Costa Rica is known as one of the most democratic and peaceful countries in the Western Hemisphere. It has been lauded for its human development and welfare policies along with notable success in the areas of innovation, the environment and sustainability.
So how did this relatively small country manage to achieve a number of enviable achievements?
*Much of this article is indebted to the work of Jaime Ordóñez, Diego Padilla, Timothy Andrews Sayle & Patricia DeGennaro in their thesis The Republic of Costa Rica: A Case Study on the Process of Democracy Building.
Charting the evolution of Costa Rica you have to look at some of the key figures that were instrumental and the policies that the country adopted. A trajectory of positive reforms striking a balance between pragmatism and forward thinking.
After early battles were fought and won for independence and self determination the story of social and political developments starts when Juan Mora Fernandez became the first Head of State of Costa Rica in 1824.
Fernandez did much to improve both the development of democracy in the country and important infrastructure such as the building of roads and the expansion of education.
Fernandez’s land reforms which involved encouraging the cultivation of coffee would initially be considered a success but inadvertently lead to the emergence of powerful coffee barons.
Image Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez via Wikipedia Commons
It was President Tomas Guardia who really had an early massive influence on Costa Rica when he took power in 1870 and started to put important reforms into place. Under military rule Guardia seized control of the government and made huge strides in education, military policy and taxation.
Guardia was also a big supporter of investment in the railways. Ruling essentially as a military dictator, Guardia’s progressive policies included free and compulsory primary education, restraining the excesses of the military and taxing coffee earnings to finance public works, abolishment of capital punishment and the secularization of the state. Guardia paved the way for the cherished value of education and social and democratic development in Costa Rica.
Image Ciudad Universitaria Rodrigo Facio Brenes via Wikipedia Commons
Two people that deserve honourable mentions for their ideas, passion and work that helped shape Costa Rica are JorgeVolio founder of the Reformist Party and Rodrigo Facio, a lawyer and revered intellectual. Volio set out policies to benefit the population as a whole and not just wealthy interests.
Facio, an intellectual whose thinking and work would play a major part in the evolution of Costa Rica for years to come, was a leading figure of the Centre of Study of National Problems, which was established in 1937 and grew out of law students coming together to form the Cultural Association of Law Students of Costa Rica.
The Second Republic and José Figueres
Enter José Figueres Ferrer, co-founder of the National Liberation Party (PLN). Earlier Figueres had been arrested and extradited when he held a radio broadcast criticising the government for corruption. In charge Figueres would go to be seen as one of Costa Rica’s most influential and respected leaders putting in place a deep set of social and political reforms.
All was part of a new constitution, the second republic, which included giving women and people of African descent the right to vote, offering loans at low costs to most of the population and the emergence of a Costa Rican welfare state providing an extensive social security and public health system.
First country in the world to abolish its army
In 1949 in a bold move Costa Rica became the first country to abolish its army. The military budget would be redirected providing a huge investment in education. Figueres would press on with his ambitious socialist programme, including introducing a social security system and nationalising banks. All of which would provide the foundation for a more egalitarian society during most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
President Oscar Arias Sanchez in 1987 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for stopping the Nicaraguan War, a war which America under President Reagan was deeply implicated adding to their history of shocking intervention in the small country. Sanchez managed to get all five of the Central America presidents to sign his peace plan.
Environment and Innovation
It’s evident from some of the earliest found artefacts that the people in this relatively small place in the world believed in close ties with nature. Today the country is upholding its beliefs in looking after the land with its progressive environment and sustainability goals. The biodiverse nation, with 25% of its land protected as reserves, become the first Latin American country and also in the Americas to ban hunting .
In 2010 it won the Future Policy award for pioneering legal protection of natural wealth and biodiversity. In 2007 the government set out plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2012 – 2030. Currently fossil fuel power plants account for 4 percent of the country’s electricity, while 78 percent comes from hydropower and 18 percent from wind and geothermal power.
But Costa Rica could have some competition as New Zealand has stated that it is aiming to be the first sustainable country. (World Watch Institute)
Image EverJean via Flickr
Costa Rica is the most innovative country in Latin America, ranking 39th of 142 countries surveyed on the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2013. It achieved this by performing well in infrastructure, human capital, public institutions and business “sophistication”. The report also highlighted how it had done well in the production of knowledge and technology.
Social and welfare
As can be seen social reforms and policies have been a driving force behind Costa Rican politics which has been aided by a relatively healthy social liberal democracy in action. Education has also as we have seen been a priority and the country is considered to have one of the best welfare state systems.
In March 2017 Costa Rica was rated the 12th most happiest country in the world. The UN report rated 156 countries based on income and life expectancy figures, along with how people rate social support, personal freedom, corruption and generosity. What was even more impressive was that most of the top 20 counties on the list were also the richest apart from Costa Rica who is only 91st in terms of GDP out of all the countries in the world.
In 2012 for the second year running Costa Rica was awarded first place in the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation using a criteria of life expectancy, experienced well-being and ecological footprint.
Image EverJean via Flickr
Just like pulling well beyond its weight in ‘world happiness’ indicators the country also had an admirable position of being rated the 6th best country in the world (out of 180) for press freedoms by Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
The Rich Coast
Throughout its history Costa Rica has met many of the challenges it has faced. It has managed to keep a balance between state intervention and market forces in its pursuit of growth, development, equitable distribution and sustainable democracy.
When the first explorers reached its shores they did not find gold, silver or natural resources in abundance but they still saw it fitting to name it the Rich Coast.
Image Tostie via Flickr
Chile To Have Free University Education
TTIP The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
Empowering Women Through Photography
Books about Costa Rica