More than 70 years ago, Costa Rica emerged from a civil war to become one of the only nations to abolish its military and redirect national resources toward education, health, social welfare and the environment. Today, Costa Rica is ranked high on the Global Peace Index, very high on the Positive Peace Index, and number 12 (of 156 nations) in the 2019 World Happiness Report.
Moreover, Costa Rica has strived for the constant consolidation of its political and legal system, including through the support and promotion of a dynamic civil society, and the provision of participatory and free judicial and administrative mechanisms for access to justice, remedies and redress. Notably, Costa Rica supported the creation of an autonomous Electoral Supreme Court which has supervised the holding of free and transparent elections and ensured 16 peaceful and continuous transitions of power since 1953.
The respect attached to the rule of law, as well as to peace, acknowledged by the Supreme Court as a human right, has laid the groundwork for Costa Rica to become one of the most consolidated liberal democracies, and one of top five countries with the highest levels of Representative Government in the world.
Host country of the University for Peace since 1980 through the proposal of a former Costa Rican president, Costa Rica has been a long-standing promoter of dialogue, mediation and peacebuilding in international conflicts. The Declaration of Perpetual, Active and Unarmed Neutrality of 1983 has informed Costa Rica’s international relations policy to promote peace, justice, solidarity and collaboration among its members.
However, despite these strengths, Costa Rica’s democracy and social fabric are not immune to challenges, including political polarization, an increasingly fragmented party system and the infusion of religion into politics. Additional challenges relate to changing demographic landscapes, shrinking labor opportunities, persistent levels of poverty and high levels of income inequality.
Political History (Post Civil War)
During elections held to appoint a new leader in February 1948, candidate Otilio Ulate won by a landslide against favored Rafael Angel Calderón, who had previously been president from 1940 to 1944 but was constitutionally ineligible to run again until 1948. After the elections, the Costa Rican Legislature alleged that Ulate had won by means of fraud, and the Civil War broke out on March 12th, 1948. On April 24th, a compromise was reached under which José Figueres, who led the National Liberation Army during the 44-day war, promised to restore order, preserve some of Calderón’s reforms, and then turn over the presidency to Ulate.
Figueres, now also known as Don Pepe, led the country for 18 months, drafted the Constitution of Costa Rica, turned over the presidency to Ulate as agreed, and was then elected twice in his own right, in 1953 and again in 1970. The Costa Rican Constitution, which has since been the supreme law of the country, is remarkable in the fact that it abolished the Costa Rican military, making it the second nation after Japan to do so by law. In addition, another uncommon clause amended the right to every Costa Rican to live in a healthy natural environment.
In the 1970s, radical socialists forced the military oligarchies of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua onto the defensive. While Costa Rica did not experience the same upsurge in radical politics as its northern neighbor, it was clear that the Cold War had arrived in the hot tropics. Back in the White House, Oliver North, a junior officer, was helping to incite civil war in Nicaragua. Under intense US pressure, Costa Rica was reluctantly dragged in; the U.S. backed Contras set up camp in northern Costa Rica, from where they staged guerrilla raids, and bribed Costa Rican authorities to keep quiet. Diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua grew nastier; border clashes between the two became bloodier; the war polarized Costa Rica.
The debate came to climax in the 1986 presidential election, when 44-year-old Oscar Arias was elected. Born to coffee wealth, Arias was an intellectual reformer in the mold of Figueres, his political patron. Once in office, Arias became the driving force in uniting Central America around a peace plan, which ended the Nicaraguan war. Indeed, he affirmed his commitment to a negotiated resolution with the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and reasserted Costa Rican national independence. He vowed to uphold his country’s pledge of neutrality and to expel the Contras from the territory. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2018, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, a member of the center-left Citizen’s Action Party, was elected President of Costa Rica. Alvarado built his presidential campaign around the defense of Human Rights and the call for unity in Costa Rica, as well as promising to support gay marriage. Epsy Campbell, his vice president candidate, is the country’s first Afro-Costa Rican to serve in that role. Nowadays, Costa Rica is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Central America for its natural beauty, comfortable lifestyle and peaceful democracy.
Economic and Social Background
Ever since the new Constitution was chartered, Costa Rica has made remarkable strides in improving living standards. A careful analysis of the Costa Rican socio–economic context of the past decades reveals a change from inward-looking economic policies to promote development within Costa Rica, to a model aimed at integrating the country into the world market. During his presidential term (1953–1958), Jose Figueres Ferrer carried out his program for turning Costa Rica into a social welfare state. Expenditures on education and public housing were increased and urban development programs were initiated, as were state agricultural programs. To pay for the programs, income taxes on the wealthy and on the United Fruit Company were more than doubled. The minimum wage was increased, additional jobs were created within government and imported products were more heavily taxed to encourage domestic production.
These policies contributed to a rapid expansion of the economy; however, a deep recession from 1980 to 1982 led Costa Rica to adopt a new economic strategy. The country privatized the majority of its state-owned enterprises, including some banks, adopted free-trade zones to attract investment, and gradually opened the domestic market to foreign competition.
