San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica at a crossroads

The time has come for Costa Rica to define itself. 

Societal transformation, bickering political parties and environmental contradictions have put Costa Rica in a state of flux. Is it a “green” country, or will it continue to shed environmental regulation for development and to boost exports? Can the public health care system be sustained, or is it time to consider a new model? Known as the safest country in Central America, will the government invest enough to reduce increasing crime rates?

The idea of Costa Rica at a crossroads was the central theme presented this week in the State of the Nation report. The annual report is a 430-page panoramic snapshot of the country. A team of 80 researchers compiled information from 2010, from universities, government agencies such as the Central Bank and the National Statistics and Census Institute, and a host of other organizations. 

“The country is at a turning point where it needs to choose a path,” said Steffan Gómez, the report’s chief researcher. “There are various roads that can be taken and several different players that are asking us to follow them. We don’t know what the right path is, but it is evident that as a country, it will require social dialogue to determine what roads we should  take to get back on track.” 

The report’s cover illustration portrays Costa Rica’s fork-in-the-road di–lemma. Five Costa Ricans representing different demographic groups huddle on a paved road. Their body language – a man scratching his head, a woman with her arms folded, and a man using his hands to express an opinion – indi-cates they are faced with a difficult decision. 

Above the group, the road forks into three paths that lead to tunnels beneath a green mountain. On the left, a man in a suit gestures for the group to choose his path. A woman in red in the center and a woman in yellow on the right do the same. 

Asked if the three characters represent choices in the cellphone market, Gómez said that telecommunications is one of many areas where the public faces difficult choices. 

“The telecommunications market is a good example of what the report found in many sectors,” Gómez said. “There are big decisions to be made in the economic sector regarding spending and fiscal reform, or in strategic planning for the government in areas such as infrastructure and port development. In the health sector, for example, the question is whether to change the structure of Costa Rica’s Social Security System (Caja) or to strengthen it. These are some examples of the decisions the country is facing right now.” 

The 17th edition of the State of the Nation focused primarily on social development, economic standing, environmental conditions and the state of democracy in the political sector. 

Costa Rica’s Problems

From 2006 to 2010, the homicide rate in Costa Rica rose from seven per 100,000 citizens to more than 11, according to figures provided by the Judicial Branch. According to the United Nations, a country is at risk when the homicide rate surpasses 10 per 100,000 citizens. 

“We are still considered the safest country in the region by these figures, but the decrease in public security over the past five years is significant,” Gómez said. “This can be directly linked to an increase in organized crime, which is growing throughout the region.”  

Gómez said that more than 40 percent of homicides in 2010 were related to organized crime, and the total number of crimes increased 1.7 percent since 2009. While this increase can be attributed to a shortage in security funding, decreased investment in education, health and housing are also contributing factors. 

“The state must understand that as investment in these sectors diminishes, it is usually accompanied by an increase in crime and insecurity,” Gómez said.

After a significant investment in education in the 1980s, Costa Rica reduced educational spending in the ’90s. Although funding levels increased in the 2000s, including an investment of 8 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, the average Costa Rican student receives only 8.8 years of education. 

“If we want to develop this country into a more attractive opportunity for the global market, it is essential that the level of education is high enough to produced skilled employees,” Gómez said. 

Miguel Gutiérrez, founder and director of the State of the Nation report, spoke about Costa Rica’s rising health care costs and the problems at the Caja. With an aging population, the Caja’s average cost per patient has increased annually and is one of its top expenditures. This year, the Caja nearly went bankrupt because of debts from increasing equipment and operation costs. 

“The Caja continues to be an extremely successful model for human development in Latin America. Using low costs, the Caja has brought impressive results to the level of health in this country,” Gutiérrez said on Tuesday. “However, given the recent financial difficulties, the Caja is currently in a state of risk.”

The State of the Nation concluded that Caja directors must decide if it is feasible to provide low-cost public health care services. 

A New Economy

The Costa Rican economy, which grew by only 4.2 percent last year, received a rating of “moderate and fragile.” 

