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General Information

Presents an Introduction To Costa Rican Politics and Government


HEAD OF STATE: President Jose Maria Figures

POLITICAL STRUCTURE: Under the November 1949 constitution, government consists of three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is considered a fourth power and its five members are appointed by the legislative assembly for six years.

Executive power is vested in the president who is assisted by two vice presidents and an appointed cabinet. The president is elected for a four-year term, and a successful candidate must receive at least 40 per cent of the votes. Voting is universal from the age of 18, compulsory and by secret ballot. The president is responsible for ensuring that the laws and the provisions of the constitution are carried out and for maintaining order. He also has the power to appoint and remove cabinet ministers and diplomatic representatives and to negotiate treaties with foreign nations, although these must subsequently be ratified by the legislative assembly.

The single chamber legislative assembly has 57 members who, like the president, are elected for four years. The assembly meets twice a year, from May 1 to July 31, and from September 1 to November 30. Special sessions may be called by the president. The assembly is empowered to enact laws, levy taxes, authorize declarations of war, suspend certain civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution in cases of civil disorder (by a minimum two-thirds majority) and approve constitutional amendments. Bills must have three readings in at least two legislative periods before they become law. The assembly may override the presidential veto by a two-thirds vote.

The legislative assembly elects 17 Supreme Court justices for eight year terms, who are automatically re-elected for a further eight years unless the assembly passes a two thirds vote against them. The Supreme Court, meeting in plenary session, has the power to declare laws and decrees unconstitutional and appoint judges of the lower courts. There are also four courts of appeal, criminal courts, civil courts and special courts.

Last election: Sunday, February 6, 1994.

EDUCATION, HEALTH AND WELFARE: Education is compulsory at the elementary level, between the ages of six and 13, and is free at both elementary and secondary level. State-owned and private primary and secondary schools are of a high standard and the country has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America (up to 93 per cent). A number of foreign schools, catering to the English, French and German speaking communities, have opened in recent years. The academic year runs from March to November, with some English language schools following the US school calendar. There are six universities with a total of 77,000 students enrolled. Four other institutions offer undergraduate and master degrees in business administration. There is one correspondence university offering degrees in education, finance and administration.

Costa Rica is a leader among developing countries in the provision of health care and education facilities. A World Bank report in July 1991 praised Costa Rica for cutting its defense spending and re-allocating resources to social policies. Costa Rica spends 1 per cent of GDP on defense and more than 10 per cent on health and education. Even so, during the 1980s, economic demands forced the government to cut investment in education at a time when demand had been increasing, with 100,000 additional students.

Health services are provided by health insurance and through Ministry of Health units which operate a preventive health program in all parts of the country. Life expectancy in Costa Rica exceeds the average for industrial nations.

The state-owned national insurance institute (INS), founded in 1924, administers the state monopoly on insurance, including all social security insurance. Wage earners and their dependants enjoy disability and retirement pensions, workers' compensation and family assistance.

ARMED FORCES: The Costa Rican constitution contains a clause outlawing the existence of a national army (the military was abolished in 1948). A military force may, however, be convened for the purpose of national defense. Costa Rica is a signatory of the Inter American Mutual Assistance Treaty (TIAR).

The country has a paramilitary security force with 7,500 members (1993) who are responsible for border patrols and general policing. Membership of the civil guard was 4,300 in 1993; it has about 15 aircraft and three helicopters. The rural guard had 3,200 members in 1993.

The Costa Rican Human Rights Commission (CDEHU) estimates the true size of the police at about 23,000. Government expenditure on the country's nine different police forces, virtually every ministry has one, budgeted at about US$ 60 million in 1992.

The legislative assembly is considering a new general public security law to professionalize local police, proscribe military training, set standards for the selection and training of policemen and create a civilian commission to oversee the police forces.

MEMBERSHIP OF INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS: Costa Rica belongs to a number of international organizations including the following:

Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE)
Central American Common Market (CACM)
Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
Inter American Development Bank (IDB)
International Coffee Organization (ICO)
Organization of American States (OAS)
Union of Banana Exporting Countries (UPEB)
United Nations (UN) and its agencies, including:
Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank)
International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)
International Development Association (IDA)
International Finance Corporation (IFC)
International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
International Labor Office (ILO)
International Maritime Organization (IMO)
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
Universal Postal Union (UPU)
World Health Organization (WHO)
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

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