2010 Investment Climate Statement - Costa Rica

2010 Investment Climate Statement
Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
March 2010

Costa Rica’s investment climate is generally favorable and has been for many years. Consequently, foreign direct investment is high and has been a significant contributor to Costa Rica’s economic growth. Nevertheless, the country's legal and cultural environment continues to present stumbling blocks to investors. The January 1, 2009 entry-into-force of CAFTA-DR in Costa Rica unambiguously improves Costa Rica’s investment climate.

Openness to Foreign Investment

Costa Rica actively courts foreign direct investment (FDI). The four-year administration of President Oscar Arias, which will end in May 2010, places a high priority on attracting and retaining high-quality foreign investment in Costa Rica. The Foreign Trade Promotion Corporation (PROCOMER) as well as the Costa Rican Investment and Development Board (CINDE) lead Costa Rica’s investment promotion efforts. FDI in Costa Rica has slumped during the current global financial crisis but continues to play an important role particularly in the Real Estate and Tourism industry sectors (see “Foreign Direct Investment Statistics” below.) The investment promotion agency CINDE estimates a roughly 30 percent drop in FDI in 2009 but expects a subsequent rebound.

Costa Rica, together with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, is a signatory to the U.S. – Central America – Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Costa Rica is the last country for which the treaty entered into force (EIF), on January 1, 2009. Costa Rica spent the previous two years meeting a series of legal and implementation requirements for EIF, and during the first part of 2010 is expected to fully implement the remaining measures. CAFTA-DR improves Costa Rica’s investment climate by strengthening the protection of intellectual property rights, providing a mechanism for arbitration, opening key sectors to competition, and assuring access to markets in other CAFTA-DR economies. With CAFTA-DR successfully concluded, Arias administration trade policy is now focused on the negotiation of similar agreements, most notably with the European Union and China.

The country’s commercial code details all business requirements necessary to operate in Costa Rica. The laws of public administration and public finance contain most requirements for contracting with the state. All businesses must be registered in the national registry, thereby becoming national companies that may have national or foreign owners. The investment requirements for foreign and national persons and companies are identical. Businesses may be established starting from nothing, acquired, merged with, or taken over in much the same way as is done in the U.S. Foreign partnerships with local businesses are quite common. The state does exercise some monopoly control in some economic sectors as detailed below in the “Competition from State-Owned Enterprises” section.

Several public institutions are responsible for consumer protection as it relates to monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The “Commission for the Promotion of Competition” (COPROCOM), a semi-autonomous agency housed in the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce, is charged with investigating and correcting anti-competitive behavior across the economy. SUTEL, the Telecommunications Superintendency, is charged with regulating fair competitive practices in the Telecommunications sector. Both agencies are charged with defense of competition, deregulation of economic activity, and consumer protection. They have shown some ability to act, although SUTEL has been operating for less than one year.

The judicial system generally upholds contracts, but caution should be exercised when making investments in sectors reserved or protected by the constitution or by laws for public operation. Investments in state-protected sectors under concession mechanisms can be especially complex due to frequent challenges in the constitutional court of contracts permitting private participation in state enterprise activities. Furthermore, independent government agencies can issue permits or requirements that may contradict the decisions of other independent agencies, causing significant project delays.

The Arias administration is moving ahead with efforts to build infrastructure and manage public works projects by using the 1998 concessions law, modified in June 2008. The modifications to the concessions law were designed to streamline related processes. Two concession agreements are currently functioning. Operations at the Port of Caldera, the country’s principal Pacific port, began successfully in 2006. The other concession agreement is for the San Jose-to-Caldera highway, which is open to transit along a portion of the route with the remainder of the route to be finished in fourth quarter 2010.
Investors must exercise “caveat emptor,” since many firms operate in the informal sector of the economy. Appropriate due diligence should include confirming a company’s registry and formal participation in the Costa Rican economy such as paying taxes.
While the government focuses on promoting foreign investment in export industries, foreign franchises have prospered in the domestic market over the past thirty years. Both foreigners and nationals have invested in bringing U.S. brands from a wide array of business sectors to Costa Rica, including fast food (such as Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, Papa John's Pizza, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Quiznos and TCBY Yogurt), car rentals (including Hertz, Avis, Dollar, and Budget), hotels (such as Marriott, Doubletree by Hilton, Intercontinental, Regents, Hampton Inn, and Best Western), and designer clothing boutiques (including Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne, and athletic wear brands such as New Balance). Price Smart (owned and managed by the founders of Price Club in the U.S.) has four Costa Rican stores. WalMex, via a 2009 acquisition, controls Wal-Mart Central America, a company comprised of 146 stores operating under the Pali, Maxibodegas, Mas x Menos, and Hipermas brands.

