Costa Rica: "The Happiest Country on Earth"

Costa Rica is an unlikely success story, a peaceful natural paradise that escaped the wars of Central America. It's now aiming to stop using fossil fuels within six years.

Annabelle Quince: In 2015, for 75 days straight, Costa Rica sourced 100% of its electricity from renewable energy. But it's not just its environmental achievements that makes Costa Rica unique: it's had a stable democratic government for almost 80 years, a well-developed health system and a highly educated population. And according to the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica is the happiest nation on Earth.

Hello, this is Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC Radio app. I'm Annabelle Quince and today we're going to take a look at the history of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is in Central America, Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Caribbean Sea on its eastern coast and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Like the rest of Central America, Costa Rica spent almost 300 years as part of the Spainish Empire. But according to Monica Rankin, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas Dallas, it was on the edge of the empire.

Monica Rankin: Costa Rica was certainly in the peripheral part of the Spanish Empire. It was not a seat of administrative or religious power, as Mexico City and Lima Peru were. And because it didn't have the same amount of mineral wealth as you see in the central valley of Mexico or the Andean regions of South America, it didn't attract as many settlers. So throughout pretty much all of the colonial period it had a population of constantly arriving Spaniards that continued to grow. But it wasn't what you would call the hotspot of the Spanish Empire. It was considered the outskirts of the empire, a bit of an outpost, if you will. And because of that, throughout 300 years of Spanish rule, Costa Rica was able to develop a sense of self sufficiency, a sense of autonomy that becomes very important after independence and that I think has a large impact on the way that Costa Rica developed into the 20th century as well.

Annabelle Quince: Costa Rica gained its independence in 1823. So what was the legacy of the Spanish colonial period? Bruce Wilson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.

Bruce Wilson: It is probably lighter in Costa Rica that it is in Guatemala where there was a heavy occupation by Spain or, say, the Andes and stuff in South America, or even in Mexico. Ironically it took them three months to realise that they had won their independence because that's how long it took to get the message down from Guatemala to Costa Rica to say that the Spanish were leaving. And that also talks to how cut off the place was in terms of connection to Spain. What was left behind is the religion, it's still a predominantly Catholic country, although less so nowadays, the language, and the legal system of course.

Monica Rankin: Costa Rica and the rest of Central America were effectively independent from Spain by 1823. And at that time Costa Rica joined with its Central American neighbours and established a form of government and a type of political entity known as a federation of what we know of as the nations of Central America today; Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica. The capital city was in Guatemala, and each so-called nation within that federation maintained a high degree of autonomy. So much like Costa Rica had developed this autonomy and self-sufficiency throughout the colonial period, this very early independent political entity maintained that degree of autonomy.

But the united provinces only lasted for about a decade and a half. Costa Rica broke away from the united provinces in 1838. So Costa Rica was essentially an independent nation, stand-alone by itself in 1838. And at that point I think you could probably best describe Costa Rica's political system as somewhat messy.

Fabrice Lehoucq: When the countries of Latin America, when political elites become independent some time in the 1820s, 1830s, all of these countries adopt a constitutional framework that looked something like that of the United States or different republican experiments in Spain at that time. But most countries spend most of the 19th century being unstable. And for Costa Rica, even though it didn't spend the 19th century rocked by civil wars, it went through something like nine or eight or nine or ten constitutions. There were one or two chiefs of state that were assassinated. The place that it has become famous for, those sorts of institutions didn't start to get constructed until the late 19th century.

Annabelle Quince: Fabrice Lehoucq is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina.

Fabrice Lehoucq: In 1889 there is a presidential election, and for the first time in Costa Rica the incumbent party loses the election. However, the incumbent party accepts that it has lost the election. And they do this because they are facing a popular mobilisation. So there is a bit of a threat of a revolution. And that's one of the key dates, the election of 1889. Not only is that the first time that incumbents recognise their defeat and turn power over to the opposition, but that's the first election which formal political parties appear. And those political parties spend the next couple of decades doing something very democratic, that is trying to enfranchise all adult males.

And curiously the constitution of 1871, which is the final constitution of the 19th century, that constitution gives the franchise to all adult males as long as they have some property or income. But in practice we know that effectively universal male suffrage appears in Costa Rica starting in the late 19th century. And that's important, that even though in the constitution only property owning or income owning males can vote, in effect all adult males get registered to vote. And I think the reason for that is in a relatively small country with a relatively small population, parties which are competing for power have an incentive to get everyone registered to vote, and therefore compete against each other. And I would say that these two sorts of things begin to send a signal to, say, Costa Rican elites, to the average man, that elections are an important way to come to power. And those who don't recognise election results tend to have problems like the ones we saw in 1889. And that helps build a compromise where Costa Ricans gradually begin developing democratic institutions. And it's that political game where no one can become dominant which is what fuels developments over the course of the 20th century.

Monica Rankin: Throughout Latin America during the 19th century, the two competing political ideologies for how to organise society were liberal and conservative political thought. Liberals tended to be much more forward looking, more progressive, conservatives wanted to really maintain a lot of the structures that were in place during the colonial period, including a very close association between governing structures and religion, a very hierarchical social structure to society.

Liberals tended to be a little bit more progressive minded. The application of that is problematic in a lot of areas of Latin America. I think Costa Rica is much more successful in taking the liberal social platform and really applying it in ways that become meaningful to the population as a whole, particularly by the time you get to the late decades of the 19th century, a new constitution comes about in 1871, and that constitution stays in place until 1949.

And the 1871 constitution is really a very clear statement of the liberal social thought. And it calls for a much more expansive electorate, it calls for very easily recognisable individual rights as we know them in our societies today. It calls for a free and effective system of public education. Costa Rica becomes much more successful than many other areas of Latin America in implementing a very effective system of public education. At the time liberals really wanted to make sure that the education system was far removed from control of the Catholic Church, which had essentially controlled education during the colonial era and up to the 1870s. And Costa Rica does a very good job of devoting resources to public education and beginning to educate its population.

Fabrice Lehoucq: One thing that's very interesting is in the late 19th century, early 20th century, the amount of money that Costa Rican central state spends on the military begins a long-term decline, but the amount of money that the Costa Rican state spends on public education begins to increase. And throughout this period there are different attempts to improve the public health of Costa Ricans.

And I want to emphasise this point about gradualness. It's very hard to pinpoint for the development of democratic institutions or for social welfare programs, it's hard to pinpoint just one date and say there's a before and after. Same with institutions of democracy. I would say it takes about a 50 to 60 year period, from the late 19th century to about the 1950s where you get all the elements of what we consider to be a democratic system; men becoming enfranchised by the late 19th century, women don't get the right to vote until 1949. So all the different major social programs and democratic institutions really gradually emerge over the first half of the 20th century.

Annabelle Quince: You're with Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC Radio App. I'm Annabelle Quince, and today we're tracing the story of the small Central American nation of Costa Rica.

Despite its progress towards democracy, in 1948 the political process hit a wall.

Monica Rankin: Costa Rica fought a civil war in 1948. This comes in the years immediately following World War II. In the years of World War II and immediately following that there were a series of leaders who had controlled the presidency in Costa Rica who had kind of led the country into a slightly more conservative direction. The first of these, Rafael Calderón Guardia, and then his successor Teodoro Picado.

Picado was really known as kind of a puppet president of Calderón Guardia who was still kind of around and behind the scenes and could not run for re-election because Costa Rica's constitution didn't allow immediate re-election. So he had to sit out for a term. He did run for re-election in 1948 when he was eligible again. And the official election results showed an opposition candidate by the name of Otilio Ulate had won the election. Calderón contested this election and brought his accusations of fraud to Costa Rica's Congress.

Congress was full of his political allies, and Congress determined that the election should be nullified. So this is essentially what set off Costa Rica's civil war, is this contested election between this really strong political leader and the political opposition that by all accounts had actually won the election.

