U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Costa Rica, March 1998
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
Cities: Capital--San Jose (metropolitan area pop. 1.2 million). Other
major cities--Alajuela (250,000), Puntarenas (300,000), Limon (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 yrs.,
women 76 yrs.
Work force (1995, 1.2 million): Services--45%. Agriculture--22%.
Industry--17%. Construction--6%. Transportation--5%. Banking and
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: Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), National
Liberation Party (PLN), Democratic Force (FD), Agricultural Labor Action
Party (PALA), Costa Rican Renovation Party (PRC), Libertarian Movement
(ML), National Integration Party (PIN).
Suffrage: Obligatory at 18.
GDP (1997): $9.5 billion.
Real growth rate (1997): 3.2%.
Per capita income (1997): $2,900.
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, dairy products, vegetables, ornamental plants, and fruits.
Commerce and tourism (40% of GDP): Hotels, restaurants, tourist
services, banks, and insurance.
Foreign trade (1996): Exports--$2.7 billion: bananas, coffee, beef,
textiles and apparel, fruits, sugar, flowers and ornamental plants.
Major markets--U.S. 42%, Europe 32%, Central America 16%, Japan 1%.
Imports--$3.4 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 (March 1998): 247 colones=U.S.$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.
In May 1997, President Clinton met with Costa Rican President Jose Maria
Figueres and other heads of state from Central America and the Dominican
Republic in San Jose. The leaders signed the Declaration of San Jose,
pledging to strengthen democratic institutions and international
cooperation. As a follow-up to the summit, regional Public Security and
Justice ministers met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright,
Attorney General Janet Reno, and National Drug Control Policy Director
Barry McCaffrey in Washington in August to discuss cooperation against
drug trafficking and other transnational crimes. In November 1997, Labor
Secretary Alexis Herman met with Labor ministers from Central America
and the Dominican Republic to discuss ways to strengthen labor
ministries and promote greater respect for workers' rights.
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.
For decades, Peace Corps volunteers have provided technical assistance
in the areas of environmental education, natural resources, management,
small business development, basic business education, urban youth, and
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--Thomas J. Dodd
DCM--Richard L. Baltimore III
POL/ECON--Mark G. Davison
CON--Kathleen M. Daly
ADM--Arnold N. Munoz
RSO--Nace B. Crawford
IMO--Janette M. Corsbie
ODR--Col. Mark Wilkins
APHIS Region V--Chris Hofman
APHIS Region VI--Mark Knez
Environmental Hub--Lawrence Gumbiner
The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica is located in Pavas at Boulevard Pavas
and Calle 120, San Jose, tel. (506) 220-3939.
OTHER CONTACT INFORMATION:
U.S. Department of Commerce
Trade Information Center
International Trade Administration
14th and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20320
Home Page: http://www.ita.doc.gov
Costa Rica American Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 025216, Dept 1576
Miami, Florida 33102-5216
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 11
presidential elections, the latest in 1998.
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
Charge d'Affaires--Jose Thompson
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 (tel. 202-328-6628).
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 experienced.
In the February 1998 national election, Social Christian Unity Party
(PUSC) candidate Miguel Angel Rodriguez won the presidency over National
Liberation Party (PLN) nominee Jose Miguel Corrales. President-elect
Rodriguez assumes office May 8, 1998. The PUSC also obtained 27 seats in
the 57-member Legislative Assembly, for a plurality, while the PLN
gained 23, and five minor parties seven. Outgoing President Jose Maria
Figueres has invited Rodriguez to accompany him to the Summit of the
Americas in Santiago, Chile, in April.
Social Christian in philosophy, the PUSC generally favors free-market
principles, conservative fiscal policies, and government reform.
President-elect Rodriguez has pledged to reduce the country's large
internal debt, attract additional foreign investment, impose greater
control over public-sector spending, and promote the creation of jobs
with decent salaries.
Costa Rica's economy emerged from recession in 1997 and is poised for
relatively healthy growth in 1998. Preliminary national account
statistics from Costa Rica's Central Bank indicate a 1997 gross domestic
product (GDP) of 2.2 trillion colones (USD 9.5 billion at the average
exchange rate for the year), up 3.2% in real terms (measured in constant
1966 colones) from the year before, when GDP declines. Inflation, as
measured by the Consumer Price Index, was 11.2%, less than the 12.5%
that was forecast. The central government deficit decreased to 3.7% of
GDP in 1997, down from 5.1% from the year before, but still above the
3.0% target. Controlling the budget deficit remains the single biggest
challenge for the country's economic policy makers, as servicing the
accumulated public sector debt consumes approximately 30% of the
government's budget and limits the amount of resources available for
needed investments in public infrastructure.
