Central American countries are typically known for being unsafe, anarchistic, and impoverished. While this is not the case for all regions of these countries, it is certainly a common set of characteristics for them to have. So, knowing this, why is Costa Rica so wealthy and stable compared to its neighboring countries? After listening to the lecture about Costa Rican history earlier today, I have found a line of reasoning that I think partially explains this fact.
While Costa Rica originally belonged to the Spanish Empire, it was not a site of particular economic value to the Spaniards, and thus was not closely supervised or governed. After Mexico officially declared its independence from Spain in 1821, Costa Rica was mostly forgotten by the newly forming Mexican empire due to its lack of valuable natural resources. It is for this reason that Costa Rica was allowed to flourish almost completely independent of external governmental influences, and never developed the complex cartel-related issues that many other Central American countries struggle with today. Costa Rica was able to further solidify its peaceful reputation by disbanding its standing army in 1948, leading to even fewer conflict situations and making the democratic transfer of power more predictable and less volatile. Thus, many current aspects of Costa Rican culture and government can be traced to its geographical location and lack of easily exploitable natural resources.
Knowing the relatively progressive nature of the Costa Rican government, as well as its strong international relations with secular countries such as the United States, it was surprising for me to learn that there is no official separation of church and state within the country, even though the separation that does exist is quite large compared to the surrounding countries. Why has the Costa Rican government not yet implemented the idea of full separation of church and state?
Like most Latin American countries, Catholicism is the major religion in Costa Rica, with about 75% of the population identifying as Catholics. This is one of the main reasons why the government of Costa Rica is not completely separated from the Catholic church. Such a large majority allows the Catholic church to maintain some influence within Costa Rica, which will certainly not be relinquished easily, either by the Church itself or the practicing Catholic Ticos. Another reason for the lack of separation is the fact that the laws and standards on which Costa Rica was founded are based primarily on Catholic morals, ideas, and laws. Most stores are not open on Sundays out of respect for God, and the values common among Ticos are largely those emphasized in the Bible. Severing the ties between the government and the church would be seen by many Costa Ricans as forgetting the country’s origins, and so the two entities remain connected, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the current president of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis, has expressed interest in creating a true separation between church and state during his time in office. While it is unlikely to be approved soon, it indicates that there is a movement by Costa Ricans to push for this idea, even in the face of a majority opposition group.
Communism and dictatorships have taken root in many Central American nations as the primary form of government in the recent past. Costa Rica had communist ties for many of its early years and was even under the rule of a benevolent dictator, Jose Figueres, for an entire year, but he returned power back to a democratically-elected leader afterward. So, why did communism or dictatorships not become the main form of government in Costa Rica?
I believe that the main reason behind why Costa Rica did not fall victim to either of these famously disastrous types of government is because its citizens did not develop a strong national identity until relatively recently. This identity would have been a useful tool that communist leaders or dictators could use to stay in power for a long period of time. Without it, however, these would-be leaders found it difficult to unite the people against a common cause and manipulate the government to give themselves more power. Costa Ricans, in general, are very community-oriented, and while they do currently possess a strong national identity, this was not present for most of their history as a small, outlying state of the Spanish empire. Contrasted with the more prominent countries of Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, which all fell prey at some point in time to power-hungry and selfish leaders, it is easy to connect the historic lack of strong national identity in Costa Rica to the country’s long reputation of mostly peaceful democracy.