Quedar Bien: Costa Rica Looks Beyond Divisive Election to Unite in the Name of Progress

One of the more divisive presidential election campaigns in Costa Rica’s recent history has ended with victory for centre-left candidate Carlos Alvarado. He won a run-off with right leaning evangelical Francisco Alvarado by a surprisingly convincing margin.

Carlos Alvarado has promised a ‘government for all’

A couple of months ago I wrote about the forthcoming run-off and the potential repercussions of a pro-gay marriage ruling by the regional human rights body, which Costa Rica would be required to abide by. The two Alvarados had centred their campaigns on very different stances towards the ruling, Carlos backing it in the name of progress and liberal equality, Francisco vehemently opposed on religious and traditional grounds.

As it transpires, it seems that economic stagnation and rising crime levels played a greater part in deciding the outcome of the election. Carlos Alvarado, who has government experience as a Labour Minister, was seemingly the more trusted candidate to resolve these issues.

It also says a lot about the history of social and religious expression in Costa Rica, not to mention tolerance. Whilst a predominantly Catholic country with a strong church attendance – like much of Central America – it is not one where religion dominates every sphere of life.

A derelict church in San Jose: March 2018

Like most New World territories, Costa Rica was the scene of fervent attempts by the Spanish clergy to proselytise in the name of God and the Catholic Monarchs. As elsewhere success was limited, with indigenous belief systems proving difficult to supplant.

This perhaps accounts for the persisting influences of Amerindian spiritualism and occultism in Costa Rican religion, reflecting the Ticos’ ‘inclinations towards fatalism, their insistence on individual freedom…their indifference to authority’.

Spanish missionaries failed to completely detach the natives from their indigenous beliefs

Costa Rica was noted for its poor church attendance during the 18th and 19th centuries, religious expression and practice taking place on a much more personal, private level. There was a tolerance for Protestant interlopers that was uncommon in the Spanish Empire, and the Catholic Church remained a poor institution with only minimal political influence.

Whilst the Church grew in stature in the 20th century, permeating parts of Costa Rican society with its rural outreach and educational activities, non-interference in one’s personal beliefs remained paramount.

Ricardo Jimenez Oreamuno, three times Costa Rica’s president in the early 20th century, was an atheist. In many other Catholic-majority countries this would have been, and remains, unthinkable. Even American presidents are expected to have a church affiliation and express unflinching belief in the will of the almighty.

Ricardo Jiménez Oreamuno

Jimenez, however, espoused a ‘balanced liberalism, extremely compliant with all religions and political views’. How could the state, or the church, enforce a particular belief system on the individual?

This sentiment has persisted to the present day. Catholic festivals may be an essential feature of Costa Rican life and religious iconography remains prevalent. Yet freedom of belief trumps all.

Commented a San Jose taxi driver:

A good Catholic is one who stays on the good side of God and doesn’t get too involved with anyone, especially in discussions of religion, which may lead to arguments. 

Religion acts as guide and succour to those who want it; it remains an essentially personal endeavour, not to be belittled or manipulated by man or institution.

It all plays into the Tico notion of quedar bien (to get along), a desire to avoid confrontation and maintain friendly relations with all whenever possible. Criticism of others and their beliefs is to be reserved to the private sphere.

This mindset was very much reflected in a recent visit I paid to the country. Expecting to encounter locals spewing vitriolic tirades against their unfavoured candidate, the presidential run-off was not mentioned once. Nor was politics more broadly, nor religion.

Such an approach is not restricted to interactions with foreigners, but with fellow Ticos. Yes, people from both sides took to the streets to celebrate and bemoan the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) and express their feelings towards either candidate. Yet the distasteful outbreaks of abuse and violence that such passionate topics can engender in other countries were refreshingly absent.

Celebrating the decision of the IACHR in San Jose

The call by Carlos Alvarado for the country to unite and face their challenges together is likely to be heeded, even for those opposed to gay marriage. A more relaxed and reserved people you’ll struggle to find and a more refreshing approach to public life it is difficult to imagine.


Biesanz, M et al. The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica (1999)