Nowadays, Costa Ricans have access to free health care, basic education, and social services. Free-market policies have forced reductions in spending, but health and education indicators remain impressive.
Socially, Costa Ricans have been very united as a population. Indeed, although many upper-class families descended from a few Spanish conquistadores, levels of interaction between social classes were high well into the twentieth century. More recently, President Alvarado has called for a variety of public investments to foster economic growth and improve social welfare in the rural and coastal regions of Costa Rica that have benefitted the least from the growing and increasingly diverse economy.
Peace has been a big part of Costa Rica’s ideology, even before abolishing its standing military in 1949. Indeed, Costa Rica abolished the death penalty in 1882. Moreover, from 1907 to 1918, Costa Rica hosted the Central American Court of Justice, which was the first permanent international tribunal that allowed individuals to take legal action against states on international law and human rights issues. Later in 1949, President Jose Figueres Ferrer granted women and blacks the right to vote and redirected funds dedicated to the military to expanded and preserve the country’s social welfare system, and all this after being in power for only 18 months. The absence of a military and the centrality of peace are now a pivotal part of Costa Rican identity. Within this context, efforts to establish the University for Peace began at the United Nations under the leadership of the President of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Carazo, in 1980. In 2017, The Institute for Economics and Peace released its Global Peace Index, and Costa Rica was labeled the most peaceful country in Central America and the second most peaceful country in all of Latin America.
Costa Rica has long been celebrated for its leadership in environmental policy. After its civil war ended in 1949, the new Costa Rican Constitution included an amendment asserting the right to live in a healthy natural environment. In the following decades, the Costa Rican government sought to shift away from coal mining and insisted on the use of clean natural resources to produce electricity. Nevertheless, between 1950 and 1990, Costa Rica lost 65 percent of its forest cover, yet, through governmental financial incentives to landowners, the government was able to successfully reverse deforestation and more than double the country’s forest cover from 1983 levels.
Nowadays, more than 90% of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants and the Central American nation is preparing to cross the ultimate environmental frontier with a detailed plan to entirely decarbonize its economy by 2050. Current President Carlos Alvarado Quesada aims to achieve a carbon-neutral Costa Rican economy “through the electrification of transport, smart and resilient cities, sound waste management, sustainable agriculture and improved logistics.”
The country is acclaimed for its successful conservation program, that protects more than 10 percent of the country. As a result, Costa Rica has the highest density of plant and animal species on Earth; while Costa Rica’s surface area only represents 0.03% of the world’s surface, it is home to more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity!
Nevertheless, protecting such large areas of rainforest in Costa Rica is costly to the government, which found a way to finance environmental programs through eco-tourism. Business dogma assumes that there are winners and losers but sustainability policy in Costa Rica attempts to change this by eliminating the traditional losers of business – the environment, the local economy and culture. By focusing on factors that have traditionally been ignored, eco-tourism balances good business with good practice.
Pre-Civil War History
The first evidence of human settling in Costa Rica comes from around 10,000BC, more than 12,000 years ago. Between then and the colonial period, Costa Rica was home to at least 25 indigenous groups, each with its own culture and way of living. In 1502, the colonial period began as Christopher Columbus reached the eastern coast of Costa Rica.
Of all the Spanish colonies, Costa Rica enjoyed the least influence as a colony. Indeed, while Costa Rica holds its name “Rich Coast” because Columbus believed the land would be a large source of profits for Spain, it was initially a tough and unpopular place to settle, with few valuable or easily exploited resources. The Spanish were far more interested in developing their holdings in Mexico and Peru, where vast amounts of silver and gold were being obtained.
When Mexico rebelled against Spain in 1821, Costa Rica and the rest of Central America followed suit. At the time, Costa Rica, with other parts of Central America, briefly joined the Mexican Empire. In 1823 Costa Rica helped create and joined the Federal Republic of Central America with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. During its existence, the Federation faced many problems, and its disintegration began when Nicaragua separated from the federation in 1838, followed by Honduras and Costa Rica.
From the 1840s onwards, Costa Rican leaders quickly realized the potential of coffee cultivation and strove to promote coffee planting; a constant stream of oxcarts carried coffee from the Valle Central to Pacific ports and ships bound for Europe. The wealth generated by the export of coffee turned San Jose into a European-style city with boulevards and theaters.
In 1858 Costa Rica faced its first existential threat when US filibuster William Walker invaded Nicaragua and attempted to take over Costa Rica as well. However, he was defeated when he entered the country and after Walker, Costa Rica settled into comfortable obscurity, growing and exporting coffee, bananas, and pineapples.
By the late 19th century, bananas were beginning to rival coffee as the chief source of Costa Rican foreign exchange, especially after foreign investments were merged with others in 1899 to form the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that traded tropical fruits grown on Latin American plantations. While the United Fruit Company was a large multinational corporation with significant influence, particularly in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the latter emerged as a state that resisted its role as "banana republic," by reducing poverty, improving education and laws, and protecting about one quarter of its land from development.
In 1948, the Costa Rican Civil War broke out, and it was a short, vicious affair that killed over 2,000 people over the course of 44 days.