Index Ranking Year
TI Corruption Index 5.1 2008
Heritage Economic Freedom: Rank(Freedom%] 46(66.4) 2009
World Bank Doing Business 121 2008/2009
Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) measures are not available for Costa Rica.

Conversion and Transfer Policies

There are no restrictions on receiving, holding or transferring foreign exchange. There are no delays for foreign exchange, which is readily available at market clearing rates and readily transferable through the banking system. From 1983 until 2006, Costa Rica maintained a crawling peg exchange regime with the U.S. dollar. However, in October 2006, the country transitioned to a crawling band regime, which is in reality a “dirty float” with explicit upper and lower limits. The Central Bank also created a foreign exchange market, “MONEX”, (USD/Colon) in which buyers and sellers are matched blindly. Participants may register without any initial fee and may either buy or sell amounts over the $1,000 USD minimum. A variety of instruments designed to insure against exchange rate volatility are being introduced into the market and may be obtained through the Securities Exchange (“Bolsa de Valores”) or through banks. To date, the result appears to be satisfactory with the Central Bank, but market participants have struggled to adapt to the greater uncertainty. Dollar bonds and other dollar instruments may be traded legally. No restrictions are imposed on reinvestments or on the repatriation of earnings, royalties, or capital except when these rights are otherwise stipulated in contractual agreements with the government of Costa Rica. Royalties are taxed in accordance with Title IV of the Income Tax Law No. 7092 at rates varying from 10 to 25 percent.

Expropriation and Compensation

Expropriation of private land by the government without prompt or adequate compensation has hurt some Costa Rican and foreign investors. These incidents usually involve land expropriated to create national parks, indigenous reserves, or agricultural projects for poor farmers. One long-standing case required over fourteen years to wind its way through the Costa Rican court system, only to conclude without providing compensation to the U.S. citizen landowner. Another case involving titled beach land subject to an expropriation order for a national park has highlighted conflicting decisions between different government entities and the pitfalls experienced when the government lacks the funds to pay for land that it is required by law to protect.

Article 45 of Costa Rica’s constitution stipulates that no property can be expropriated from a Costa Rican or foreigner without prior payment and demonstrable proof of public interest. The 1995 Law 7495 on expropriations further stipulates that expropriations can take place only after full and prior payment is made. Foreigners and Costa Ricans are supposed to receive equal treatment. Provisions include: (a) return of the property to the original owner if it is not used for the intended purpose within ten years or, if the owner was compensated, right of first refusal to repurchase the property back at its current value; (b) a requirement that the expropriating institution complete registration of the property within six months; (c) a one-month period during which the tax office must appraise the affected property; (d) a requirement that the tax office itemize crops, buildings, rental income, commercial rights, mineral exploitation rights, and other goods and rights, separately and in addition to the value of the land itself; and (e) provisions providing for both local and international arbitration in the event of a dispute. The expropriations law was amended in 1998 and then again in 2008 to expedite some procedures, particularly those necessary for acquiring land for the construction of new roads.

Invasion and occupation of private property by squatters, who are often organized and sometimes violent, occurs in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican police and judicial system have at times failed to deter or to peacefully resolve such invasions. It is not uncommon for squatters to return to the parcels of land from which they have been evicted, requiring expensive and potentially dangerous vigilance over the land.

Dispute Settlement

Costa Rica uses the Roman civil law system rather than common law. The jury system is not used, although judicial reform efforts have included testing the use of juries in some cases. The fundamental law is the country’s political constitution of 1949, which grants the unicameral legislature a particularly strong role. The civil and commercial codes govern commercial transactions. The courts are independent, and their authority is respected. The roles of public prosecutor and government attorney are distinct: the public prosecutor or Attorney General (“Fiscal General”) operates a semi-autonomous department within the Judicial branch while the government attorney or Procurator General (“Procurador General”) works within the Ministry of Justice and Grace in the Executive branch. Judgments of foreign courts are generally accepted and enforced. The Constitution specifically prohibits discriminatory treatment of foreign nationals.

