U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BACKGROUND NOTES: COSTA RICA
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Official Name: Republic of Costa Rica
Area: 51,032 sq. km. (19,652 sq. mi.), slightly smaller than West
Cities: Capital--San Jose (metropolitan area population more than 1
million). Other major cities--Alajuela (200,000), Puntarenas
(200,000), Limon (150,000), Cartago (150,000).
Terrain: A rugged, central range separates eastern and western coastal
Climate: Mild in the central highlands, tropical and subtropical in
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Costa Rican(s).
Population: 3.2 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.4%.
Ethnic groups: European and some mestizo 94%; African origin 3%;
Religion: Roman Catholic 80%, Evangelical Protestant 15%.
Languages: Spanish, with Jamaican dialect of English spoken around
Education: Years compulsory--6. Attendance--nearly 100%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--13/1,000. Life expectancy--men 72
years; women 76 years.
Work force (1993, 1.1 million): Agriculture--24%. Community and
personal services--22%. Industry--19%. Commerce--22%.
Construction--5%. Transportation and warehouse--4%. Banking and
Type: Democratic republic.
Independence: September 15, 1821.
Constitution: November 9, 1949.
Branches: Executive--president (head of government and chief of state)
elected for one four-year term, two vice presidents, cabinet (20
ministers). Legislative--57-deputy unicameral Legislative Assembly
elected at four-year intervals. Judicial--Supreme Court of Justice (22
magistrates elected by Legislative Assembly at eight-year intervals).
Subdivisions: Seven provinces divided into 80 cantons subdivided into
Political parties: Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), National
Liberation Party (PLN), Democratic Force Party (PFD), Agricultural
Union Party of Cartago (PUAC), National Agrarian Party (PAN).
Suffrage: Obligatory at 18.
GDP (1993): $6 billion.
Real growth rate (1993): 6.5%.
Per capita income (1993): $1,864.
Natural resources: Hydroelectric power. Industry (22% of GDP):
Types--food processing, textiles and clothing, construction materials,
fertilizer, petroleum refining.
Agriculture (19% of GDP): Products--bananas, coffee, beef, sugarcane,
rice, vegetables, ornamental plants and fruits. Commerce and tourism
(30% of GDP): hotels, restaurants, stores, tourist services.
Trade (1993): Exports--$2.1 billion: bananas, coffee, beef, textiles
and clothing, sugar, fruits, flowers and ornamental plants. Major
Central America 13%, Germany 10%. Imports--$2.9 billion: manufactured
goods, machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, fuel,
foodstuffs, fertilizer. Major suppliers--U.S. 45%, Japan 15%, Central
Exchange rate: 158 colones=U.S. $1.
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
Unlike many of their Central American neighbors, present-day Costa
Ricans are largely of European rather than mestizo descent; Spain was
the primary country of origin. Few of the native Indians survived
European contact; the indigenous population today numbers about 64,000,
or 2% of the population. Descendants of 19th-century Jamaican
immigrant workers constitute an English-speaking minority and--at 3% of
the population--number about 96,000.
In 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher
Columbus made the first European landfall in the area. Settlement of
Costa Rica began in 1522. For nearly three centuries the region was
administered by Spain as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala
under a military governor. The Spanish optimistically called the
country "Rich Coast," but the name proved inaccurate. Finding little
gold or other valuable minerals in Costa Rica, the Spanish turned to
The small landowners' relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous
labor force, the population's ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and
Costa Rica's isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and
the Andes all contributed to the development of an autonomous and
individualistic agrarian society. An egalitarian tradition also arose;
this tradition survived the widened class distinctions brought on by
the 19th-century introduction of banana and coffee cultivation and
consequent accumulations of wealth.
In 1821, Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in a joint
declaration of independence from Spain. Although the newly independent
provinces formed a federation, border disputes broke out among them,
adding to the region's turbulent history and conditions. Costa Rica's
northern Guanacaste Province was annexed from Nicaragua in one such
regional dispute. In 1838, long after the Central American federation
ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and
proclaimed itself sovereign.
An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Rica began in 1889 with elections
considered the first truly free and honest ones in the country's
history. This began a trend continued until today with only two
lapses: In 1917-19, Federico Tinoco ruled as a dictator, and in 1948,
Jose Figueres led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed
With more than 2,000 dead, the brief civil war resulting from this
uprising was the bloodiest event in 20th-century Costa Rican history,
but the victorious junta drafted a constitution guaranteeing free
elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the army.
Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the
new constitution. Since then, Costa Rica has held 12 presidential
elections, the latest in 1994.
Costa Rica is a democratic republic with a strong system of
constitutional checks and balances. Executive responsibilities are
vested in a president, who is the country's center of power. There
also are two vice presidents and a 20-member cabinet. The president
and 57 Legislative Assembly deputies are elected for four-year terms.
A constitutional amendment approved in 1969 limits presidents and
deputies to one term, although a deputy may be returned to the assembly
after sitting out a term.