The war itself was relatively short lived, it only lasted about 44 days. A couple of thousand people died, so there was violence. The rebellion, those on the side of the opposition candidate, Otilio Ulate, was led by a guy named José Figueres. Figueres came back to Costa Rica, helped to lead this rebellion and did so quite successfully.

Figueres himself became president once the war was over. And he oversaw the writing of Costa Rica's current constitution which has been amended a number of times but was put in place in 1949. And Figueres oversees a number of other really significant reforms in Costa Rican society.

Bruce Wilson: José Figueres Ferrer, when he won the civil war, one of the first things that they did was to abolish the army, and this is part of the constitution now, that says that you're not allowed to have a standing army in Costa Rica. The impact of abolishing the army has been very significant. It means that there's this huge block of money that is not being spent on defence that can instead be spent on other welfare benefits such as education or healthcare or pensions. So that was one of the biggest things that came out of this, was the abolition of the army.

Another major thing that came out of it was they looked at what happened before and they figured, well, what we need to have is an institution that controls elections that is outside of politics. And so they created what is called the Supreme Elections Tribunal. And the members of that are elected by the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court members are elected by the Congress, with a two-thirds majority, so you end up twice removed from the actual political process. And it acts as a court, it's almost like a fourth branch of government, and they control everything to do with elections, the registration of births and deaths, of giving out voting cards, they control party expenditures, they control who gets on the ballot, they design the ballots, they count the votes, everything to do with elections is controlled by this agency, which is a model in Latin America and has been replicated in other countries afterwards. So this dealt with one aspect of the corruption. Political corruption was now going to be controlled by this agency that was above politics and had no vested interest in the outcome of the elections.

The other thing they did was they reduced the power of the president to being really, really minor, and expanded the powers of the Congress, and then they have elections that take place every four years with the whole Congress has to stand to re-election…sorry, not re-election because they can't stand for re-election, so it's a whole new Congress, and the president, on one ballot every four years. It stops politicians from having…they are not permanently in office every four years, they have to leave. They can sit out one term and come back but very, very few of them do. See you end up with this evolving political class that is open and allows a fluidity in a way that the most political systems do not.

Annabelle Quince: But also am I right in thinking that the constitution actually broadened out who could vote?

Bruce Wilson: Absolutely. So you have universal adult suffrage after the election. This included women for the first time, it included Afro Caribeños, black people living on the coast that had been brought to Costa Rica by banana companies, they were actually allowed to vote in the new elections. The voting age I think was reduced to 21 at that point, and all the property requirements and other things were removed.

Currently in Costa Rica even prisoners can vote. I've worked during elections in Costa Rica and visited jails to watch prisoners get marched out to the ballot box, they get unshackled, they get to vote, they get shackled again and marched back to their prison cell. So there's a very different sort of attitude about who gets to vote and who doesn't get to vote.

Fabrice Lehoucq: One of the things that the Costa Rican state in the post-World War II period did was politicians listening to voters wanted expenditures on social programs; health, education. But they also delegated a lot of these responsibilities for building these programs to an autonomous bureaucracy or to a semi-autonomous bureaucracy. There is a professional civil service in Costa Rica that starts in the early 1950s, and I think that is key. And with a long period of political stability where public sector employees or a fair number of them realise that they are not going to be thrown out of a job because there has been a revolution or there's been a military coup, there's an emphasis placed upon investments and developing the state's technical capacities.

Bruce Wilson: Up through the late 1970s, early 1980s inequality is declining, incomes are rising. You can see this track with other factors. The impact of the education system is that you end up with something like 96% are literate, functionally literate in the country. Life expectancy rises during this period. Life expectancy in Costa Rica I think for women is around about 82, for men it's around 78 or something like that, which is really high. There are more people over the age of 90 in Costa Rica than any other country in the world, which tells you something about the way that they live and the healthcare system that allows them to have such longevity.

