Costa Rica for Retirement: A Stable Democracy

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    When North Americans face the realities of a reduced income after retirement, many of them look abroad for places to move that offer a lower cost of living in order to stretch those limited resources. Developing countries around the world offer such a promise, from Central American republics like Mexico or Nicaragua, South American expat havens such as Ecuador or even Asian nations like Thailand and Vietnam. But lurking in the background of such options is the important issue of political and social stability. After making the big move to one of these foreign lands, will the senior citizen find that crime, corruption and political and social upheaval threaten their future? Could a sudden change in the government mean confiscation of private property or a drastic change in the tax structure? Is money safe in the national banks?

    These are valid concerns for potential retirees. After all, making such a change is a major life decision: it is expensive, complicated and emotionally unsettling as friends, family, personal treasures and familiar surroundings are often left behind. One of the most salient points in favor of Costa Rica as a retirement destination is the nation’s history of peace and democracy and indeed, the high value that the Costa Rican people themselves place on these principles. For more than 190 years, Ticos have enjoyed the benefits of a democratic government, making it one of the oldest democracies in the world. Over the course of those two centuries, enlightened leaders have promulgated social and economic reforms that have resulted in a country with an outstanding if still imperfect social welfare program, health care system, commitment to conservation, educational system and a large land-owning middle class.

    How is it that a nation with neighbors north and south that have suffered unstable governments, military dictatorships and sporadic or lengthy civil wars could have emerged as a beacon of freedom and stability in Central America? Much of the reason lies in its remote location in the narrow strip of land connecting North and South America. Too far away to be easily administered by the Captaincy General of Guatemala or the Viceroyalty of New Spain located in Mexico, of which it was nominally a part, but equally distant from Spain’s possessions in South America, lacking coveted natural resources such as gold and silver and considered to be a poor, isolated and sparsely populated part of the Spanish Empire of the 1500’s, Costa Rica was largely ignored by its conquerors. Having few indigenous peoples who could be forced into slavery, as happened in other parts of Central America, those who settled here found that they had to work their own land. Even Juan Vasquez de Coronado, the Spanish governor in 1562, farmed his own crops. With such an example, an egalitarian and cooperative tradition arose which carried forward as the small nation developed into an individualistic, agrarian society. For some three centuries, Spain held title to the land but basically left it alone.

    On September 15, 1821, Guatemala called a Popular Assembly and declared independence from Spain for itself and four other Central American countries, forming the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America. By 1838 the Central American Federation had essentially ceased to function and Costa Rica formally withdrew, declaring itself a separate sovereign state.

    Back in 1824, the Costa Rican Congress had elected Juan Mora Fernandez as the nation’s first Chief of State. A true visionary, he built schools and roads, promoted industry and commerce and was the man who foresaw the importance of coffee as an export crop for the nascent country. Under his progressive guidance, land grants were offered free to anyone who would plant coffee. Through his leadership, Fernandez helped to create a nation of small coffee plantations, which led to a large middle class of property owners. Even today, many Tico families continue to own land planted in beautiful dark green coffee plants. And although a group of large coffee barons arose during the latter 1800’s, they cooperated with peasant farmers in processing the crops for export. With their wealth, these magnates invested in the nation’s infrastructure, building a road to transport coffee from high in the Central Valley to the Pacific coast and self-imposing a tax on coffee to finance the building of the National Theater, now a treasured landmark in downtown San Jose, to boost culture and attract international stars.

    One significant historical event in the growth of the nation’s unique identity was the war in 1856 with William Walker, an ambitious and unscrupulous American who set out to conquer Central America and enslave its residents. After Walker had invaded Nicaragua and declared himself Commander in Chief, he set his sights on Costa Rica and sent troops as far as Guanacaste. Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora anticipated the move and a ragtag band of Tico fighters drove Walker across the border to the town of Rivas where the final battle was fought. It was during this engagement that a young drummer boy, Juan Santamaria, volunteered to run the gauntlet of Walker’s guns to throw a torch on the building where they were housed. Santamaria died in the process but his act of bravery was a pivotal point in the development of Costa Rica’s national identity and Tico pride in their country.

    Since 1899 Costa Rica has enjoyed a sustained period of peaceful democracy and free and open elections. Only twice in those years was this national harmony interrupted: in 1917, when Federico Tinoco ruled as a dictator for two years, and again in 1948 when a disputed presidential election led to a brief but bloody civil war. When votes were counted, opposition candidate Otilio Ulate appeared to have won but the ruling party voided the election rather than give up power. Long-time critic of the government Jose Figueres, later lovingly referred to as Don Pepe by Ticos, put out a call to arms to his countrymen and others in Latin America, based on their shared love of democracy. Although poorly equipped, Figueres’ forces suffered few losses and after only 44 days, the conflict ended with their victory.

    When president-elect Ulate refused to take the presidency without a constitution in place, Figueres headed up a military junta while a new constitution was drafted including several important features: a unicameral congress, two vice presidents for orderly succession and an independent Supreme Elections Tribunal to oversee elections and serve as supervisory body during campaigns. But the most significant action Figueres took during his brief tenure was to eliminate the nation’s military and devote those funds to public education and other liberal social programs.

    Fortunately for us retirees, present-day Costa Rica is a stable democratic republic with a strong system of constitutional checks and balances. In 2010 Ticos elected Laura Chinchilla as president, making her the nation’s first female chief executive. And although expats and Ticos alike complain about the cumbersome and slow government bureaucracy, most of us recognize how fortunate we are to live in such a progressive nation with a long and respected democratic tradition.

    Copyright 2012, P. Kat Sunlove

    Kat Sunlove blogs about life as a retiree in Costa Rica at

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