Costa Rica remains one of the more prosperous and stable countries in Central America. It's also one of the only nations in the region without an army. Sound environmental management is a prominent issue, and green proposals were recurring themes in political campaigns during the lead-up to the 2018 general election. Agriculture is one of Costa Rica's main industries, but tourism is its economic backbone.
Costa Rica has long had a reputation for being green, but, to paraphrase Kermit, it ain’t easy. In 2009, then-president Óscar Arias set a big goal: that Costa Rica would achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2021. Achieving this would make Costa Rica the world's first carbon-neutral country and would coincide auspiciously with its bicentennial.
Some measures have not yet been implemented as scheduled, and the numbers suggest that the 2021 target may have been overly ambitious. Proposed changes for the energy sector, for example, include transitioning buses and taxis to natural gas, electric and hybrid vehicles, and imposing stricter emissions regulations on these companies. Agricultural changes include government-sponsored training programs for smaller farms, teaching them to implement organic methods such as composting, using biochar and creating biodigester systems to trap methane gases and use them as on-site fuel. For larger-scale agriculture, such as the country’s sprawling banana plantations, government incentives encourage reforestation and conservation of existing rainforest in order to offset carbon-dioxide emissions (most of which are generated from overseas shipping).
In 2016 Costa Rica produced 98% of its electricity from renewables. That same year, the nation ran without fossil fuel–generated electricity for 271 days, including a 110-day run between 17 June and 6 October. This feat was achieved using hydro, wind and geothermal power to deliver electricity to homes. However, despite Costa Rica's best efforts, it has an oil-reliant transport infrastructure, so in big-picture terms non-renewables make up most of the country’s energy use.
Costa Rica's Elections
On April 1, 2018, Costa Rica elected a new president, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, of the center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC). Although polls predicted the run-off would be a close one, it wasn’t. Alvarado – a 38-year-old novelist, musician and former cabinet minister – won more than 60% of the vote, handily defeating Fabricio Alvarado Munoz (a right-wing former TV anchor and evangelical preacher from the National Restoration Party). The decisive victory was particularly good news for progressives and proponents of gay rights. Key challenges the new president faces include an escalating murder rate and a widening national deficit.
Joining Alvarado in structuring Costa Rica’s future is economist and politician Epsy Campbell Barr, who became the first female vice president of African descent in Latin America.
Alvarado will take the reins from former President Luis Guillermo Solís, also a member of PAC. Solís was Costa Rica’s first president in half a century not to come from the two-party system, under which the social-democratic National Liberation Party and the center-right Social Christian Unity Party took turns holding power.
Relations with Nicaragua
The Río San Juan forms the eastern stretch of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. This quiet waterway has been the source of much discord between the two countries, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has had to preside over several legal disputes in the last 20 years.
The border area is complicated, not least because the river flows from Lago de Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea and is therefore an evolving geographical entity. The 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty asserts that Nicaragua owns the Río San Juan but that Costa Rica retains navigation rights on its side of the river. Though spats have arisen over the years, mostly over the territory on the eastern half, both countries have kept these tensions in relative check. But they’ve been bubbling over in the last decade.
The latest flap started with Nicaragua dredging Isla Calero’s river delta in late 2010. This involved trees being felled and earth being dumped into the river. With Nicaraguan soldiers present during the process, the Costa Rican government decided that this was reason enough to claim invasion, and the situation deteriorated from there. In March 2011, when the ICJ considered the case and reiterated the validity of the Cañas-Jerez Treaty, both sides interpreted the language as a win.
Subsequently, then-president of Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla called for emergency funds to begin construction of a road along the Costa Rican bank of the river, without proper environmental or engineering reviews. This caused consternation not only in Nicaragua but also in Costa Rica about the road’s environmental and political impact. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, for his part, has proposed the construction of a trans-oceanic canal in the Río San Juan.
Ortega had previously hinted that he wished to extend an olive branch across the river to Costa Rica’s current president, Luis Guillermo Solís. In December 2015 the ICJ ruled that Costa Rica has sovereignty over the 3km patch of wetlands in Río San Juan, and Nicaragua promised to abide by the ruling.
Sadly, tensions escalated again in late 2015, this time in relation to Cuban immigrants. Hundreds of Cubans were trying to cross Central America to reach the US, fearing that the thawing of relations between Cuba and the US would soon mean an end to their right to asylum in the latter. Costa Rica was granting short-term visas to Cubans, but they were being turned back at the Nicaraguan border in spite of appeals by the Costa Rican government that they be granted a ‘humanitarian corridor’ through the region. In early 2016, talks with Nicaragua broke down. Hundreds of Cuban immigrants were instead flown from Costa Rica to Mexico, from where they would have to make their way to the US border.
However, since then the relationship between the US and Cuba has improved further, and in January 2017 then US president Barack Obama scrapped the historic 'wet foot, dry foot' policy that granted Cubans immigrant status. Fearing that they would become alternative destinations for Cubans, Costa Rica and Panama followed Nicaragua in turning Cubans away.
At the beginning of 2017 the Costa Rican government filed a new case with the ICJ concerning continued Nicaraguan military presence on its territory. It also asked for a new deadline and a compensation amount for the 2015 settlement to be issued.