San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Speaking Out: 2012, a year of protests

2012 Year in Review

In 2012, it seemed there was a protest every week. Sometimes there were several. But unlike years past, there was no central issue that united demonstrators – such as the so-called “ICE Combo” of 2000 and the Central America-U.S. Free Trade Agreement of 2007. This year, members of many diverse sectors exercised their democratic right to public demonstration, including motorcycle owners, taxi drivers, public-sector workers, farmers, environmentalists and university students and professors. 

According to this year’s State of the Nation report, a measure of the country’s social, economic, political and development goals, in 2011, 632 collective protests were registered, 85 percent more than the previous year and only surpassed in 1995, when Costa Ricans marched against the political and economic policies of then-President José María Figueres, and 2004, when the government of Abel Pacheco approved a monopoly over vehicle inspections for the private company RITEVE.

This year began with small demonstrations. Costa Rica’s LGBT community held protests in front of Casa Presidencial, in the southeastern San José district of Zapote, demanding equal rights. LGBT community members called on President Laura Chinchilla to send two bills to the Legislative Assembly that would grant same-sex couples the same rights as straight couples. Both bills await discussion by lawmakers and have stalled in Congress. 

In March, students of the Liceo de Costa Rica marched against the construction of Chinatown, a pet project of San José Mayor and presidential primary candidate Johnny Araya. Chinatown was built along the historic Paseo de los Estudiantes, adjacent to the Liceo de Costa Rica, a famous high school attended by more than one past president. After months of construction, Chinatown was inaugurated with much fanfare earlier this month. 

In February, taking their lead from the 99 Percent Movement in New York and other U.S. cities, Costa Rica’s “Los Indignados” (The Indignant Ones) held various rallies throughout San José to draw attention to rampant corruption and the need to respect human rights.

But the first large, multi-sectorial protest was held when thousands of Costa Ricans attempted to block an administration decision to increase wages for public-sector workers by only ₡5,000 ($10). Union representatives were outraged that the Chinchilla administration would unilaterally set a mandatory wage hike without first consulting the unions. Unions also considered the $10 raise well below the increasing cost of living. Following intense negotiations, the raise rate held out, a victory for an administration facing serious financial difficulties and a skyrocketing fiscal deficit. 

In May, Costa Rica made international headlines when it sought to extradite environmental activist and Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, who was arrested on a Costa Rican request in Germany. The move sparked protests around the globe by supporters of the marine conservation organization and its controversial leader. Sea Shepherd supporters bombarded The Tico Times and the Chinchilla administration with emails and messages on social media networks in support of Watson, blasting what they considered to be an environmental double-standard by Costa Rica, which markets itself abroad as an ecological paradise. 

Protests in Costa Rica over Watson’s arrest were much smaller than in Germany, France and other countries. But behind the scenes, environmental groups were meeting with members of the Chinchilla administration – including Environment Minister René Castro – to lobby for stricter regulations on the practice of shark finning and the transport and storage of shark fins, a devastatingly bloody practice by fishermen that is decimating global shark populations.  

Watson, who is also wanted by Japan, so far has avoided facing trial and is currently embarking on another campaign in the Southern Ocean to stop the annual Japanese whaling hunt, the focus of Animal Planet TV’s “Whale Wars.”

Another march at the end of July brought together thousands of small-scale farmers (and several large-scale ones) from across the country to demand that taxes on farmland be reduced. A mandatory readjustment in real estate valuations would have rated farmland the same as tourism and urban development projects, and farmers – already struggling – said the new rates would bankrupt them. 

Lawmakers sided with farmers and passed a law stipulating that farmland taxes would be rated based on a property’s historical value, plus 20 percent, a deal that ended the protests. 

Workers in the country’s transportation sector weren’t to be left out this year, as private chauffeurs (known as porteadores), taxi drivers and motorcycle owners held several demonstrations throughout the year, blocking several roads and major thoroughfares throughout the greater metropolitan area. Porteadores demanded special permits to allow them to work legally. The government responded by approving the creation of 5,000 permits, of which half have been distributed to date. 

Motorcycle owners grew furious with what they considered to be a severe hike in the price of annual vehicle circulation permits, known as marchamos. In the past few months, a common sight was hundreds of bikers parked in front of the National Insurance Institute, or at several of the city’s roundabouts. Their latest protest turned violent when bikers attacked cars and a bus when motorists tried to circumvent the bikers’ blockade of major roadways. After days of fiery debate and discussion, lawmakers passed a bill in a second round of debate that lowered the price of marchamos for motorcycles by {13,000 ($26). (Automobile owners, meanwhile, will be charged an extra {2,000, about $4, to help pay the difference.)

Other protests turned violent this year. After President Chinchilla vetoed a bill that would have allowed photocopying of books for academic purposes, a group of university students organized a demonstration in October in front of the Legislative Assembly. The protest was infiltrated by a self-described group of young “anarchists” who attacked anti-riot police and lawmakers with rocks, sticks and bags of urine, causing $14,000 of damage to the assembly building in the process. Protesters accused police of striking the first blows. 

Days later, Chinchilla signed a decree allowing students to photocopy books for educational purposes.

But the most violent protest occurred in front of the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) headquarters in downtown San José on Nov. 8. The focal point of the rally was opposition to budget cuts at local hospitals and clinics, and a call for Caja directors to resign. By mid-day, the situation had turned tense as dozens of riot police approached hundreds of protesters to attempt to remove them from one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Protesters refused to budge and police moved in to make arrests. Three lawmakers attempted to intervene, and hours later, a total of 36 people were arrested and several were injured, including police officers and lawmakers. 

Costa Rica, a country that prides itself on pacifism and the democratic right to organize and protest, was outraged at the violence that unfolded. Another massive march was quickly organized days later, on Nov. 15, and thousands of people marched peacefully along Avenida 2, singing, dancing, chanting and promoting peace along the way. 

Also in November, a group of environmentalists, farmers and academics protested against a request by D&PL, a local subsidiary.

Contact Alberto Font at

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