- The Best of Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Top Spots for WIldlife
- Costa Rica’s Most Beautiful Beaches
- Costa Rica’s Best Beaches for Wildlife
- Best Surfing Beaches in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Unique Retreats & Resorts
- Surf’s Up in Costa Rica
- Off-The-Beaten-Path Eco-Adventures
- Costa Rica Family-Friendly Adventures
- Adrenaline Rush
Costa Rica is a democratic republic, as defined by the 1949 Constitution. As in the United States, the government is divided into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with separation of powers.
The executive branch comprises the president, two vice presidents, and a cabinet of 17 members called the Council of Government (Consejo de Gobierno). Legislative power is vested in the Legislative Assembly, a unicameral body composed of 57 members. Diputados are elected for a four-year term, to a maximum of two terms. The Assembly can override presidential decisions by a two-thirds majority vote. The power of the legislature to go against the president’s wishes is a cause of constant friction, and presidents have not been cowardly in using executive decrees.
The Legislative Assembly also appoints Supreme Court judges for minimum terms of eight years. Twenty-four judges now serve on the Supreme Court. These judges, in turn, select judges for the civil and penal courts. The courts also appoint the three “permanent” magistrates of the Special Electoral Tribunal, an independent body that oversees each election and is given far-reaching powers. Control of the police force reverts to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal during election campaigns to help ensure constitutional guarantees.
The nation is divided into seven provinces— Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limón, Puntarenas, and San José—each ruled by a governor appointed by the president. The provinces are subdivided into 81 cantones (counties), which, in turn, are divided into a total of 421 distritos (districts) ruled by municipal councils.
The largest party is the National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN), founded by the statesman-hero of the Civil War, “Don Pepe” Figueres. The PLN, which roughly equates with European social democracy and American-style welfare-state liberalism, has traditionally enjoyed a majority in the legislature, even when an opposition president has been in power. Its support is traditionally drawn from among the middle-class professionals, entrepreneurs, and small farmers. PLN’s archrival, the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido de Unidad Social Cristiana, or PUSC), formed in 1982, represents more conservative interests.
In addition, a number of less influential parties represent all facets of the political spectrum, notably the Citizen Action Party (PAC), formed in 2002 by former Justice Minister José Miguel Villalobos, who resigned from the Abel Pacheco government to protest corruption. Most minor parties form around a candidate and represent personal ambitions rather than strong political convictions.
A small number of families are immensely powerful, regardless of which party is in power, and it is said that they pull the strings behind the scenes.
Costa Rica’s national elections, held every four years (on the first Sunday of February), reaffirm the pride Ticos feel for their democratic system. In the rest of Central America, says travel writer Paul Theroux, “an election can be a harrowing piece of criminality; in Costa Rica [it is] something of a fiesta.” Schoolchildren decked out in party colors usher voters to the voting booths. The streets are crisscrossed with flags, and everyone drives around honking their horns, throwing confetti, and holding up their purple- stained thumbs to show that they voted. (Cynics point out that most of the hoopla is because political favors are dispensed on a massive scale by the victorious party, and that it pays to demonstrate fealty.)
Costa Rican citizens enjoy universal suffrage, and citizens are automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthdays. Since 1959, voting has ostensibly been compulsory for all citizens under 70 years of age.
All parties are granted equal airtime on radio and television, and campaign costs are largely drawn from the public purse: Any party with 5 percent or more of the vote in the prior election can apply for a proportionate share of the official campaign fund, equal to 0.5 percent of the national budget.
Don’t expect to buy a drink in the immediate run-up to an election: Liquor and beer sales are banned for the preceding three days.
Little Costa Rica is big on government. Building on the reforms of the calderonista era, successive administrations have created an impressive array of health, education, and social-welfare programs while steadily expanding state enterprises and regulatory bodies, all of which spell a massive expansion of the government bureaucracy that pays the salaries of approximately one in four employed people.
Costa Rica’s government employees have nurtured bureaucratic formality to the level of art. The problem has given rise to despachantes, people who for a fee will wait in line and gather the necessary documents on your behalf.
Armed Forces and Police
Costa Rica has no army, navy, or air force. The nation disbanded its military forces in 1949, when it declared itself neutral. Nonetheless, Costa Rica’s police force has various powerfully armed branches with a military capability.
In 2000, the Central American Commission on Human Rights published a report castigating the nation for increased police corruption. The government has made serious efforts in recent years to purge the force of its cancer. Major investment, including new cars and equipment and better training, has resulted in a noticeably more professional police force in recent years, notably in the tourist and transit divisions. However, the local constabulary is underpaid and little educated.
Corruption and Cronyism
Despite the popular image as a beacon of democracy, nepotism and cronyism are entrenched in the Costa Rican political system, and corruption is part of the way things work. The political system is too weak to resist the “bite,” or bribery, locally called chorizo (a poor grade of bacon). Corruption is so endemic that a board game, suitably called Chorizo, was launched in 2000.
Abel Pacheco’s much-troubled government witnessed the resignation of 13 ministers, some allegedly due to financial irregularities, and former presidents Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, Rafael Ángel Calderón, and José Figueres have been indicted on corruption charges since leaving office.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition