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Caribbean & Central America - March 2013 (ISSN 1741-4458)

COSTA RICA: Reforming government

Costa Rica has an extraordinary number of legislative officials, in comparison with more developed nations with roughly the same size population. A report published on 11 March by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that Costa Rica’s legislative assembly employed 683 members of staff as of April 2012, whereas parliaments such as Norway employ just 445 staff, Croatia, 250; United Arab Emirates, 97 and Singapore, 43. On average, every member of the legislative assembly has 8.05 advisors and two administrative staff. The disproportionate size of the government has an impact on the legislative process, where bills can become stuck in the plenary for decades.

A week before the publication of the UN report, President Laura Chinchilla had unveiled a series of proposals to improve the functioning of government. She presented congress with four bills proposing substantial reforms to public institutions, the legislative assembly, and the 1949 constitution itself. The bills are the result of a series of recommendations made by a six-member panel of experts appointed by the president in June 2012. Of the panel’s 97 recommendations, the government plans to pursue 41, though it may struggle to pass measures which alter the constitution as the ruling Partido Liberación Nacional lack the two-thirds majority needed to do so.

One of the bills seeks to reform the country’s constitution to change the way lawmakers are elected by adopting a system of electoral districts, rather than the current system of provincial lists. At present all 57 legislative deputies are elected on a proportional basis by provinces, the bill would alter this to a system in which 42 are elected from new electoral districts and 15 from a national list.

The president also wishes to reduce the amount of time deputies can speak in congress, limiting speeches to 5 minutes (from its current 15 minutes). The reforms would also establish time frames for laws to be voted on. The indigenous autonomy law has currently been in congress for 28 years. Another amendment would allow parliament the right to issue a vote of no confidence in ministers.

Proposed changes to the constitutional jurisdiction act would amend the powers of the constitutional court, the highest judicial body of the country, to create special courts in actions of habeas corpus and amparo (a specific Latin American constitutional remedy which protects all rights other than physical liberty). Another bill proposes removing the boards of most of the country’s public service institutions, such as those responsible for electricity, water, home loans and fuel sales, with the government to appoint a chief executive for each institution in a bid to make them more efficient.

Some opposition legislators have grumbled about the president’s decision to lump all the reform proposals together. In an example of the sluggishness of the government machinery, the process of debating the proposals had yet to begin a week after Chinchilla’s announcement. The president has threatened to put the proposals to a referendum if they are not approved by May.

  • Free trade agreements

On 6 March Costa Rica and Colombia completed negotiations over a free trade deal (FTA). Of the 96 products under discussion, 70% will be tariff-free immediately, including biscuits, and some medical items, while a further 26% will lose their tariffs gradually, over a period of three to fifteen years. The final 4%, which includes oil, beer, meat and paper, were excluded from the final deal. Data from Costa Rica’s foreign ministry shows that Costa Rica exported US$48m worth of products to Colombia in 2011, while importing US$455m worth. Days earlier, congress gave the green light to the FTA negotiated with Singapore. Costa Rica currently exports around 70 products to the Asian country; trade between the two was worth US$69.7m in 2011. Costa Rica’s assembly has yet to vote on the FTA it negotiated with Peru or the “Association Agreement” it signed with the European Union.

  • More production, fewer jobs

A study released on 11 March by the Costa Rican Chamber of Industries of 200 local firms found that 65.7% expect to increase production in 2013, while only 6.3% expect to produce less. Despite the optimistic outlooks, the study shows a decrease in job creation compared to the previous year. The results indicate that 60.7% expect to maintain their payroll as is, while 28.3% plan to increase it and 6.3% are considering layoffs.

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