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.

Costa Rica elected its first female president for a four-year term in 2010, the fifth of, now, six Latin American countries to take such a step. Now a former occupant of the office, Laura Chinchilla became the first person here to hold the title "La Presidenta."

The country is famous for lacking an army, which was abolished when the constitution was ratified in 1949. The country's stable government and economy have made this possible, even as its neighbors were embroiled in civil war. Costa Rica does maintain a small national guard.

Economy

By the mid-1990s, Costa Rica had diversified its economy beyond agriculture, and tourism was bringing 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 have now opened 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 eight supercenters here.

Costa Rica has staked hopes on international free-trade agreements in recent years, most notably with 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 continues to bedevil Costa Rica. Although economic growth is on the rise, it still has a $4.1 billion trade deficit and annual inflation just under 5%. Unemployment stands at 8.6%.

Tourism

Today Costa Rica faces the challenge of conserving its natural resources while still permitting modern development. The government has been unable or unwilling to control illegal logging, an industry that threatens to destroy the country's old-growth forests. Urban sprawl in the communities surrounding San José and the development of megaresorts along the Pacific coast threaten forests, wildlife, and the slow pace of life that makes Costa Rica so desirable.

Although tourism injects much-needed foreign cash into the economy, the government has not fully decided the best way to promote its natural wonders. The buzzwords now are not just ecotourism and sustainable development, but also adventure tourism and extreme sports. The two sides do not always see eye to eye.

Religion

Because it was a Spanish colony, Costa Rica continues to have a close relationship to 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 32 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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