Because of uncertainty in the global economy, Gutiérrez said that Costa Rica would remain at the mercy of outside financial markets in coming years. 

However, there is an increasing tendency for workers to find high-tech or service jobs in the “new economy,” which is less reliant on industrial and agricultural sectors. 

“We found that the creation of new jobs is found predominantly in the new economy, particularly in free zones and in the services sector,” Gómez said. “The economy is modernizing, which is causing the old economy to recede annually. Currently only 25 percent of the national labor force is employed in the old economy.”  

A Divided Legislative Assembly 


It’s a bad sign when more than 40 percent of the population says it doesn’t align with any of the country’s four largest political parties, the report notes. Using a series of surveys and questionnaires, the State of the Nation found that the “None” party is by far the country’s most popular, receiving 15 percent more votes than the second-place National Liberation Party.

Since the arrival of the Libertarian Movement Party and the Citizen Action Party in the late 1990s and early 2000s, political allegiances have dwindled. Once  one of the country’s most popular parties as late as 2001, the Social Christian Unity Party finished the decade as the least popular, with about 10 percent of voter support. 

“The multi-party system has deteriorated dialogue and is not serving the national interests of the country,” Gutiérrez said. 

The study concluded that divided political factions have resulted in an inefficient Legislative Assembly. According to data, the average time needed for a law to be approved by Congress is 2.5 years. 

“That means that if you become the president of Costa Rica and you want to implement important legislation to establish the policies of your administration, you have to wait two and a half years until it is approved,” Gómez said. “When it’s approved, your term as president is almost over.” 

The report also revealed a disconnect been public opinion and the Legislative Assembly. According to the State of the Nation, the assembly passes only one of three bills that are backed by political and government experts. 

“That means that two out of every three laws approved by the Legislative Assembly were not recommended by experts and supported by the public,” Gómez said. “An example of this would be when the newly elected legislators tried to pass a law that would raise their own salaries in May 2010. It was denied, but it was a good representation of a Legislative Assembly that prefers to promote its own interests.”

Not That ‘Green’ 

Conservation efforts in Costa Rica last year were deemed “stable.” According to the study, Costa Rica reached a historic level in terms of protected marine areas, with an additional 100,000 hectares of ocean protected since 2010. 

Yet Gómez said that Costa Rica’s ecological footprint grew in 2010 because of increased consumption and pollution by residents, principally in the transportation sector. 

“We live in a green country,” he said. “But the truth is that in our daily use and consumption, we aren’t that green.”

The report found the “green” paradox to be best exemplified by the excessive use of pesticides. In 2010, Costa Rica imported almost 14,000 tons of pesticides, a record high. In 1980, the country imported only 2,000 tons of pesticides. According to the report, only 2.3 percent of agricultural production in Costa Rica is considered to be organic and pesticide-free. 

“In the small area of the country where agriculture is developed, we are using heavy amounts of pesticides,” Gómez said. “This is resulting in dangerous amounts of pollution.”

Gutiérrez also commented on the high number of environmental protests last year, many of them over the Crucitas gold mine project in northern Costa Rica. Former President Óscar Arias approved construction of the mine in 2007. In April 2010, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared the project to be constitutional, a ruling that was overturned by a Costa Rican appeals court in November 2010 (see story on Page 3).

“The government has normally served as the mediator of general conflicts,” Gutiérrez said. “But in 2010, the state was the generator of environmental conflicts.”

The Path of Dialogue 

Several Costa Rican sectors are staring at the diverging paths that will lead them into the future. Will the country adopt tax reform or find other methods to generate needed funds? Will in vitro fertilization be permitted, or will Costa Rica remain the only country in the Americas not to adopt the practice? With the goal of carbon neutrality set for 2021, will problems in the transportation sector be addressed? 

According to Gutiérrez, Costa Rica’s paths should be chosen through dialogue. 

“The central question for the country right now is: ‘How are we going to choose a path?’” Gutiérrez said. “The answer is political and social dialogue. The people and administrators of this country must get together to establish a common agenda and arrive at urgent agreements. There isn’t time to waste. The decisions need to be made now.”

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