Monetary judgments are usually made in Costa Rican colones. However, if the dispute involves a dollar-denominated transaction, the award may first be calculated in dollars and then converted to colones for payment.

Litigation can be long and costly. The legal system is significantly backlogged, and civil suits take over five years on average from start to finish. Some U.S. firms and citizens have satisfactorily resolved their cases through the courts, while others have seen proceedings drawn out over a decade without a final ruling. The process to resolve squatter cases through the courts can be especially cumbersome. Also, civil archives recording land title are at times incomplete or contradictory. Potential buyers should retain experienced legal counsel and carefully conduct due diligence to ensure that properties are free of conflicting ownership claims.

Arbitration is theoretically possible under the civil and commercial codes. However, U.S. investors have experienced mixed results from such proceedings organized by local attorneys. A 1998 law governing alternative conflict resolution (Law 7727) sought to encourage arbitration and simplify the procedures under which arbitration takes place. Several arbitration centers operate, including one at the Costa Rican - American Chamber of Commerce. Some cases reportedly have been successfully and quickly resolved under the law.

Costa Rica has been a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) since 1993, when it acceded to the Washington Convention. Since then, the ICSID has successfully resolved one land expropriation case. Costa Rica is also a member of the World Bank Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), which provides a forum for international arbitration in investment disputes, as well as investment guarantees. Private energy producers have included international arbitration clauses in their contracts. Costa Rica has not joined the United Nations Protocol for the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes between Countries.

The provisions of Chapter 10 of CAFTA-DR provide an additional avenue for aggrieved investors to pursue international arbitration. The arbitration process under CAFTA-DR is designed to be open and transparent; hearings and documents are public, and amicus curiae submissions are expressly authorized. The CAFTA investment chapter includes checks to help assure that investors do not abuse the arbitration process. The agreement includes a provision that allows tribunals to dismiss frivolous claims and award attorney’s fees and filing costs. No arbitration cases had yet been filed during CAFTA-DR’s first year (calendar year 2009).

The Costa Rican bankruptcy law, addressed in both the commercial code and the civil procedures code, is similar to corresponding U.S. law. Title V of the civil procedure code outlines creditors’ rights and the processes available to register outstanding credits, administer the liquidation of the bankrupt company's assets, and pay creditors according to their preferential status.

Performance Requirements and Incentives

Three investment incentive programs operate in Costa Rica: the free trade zone system, a so-called active finishing regime, and a duty drawback procedure. These incentives are available equally to foreign and domestic investors. These incentives include tax holidays, free or subsidized infrastructure and industrial parks, and training of specialized labor force.

Individual companies are able to create industrial parks that qualify for Free Trade Zone status by meeting specific criteria and applying for such status with Costa Rica’s Foreign Trade Promotion Authority (PROCOMER). Presently, there are 251 companies operating within 28 FTZs within Costa Rica. Companies in FTZs receive exemption from virtually all taxes for eight years and at a reduced rate following that period. In addition to the tax benefits, companies operating in FTZs enjoy simplified investment, trade and customs procedures, which provide a convenient way to avoid Costa Rica’s burdensome business licensing process. The tax holidays provided for investment in FTZ manufacturing companies are scheduled to phase out in accordance with World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements by 2015, to be replaced by Law 8794 which eliminates explicit export incentives and replaces them with favorable tax treatment of specific types of company or organization. The WTO-mandated change does not apply to those companies that export only services. Call centers, logistics providers, and software developers are among the companies that may benefit from FTZ status but don’t physically export goods. Such service providers have become increasingly important participants in the free trade zone regime.

The active finishing regime, created by decree in 1997, suspends taxes for renewable one-year periods on imported inputs of qualifying companies, and then exempts the inputs from those taxes when the finished goods using or containing them are exported. The regime also facilitates a five-year renewable suspension of taxes on capital goods used to manufacture exported goods. Companies within this regime may sell to the domestic market if they have registered to do so and pay pro rata import duties on capital equipment used for the domestic market. Finally, the drawback procedure provides for rebates of duties or other taxes that have been paid by an importer for goods subsequently incorporated into an exported good.
While the procedures necessary to obtain residency in Costa Rica are traditionally long and very bureaucratic, immigration officials believe that a new law taking effect in March of 2010 will make the process less burdensome. In any case, existing immigration measures do not appear to have inhibited foreign investors’ mobility to the extent that they affect Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the country.

Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

All private entities and persons, domestic or foreign, may establish and own businesses and engage in all but a few forms of remunerative activity. The exceptions are in sectors that are reserved for the state (legal monopolies) or that require participation of at least a certain percentage of Costa Rican citizens or residents (electrical power generation, broadcasting and professional services). Under CAFTA-DR, the insurance and a part of the telecommunications sectors are now opening to competition. In other activities, such as medical services, state firms operate, but that does not preclude private sector competition, which generally receives equal treatment to state companies. Three banks owned by the state receive some advantages over their 11 private competitors, namely that they cannot be forced into bankruptcy, a guarantee not afforded to private banks.

Protection of Property Rights

Secured interests in both chattel and real property are recognized and enforced, and mortgage and title recording is mandatory. The laws governing investments in land, buildings and mortgages are generally transparent. However, there are continuing problems of overlapping title to real property and fraudulent filings with the national registry, the government entity that records property titles. The Costa Rican government does not prevent foreign title companies from operating. While title guaranty is not a service traditionally offered in the country, Stewart Title Company, First Costa Rican Title and Trust and Latin American Title Company all offer title guaranty and related services.

Similar to fraudulent filings, investors have faced difficulties with transactions involving property located in indigenous protected zones that has been represented as property without other claims or risk of expropriation. Investors should exercise appropriate due diligence when conducting transactions dealing with land in indigenous zones as they may either be unable to obtain free and clear title or risk future expropriation.

Investment in Costa Rican real estate requires care; many U.S. real estate investors have experienced problems with obtaining clean titles, adverse possession by squatters, and unscrupulous lawyers. Landowners should be sure to demonstrate a continuing presence on and control over their land.

Investment in beachfront property in Costa Rica faces a unique set of circumstances. Almost all beachfront is public property for a distance of 200 meters from the mean high tide line, with an exception for long-established port cities. The first 50 meters from the mean high tide line cannot be used for any reasons by private parties. The next 150 meters, also owned by the state, can only be leased from the local municipalities for specified periods and particular uses, such as tourism installation, vacation homes, etc. Investors should exercise caution and obtain qualified legal counsel before purchasing property, particularly near beachfront areas. Potential investors in Costa Rican real estate should also be aware that the right to use traditional paths is enshrined in law and can be used to obtain court-ordered easements on land bearing private title. Disputes over easements are particularly common when access to a beach is an issue.

Costa Rica is a signatory of many major international agreements and conventions regarding intellectual property. The GATT agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) took effect in Costa Rica on January 1, 2000. Costa Rica in 2002 ratified the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) “internet treaties” pertaining to Performances and Phonograms (WPPT) and Copyright (WCT). Building on the existent regulatory and legal framework, CAFTA-DR required Costa Rica to further strengthen and clarify its IPR regime, with several additional IPR laws added to the books in 2008.

While the legal framework governing intellectual property is basically in place, Costa Rica does not adequately enforce those rights. The current attorney general has publicly encouraged aggrieved parties to file legal action in civil court and has stated that given limited judicial resources, IPR enforcement is a low priority.

In 2009 Costa Rica remained on the Watch List in the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) annual Special 301 Report. The USTR noted that IPR enforcement with respect to copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting required greater priority and resources. Significant delays in judicial proceedings and a lack of official investigators, public prosecutors, and criminal and civil judges specializing in intellectual property continue to hamper effective enforcement. Since 2005 the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica has actively recruited candidates to attend various IPR training seminars offered and funded by the United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).

Transparency of Regulatory System

Costa Rican laws, regulations and practices are generally transparent and foster competition, except in the sectors controlled by a state monopoly, where competition is explicitly excluded. Tax, labor, health and safety laws are not seen as interfering with investment decisions. When applying environmental regulations, the Costa Rican organization that reviews environmental impact statements has been slow in issuing its findings, causing delays for investors in completing projects.

