. One year after the war the government took the big decision to abolish the army – unusual in the region that has many military dictatorships.


Figueres and Calderon are the ‘founders’ of modern Costa Rica. They started two main political parties. Figueres started the main National Liberation Party, and Calderon had to leave the country in exile after the 1948 war. Many different ‘Calderonist’ parties started, and these finally joined together to create the Social-Christian Unity Party in 1984.

Until 2014 these two parties worked together to share power. They introduced more neoliberal changes so the inequality improved by the end of the 1990s. When Laura Chinchilla was President (2010-14), Costa Rica had most unemployment and inequality; there were also corruption scandals in her government. So people did not vote for the traditional parties in the 2014 and 2018 elections.

The Citizens’ Action Party won. They are leftwing and fought against corruption and against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and for more popular democratic participation.

Costa Rica is also famous for policy to protect the environment: the country has five per cent of the world’s biodiversity, over a quarter of the land is protected and all of its energy comes from renewable sources.

All this is mainly because of the people, not the government. Education about the environment motivated them. They stopped the open mining project Crucitas, by legal challenges and protests. In the past, they have also stopped mining and oil exploration.

Maybe the biggest protest was in 2000, against the privatization of the state-owned Electricity Institute, the main telecoms company. With the support of the people, the company has survived, even with competition and has not gone private.

Costa Rica spends more than 23 per cent of GDP on social-inclusion programmes. It has more direct foreign investment than ever before, and poverty is still at about 20 per cent.

Corruption is also a big problem. The recent ‘Cementazo’ case showed that all three parts of government are corrupt. Many people do not pay tax and the government now wants to change the tax system, so life will become more expensive for the middle class.

Carlos Alvarado Quesada became the new president in April. He beat a conservative evangelical Christian. This shows people want to fight against corruption and tax evasion.

Fact file

Leader: President Carlos Alvarado Quesada.

Economy: GNI per capita $10,840 (Nicaragua $2,100, US $56,810).

Money: Colón

Main exports: Medical instruments, banana (plantain), tropical fruits, orthopaedic equipment and coffee. Costa Rica opened its economy in the 1990s. They have signed many trade deals and they bet on foreign capital as the main development strategy. This has made them too dependent on tax-free zones, to attract foreign transnational companies. National producers and farmers have suffered because of this. The US is still the main trading partner.

People: 4.9 million, annual growth rate of 1.0%. People per square kilometre 95 (UK 271).

Health: Infant mortality rate: 8 per 1,000 (Nicaragua 17, US 6). HIV 0.4%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 2,100 (US 1 in 3,800). There is universal healthcare for all citizens and foreigners.

Environment: In general, this is good but the country has many challenges because of its economic model. Environmental groups want the expansion of pineapple plantations to stop. These destroy the soil and use a lot of are chemicals. Large-scale commercial fishing is killing some native species eg. rays and sharks.

Culture: Most of the population (over 80%) is mestizo (mixed indigenous and Hispanic), but there is a large Afro-Caribbean community (8%). The Bribri and Cabecar (2.4% of the population) are the largest of eight indigenous groups.

Religion: Christian, including Catholic (70%), Evangelical (17%).

Language: Spanish (official). A few indigenous communities speak Malecu, Cabecar, Bribri, Guaymi and Bocota. On the Caribbean coast many people speak Mekatelyu.

Human Development Index: 0.776, 66th of 188 countries (Nicaragua 0.645, US 0.920).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution ★★★ Gini index: 0.49 (2015, compared to 0.32 OECD average and 0.50 Latin America average). Inequality has increased in recent years. Tax evasion is 8% of the GDP and tax money comes mainly from regressive taxes.

Literacy ★★★★★ 97%.

Life expectancy ★★★★★ 80 years (Nicaragua 75, US 79). Higher life expectancy than the US even though they are a lot poorer.

Freedom ★★★★ Press and political freedom is generally good, but only a few people own the media. Crime is the main problem. The country is now an important link between South and North America for drug gangs and organized crime has increased in recent years.

Position of women ★★★ Some parties in congress are trying to close the National Women’s Institute (INAMU) – this has advanced policies in support of women’s social and economic rights. Abortion has been legal since 1970, but not many people abort because society thinks abortion is bad.

Sexual minorities★★★ Homosexuality has been legal since 1971, anti-gay discrimination is illegal, and the government has made many changes to give equal rights to the LGBTIQ community. But there is still a lot of homophobia.

New Internationalist assessment:


★★★★ GOOD

★★★ FAIR




(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).