Costa Rica's major economic resources are its fertile land and frequent
rainfall, its well-educated population, and its location in the Central
American isthmus, which provides easy accessibility to North and South
American markets and direct ocean access to the European and Asian
continents. With one-fourth of its land dedicated to national forests,
often adjoining picturesque beaches, the country has also become a
popular destination for affluent retirees and eco-tourists.
The country has not discovered sources of fossil fuels (apart from
minuscule coal deposits), but its mountainous terrain and abundant
rainfall have permitted the construction of a dozen hydroelectric power
plants, making it self-sufficient in all energy needs, except oil for
transportation. Mild climate and trade winds make neither heating nor
cooling necessary, particularly in the highland cities and towns where
approximately 90% of the population lives.
Costa Rica has an extensive road system of more than 30,000 kilometers,
although much of it is in disrepair. All parts of the country are
accessible by road. The main highland cities in the center of the
country are connected by paved all-weather roads with the Atlantic and
Pacific coasts and by the Pan American Highway with Nicaragua and
Panama, the neighboring countries to the North and the South. Costa Rica
needs to complete the Pacific coastal highway (and repair large sections
of existing highway), build a new road along the Atlantic coast, and
possibly construct a coast-to-coast highway across the northern plains
of the country. These are probably the most pressing infrastructural
needs of the country.
Tourism, which has overtaken bananas as Costa Rica's leading foreign
exchange earner, is once again growing after stagnating in the mid-
1990s. Earnings for 1997 from an estimated 812,000 visitors are reported
at $750 million, up from $684 million the year before. The number of
visitors in 1996 was 781,000. The numbers also show that tourists spend
nearly $1,000 per person per visit. Based upon early projections from
visitors arriving over the holiday season, the Ministry of Tourism is
projecting a 4%-5% increase in arrivals for 1998.
Costa Rica is also aggressively pursuing investment in the high
technology sector. Largely due to the personal efforts of President
Figueres to attract new investment in the sector, Intel corporation
began construction of a plant in 1997 to produce Pentium II microchips
with an investment that will reach $200 million by the end of 1998.
Intel's total planned investment is $400-$500 million over the next 2-3
years. A number of other high technology companies were already present
in Costa Rica, and more are expected to follow.
Reflecting the evolution away from agriculture, 1997 growth was strong
in the construction sector (16.4%), in industry (4.5%), and in commerce,
restaurants and hotels (4.0%). Agriculture declined by 0.7%. Preliminary
statistics for 1997 indicate a widening of the trade deficit and an
increase of the current account deficit from roughly 1.1% of GDP in 1996
to 4.5% of GDP in 1997. During 1996, roughly 40% of total trade was with
the U.S. As usual, bananas led the list of merchandise exports, but
tourism earned more foreign exchange. However, despite the current
account deficit, strong private capital inflows brought international
reserves to over $1 billion, a level approximating three months of
Costa Rica has sought to widen its economic and diplomatic ties, both
within and outside of the region. Costa Rica signed a bilateral trade
agreement with Mexico in 1994, and President-elect Rodriguez has begun
discussions with Mexico's president on accelerating further the
liberalization of trade between the two countries. On March 20, 1998,
Costa Rica joined other Central American countries, plus the Dominican
Republic, in establishing a Trade and Investment Council with the United
States. Costa Rica is also actively lobbying for greater access to the
U.S. market, be it by joining the North American Free Trade Agreement,
through enhancement of the United States Caribbean Basin Initiative, or
through negotiation of the hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas,
a process that the Costa Rican Government is chairing in preparation for
the April 1998 Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile.
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. That term ended in 1997 with the
South-South Conference held in San Jose. Since 1997, Costa Rica has
occupied a non-permanent seat in the Security Council and has exercised
a leadership role in confronting crises in the Middle East and Africa,
as well as in the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
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
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are
issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel
to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all
countries and include information on immigration practices, currency
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and
security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in
Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information
quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term
conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of
American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by
calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-
on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information
Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page:
and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). To access CABB, dial the
modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set
terminal communications program to N-8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop
bit); and terminal emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the
password is info (Note: Lower case is required). The CABB also carries
international security information from the Overseas Security Advisory
Council and Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs
Trips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on
obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, can be purchased
from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be
obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-
5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-
Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-
day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m.
to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-
225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate
of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648).
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water
safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information
for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is
available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC
20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal
Government Officials" listing in this publication).
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas
are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country
(see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication).
Registering with the embassy may help you to replace lost identity
documents or help family members contact you in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information:
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet,
DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy
information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch,
the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings;
Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign
service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on an annual basis by
the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of
official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O.
Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or
fax (202) 512-2250.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information,
including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet
(www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-
1986 for more information.
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