There are several independent avenues for appealing regulatory decisions, and these are frequently pursued by persons or organizations opposed to a public sector contract or regulatory decision. The avenues include the comptroller general (Contraloria General de la Republica), the Ombudsman (Defensor de los Habitantes), the public services regulatory agency (ARESEP), and the constitutional review chamber of the Supreme Court. The procurator general’s office (Procurador General de la Republica) is frequently a participant in its role as the government’s attorney.

The process has kept the regulatory system relatively transparent and free of abuse, but it has also rendered the system for public sector contract approval exceptionally slow and litigious. There have been several cases in which these review bodies have overturned already-executed contracts, thereby interjecting uncertainty into the process. Bureaucratic procedures are frequently long, involved and can be discouraging to new investors.

A similarly transparent process applies to proposed laws and regulations. The Legislative Assembly generally provides ample opportunity for supporters and opponents of a law to understand and comment upon proposals. To become law, a proposal must be approved by the Assembly by two plenary votes. The signature of ten legislators (out of 57) is sufficient after the first vote to send the bill to the Supreme Court for constitutional review. Regulations must go through a public hearing process before being signed into law.

Efficient Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

There are no controls on capital flows in or out of Costa Rica or on portfolio investment in publicly traded companies. Larger investors often arrange their financing abroad where rates tend to be lower and lending limits are higher. Foreign investors are able to borrow in the local market, but they are also free to borrow from abroad.

Within Costa Rica, long-term capital is scarce. Dollar-denominated mortgage financing is popular and common, even for Costa Ricans who do not earn their income in dollars, because of more favorable lending terms for dollar-denominated vs. colon-denominated loans. As an alternative to encourage long-term credit, since 2005 the government has published the value of “Development Units” (“Unidades de Desarrollo”), an inflation-adjusted index value that may be used to denominate debt transactions. There is a small secondary market in commercial paper and repurchase agreements. The securities exchange (Bolsa Nacional de Valores) is small and is dominated by trading in government bonds. However, the exchange is actively promoting programs in several promising areas including currency futures and small stocks. Stock trading is of limited significance and involves only a dozen of the country’s larger companies, resulting in an extremely illiquid secondary market. Stock volume traded in all of 2008 was $56.8 million, an average of about $ 1 million per week, and 2009 volumes are estimated to have dropped to about half that figure.

Credit is generally allocated on market terms, although the state-owned banks are expected to act as development banks for activities deemed to be of public interest. A new “development bank” structure began functioning in 2009 and mandates that 17 percent of resources from private banks’ checking and savings accounts be destined to small and mid-sized companies. A bank may administer those resources itself or cede the funds to an administering bank. While several private banks have expressed some interest in administering those resources, mandated conditions (including a very narrow lending margin) have discouraged most banks’ participation and limited participation so far to state-owned banks and cooperative credit unions. In recent years, smaller private banks have been absorbed by large multinationals, so that Costa Rica currently hosts subsidiaries of HSBC, Citibank, Scotiabank and GE Finance Corporation. Nevertheless, the three state-owned commercial banks are still dominant, accounting for 43.7 percent of the country’s financial system’s assets as of November 2008.

Consolidated total assets of the country’s public commercial banks were approximately USD 9.9 billion in July 2009, while consolidated total assets of the nine private commercial banks were approximately USD 7.2 billion. The combined assets of all bank groups (including affiliated pension funds and brokerage houses, plus factoring houses and credit unions) were approximately USD 22.7 billion as of November 2008. The banking system has been notably stable over the past year with non-performing loans totaling 2.3 percent of total assets as of November 2009.

Costa Rica’s national council for the supervision of the financial system (CONASSIF) oversees Costa Rica’s financial sector and consists of four principal components. The country’s general superintendent of financial institutions (SUGEF) regulates banks and other financial institutions. The general superintendent of securities markets (SUGEVAL) oversees the securities exchange. The general superintendent of pensions (SUPEN) oversees pension funds. The newly created superintendent of insurance (SUGESE) oversees all insurance operators. The Costa Rican government is working to strengthen supervision of the financial sector with assistance from international donors. Legal and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms. Many well-known accounting firms in Costa Rica are affiliated with large U.S. firms.

