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The people you're gonna deal with

General census data:

Costa Rica, according to the most recent 2000 census, has 3810179 residents officially accounted for in census. The population, according to death/birth records, reached 4 million at the beggining of this year. Population grows at a rate of around 2.8% anually.

Of the population, a predominant part is national, with presence of 7.7% foreign immigrants, the largest part (5.9%) coming from Nicaragua.

Population is completely balanced between sexes, with only very minor (7% at the most) differences in the different age groups; in those cases women outnumber men at the higher age groups (25 and over) and men outnumber women at lower groups (24 and under). Costa Rica has a very young population, with the most predominant age group being 10 to 14 years of age, followed by 5 to 9 and then 15 to 19. Population decreases from there on and reaches a minimum at the 70 to 74 year age group. Interestingly enough, 75 and over has a higher proportion than 70 to 74, possibly due to retiree inmigration or biological reasons.

Culture:

Costa Rica has an interesting mixed cultural influence. Initially it was colonized by the Spanish and received a large european influence. During colonial times the country was abandoned by the spanish due to its lack of precious metals and valuable resources, which allowed indigenous and caribbean influence into the territory. In more modern times, Costa Rica has served as a very important link between north and south america, which has led to a culture which can be considered latin american with strong north american orientation, and a bit of caribbean spirit thrown into the mix.

Esentially you'll find a bit of everything. Central Valley population has a very strong north american orientation, but still conserves most of the local customs and culture in its social interaction. Limón has a profound caribbean influence, while pacific coast provinces such as Guanacaste and Puntarenas reflect more of the original culture of Costa Rica, but also influenced in many parts by the presence of tourism centers.

People:

Most people who visit Costa Rica are known to comment that the people are friendly and always willing to help. It's true, people in Costa Rica are friendly and always willing to help.

Why is society here so different from other places? Well, since Costa Rica was abandoned during the colony, colonists had to learn to depend on each other, which gave the society its outgoing roots, which have been conserved to this day. The abolition of millitary forces in the middle of the 20th century kept Costa Rica out of the millitary related crisis many other countries have experienced and gave the country a calm environment which prompted trust and interaction between people. That, I guess, is what made us the way we are.

In general, people are outgoing and willing to take a few minutes to give directions or help out in what they can. If you visit a park or public place, you can normally strike up a conversation with the locals quite easily. Due to widespread campaigns by the Institute of Tourism (ICT), xenophobe/nationalism have been dramatically reduced, and are basically nonexistant except in some limited sectors of the population.

In the metro areas, people tend to be a bit more wary of casual social confrontation due primarily to security concerns (generations in the 70s/80s/90s have been raised with an implanted idea that the metro areas are unsafe and crime prone), but if you're a bit more discrete, you'll be able to uncover their socially oriented side quite rapidly.

Seinfeldisms and eccentricities of the people:

  • Costarricans normally exhibit 2 greetings, an informal one and a formal one. When you see someone for the first time during the day (for example), you greet them formally (normally with a kiss on the cheek). When you see them later on you normally greet them informally (with a smile, nod, etc). It's not unusual to greet someone formally and then be informally greeted as you're passing them by 45 seconds later. Important to note, though, the kiss is used for male-female/female-female greeting. It's not used for male-male greeting, use a handshake in that case.
  • If you pass within acknowledgeable distance of someone you know on the street, it's normally expected you greet them somehow, unless you're seriously in a rush and so consumed in getting to where you're going that you don't see them. If you skip the greeting, you might find you get an "I saw you on the street the other day..." line the next time you see them.
  • Interestingly enough, many people are accustomed to greeting [informally] whoever might make eye contact with them on the street. You could probably win an election by making eye contact with enough people on the street.
  • Even though the kiss is a customary greeting, it's not always used, especially in more formal first time encounters. If you're unsure, wait to see what the other person does. Normally they'll either lean in, extend their hand or verbally greet you.
  • The standard worldwide handshake is the one that's normally used, but sometimes you'll find an alternate one among adolescents and informal adult encounters. It's a sequence of moves: you grab the hand normally, then rotate counterclockwise 45 degrees, then pull back interlocking the front fingers of the hand in an arch. Easier done than explained.
  • Thanking someone for anything is almost automatic. Whether it's directions, pushing a button on the elevator, whatever, you're bound to see a thank you. I find it interesting that even in situations where a service is expected there's a thank you involved, for example most people thank the bus driver for the ride on their way out, even though they paid in full upon boarding.

