In the elections held on 7 February, Laura Chinchilla was elected as the first woman President of Costa Rica. She was a Minister of Justice and first Vice President in the administration of her predecessor, President Oscar Arias. She was leading in the opinion polls and her victory was predicted. It is this predictability and long democratic tradition which makes Costa Rica different from the rest of Latin America. The country has held regular elections every four years and peaceful transfer of power in the last sixty years. This is remarkable and distinct in the contemporary history of Latin America where many countries had suffered military dictatorships, civil wars and interruption of democracies.
What is the secret behind this unique achivement of Costa Rica which has managed to be an island of peace and democracy in the ocean of Latin American political instability and chaos in the post- Second World War era. In fact there are two secrets behind this.
Firstly, the country has no military. It abolished the armed forces voluntarily in 1948. The absence of armed forces meant that there were no cocky colonels or generals who thought they knew how to run governments better than the politicians. Ballots , not bullets , became the only route to power. Costa Rica boasts that they spend their money on teachers and schools instead of colonels and barracks. Costa Rica has set an example to Latin America and the world of a military-free society.
The second secret is the abiding commitment and consensus among the elite of Costa Rica to democracy and social equity. It is true that most of the political leaders come from the small number of oligarchic families in the country, as in many other countries in the region. This includes President Arias, a coffee baron and from the top three wealthiest families in the country. But the Costa Rican oligarchy is an enlightened one with a social conscience. The governments have pursued a policy of inclusive development, irrespective of whether they are conservatives or liberals. The four million citizens enjoy the benefits of a modern social welfare state including pensions, labour legislation, national health care and a life expectancy of 77. In 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make education both free and obligatory, funded by the state’s share of the great coffee wealth. The literacy rate of over 95 percent is one of the highest in Latin America. Even the coffee growing land is distributed among 100,000 families and not monopolised by the oligarchy. Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to give voting rights to women and people of African origin in 1948. It is because of this equity in the society that there has been no revolutionary leftist outsider to challenge the status quo as it happened in some other countries in the region. Latin America has the highest disparity of income in the world. It is this factor which has been responsible for the polarisation of politics and societies and the consequent political instability. Costa Rica has succeeded in reducing the disparity through inclusive development and making all its citizens as stakeholders in democracy. The voter turn out in the elections is one of the highest in the region.
Costa Rica´s democracy which had taken strong roots since the very beginning of the twentieth century was interrupted once in February 1948. President Rafael Calderon annuled the 1948 elections after his handpicked successor candidate lost the elctions. A civil war followed claiming 2000 lives. Jose Figueres , the conservative leader lead a rebel army and toppled the government and took over power in May 1948. But Figueres promised that he would relinquish power in eighteen months after carrying out some reforms. He fulfilled both the promises. He handed over power promptly in November 1949 to the legally elected President in February 1948. His reforms included abolition of the army, decentralisation of power and extension of vote to women. Later he created his own National Liberation party and won the presidential elections in 1953 and in 1970. He handed over power gracefully when he lost the elections in 1958. His son became President in 1990. Ironically he took over from the son of Rafael Calderon against whom his father lead the armed rebellion in 1948. President–elect Chinchilla and President Arias are from the same National Liberation party founded by Figueres.
Costa Rica, known as the Switzerland of Latin America, is not a passively peaceful society blind to the problems around. The country has taken initiatives to help their neighbours. It was Costa Rica which brokered a peace agreement ending the civil war in the region for which President Oscar Arias was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. In June last year when the El Salvadorean democracy was interrupted, USA and OAS turned to President Arias for his help in resolving the issue.
Costa Rica is, of course, not free from challenges such as corruption, drug trafficking and crime. There have been corruption scandals involving ex-Presidents and Ministers. Chinchilla has promised in her election agenda to tackle these issues.
Costa Rica also stands out as a role model for Latin America in many other respects. With its high literacy rate and per capita computer penetration, the country has attracted Silicon Valley and silicon implants. Intel, HP and other computer companies, call centres and BPOs have a significant presence. Silicon implants for breast enlargement are major exports besides other medical equipments as well as some pharmaceuticals. The country has successfully diversified its economy which was dependent soley upon export of coffee in the past. Costa Rica has also pioneered Ecotourism in the region. The country attracts over two million tourists a year. The per capita income of Costa Rica at 11,000 US Dollars is three times higher than the other countries in Central America.
Costa Rica was one of the first in the world which combined its ministries of energy and the environment back in the 1970s and generates an impressive 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. In 1997, a carbon tax was introduced on emissions – with the funds gained being used to pay indigenous communities to protect their surrounding forests. Deforestation has been reversed, and forests cover twice as much land as 20 years ago. In 2007, the Costa Rican Government declared that it intended to become carbon neutral by 2021.
¨Pura Vida¨ is how the Costa Ricans respond cheerfully when you ask them , Como esta ( how are you ). Pura vida literally means pure life. But what the Costa Ricans mean is ¨full of life¨. This makes them distinct among the Latin Americans who respond generally as Bien ( fine) or Muy Bien ( very well ). It is not surprising that Costa Ricans were classified as the happiest people in the world in the Happy Planet Index compiled by the British research group, the New Economics Foundation in their annual survey of 2009.