San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Poll: Ticos back right to protest

Lately, Costa Rica has been all about protesting. Ticos are proud of their democratic right to public dissent, which they have exercised nearly every week in the past couple of months.

Unlike elsewhere in the region, Costa Rican protests are generally peaceful. But two demonstrations in recent months turned violent, including a Nov. 8 march to the Costa Rican Social Security System, or Caja, in downtown San José. Riot police moved in to end the march, which ended with 36 arrests and several injuries – including police officers and two lawmakers.

A student protest in October turned into a riot outside the Legislative Assembly, causing $14,000 in damage to the government building.

The Caja protest, in which both demonstrators and police accused each other of inciting violence, prompted another protest days later that drew thousands of Costa Ricans – mostly university students, professors and union members – back into the streets, this time for a peaceful march, with participants handing out flowers to police and street performers singing and dancing as they marched.

Public Security Minister Mario Zamora also sent a peace message by assigning only women police officers to cover the march route, a tactic he repeated on Wednesday at a motorcycle rally outside the National Insurance Institute in San José.

A study by the University of Costa Rica (UCR) released on Wednesday found that nearly 71 percent of those polled by the Institute for Psychological Research supported the Nov. 8 Caja demonstration, which sought the removal of Caja administrators and a halt to planned budget cuts for several Costa Rican hospitals. 

The poll surveyed 237 people (60 percent women, 40 percent men). Public figures didn’t fare so well: The lowest approval ratings among respondents on how various actors behaved during the Nov. 8 protest were tallied by President Laura Chinchilla, lawmakers and Public Security Ministry officials. All ranked below five on a scale of 10, with 10 representing support for the way those involved behaved.

An unscientific Tico Times poll had similar results, with 68 percent of 692 respondents saying police were to blame for the violence that ensued. (Readers are allowed to vote only once in Tico Times polls.) 

Remaining votes were evenly split between readers who blamed protesters for the violence (16 percent) and those who blamed both protesters and police (16 percent. See poll here).

In the UCR poll, conducted Nov. 13-16, actors in the Nov. 8 protest with the most support from respondents were members of the media, with a score of nearly seven points. Protesters ranked just above five points.

In keeping with Costa Rica’s pacifist tradition, most respondents repudiated the use of violence during demonstrations, with 71 percent saying they opposed violence by police during demonstrations, and 81 percent saying they were against violence as a tactic by protesters. 

Institute for Psychological Research Director Rolando Pérez said the attitude expressed by respondents reflects the pacifist tradition incorporated in Costa Rica’s political culture, which, he said, doesn’t delegitimize demonstrations, but rather complements them as a democratic tool. 

Asked what would prompt them to march, 86 percent of respondents said they would hit the streets to defend the freedom of expression. Next on the list was the cost of living (81 percent), followed by the defense of public universities (75 percent). 

Slightly less than 70 percent said they would protest to protect the Education Ministry, followed by the Caja (69 percent) and the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (58.6 percent). The Costa Rican Electricity Institute, long a focal point of rallies in the past, would draw only 49.4 percent.

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