Competition from State-Owned Enterprises

State enterprises have enjoyed monopolies in the sectors of wireless telephony, data telecommunications, and insurance; however, CAFTA-DR opens these specific sectors up to market competition. On the telecommunications side, the telecommunications regulation board “SUTEL” and the Telecommunications Vice Ministry worked over the course of 2009 to build the framework of a competitive telecommunications sector. SUTEL licensed Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) providers for operation and one internet provider is operating its own cable link. SUTEL is now working to hold a spectrum auction in mid-2010 which will likely lead to an early-2011 launch date for one or more cellular phone competitors to the state monopoly “National Electrical (and telecommunications) Institute” (“ICE”). On the insurance side, the new Insurance Regulator SUGESE has authorized a number of new competitors to the state monopoly “National Insurance Institute” (“INS”). Those new insurance providers are scheduled to begin operations by mid 2010.

Fixed-line telecommunications as well as energy generation and distribution remain firmly in the control of state enterprises. Transport infrastructure (airports, ports, roads) is likewise controlled by the state, although the current government successfully managed the development of a major highway concession and is exploring public-private partnership arrangements with Costa Rica's major port and an airport. Petroleum imports are monopolized by the state petroleum company “RECOPE.” Each state-owned enterprise has its own independent board of directors and internal operating regulations and procedures. The comptroller general’s office (which reports directly to the Legislative Assembly) exercises fiduciary oversight and supervision of all public entities, including the state-owned enterprises. Beyond the telecommunications, insurance, energy, transport and petroleum sectors the country has a generally open international trade and investment regime. Costa Rica does not have a Sovereign Wealth Fund.

Corporate Social Responsibility

There is a general awareness of corporate social responsibility (CSR) among both producers and consumers in Costa Rica. Large multinational companies commonly pursue CSR goals in line with their corporate goals and have found it beneficial to publicize such CSR activities in Costa Rica. Many smaller companies, particularly in the tourism sector, have likewise integrated CSR activities into their way of doing business. The U.S.-based multinational INTEL was a finalist for the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Award for Corporate Excellence because of its outstanding CSR program in Costa Rica.

Political Violence

Costa Rica has not experienced significant domestic political violence since 1948. There are no indigenous or external movements likely to produce political or social instability. The greatest potential (and localized) focal point for physical protest in 2010 in Costa Rica may be the Limon port facility on the Caribbean coast. The Arias Administration plans to cede port operations and future expansion to a concession but that is vigorously opposed by the dockworkers’ union.


Costa Rica has laws, regulations, and penalties to combat corruption, though the resources available to enforce those laws have been limited. Corruption became a major issue in 2004, when two former presidents and a number of officials at public institutions were placed in pre-trial detention on corruption charges. One former president was convicted in 2009, and his case is under appeal. The other’s trial will get underway in early 2010. Allegations of lower-level corruption are common, and some prosecutions have resulted. In addition, as part of the implementing legislation for CAFTA-DR, in December 2007, the Legislative Assembly amended the penal code to include harsher penalties for public corruption. This followed amendments made in 2004 to make anti-corruption laws easier to interpret and apply.

Costa Rica ratified the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption in February 1997. This initiative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Organization of American States (OAS) obligates subscribing nations to implement criminal sanctions for corruption. The attorney general (Fiscal General de la Republica), procurator general (Procuraduria General de la Republica), comptroller general (Contraloria General de la Republica) and ombudsman (Defensoria de los Habitantes) have mounted a common effort to combat corruption. The comptroller general, the Organization of Judicial Investigation (OIJ), and the public prosecutors' office investigate allegations of corruption. The comptroller general is responsible for approving or rejecting public contracts, auditing results, and detecting instances of corruption.

While most U.S. firms have not identified corruption as a major obstacle to doing business in Costa Rica, some have made allegations of corruption in the administration of public tenders. Developers of tourism facilities periodically cite municipal-level corruption as a problem when attempting to gain a concession to build and operate in the restricted maritime zone.

Acts of bribery, including those directed against government officials, are criminal acts punishable by imprisonment. Public officials convicted of receiving bribes are subject to prison sentences from two to six years, according to the Costa Rican Criminal Code (Articles 314-315, and 338-339). Entrepreneurs may not deduct the costs of bribes or any other criminal activity as business expenses.

Bilateral Investment Agreements

Costa Rica has Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) in force with Argentina, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Venezuela. The investment chapter of CAFTA-DR includes all aspects of a BIT thereby making the negotiation of a separate BIT with the United States unnecessary.

OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) offers both financing and insurance coverage against expropriation, war, revolution, insurrection and inconvertibility for eligible U.S. investors in Costa Rica. OPIC can provide insurance for U.S. investors, contractors, exporters and financial institutions. Financing is available for overseas investments that are wholly owned by U.S. companies or that are joint ventures in which the U.S. firm is a participant. OPIC holds a diversified portfolio of more than 300 clients. In Costa Rica, OPIC’s portfolio exposure in 2008 totaled USD 139 million. The portfolio consists of projects ranging from electrical generation to home building to the manufacture of consumer products. In 2009, OPIC announced it would provide USD 60 million to support lending for housing and small and medium-sized enterprises in Costa Rica through subsidiaries of BAC/Credomatic Group.

U.S. investors should be aware that OPIC, in accordance with statutory requirements, may not offer insurance to projects with a detrimental effect on the U.S. balance of payments or employment. These statutory requirements have led OPIC to offer only limited insurance coverage for textile and citrus investments. The Government of Costa Rica approves prospective OPIC-insured projects taking into account possible balance of payments or labor problems. Costa Rica became a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, a member of the World Bank group, in 1993.

In the event that OPIC should pay an inconvertibility claim, the local currency accepted by OPIC would be made available, pursuant to the bilateral agreement providing for the OPIC program, to the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. U.S. Embassy yearly expenses in local currency are calculated to be roughly USD 5 million.


The Costa Rican labor force is relatively well educated compared to other countries in Central America. While Costa Rica has historically placed a high priority on education and the creation of a skilled work force, long-term government investment in education fell behind in the past decade. The country claims a literacy rate of 95 percent. Costa Rica’s national vocational training institute (INA) and private sector groups provide technical and vocational training.

The rapid growth of Costa Rica’s service and tourism sectors has stimulated demand for English-language speakers and prompted the Costa Rican Government to declare English language and computer literacy to be a national priority at all levels of education. Nevertheless, testing in 2008 revealed that about 38 percent of teachers of English in public schools are seriously deficient in their ability to teach English; the Ministry of Education has been actively identifying and training those professors. Several public and private institutions have also been active in Costa Rica’s drive to English proficiency, including the 60-year-old U.S.-Costa Rican binational center (the Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano), which offers general and business English courses to as many as 5,000 students annually. While the arrival of companies such as Intel, Procter and Gamble, Western Union, and various call center operators has drawn down the supply of speakers of fluent business and technical English, the pool of job candidates with English skills has been sufficient to meet demand.

Costa Rican law guarantees the right of workers to join labor unions of their choosing without prior authorization. Unions operate independently of government control and may form federations and confederations and affiliate internationally. The vast majority of unions are located in the public sector, including state-run enterprises. In the private sector, many Costa Rican workers join “solidarity associations,” under which employers provide easy access to saving plans, low-interest loans, health clinics, recreation centers, and other benefits. Solidarity associations and labor unions coexist at some workplaces, primarily in the public sector. Business groups claim that worker representation by solidarity associations provide for better labor relations compared to firms with workers represented only by unions. However, labor unions allege that private businesses use solidarity associations to hinder union organization in contravention of International Labor Organization rules.

The constitution protects the right of workers to organize. The Labor Code enacted in 1943 provides protection from dismissal for union organizers and members and requires employers found guilty of anti-union discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities. However, the labor courts are backlogged and the legal process can be lengthy.

Foreign-Trade Zones/Free Trade Zones

Free trade zones operate near the port cities of Limon/Moin (Caribbean) and Puntarenas (Pacific) as well as in various central valley locations. The benefits, primarily fiscal, are described in the section entitled Performance Requirements and Incentives.

Foreign Direct Investment Statistics

Total Foreign Direct Investment Flows into Costa Rica
YearAmount (USD million)Percent of GDP

2008 Foreign Direct Investment by Country of Origin, Percent of Total
CountryAmount (USD million)Percent
United States1,21860.4%
El Salvador54.12.7%

2008 Foreign Direct Investment, by Sector
Sector Amount (USD million)
Real Estate489.9
Source: Central Bank of Costa Rica

Partial List of Major U.S. Investors in Costa Rica:
Boston Scientific
Del Monte
Hanes Brands
Price Smart
Procter and Gamble
Scott Paper
Standard Fruit Company (Dole)
Vanity Fair
Western Union