Journalist [archival]: The Costa Rican capital, San Jose, is still a Latin city, but the encroachment of Americana is all around, from the Pizza Huts to the many signs printed in English alone, with no Spanish, to the availability of American cable TV. But it's the less visible signs of American influence which threaten the country's neutrality. With its economy hard hit by recession, Costa Rica is having to rely more on American aid, and increasingly part of that aid is military.

Bruce Wilson: The 1980s was a time that the second oil crisis and the international debt crisis took place all at the same time. Costa Rica was actually the first country in the Americas to default on their international debt. The following year Mexico defaulted and that basically kicked the legs out from underneath the international financial system. But Costa Rica defaulted even before that, and the problem was that they had borrowed money on the international markets when the world economy went into decline in the 1970s, their export sales were declining, they still had all these costs back home that they had to pay for, like the education system, the imports that they need. They have no oil, they have no massive levels of raw materials of any description.

At the same time was the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 with the Sandinistas which brought the attention of the United States to Costa Rica, and not for the better. The Americans were interested in aligning Costa Rica with their war against Nicaragua, this proxy war that they were running. They were basically caught between a rock and a hard place. They need the money and so they are borrowing money, and the Americans, because they had the control or at least the influence over the World Bank and the IMF, they say, well, we're only going to lend you money if you meet these conditions, and those with conditions required them to cut back on healthcare, to cut back on education. And since they didn't have an army, there was no way they could cut back on that.

So the state-led economic growth hit a roadblock during this point and you see unemployment rising, you see debt rising and you see them having to adjust policies to meet demands of international agencies. But it's easy to overstate that. Even contemporarily there is still a significant role for the government in running the economy.

Monica Rankin: Nicaragua of course experiences its Sandinista revolution in 1979, so Nicaraguan throughout the 1980s was ruled by a leftist communist regime under the Sandinistas. El Salvador and Guatemala were both under military dictatorships. So Costa Rica was quite concerned by the escalating violence that it was witnessing, that it was surrounded by throughout much of the 1980s and does ultimately play a large role in brokering an end to those civil wars, to that violence. And this takes place under the leadership of Costa Rica's president Óscar Arias who was elected in 1986. Arias really inserts himself right into the middle of negotiations between the various sides of the civil wars that were plaguing Costa Rica's neighbours. A group of Latin American nations had actually tried to broker a peace in 1983 and 1984. This was known as the Contadora Group. And they were largely unsuccessful.

One of the reasons that the Contadora Group could not bring an end to violence in Central America was that the United States often stepped in to block negotiations, and essentially the Reagan administration argued that the United States would not agree to any kind of brokered peace unless the Sandinista regime was completely dismantled in Nicaragua, that peace in Nicaragua could not be achieved if the Sandinistas were still in power. So Arias learned from the failures of the Contadora Group, and when he came in to the presidency in Costa Rica he bypassed the United States altogether and he got the leaders of all Central American nations and the leaders of opposition groups in those civil wars to sit down and talk to each other and brokered a peace that they could all agree to. The Reagan administration actually tried to block this peace accord as well, by threatening to cut off economic aid to Costa Rica in the middle of its debt crisis of the 1980s and actually tried to force the Arias regime to accept something like $300 million in military aid that Costa Rica didn't want. So there's a real interesting diplomatic dance that takes place between Costa Rica and the United States.

Man [archival]: The Norwegian Nobel committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1987 to President Óscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica.

Monica Rankin: I think that one of the reasons that Arias is ultimately successful is because when word of his negotiations gets out to the rest of the world, Óscar Arias then in 1987 won the Nobel Peace Prize. And having won the Nobel Peace Prize, this gave him much legitimacy in the eyes of world leaders and the Reagan administration really had to let this take place and back away from its demands that it had been making. Peace in Central America was not easy, it didn't come about immediately in 1986 or 1987, but the peace accords that Arias helps to put together do ultimately lead to a peace throughout this region.