The electoral process is supervised by an independent Supreme Electoral
Tribunal--a commission of three principal magistrates and six
alternates selected by the Supreme Court of Justice. Judicial power is
exercised by the Supreme Court of Justice, composed of 22 magistrates
selected for eight-year terms by the Legislative Assembly, and
subsidiary courts. A constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court,
established in 1989, reviews the constitutionality of legislation and
executive decrees and all habeas corpus warrants.
The country's seven provinces are headed by governors appointed by the
president, but they exercise little power. There are no provincial
legislatures. Autonomous state agencies enjoy considerable operational
independence; they include the nationalized commercial banks, the state
insurance monopoly, and the social security agency. Costa Rica has no
military and maintains only a domestic police force for internal
Principal Government Officials
President--Jose Maria FIGUERES Olsen
Foreign Minister--Fernando NARANJO Villalobos
Ambassador to the United States--Sonia PICADO Sotela
Ambassador to the OAS--Dauslo JIMENEZ
Ambassador to the UN--Fernando BERROCAL
Costa Rica maintains an embassy in the United States at 2114 S Street
NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-328-6628).
Costa Rica long has emphasized the development of democracy and respect
for human rights. The country's political system has contrasted
sharply with many of its Central American and Caribbean neighbors; it
has steadily developed and maintained democratic institutions and an
orderly, constitutional scheme for government succession. Several
factors have contributed to this tendency, including enlightened
government leaders, comparative prosperity, flexible class lines and
educational opportunities that have created a stable middle class, and
high social indicators. Also, because Costa Rica has no armed forces,
it has avoided the possibility of political intrusiveness by the
military that some neighboring countries have experienced.
In the February 1994 elections, center-left National Liberation Party
(PLN) candidate Jose Maria Figueres was elected President, succeeding
Rafael Angel Calderon of the center-right Social Christian Unity Party
(PUSC). Figueres, the son of former President Jose "Don Pepe"
Figueres, defeated PUSC rival Miguel Angel Rodriguez in one of the
closest elections in Costa Rican history. By winning 28 of 57 seats,
the PLN regained a plurality in the legislature--which in 1990 it had
lost for the first time in more than 30 years. The PUSC won 25 seats,
while minor parties took the remaining four.
Social Democratic in orientation, the PLN generally has been the
dominant party in Costa Rica since 1948, when "Don Pepe" re-established
democracy and abolished the military in the wake of the short-lived but
violent civil war. The PUSC is aligned with Christian Democratic and
conservative parties in the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Costa Rican
governments have tended to alternate between moderately conservative
and moderately socialist as the PLN and various anti-PLN coalitions
have traded control of the presidency, although in 1974 and 1986, PLN
candidates succeeded PLN incumbents.
Despite trying to remain neutral, Costa Rica was affected adversely by
regional political turmoil in the late 1970s and the 1980s.
Instability in neighboring Nicaragua and Panama discouraged new
investment and tourism in Costa Rica. Many displaced Nicaraguans and
Salvadorans sought refuge there, further burdening the country's
educational and health facilities. In addition, an oil shock and debt
crisis made economic recovery difficult.
Following an economic crisis in the early 1980s, Costa Rica's approach
has aimed for macroeconomic stability, structural adjustment, and
growth through increasingly diversified exports. Gross domestic
product (GDP) growth has averaged 5% since 1987, non-traditional
exports and tourism have increased rapidly and now account for more
than 50% of foreign currency earnings, and official unemployment has
fallen to 4% and inflation to 9%. A debt buyback program under the
U.S. "Brady Plan" was completed in May 1990, enabling Costa Rica to
repurchase 60% of its commercial bank debt, cover interest for bonds
issued in exchange for part of debt, and cover payments on debt not
This successful macroeconomic performance masked serious fiscal
imbalances, however, such as a large public-sector deficit.
Immediately after taking office in 1990, the Calderon administration
began implementing a fiscal austerity program, including revenue
increases and expenditure reductions. The central government reduced
its deficit to 2% of GDP in 1992, but the deficit climbed back to 2.3%
of GDP in 1993. During 1993, the fiscal situation deteriorated
somewhat due to state financing of presidential, Legislative Assembly,
and local elections and the reduction in sales taxes and import duties.
The central government has also been required to spend one-third of
its budget on servicing its growing domestic debt of about $500
Programs of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the
Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) in Costa Rica have aimed to maintain stability
while promoting trade and investment liberalization. Such programs
have had success; USAID is scheduled to close its bilateral Costa Rican
mission in 1996 since Costa Rica has achieved "advanced developing
country" status. Further liberalization of Costa Rica's trade and
investment regimes and greater access to foreign markets by the
country's exporters would provide promising opportunities for foreign
and local investors and increased prosperity for Costa Rica.
