U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Costa Rica, November 1996
Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs
Official Name: Republic of Costa Rica
Area: 51,032 sq. km. (19,652 sq. mi.) -- about twice the size of the
state of Vermont.
Cities: Capital -- San Jose (metropolitan area population of 1.2
million). Other major cities -- Alajuela (250,000), Puntarenas
(300,000), Limon (150,000), Cartago (150,000).
Terrain: A rugged, central range separates the eastern and western
Climate: Mild in the central highlands, tropical and subtropical in
PEOPLE (July 1995)
Nationality: Noun and adjective -- Costa Rican(s).
Population: 3.3 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.4%
Ethnic groups: European and some mestizo 94%, African origin 3%,
Religion: Roman Catholic approx. 85%, Evangelical Protestant approx.
15%, Others: Less than 1 %.
Languages: Spanish, with Jamaican dialect of English spoken around
Education: Years compulsory 9. Attendance nearly 100%.
Literacy -- 94%.
Health: Infant mortality rate -- 13/1,000. Life expectancy -- men 72
years, women 76 years.
Work Force (1995, 1.2 million): Services -- 45%, Agriculture -- 22%,
Industry - 17%, Construction -- 6%, Transportation -- 5%, Banking and
finance -- 4%.
Type: Democratic Republic.
Independence: September 15, 1821.
Constitution: November 7, 1949.
Branches: Executive -- President (Head of Government and Chief of
State) elected for one four-year term, two Vice Presidents, Cabinet (19
ministers). Legislature -- 57-Deputy unicameral Legislative Assembly
elected at four-year intervals. Judicial -- Supreme Court of Justice
(22 magistrates elected by Legislative Assembly for renewable eight-year
Subdivisions: Seven provinces, divided into 81 cantons, subdivided into
Political parties: National Liberation Party (PLN), Social Christian
Unity Party (PUSC), Democratic Force (FD) Agricultural Union Party of
Cartago (PUAC), National Agrarian Party (PAN).
Suffrage: Obligatory at 18.
GDP (1995) $9.3 billion.
Real growth rate (1995) 2.5%.
Per capita income (1995): $2,964
Natural resources: Hydroelectric power.
Industry (22% of GDP): Products-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 (40% of GDP): hotels, restaurants, tourist
services, banks and insurance.
Foreign Trade (1995): Exports - $2.6 billion: bananas, coffee, beef,
textiles and clothing, fruits, sugar, flowers and ornamental plants.
Major markets -- U.S. 42%, Europe 32%, Central America 16%, Japan 1%.
Imports--$3.3 billion: machinery, vehicles, consumer goods, chemicals,
petroleum products, foods, fertilizer. Major suppliers -- U.S. 48%,
Europe 28%, Japan 15%, Central America 5%.
Currency Exchange Rate: (Aug. 1996) 210 colones = $1.
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 Costa Rica's most important trading partner, and
over 200 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
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.
Assistance initiatives in the 1990s concentrated on democratic policies,
modernizing the administration of justice, and sustainable development.
The Peace Corps has some 100 volunteers, who provide technical
assistance in the areas of environmental education, natural resources,
management, small business development, basic business education, urban
youth and community education.
As many as 35,000 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. During the first two years of the Figueres
government significant progress has been made in resolving some
expropriation cases. However, several important cases remain
outstanding. Land invasions from organized squatter groups who target
foreign landowners 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 timely compensation, and the
Figueres government has promised to address the matter.
PRINCIPAL U.S. EMBASSY OFFICIALS
AMB: Peter Jon de Vos
DCM: Richard L. Baltimore III
POL: Mark Davison
ECON: Ben F. Fairfax
COM: Frank Foster
CON: Kathleen M. Daly
ADM: Arnold N. Munoz
RSO: Nace B. Crawford
PAO: Gary McElhiney
IPO: Howard R. Charles
ODR: Gayland Muse
AGR: Charles Bertsch
APHIS Region V: Eric Hoffman
APHIS Region VI: Mark Knez
The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica is located in Pavas at Boulevard Pavas
and Calle 120, San Jose.