Religion:

Costa Rica has a profound catholic influence in its religious culture. Up until the 1980s society had a very deep religious sense, and it was not uncommon to see entire towns empty on sundays during mass hours.

In the Political Constitution of 1949 (the most current one) article 75 says that the official religion of the State will be roman catholic. This seemingly unusual proposition serves the purpose of maintaining a moral standard for the execution of goverment and judicial functions. Under article 75, for example, a judge of arab origin couldn't absolve someone of child support charges brought against him claiming poligamy is customary of under his religion.

The same article has prompted a widespread participation of the catholic church in society, which has led to a very strong religious base in costarricans. If you look carefully, you'll see most of the population centers bear the name of catholic saints.

Even though the Political Constitution states roman catholic as the official religion of the state, article 75 also states that any other religion will be tolerated as long as it doesn't violate universal moral and appropriate principles. Under this article, christian, baptist, adventist, jewish and several other religions have established centers in Costa Rica.

One thing I guess I should mention is that due to the profound influence of the roman catholic church, costarrican society has adopted a restrictive mentality towards issues relating to sex. Clear and direct sex education has not been adopted in schools until recently, and it's not unusual to see popular reproach, uprising and even censure of sexually explicit material in any form.

However, worldwide currents and tendencies in this sense have managed to bring the restrictiveness of costarrican society down to a much more tolerable level, especially with the dawn of international mass communication in recent years. While it's not unusual to hear explicit sexual expression in everyday society, rooted sexual restriction still plays an important part in the behavior of modern costarrican society, and anyone who is experiencing the culture for the first time should take care in this sense.

Education:

Costa Rica exhibits a partial literacy rate well above 95% (most people will read and write basic material). Fully developed literacy rate is a bit lower, especially in rural areas.

The educational system is divided into 11 levels, or grades. Grades 1 through 6 compose what's known as basic general education, and are required by constitutional mandate for all costarricans. The state provides basic education through public schools, which have no associated cost for the students.

Grades 7 through 9 complete another cycle, and 9 through 11 another cycle. Upon completion of the 11th grade, the student obtains a bachelor's degree which certifies his completion of the school cycle.

Three primary routes exist into economically active society. The first one is the direct route, where the student simply goes to work and learns by experience. This route is predominant in basic manual labor areas, such as manufacture or agriculture, and in some areas of commerce.

The second route is through technical education. Several high schools offer technical curriculums, where the student courses the standard education cycle and at the same time receives training in technical fields. The fields covered are mainly automotive mechanics, basic manufacture (woodwork, steelwork and such) and electronics/computer science.

But the primary element in costarrican technical education is the National Institute for Learning (INA). The INA is a state owned technical center which receives, by law, 1% of all salaries paid nationwide. The INA offers a very high level technical education in fields such as automotive and machinery mechanics, manufacture in various forms, steelwork, construction, electronics, computer science, foreign language and general business administration.

The final route into economically active society is though university education. University education is dominated by state owned institutions such as the University of Costa Rica, the Technical Institute of Costa Rica and the National University. Private institutions of varying levels also exist.

Politics and Government:

Costa Rica has a democratic political system, with the three standard government brances (executive, legislative and judicial).

Elections take place in february every four years, the next upcoming election being in 2002.

Two political parties dominate the electoral process: the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). Minority parties also exist and actively participate in the electoral and government processes. The most widely known:

  • Libertarian Movement
  • National Integration Party (PIN)
  • Costarrican Renovation Party (PRN)
  • Democratic Force (FD)
  • Citizen Action Party (PAC)

Government process follows standard organization, with the President of the Republic governing over the executive branch, which is composed of ministries that handle the different government functions. The legislative branch is governed by the Legislative Board, a group composed of 52 representatives that are in charge of promoting legal initiative and passing law. The 52 representatives are elected via the same presidential election process, and are named among the participating parties according to the proportion of votes received by each one.

The judicial branch is governed by the Supreme Court of Justice, which is composed of magistrates that preside over several subcourts (called courtrooms or "salas") which deal with different judicial issues.

Reelection for President of the Republic is banned. For legislative purposes reelection is banned for two consecutive terms.

Politics in Costa Rica is a complex issue, as in any other country. If you want more information, check out the discussion forum, where many people can tell you in full detail about current political conflicts and issues.


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