Indeed, the country has sought to widen its economic and diplomatic
ties, including outside the region. Ties with the Group of
Three--Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela--are strong: in April 1994,
Costa Rica signed a bilateral free trade agreement with Mexico
scheduled to take effect January 1, 1995, and Costa Rica also is
discussing a possible free trade agreement with Colombia and Venezuela.
The United States and Costa Rica signed a bilateral trade and
investment framework agreement in November 1990 as a mechanism to
discuss trade and investment issues. Costa Rica has maintained
connections with the European Union, along with the other Central
American states, through annual ministerial consultations; the country
also became a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
(GATT) in 1990.
Costa Rica is an active member of the international community and, in
1993, proclaimed its permanent neutrality. Its record on human rights
and advocacy of peaceful settlement of disputes gives it a weight in
world affairs far beyond its size. The country lobbied strenuously for
the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and was
the first nation to recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American
Human Rights Court, which is based in San Jose.
In 1987, then-President Oscar Arias authored a regional peace plan that
served as the basis for the Esquipulas peace agreement. Arias' efforts
earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequent agreements,
supported by the United States, led to the Nicaraguan elections of 1990
and the end of civil war in Nicaragua. Costa Rica also hosted several
rounds of negotiations between the Salvadoran Government and the
Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), aiding El Salvador's
efforts to emerge from civil war and culminating in that country's 1994
free and fair elections. Costa Rica has been a strong proponent of
regional arms limitation agreements.
With the establishment of democratically elected governments in all
Central American nations by the early 1990s, Costa Rica turned its
focus from regional conflicts to the pursuit of democratic and economic
development on the isthmus. It was instrumental in drawing Panama into
the Central American development process and participated in the
multinational Partnership for Democracy and Development in Central
Regional political integration has not proven attractive to Costa Rica.
Under President Calderon, the country debated its role in the Central
American integration process. Costa Rica has been a cautious
partner--looking for concrete economic ties with its Central American
neighbors rather than political institutions--and has not become a
member of the Central American Parliament.
Costa Rica broke relations with Cuba in 1961 to protest Cuban support
of leftist subversion in Central America and has not renewed diplomatic
ties with the Castro regime.
Costa Rica strongly backed efforts by the United States to implement UN
Security Council Resolution 940, designed to facilitate the departure
of Haiti's de facto authorities from power. The country agreed to
contribute civilian medical personnel to the Multinational Force, which
restored the democratically elected Government of Haiti in October
U.S.-COSTA RICAN RELATIONS
The United States and Costa Rica have a history of close and friendly
relations based on respect for democratic government, human freedoms,
and other shared values. During the crisis in Central America in the
1980s, Costa Rica and the United States worked for the restoration of
peace and the establishment of democracy on the isthmus. Costa Rica
works cooperatively with the United States and other nations in the
international fight against narcotics trafficking.
The United States is the most important market for Costa Rican
products, and American companies produce a variety of goods in Costa
Rica. The two countries share growing concerns for the environment and
want to use wisely Costa Rica's important tropical resources and
prevent environmental degradation.
The United States responded to Costa Rica's economic needs in the 1980s
with significant economic and development assistance programs. Through
provision of more than $1.1 billion in assistance, USAID supported
Costa Rican efforts to stabilize its economy and broaden and accelerate
economic growth through policy reforms and trade liberalization. New
assistance initiatives in the 1990s have concentrated on democratic
politics, modernizing the administration of justice, and sustainable
development. The Peace Corps, with some 125 volunteers, helps develop
skills in agriculture, education, health, nutrition, and natural
As many as 25,000 American private citizens, mostly retirees, reside in
the country, and an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 American citizens
visit Costa Rica annually.
There have been some vexing issues in the U.S.-Costa Rican
relationship, principal among them long-standing expropriation and
other U.S. citizen investment disputes, which have hurt Costa Rica's
investment climate and produced bilateral tensions. In November 1993,
the Government of Costa Rica was notified that $10 million in fiscal
year 1989 economic support funds--withheld pending resolution of U.S.
citizen expropriation claims--would not be provided due to continued
slow movement on these claims. Land invasions from organized squatter
groups who target foreign landholders have also occurred, and some have
turned violent. The U.S. Government has made clear to Costa Rica its
concern that Costa Rican inattention to these issues has allowed U.S.
citizens to be threatened and their land taken without compensation in
a timely manner, and the new Figueres government has promised to
address the matter.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Peter Jon de Vos
Deputy Chief of Mission--Joseph Becelia
USAID Mission Director--Steven C. Wingert
Consul General--Kenneth F. Sackett
Political Counselor--Donald H. Harrington
Economic Counselor--Ben F. Fairfax
Administrative Counselor--Hanson R. Malpass
Commercial Attache--Maria Galindo
Agricultural Attache--Scott Bleggi
Public Affairs Officer--Frances Sullinger
The U.S. embassy in Costa Rica is located in Pavas at Boulevard Pavas
and Calle 120, San Jose (tel. 220-39-39).
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