Telephone: (220) 39 39.
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 29,000
or 1% 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, Spain
administered the region as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala
under a military Governor. The Spanish optimistically called the
country "Rich Coast." Finding little gold or other valuable minerals in
Costa Rica, however, the Spanish turned to agriculture.
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 1899 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 presidential
With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day 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 in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 10
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 19-member Cabinet (that includes one of
the Vice Presidents). 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 run again for an Assembly seat 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 renewable 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 domestic police and security forces for
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: Fernando HERRERO
Ambassador to the UN: Fernando BERROCAL
Costa Rica maintains an Embassy in the United States at 2114 S. Street
NW, Washington, DC 20008
Costa Rica long has emphasized the development of democracy and respect
for human rights. Until recently, 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
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" reestablished
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 liberal 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 1980's.
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. An oil shock
and debt crisis also made economic recovery difficult.
Following an economic crisis in the early 1980s, Costa Rica made
significant progress toward 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 almost 60% of foreign currency earnings, and official unemployment
declined to 4% and inflation, to 10 percent in 1993. 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 and to
stabilize its foreign debt servicing.
However, Costa Rica still faces macro-economic problems because of
serious fiscal deficits exacerbated by pressures to increase government
spending linked to the four-year cycle of presidential, legislative, and
local elections. The deficit is compounded by a bloated public sector,
unsustainable wage and pensions, increases, mushrooming internal debt,
and the lack of effective competition due to remaining public sector
monopolies. The fiscal deficit ballooned from 1% of GDP in 1993 to about
8% in 1994, but was cut to 3.8 % in 1995. 1996 should see further
progress in cutting the deficit and inflation from over 22% to about
15%. The stabilization program slowed economic growth to 2.5% in 1995
and increased unemployment from 4.2 to 5.2% in 1995.
The Government of Costa Rica announced establishment of a high-level
commission to resolve the problem of internal debt, which in 1996 rose
to the equivalent of $2.3 billion in local currency and required about
one-third of the government's budget for servicing.
Programs of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-
American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) have aimed to maintain stability and promote trade
and investment liberalization. Such programs have had success; USAID
closed its bilateral Costa Rican mission in 1996 since Costa Rica
achieved "advancing developing country" status. Further liberalization
of Costa Rica's trade and investment regimes, resolution of the internal
debt problem and passage of legislation expanding private sector
investment in energy, telecommunications, roads, ports, and airports
would boost opportunities for foreign and local investors and increase
Costa Rica's prosperity.
Costa Rica has sought to widen its economic and diplomatic ties,
including outside the region. In April 1994, Costa Rica signed a
bilateral free trade agreement with Mexico. The United States and Costa
Rica are negotiating a bilateral investment agreement to increase
protection for foreign investment. Costa Rica has maintained
connections with the European Union, along with the other Central
American states, through periodic ministerial consultations; The
country is a founding member of the World Trade Organization and has
actively participated in the followup to the Summit of the Americas,
including working groups to bring about the Free Trade Area of the
Americas by the year 2005.
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 give it a weight in
world affairs far beyond its size. The country lobbied strenuously for
the establishment of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human
Rights and became the first nation to recognize the jurisdiction of the
Inter-American Human Rights Court, 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 election 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
With the establishment of democratically elected governments in all
Central American nations by the 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 America.
Regional political integration has not proven attractive to Costa Rica.
Under former 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. Current President Figueres
has promoted a higher profile for Costa Rica in regional and
international fora. In 1995, Costa Rica gained election as President of
the Group of 77 in the United Nations.
Costa Rica broke relations with Cuba in 1961 to protest Cuban support of
leftist subversion in Central America and has not renewed formal
diplomatic ties with the Castro regime. In 1995, Costa Rica established
a migration office in Havana.
Costa Rica strongly backed efforts by the United States to implement
United Nations 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
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