Costa Rica Today

Government

Costa Rica is a democratic republic whose structure will be familiar to any citizen of the United States. The 1949 constitution divides the government into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. All citizens are guaranteed equality before the law, the right to own property, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. The country is justifiably proud of its long-established tradition of democracy, with free elections and peaceful transitions of power.

The country is famous for lacking an army, which was abolished when the constitution was ratified. The country's stable government and economy have made this possible, even as its neighbors were embroiled in civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. Costa Rica does maintain a small national guard.

Economy

Costa Rica has diversified its economy beyond traditional agriculture, and tourism brings in more money than its three major cash crops: coffee, bananas, and pineapples. High-tech companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola; Internet purveyor Amazon; and pharmaceutical companies like Procter & Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline operate plants and service centers in Costa Rica, providing well-paid jobs for educated professionals. The U.S. chains and big-box stores have arrived, too—most notably Walmart, which operates 12 supercenters here.

Costa Rica has staked hopes on international free-trade agreements in recent years, most notably with Mexico (1995), Canada (2002), the United States (2008), the European Union (2010), and China (2011). Opponents of the treaties are wary of how much benefit they provide for the country, however.

The economy historically bedevils Costa Rica and never more so than in the wake of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Costa Rica received high marks for keeping numbers of cases and deaths far lower than jurisdictions with comparable populations. Like every other country, though, it wonders what the long-term economic impact will be.

Tourism

In good times, some 3.1 million international visitors inject a much-needed $3.9 billion into Costa Rica's economy. The COVID-19 pandemic meant a several-month shutdown of all ports of entry and abruptly threw those numbers into reverse. As the tourism industry slowly recovers from the crisis, it hopes to reestablish Costa Rica as one of the hemisphere's great travel destinations. When things return to "normal," the industry will return to its classic, spirited debates on how to reconcile ecotourism and sustainable development with resort construction, adventure tourism, and extreme sports. Tourism's various sub-sectors here do not always see eye to eye.

Religion

Because it was a Spanish colony, Costa Rica continues to have a close relationship with the Catholic Church. Catholicism was made the country's official religion in the constitution. Because of this, priests are the only type of clergy authorized to perform civil marriages. (Others require the assistance of a legal official.)

More than 70% of Costa Ricans consider themselves Catholics. But even among this group, most people do not have a strong identification with the church or with its teachings. The live-and-let-live attitude of most Costa Ricans does not mesh well with religious doctrine. That's also probably why the evangelical churches that have made huge inroads in neighboring countries are not as prevalent here.

Every village has a church on its main square—always hopping once a year, when the town's patron saint is honored. These are times for food, music, and dancing in the streets. If the celebrations lack much religious fervor—well, that's Costa Rica for you.

Sports

Like everyone else on this soccer-mad isthmus, Costa Ricans take their game seriously, and passions bubble over when it comes to their beloved national team.

On the national level, the big local rivalry is between LD Alajuelense (La Liga, or “the League”) and Deportivo Saprissa (El Monstruo Morado, or “the Purple Monster”). They have won the Costa Rican championship 29 and 34 times, respectively, which makes the rivalry particularly intense. You can tell how important the sport is when you fly into the country. As your plane flies across the Central Valley, you'll notice that every village, no matter how small, has a soccer field.

Cash Crops

If nearby Honduras was the original Banana Republic, 19th-century Costa Rica was a Coffee Republic. Coffee remains inexorably entwined with the country, with economists paying close attention to world prices and kids in rural areas still taking class time off to help with the harvest.

The irony is that it's hard to get a decent cup of the stuff here. True to economic realities of developing countries, the high-quality product gets exported, with the inferior coffee staying behind for the local market. (The same is true of bananas, Costa Rica's other signature agricultural product.) The best places to get a cup of high-quality Costa Rican coffee are upscale restaurants and hotels. Owners understand foreign tastes and have export-quality coffee on hand. Gift shops sell the superior product as well.

The Central Valley is where you'll find many of the coffee plantations. You'll recognize them immediately by the rows of brilliant green plants covered in red berries. Because many of these plants are sensitive to light, they are often shaded by tall trees or even by canopies of fabric. Tours of the plantations are a great way to get to know the local cash crop.

In recent years, the producers of coffee have focused on quality rather than quantity. That's why bananas are now the top agricultural export, followed by pineapples. Both grow in sunny lowland areas, which are abundant on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These crops are treated with just as much care as coffee. You're likely to see bunches of bananas wrapped in plastic bags—while still on the tree. This prevents blemishes that make them less appealing to foreign consumers.

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