San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Human rights

Lawmakers vote to define Costa Rica as a multiethnic, plurinational country

After more than 10 years of debate, lawmakers approved a bill in a first round vote Wednesday to reform Costa Rica’s Constitution to redefine the Central American country as a “multiethnic and plurinational” republic. The bill would add language to Article 1 of the constitution, which defines Costa Rica as a “democratic, free and independent” republic.

“It means that Costa Rica is now a country that recognizes everyone, that recognizes the ethnic-racial diversity, that recognizes us as Afro-descendants,” said Citizen Action Party lawmaker Epsy Campbell.

“It’s a historic step,” said National Liberation Party (PLN) lawmaker Maureen Clarke. “It’s fundamental to recognize our heritage.”

Clarke added that the reform could serve as a platform for future legislation on the rights of Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples in Costa Rica.

President Luis Guillermo Solís, who traces part of his heritage to Jamaica, previously had expressed his support for the reform bill. The president celebrated the vote Wednesday, releasing a statement saying, “We celebrate that lawmakers have taken this great step that recognizes Costa Rica as the cradle of multiple cultures and ethnicities that have enriched and made our country greater and will continue to do so.”

The reform was first presented by PLN lawmaker Joyce Sawyer in 1998, but it was tabled until recently.

Of 57 lawmakers, 46 voted in favor of the bill. The bill must be approved in a second-round vote before going to President Solís for his signature.

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I can’t say that I see any actual significance in this….but I’m probably missing something.

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Ken Morris

Although jurisprudence in Costa Rica may be better aided by a crystal ball than a law degree, I see two main implications.

First, the Catholic Church will lose its privileged position in the country. Since among the components of ethnicity is religious faith, an officially multiethnic society can’t simultaneously favor one religion over another.

Second, Spanish language requirements, say for citizenship, will have to be abandoned. Since language is a key component of culture, a multicultural (probably a more accurate English rendition than “plurinational”) society can’t favor one language over another.

There might also be challenges to food and drug laws under these insertions. If your ethnic group slaughters live goats on the front porch or smokes pot for spiritual enlightenment, you might be constitutionally covered.

Indeed, I don’t know how Costa Rica can then logically ban cock fighting, since that is certainly an integral component of many cultures.

Moreover, by inserting “multiethnic and plurinational” into Article 1, it’s hard not to conclude that these are dominant constitutional themes, which as such have to trump later clauses, laws, and regulations.

Of course, none of these implications seems the intent of the amendment (although I suspect that some do anticipate the implications for depriving the Catholic Chuch of dominance) , and I favor the intent too. However, I do see the changes as opening the door to lots of court challenges.

But in the flip side, a person might be better off with a crystal ball than legal reasoning when it comes to predicting what a panel of judges in Costa Rica will decide.

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