Annabelle Quince: Has Costa Rica been able to maintain its political stability and its socially progressive policies into the 21st century?

Monica Rankin: Costa Rica has continued to hold democratic elections. Costa Rica has elected one of the few female heads of state. Costa Rica requires a gender balance among candidates in elections for public office. And because of that regulation, Costa Rica in 2015, 40% of all Congressional positions were held by women. Economically I think Costa Rica has made necessary adjustments, particularly after the economic crisis it endured of the 1980s. Costa Rica because of its political stability, because of its reputation for being a safe place and because of its highly educated population, Costa Rica is a popular destination for a lot of foreign investors.

Foreign corporations oftentimes establish manufacturing facilities in Costa Rica, service facilities are set up in Costa Rica. Today Costa Rica's economy is a very service oriented economy, about 74% of Costa Rica's GDP is tied to the service industry. Much of that is tied to Costa Rica's tourism industry. In the 1980s, again as part of a recovery from the economic crisis, Costa Rica's government put in place a wide variety of initiatives to try to attract investment in its tourism industry. In 1995 Costa Rica had about a quarter of a million international visitors in its tourism industry. In 2015 it was almost 2.5 million, most of those coming from the United States but quite a few coming from Europe and other areas of the world as well.

Bruce Wilson: One of the problems when you look at places like Costa Rica, it depends where you come from. If you come to Costa Rica from Nicaragua you think, oh my goodness, I've arrived in paradise, this is incredible. But if you came, say, from Norway or you came from the United States and you flew straight into Costa Rica, you'd think, you know, this is kind of a bit poor. A lot of this is about perspective.

And Costa Ricans are sort of freaking right now because the drug gangs are starting to arrive in Costa Rica, in certain parts of Costa Rica, and these are the ones that are tied to the international cartels that are smuggling drugs up to the United States primarily from Colombia but also from other places. And they don't really know how to deal with this, although they have all the right sorts of institutions in place there are not necessarily enough of them or well enough trained to actually deal with all these different aspects.

And the other problem that has come up is one of corruption, which I think they've actually been a really good success case in fighting corruption. They are ranked third in the whole of Latin America, the third least corrupt. It goes in Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica. They are exceptionally well versed at fighting corruption, but for Costa Ricans they don't see it like that.

I gave a talk to Transparency International in Costa Rica last year after I wrote a report for the European Union on corruption in Costa Rica. Costa Rica arrested two former presidents for corruption and tried them and prosecuted them and sent them to jail. Now, for many Costa Ricans they think this is awful. To me, the way I look at this is this is brilliant, nobody is protected, no matter how important they are, how powerful they are. If the evidence is there they will prosecute. So on the one hand they are not used to having presidents prosecuted for corruption, on the other hand now that they have been prosecuted they think that there's something fundamentally wrong. Chances are it's not actually fundamentally wrong, it's something that is fundamentally correct. It doesn't matter where the corruption takes place, they have a capacity to go and pursue this.

Fabrice Lehoucq: To the extent that what happens in Costa Rica is generalised, this is really a story about humans making intelligent choices. And when I say 'intelligent choices' I don't think Costa Ricans in the first half of the 20th century had any more foresight than any other part of humanity, but they managed to exist at a time and in a political game where no one could predominate. The relationship between incumbents and the opposition movement works out in such a way where everyone has an incentive to invest in elections, and that really had hugely important implications for the long run. So as humans, politicians and other Costa Ricans making decisions subject to choice that in the aggregate helped produce a country which is quite different from the other countries in Central America. It's about making political choices and using the political systems to make decisions that have long-term implications.

Annabelle Quince: Fabrice Lehoucq, Professor of Political Science and the author of The Politics of Modern Central America. My other guests: Monica Rankin, Associate Professor of History, and the author of The History of Costa Rica; and Bruce Wilson, Professor of Political Science and the author of Costa Rica: Politics, Economics, and Democracy.

Today's sound engineer is Judy Rapley. I'm Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN.