Like most countries, Costa Rica is divided into different jurisdictions. The country is made up of seven different provinces, which all have their own cantons. Costa Rica has 81 cantons, which are further divided into 429 districts.
Cantons in Costa Rica don’t have as much sovereignty as states, provinces, and cities in other countries. However, this is something that is gradually changing.
The general governing and election process in Costa Rica was established by the federal government under the Municipal Code of 1998. It’s important to learn how cantons operate before buying a home in Costa Rica as an expat.
Canton governments have a number of responsibilities, which include the following:
Overseeing Health Care Systems
Costa Rica has a national health monitoring system, but most of the duties are carried out by offices at the canton level. They are responsible for employing medical professionals, addressing delivery concerns, and making sure patients are well taken care of.
Building Local Infrastructure
Many building projects are coordinated at the local level. Local officials are responsible for planning new infrastructure projects, budgeting for construction, accepting bids, and ensuring that projects are completed to their specifications.
Managing the Educational System
Costa Rica has the best educational system in Central America. You can see the proof in the high numbers of literacy and success. Currently, Costa Rica boasts a youth literacy rate of 98%, which is the highest in Latin America.
Primary schools are managed at the local level, so local communities deserve credit for the exceptional education young Costa Ricans receive. San Jose and most other large communities have multiple schools for younger children.
Costa Rica has been transferring political power from the federal government to local governing bodies. The structure of cantons has changed as they play a more prominent role in the political process.
Here are some of the changes Costa Rica has made in this area over the last couple of decades.
The Beginning of Municipal Elections
Costa Rica is a democratic republic and operates very similarly to the United States. However, there are significant differences in the way both local and national elections are conducted. Here are some of the biggest differences:
Municipal elections are playing a much more important role, because the government is becoming more decentralized. Unfortunately, turnout for local elections has been very poor, and has forced both national and local leaders to look for solutions.
Mariano Jiménez, a popular political scientist, tweeted that holding annual elections for mayors would improve turnout and encourage citizens to make more informed decisions: “Elections for mayors in Costa Rica should be annual, because in the last three months have built more than in the previous three years.”
The Introduction of Mayors
Less than 20 years ago, cantons were governed by municipal executives. Under the municipal code of 1998, the municipal executives of cantons were referred to as mayors.
The responsibilities of canton mayors were a bit different from municipal executives. The municipal code of 1998 led to the following changes:
Cantons rely heavily on their mayors to run effectively.
Costa Rica has changed its local government system significantly in recent years. However, the national government still feels additional reforms are necessary, especially since local governments are becoming more powerful.
Neighboring countries also feel Costa Rica needs to reform its local governing system. The Organization of American States agreed to oversee the elections held earlier this year.
President Solis acknowledged the need to strengthen the local government system, but admitted that neither he nor other Costa Rican politicians understood the changes they needed to implement.
Because Jamaica enjoys a strong local government, Costa Rica reached out to Jamaican Prime Minister Simpson Miller for assistance. The Jamaica Observer recently reported on the meeting between Solis and Miller:
“President Solis noted that Costa Rica lagged behind many other countries in terms of the absence of a strong Local Government system and said Jamaica was seen as a country with a strong track record in this area.”
The role of local governments will continue to change over time. It’s still unclear what those changes will be.
While the Costa Rican government is becoming more decentralized, the federal government still retains a lot of power. Here are some of the responsibilities of Costa Rica’s federal government.
Enforcing Immigration Laws
All immigration laws are enforced by the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería. This agency is responsible for approving residency requests, issuing fines, and deporting expats who violate immigration laws. Although the federal government depends on the cooperation of law enforcement officials at the canton level, local authorities have little say in immigration decisions.
Establishing Trade Treaties
San Jose and other cantons have formed relationships with foreign investors. However, these relationships must abide by trade treaties established by the federal government. The federal government sets taxes on imports and sometimes opposes trade bans, which all cantons must comply with.
The La Tributación Directa is the federal agency responsible for collecting taxes in Costa Rica. Unlike the United States, Canada, and most of Europe, individual provinces and cantons do not collect local taxes.
Unlike the United States, most law enforcement isn’t handled at the local level. Cantons are responsible for working with various law enforcement officials to ensure laws are enforced. Various law enforcement agencies include:
While the federal government still retains most law enforcement authority, some cantons have started establishing their own police departments. This will probably be more common in the future, since Costa Rica is transitioning to a less centralized government.
What do you think about how the cantons are set up? Do you think it’s a better system than in the U.S.? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below: