Costa Rica (04/01)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


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 pop. 1.2 million). Other major cities--Puntarenas (300,000), Alajuela (250,000), Limon (150,000), Cartago (150,000).
Terrain: A rugged, central range separates the eastern and western coastal plains.
Climate: Mild in the central highlands, tropical and subtropical in coastal areas.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Costa Rican(s).
Population (1999 est.): 3.67 million.
Annual growth rate (1999 est., exclusive of immigration): 1.89%.
Ethnic groups: European and some mestizo 94%, African origin 3%, indigenous 1%.
Religion: Roman Catholic approx. 74%, Evangelical Protestant approx. 15%, none 8%, others 3%.
Languages: Spanish, with Jamaican dialect of English spoken around Puerto Limon.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Attendance--99% grades 1-6, 71% grades 7-9.
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 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 4-year term, two vice presidents, Cabinet (15 ministers, one of whom also is vice president). Legislative--57-deputy unicameral Legislative Assembly elected at 4-year intervals. Judicial--Supreme Court of Justice (22 magistrates elected by Legislative Assembly for renewable 8-year terms). The offices of the Ombudsman, Comptroller General, and Procurator General assert autonomous oversight of the government.
Subdivisions: Seven provinces, divided into 81 cantons, subdivided into 421 districts.
Political parties: Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), National Liberation Party (PLN), Democratic Force Party (PFD), National Integration Party (PIN), National Independent Party (PNI), Agricultural Labor Action Party (PALA), Costa Rican Renovation Party (PRC), Libertarian Movement Party (PML). Suffrage: Obligatory at 18.

GDP (1999): $15.2 billion.
Inflation (1999): 10.1%.
Real growth rate (2000): 1.4%.
Per capita income (1999): $3,700.
Natural resources: Hydroelectric power, forest products, fisheries products.
Agriculture (13% of GDP): Products--bananas, coffee, beef, sugar cane, rice, dairy products, vegetables, fruits and ornamental plants.
Industry (22% of GDP): Types--electronic components, food processing, textiles and apparel, construction materials, cement, fertilizer.
Commerce and tourism (40% of GDP): Hotels, restaurants, tourist services, banks, and insurance.
Foreign trade (1999): Exports--$6.6 billion (f.o.b., 1999): electronic components, bananas, coffee, textiles and apparel, fruits, jewelry, flowers and ornamental plants, small appliances, shrimp. Major markets--U.S. 51%, Europe 23%, Central America 11%, Japan 2%. Imports--$6.3 billion (c.i.f., 1999): electronic components, machinery, vehicles, consumer goods, chemicals, petroleum products, foods, and fertilizer. Major suppliers--U.S. 56%, Europe 10%, Mexico 5% Central America 5%, Japan 5%, Venezuela 4%.
Currency exchange rate (May 2000): 305 colones=U.S.$1.

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 less than 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 local wealth.

Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 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 election.

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 military. 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 15-member cabinet that includes one of the vice presidents. The president and 57 Legislative Assembly deputies are elected for 4-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. An amendment to the constitution to allow second presidential terms has been proposed. The constitutionality of the prohibition against a second presidential term also has been challenged in the courts.

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 8-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 offices of the Comptroller General of the Republic, the Procurator General of the Public, and the Ombudsman exercise autonomous oversight of the government. The Comptroller General's office has a statutory responsibility to scrutinize all but the smallest contracts of the public sector and strictly enforces procedural requirements.

Governors appointed by the president head the country's seven provinces, but they exercise little power. There are no provincial legislatures. Autonomous state agencies enjoy considerable operational independence; they include the telecommunications and electrical power monopoly, 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 internal security.

Principal Government Officials
President--Miguel Angel RODRIGUEZ Echeverria
Foreign Minister--Roberto ROJAS Lopez
Ambassador to the U.S.--Jaime DAREMBLUM
Ambassador to the OAS--Hernan CASTRO
Ambassador to the UN--Bernd NIEHAUS

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, 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. Costa Rica experienced several unusual days of demonstrations and civil disturbance in early 2000 due to protests over legislation that would have permitted private sector participation in the telecommunications and electrical power sectors. These sectors currently are controlled by state-owned monopolies. The legislation was withdrawn, but the underlying question of the appropriate role of the state in the provision of public services remains sensitive.

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 Rodriguez assumed 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 won seven. Social Christian in philosophy, the PUSC generally favors free-market principles, conservative fiscal policies, and government reform. President Rodriguez has pledged to reduce the country's large internal debt, privatize state-owned utilities, 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 has shown strong aggregate growth since then. After 6.2% growth in 1998, GDP grew a substantial 8.3% in 1999, led by exports of the country's free trade zones and the tourism sector. The Central Bank attributes almost half of 1999 growth to the production of Intel Corporation's microprocessor assembly and testing plant. The strength in the nontraditional export and tourism sector is masking a relatively lackluster performance by traditional sectors, including agriculture. Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, was 10.1% in 1999, down from 11.2% the year before. The central government deficit decreased to 3.2% of GDP in 1999, down from 3.3% from the year before. On a consolidated basis, including Central Bank losses and parastatal enterprise profits, the public sector deficit was 2.3% of GDP. Controlling the budget deficit remains the single biggest challenge for the country's economic policymakers, as interest costs on the accumulated central government consumes the equivalent of 30% of the government's total revenues. This limits the resources available for investments in the country's deteriorated 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 access to North and South American markets and direct ocean access to the European and Asian Continents. One-fourth of Costa Rica's land is dedicated to national forests, often adjoining picturesque beaches, which has made the country a popular destination for affluent retirees and ecotourists.

Costa Rica used to be known principally as a producer of bananas and coffee. In recent years, Costa Rica has successfully attracted important investments by such companies as Intel Corporation, which employs nearly 2,000 people at its $300 million microprocessor plant; Proctor and Gamble, which is establishing its administrative center for the Western Hemisphere; and Abbott Laboratories and Baxter Healthcare from the health care products industry. Manufacturing and industry's contribution to GDP overtook agriculture over the course of the 1990s, led by foreign investment in Costa Rica's free trade zone. Well over half of that investment has come from the U.S. Tourism also is booming, with the number of visitors up from 780,000 in 1996 to more than 1 million in 1999. Tourism now earns more foreign exchange than bananas and coffee combined.

The country has not discovered sources of fossil fuels--apart from minor 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. Costa Rica exports electricity to Nicaragua and has the potential to become a major electricity exporter if plans for new generating plants and a regional distribution grid are realized. Mild climate and trade winds make neither heating nor cooling necessary, particularly in the highland cities and towns where some 90% of the population lives.

Costa Rica's infrastructure has suffered from a lack of maintenance and new investment. The country has an extensive road system of more than 30,000 kilometers, although much of it is in disrepair. Most parts of the country are accessible by road. The main highland cities in the country's Central Valley 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's ports are struggling to keep pace with growing trade. They have insufficient capacity, and their equipment is in poor condition. The railroad does not function, with the exception of a couple of spurs reactivated by a U.S.-owned banana company. The government is expected to open both the ports and the railroads to competitive bidding opportunities for private investment and management during the coming months. The government also hopes to bring foreign investment, technology, and management into the telecommunications and electrical power sectors, which are monopolies of the state. However, political opposition to opening these sectors to private participation has stalled the government's efforts. The poor state of public finances will continue to limit the state's ability to try to modernize these sectors in the absence of a political consensus to permit private investment. Failure to act soon on telecommunications could prove an obstacle to the government's desire to attract more world-class foreign investment.

Costa Rica has sought to widen its economic and trade ties, both within and outside the region. Costa Rica signed a bilateral trade agreement with Mexico in 1994, which was later amended to cover a wider range of products. Costa Rica joined other Central American countries, plus the Dominican Republic, in establishing a Trade and Investment Council with the United States in March 1998. Costa Rica is negotiating or seeking ratification of trade agreements with Chile, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago. It lobbied aggressively for enhancement of the U.S. Government's Caribbean Basin Initiative and has made clear its interest in joining the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) or signing a similar treaty with the U.S. Costa Rica is an active participant in the negotiation of the hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas, a process that the Costa Rican Government chaired in preparation for the April 1998 Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile. It also is a member of the so-called Cairns Group which is pursuing global agricultural trade liberalization in the World Trade Organization.

Costa Rica is an active member of the international community and, in 1993, proclaimed its permanent neutrality. Its record on the environment, human rights, and advocacy of peaceful settlement of disputes give it a weight in world affairs far beyond its size. The country lobbied aggressively 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.

Then-President Oscar Arias authored a regional peace plan in 1987 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 limitation agreements. President Rodriguez recently proposed the abolition of all Central American militaries and the creation of a regional counternarcotics police force in their stead.

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. The country debated its role in the Central American integration process under former President Calderon. Costa Rica has sought concrete economic ties with its Central American neighbors rather than the establishment of regional political institutions, and it chose not to join the Central American Parliament. President Figueres promoted a higher profile for Costa Rica in regional and international fora. Costa Rica gained election as President of the Group of 77 in the United Nations in 1995. That term ended in 1997 with the South-South Conference held in San Jose. Costa Rica occupied a nonpermanent seat in the Security Council from 1997 to 1999 and exercised a leadership role in confronting crises in the Middle East and Africa, as well as in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. It is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

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 consular office in Havana. Cuba opened a consular office in Costa Rica in 2001.

Costa Rica strongly backed efforts by the United States to implement UN Security Council Resolution 940, which led to the restoration of the democratically elected Government of Haiti in October 1994. Costa Rica was among the first to call for a postponement of the May 22 elections in Peru when international observer missions found electoral machinery not prepared for the vote count.

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 more than 200 U.S. 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, the United States Agency for International Development (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 community education. USAID recently launched a $9 million project to support refugees of Hurricane Mitch residing in Costa Rica.

As many as 35,000 American private citizens, mostly retirees, reside in the country, and an estimated 500,000 American citizens visit Costa Rica annually. There have been some vexing issues in the U.S.-Costa Rican relationship, principal among them longstanding expropriation and other U.S. citizen investment disputes, which have hurt Costa Rica's investment climate and produced bilateral tensions. 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 also have 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 left U.S. citizens vulnerable to harm and loss of their property.

The United States and Costa Rica signed the bilateral Maritime Counter-Drug Agreement, the first of its kind in Central America, which entered into force in late 1999. The agreement permits bilateral cooperation on stopping drug trafficking through Costa Rican waters.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Linda Jewell
Political/Economic Counselor--Perry E. Ball
Consul General--Janet M. Weber
Administrative Counselor--Clarke W. Allard
Public Affairs Officer--Peter Brennan
Defense Representative--Commander Robert Wilkins
Commercial Attach�--Margaret Hansen-Muse
Agricultural Attach�--Alan Hrapsky
APHIS Region V--Harold Hofman
APHIS Region VI--Oswaldo Perez
Environmental Hub--Lawrence Gumbiner
Regional Security Officer--William J. Griffin

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
Tel: 800-USA-TRADE
Home Page:

Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce
c/o Aerocasillas
P.O. Box 025216, Dept 1576
Miami, Florida 33102-5216
Tel: 506-22-0-22-00
Fax: 506-22-0-23-00