Central America has been stereotyped as a region of corrupt and dangerous countries ruled by greedy and ruthless tyrants; an image which is gradually beginning to change as the countries within it have settled down to relative peace in recent times. Costa Rica has always liked to consider itself apart from its neighbors and free of the taint of corruption. However, revelations in 2004 that a number of ex-presidents had accepted bribes during their terms of office shook the country’s clean reputation. Ticos themselves were disappointed if not completely unsurprised. It isn’t that Ticos heartily disapprove of corruption, but like so much in this tiny nation, it must be kept in moderation. There is an acceptance that sometimes bureaucratic red tape can be avoided and paperwork can be rushed through for an under-the-table sum, but the legal battle, planning application or other equally lengthy process will reach its conclusion eventually even without it!
Of course it is wrong that a road is built from poor quality material so that those managing the project can line their pockets or that a public official accepts the offered dollar bills to give a gringo without the correct papers an ID card. The problem is that everyone is just so used to it! And that occurs in every layer of society, from a traffic cop to a president and it has always been that way. That’s the biggest challenge in fighting corruption here – it seems to remain at a pretty steady level. The annual index of corruption published by World Transparency International shows that Costa Rica has had almost exactly the same measure of cleanliness within its public sector for the last twelve years – between 5.3 and 5.6 of a possible 10 points to be awarded. In 1998, this placed Costa Rica in 27th place out of 178 countries in the world. In 2010, the country’s position had dropped to 41. While this remains a high rating comparatively, it possibly suggests that whereas other countries are improving corruption levels, Costa Rica’s are stagnant! Costa Rica’s closest neighbors, Nicaragua and Panama score 2.5 and 3.6 points respectively with the United States only awarded a score of 7.1. It is the old story of Costa Rica not performing excellently on a world stage but showing itself to be head and shoulders above the rest of the region!
Complacency isn’t appropriate though. Costa Rica is heavily dependent on foreign investment and tourism, both of which are suffering due to the weaker dollar exchange rate in recent years. Foreign investors may be encouraged to bring business here if they knew that corruption was being tackled, as they are frequently the victims of it (some might say the perpetrators too!). A modern, competitive Costa Rica in the world market will need to a country free of corruption and that can only begin with a population who refuse to tolerate it.