Costa Rica has long been praised for its maintenance of peace; this small country is in fact Latin America’s oldest and most stable democracy, enjoying unwavering democracy since 1869. A history of governmental peace and stability has encouraged civil peace as well, Costa Rica is currently known as one of the safest countries in Central America with a very small crime rate and almost nonexistent homicide rate. Internationally, Costa Rica’s claim to fame is from having disbanded its army. Not only is the lack of militarized action obvious in the country, but no taxation or governmental budgeting on military expenditures means more money for education and city maintenance. Costa Rica has set an example for its Central American neighbors, and much of this is due to good governmental practices. While the result has been overwhelmingly positive, the process of arriving to this place of stability has had its hardships. To understand modern Costa Rican politics in the last 20 years, a good place to start is with the country’s leaders. Since 1998, there have been 5 presidents in Costa Rica, and their successes and failures have changed the landscape of Central America.
Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002)
In 1998, the presidency was won by the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Socialcristiana, PUSC) and provided the country with the second of what would be three total presidents from this Christian democracy party. Conservative leaning, both socially and financially, the new President Rodriguez started his term.
Rodriguez is well known in Costa Rican history as one of the most qualified and credentialed presidents who ultimately served a term considered almost totally ineffectual. At the University of Costa Rica, Rodriguez earned degrees in both economics and law. He then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received both an M.A. and Ph.D in economics. After two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, Rodriguez finally won the popular vote and was inaugurated. His 4-year term centered around free-market reforms, all of which ultimately failed due to opposition from the trade unions. During this time, he took a socially conservative stance, loudly opposing gay rights and progressive reform. In the end, his big accomplishment was the reformation of the retirement system.
After Rodriguez’s term had ended, news broke about illegal payments and contributions during his campaign. In April of 2011, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison, but was released after just a year when a variety of prosecutor scandals surfaced.
Abel Pacheco (2002-2006)
Immediately following Rodriguez’s term in office, President Pacheco was elected as the third and final (to date) of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) presidents. Pacheco promised to continue the free market reforms started by his predecessor and continue moving the country toward a socially and economically conservative value base. While President Pacheco didn’t experience a large amount of success in his political career, he is still loved and valued by his country because of his influence over Costa Rican culture.
Pacheco studied medicine at the Autonomous National University of Mexico and received a degree in psychiatry from Louisiana State University. His work in the medical career, however, was short lived. Pacheco is most well known in Costa Rica as the beloved presenter of short television programs during the 1970s to 1990s. He taught at the local University of Costa Rica and wrote several novels and songs portraying Costa Rican tradition and culture. While he is not considered a particularly effectual president, Pacheco is honored for his contribution to the country’s culture, even having won the “Citizen of the World” prize, among many others, for his work in literature.
Óscar Arias (2006-2010)
Following 2 candidates from the Social Christian Unity Party, the familiar President Arias took office. Arias had previously served a term as president in 1986 with the National Liberation Party (PLN), the country’s major social democratic party. During his first term, he directed the transformation of Costa Rica’s economy from the traditional agrarian structure to one based on tourism and non-traditional agriculture (exotic fruits and ornamental plants). His contribution to making tourism a major economic factor for Costa Rica is still recognized today.
Following his first presidency, Arias received many humanitarian awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work on ending the Central American Crisis. In 2006, Arias found himself as the only ex-president of Costa Rica not incarcerated or facing criminal investigations. He ran for a second term and won after a manual recount of the ballets. While Arias is still criticized for his neoliberal economic practices, his contribution to Costa Rica and Central America is well respected.
Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014)
In 2010, the National Liberation Party (PLN) took the office yet again, this time with Costa Rica’s first female president, Laura Chinchilla. Having previously served as one of President Aria’s two vice presidents, her step to the presidency promised progressive growth under the motto “Progressive politics for a better world.”
Chinchilla studied at the University of Costa Rica as well as at Georgetown University, where she received a master’s in public policy. Before stepping into politics, she worked toward judicial reform with a series of non-governmental organizations. While her background suggested progressive values, Chinchilla was a social conservative, opposing gay marriage and abortion rights. During her term as president, Chinchilla’s largest contribution to the country was in education reform and national safety. Safety was a growing concern in Costa Rica, but under Chinchilla’s presidency, both homicide rates and petty crime rates lowered.
In 2013, a Mexican opinion poll named Laura Chinchilla as the least popular of all Latin American presidents to date, with a 13% approval rating. To her constituents, Chinchilla failed to implement the promises she made during her campaign. Chinchilla now teaches as a professor at Georgetown University.
Luis Guillermo Solís (2014-present)
The current acting president, President Solis, was elected in 2014 with the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC), a left leaning political group. Although it is widely considered that Solis was handed the presidency after his major opponent stopped actively campaigning months before the election, he has proven to work toward progressive ideals.
Solis originally studied history at the University of Costa Rica, later earning a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at Tulane University. His academic history didn’t end there, as he spent the 80’s teaching at the University of Costa Rica and studying as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Michigan. After a strong academic background, Solis originally joined politics under Arias’ administration, eventually becoming the director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation. The values and beliefs he adopted in this directorship position carried over into his presidency, where he runs a progressive administration focusing on anti-corruption, economic growth, and reducing the income gap. He continues to forcefully promote environmental protections and gay rights. Solis is respected in his country for his progressive reform as well as his numerous publications on international affairs.