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Costa Rica

Executive Summary

Costa Rica is the oldest continuous democracy in Latin America with moderate but falling economic growth rates even before the Covid-19 pandemic with 3.5 percent average yearly GDP growth 2016 to 2018, 2.2% in 2019 (-4.5% in 2020) and moderate inflation. The country’s well-educated labor force, relatively low levels of corruption, physical location, living conditions, dynamic investment promotion board, and attractive free trade zone incentives offer strong appeal to investors. Costa Rica’s continued popularity as an investment destination is well illustrated even in the pandemic year 2020 with inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) as recorded by the Costa Rican Central Bank at an estimated USD 1.7 billion down from 2.75 billion in 2019 (2.8 percent of GDP down from 4.3 percent).

Costa Rica has had remarkable success in the last two decades in establishing and promoting an ecosystem of export-oriented technology companies, suppliers of input goods and services, associated public institutions and universities, and a trained and experienced workforce. A similar transformation took place in the tourism sector, with a plethora of smaller enterprises handling a steadily increasing flow of tourists eager to visit despite Costa Rica’s relatively high prices. Costa Rica is doubly fortunate in that these two sectors positively reinforce each other as they both require and encourage English language fluency, openness to the global community, and Costa Rican government efficiency and effectiveness. A 2019 study of the free trade zone (FTZ) economy commissioned by the Costa Rican Investment and Development Board (CINDE) shows an annual 9 percent growth from 2014 to 2018, with the net benefit of that sector reaching 7.9 percent of GDP in 2018. This sector has been booming while the overall economy has been slowing for years.

The Costa Rican investment climate is threatened by a high and persistent government fiscal deficit, underperformance in some key areas of government service provision, including health care and education, high energy costs, and deterioration of basic infrastructure. The ongoing Covid-19 world recession has decimated the Costa Rican tourism industry. Furthermore, the government has very little budget flexibility to address the economic fallout and is struggling to find ways to achieve debt relief, unemployment response, and the longer-term policy solutions necessary to finalize a stabilizing agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the plus side, the Costa Rican government has competently managed the crisis despite its tight budget and Costa Rican exports are proving resilient; the portion of the export sector that manufactures medical devices, for example, is facing relatively good economic prospects and companies providing services exports are specialized in virtual support for their clients in a world that is forced to move in that direction. Moreover, Costa Rica’s accession in 2021 to the Organization for Co-operation and Development (OECD) has exerted a positive influence by pushing the country to address its economic weaknesses through executive decrees and legislative reforms in a process that began in 2015. Also in the plus column, the export and investment promotion agencies CINDE and the Costa Rican Foreign Trade Promoter (PROCOMER) have done an excellent job of protecting the Free Trade Zones (FTZs) from new taxes by highlighting the benefits of the regime, promoting local supply chains, and using the FTZs as examples for other sectors of the economy. Nevertheless, Costa Rica’s political and economic leadership faces a difficult balancing act over the coming years as the country must simultaneously exercise budget discipline as it faces Covid-19 driven turmoil and an ever increasing demand for improved government-provided infrastructure and services.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 42 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 74 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 56 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 USD 1.5bill https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 11,700 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Costa Rica actively courts FDI, placing a high priority on attracting and retaining high-quality foreign investment. There are some limitations to both private and foreign participation in specific sectors, as detailed in the following section.

PROCOMER and CINDE lead Costa Rica’s investment promotion efforts. CINDE has had great success over the last several decades in attracting and retaining investment in specific areas, currently services, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, light manufacturing, and the food industry. In addition, the Tourism Institute (ICT) attends to potential investors in the tourism sector. CINDE, PROCOMER, and ICT are strong and effective guides and advocates for their client companies, prioritizing investment retention and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with investors.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Costa Rica recognizes and encourages the right of foreign and domestic private entities to establish and own business enterprises and engage in most forms of remunerative activity. The exceptions are in sectors that are reserved for the state (legal monopolies – see #7 below “State Owned Enterprises, first paragraph) or that require participation of at least a certain percentage of Costa Rican citizens or residents (electrical power generation, transport services, professional services, and aspects of broadcasting). Properties in the Maritime Zone (from 50 to 200 meters above the mean high-tide mark) may only be leased from the state and with residency requirements. In the areas of medical services, telecommunications, finance and insurance, state-owned entities dominate, but that does not preclude private sector competition. Costa Rica does not have an investment screening mechanism for inbound foreign investment, beyond those applied under anti-money laundering procedures. U.S. investors are not disadvantaged or singled out by any control mechanism or sector restrictions; to the contrary, U.S. investors figure prominently among the various major categories of FDI.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD accession process for Costa Rica, which began in 2015, resulted in a wide swath of legal and technical changes across the economy that should help the economy function in a more just and competitive manner. Toward that goal, the OECD will continue to monitor Costa Rican progress in a number of areas and will publish periodic progress updates and sector analysis that may be useful to prospective investors. A comprehensive review of the Costa Rican economy was published by the OECD at the conclusion of the accession process, which offered valuable insights into challenges faced by the economy, “OECD Economic Surveys Costa Rica 2020: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/oecd-economic-surveys-costa-rica-2020-2e0fea6c-en.htm  . In the same context, the OECD offers a review of international investment in Costa Rica: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/OECD-Review-of-international-investment-in-Costa-Rica.pdf .

Additionally, in recent years the OECD has published a number of reports focused on specific aspects of economic growth and investment policy – several of these reports are referenced elsewhere in this report. For the index of OECD reports on Costa Rica, go to https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/3/ .

The World Trade Organization (WTO) conducted its 2019 “Trade Policy Review” of Costa Rica in September of that year. Trade Policy Reviews are an exercise, mandated in the WTO agreements, in which member countries’ trade and related policies are examined and evaluated at regular intervals: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp492_e.htm  .

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) produced in 2019 the report Overview of Economic and Trade Aspects of Fisheries and Seafood Sectors in Costa Rica: https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2583  .

https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2583  .

Business Facilitation

Costa Rica’s single-window business registration website, crearempresa.go.cr  , brings together the various entities – municipalities and central government agencies – which must be consulted in the process of registering a business in Costa Rica. A new company in Costa Rica must typically register with the National Registry (company and capital registry), Internal Revenue Directorate of the Finance Ministry (taxpayer registration), National Insurance Institute (INS) (basic workers’ comp), Ministry of Health (sanitary permit), Social Security Administration (CCSS) (registry as employer), and the local Municipality (business permit). Legal fees are the biggest single business start-up cost, as all firms registered to individuals must hire a lawyer for a portion of the necessary paperwork. Crearempresa is rated 17th of 33 national business registration sites evaluated by “Global Enterprise Registration” ( www.GER.co ), which awards Costa Rica a relatively lackluster rating because Crearempresa has little payment facility and provides only some of the possible online certificates.

Traditionally, the Costa Rican government’s small business promotion efforts have tended to focus on participation by women and underserved communities.  The National Institute for Women (INAMU), National Training Institute (INA), the Ministry of Economy (MEIC), and PROCOMER through its supply chain initiative have all collaborated extensively to promote small and medium enterprise with an emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship. In 2020, INA launched a network of centers to support small and medium-sized enterprises based upon the U.S. Small Business Development Center (SBDC) model.

Within the World Bank’s “Doing Business” evaluation for 2020, http://www.doingbusiness.org , Costa Rica is ranked 144/190 for “starting a business”, with the process taking 10 days.

Outward Investment

The Costa Rican government does not promote or incentivize outward investment. Neither does the government discourage or restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Costa Rican laws, regulations, and practices are generally transparent and meant to foster competition in a manner consistent with international norms, except in the sectors controlled by a state monopoly, where competition is explicitly excluded. Rule-making and regulatory authority is housed in any number of agencies specialized by function (telecom, financial, health, environmental) or location (municipalities, port authorities). Tax, labor, health, and safety laws, though highly bureaucratic, are not seen as unfairly interfering with foreign investment. It is common to have Professional Associations that play a regulatory role. For example, the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE), a private sector organization, promotes standardization of production models among national producers, roasters and exporters, as well as setting minimum market prices.

Costa Rica is a member of UNCTAD’s international network of transparent investment procedures ( http://www.businessfacilitation.org ). Within that context, the Ministry of Economy compiled the various procedures needed to do business in Costa Rica: https://tramitescr.meic.go.cr/ . Accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures are transparent and consistent with international norms. The stock and bond market regulator SUGEVAL requires International Accounting Standards Board for public companies, while the Costa Rican College of Public Accountants (Colegio de Contadores Publicos de Costa Rica -CCPA) has adopted full International Financial Reporting Standards for non-regulated companies in Costa Rica; for more, see the international federation of accountants IFAC: https://www.ifac.org/about-ifac/membership/country/costa-rica .

Regulations must go through a public hearing process when being drafted. Draft bills and regulations are made available for public comment through public consultation processes that will vary in their details according to the public entity and procedure in question, generally giving interested parties sufficient time to respond. The standard period for public comment on technical regulations is 10 days. As appropriate, this process is underpinned by scientific or data-driven assessments. A similarly transparent process applies to proposed laws. The Legislative Assembly generally provides sufficient opportunity for supporters and opponents of a law to understand and comment on proposals. To become law, a proposal must be approved by the Assembly by two plenary votes. The signature of 10 legislators (out of 57) is sufficient after the first vote to send the bill to the Supreme Court for constitutional review within one month, although the court may take longer.

Regulations and laws, both proposed and final, for all branches of government are published digitally in the government registry “La Gaceta”: https://www.imprentanacional.go.cr/gaceta/ . The Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham – http://amcham.co.cr  ) and other business chambers closely monitor these processes and often coordinate responses as needed.

The government has mechanisms to ensure laws and regulations are followed. The Comptroller General’s Office conducts operational as well as financial audits and as such provides the primary oversight and enforcement mechanism within the Costa Rican government to ensure that government bodies follow administrative processes. Each government body’s internal audit office and, in many cases, the customer-service comptroller (Contraloria de Servicios) provide additional support.

There are several independent avenues for appealing regulatory decisions, and these are frequently pursued by persons or organizations opposed to a public sector contract or regulatory decision. The avenues include the Comptroller General (Contraloria General de la Republica), the Ombudsman (Defensor de los Habitantes), the public services regulatory agency (ARESEP), and the constitutional review chamber of the Supreme Court. The State Litigator’s office (Procuraduria General) is frequently a participant in its role as the government’s attorney.

Costa Rica is transparent in reporting its public finances and debt obligations, including explicit and contingent liabilities. The Ministry of Finance provides updates on public debt through the year, with the debt categorized as Central Government, Central Government and Non-Financial Sector, and Central Bank of Costa Rica: https://www.hacienda.go.cr/contenido/12519-informacion-de-la-deuda-publica 

https://www.hacienda.go.cr/contenido/12519-informacion-de-la-deuda-publica 

The following chart covers contingent debt as of December 31, 2020: https://www.hacienda.go.cr/docs/60088ea554e11_12-2020%20Resumen%20Deuda%20Contingente%20publicar.xlsx

https://www.hacienda.go.cr/docs/60088ea554e11_12-2020%20Resumen%20Deuda%20Contingente%20publicar.xlsx

The General Controller’s Office produced the following 2019 report on unregistered debt, summing to 1.27 percent of GDP: https://cgrfiles.cgr.go.cr/publico/docs_cgr/2019/SIGYD_D_2019015487.pdf

https://cgrfiles.cgr.go.cr/publico/docs_cgr/2019/SIGYD_D_2019015487.pdf

The review and enforcement mechanisms described above have kept Costa Rica’s regulatory system relatively transparent and free of abuse, but have also rendered the system for public sector contract approval exceptionally slow and litigious. There have been several cases in which these review bodies have overturned already-executed contracts, thereby interjecting uncertainty into the process. Bureaucratic procedures are frequently long, involved and can be discouraging to new investors.

Furthermore, Costa Rica’s product market regulations are more stringent than in any other OECD country, according to the OECD’s 2020 Product Market Regulations Indicator, leading to market inefficiencies. Find this explanation as well as a detailed review of the regulatory challenges Costa Rica faces in the September 2020 OECD report on regulatory reform: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/enhancing-business-dynamism-and-consumer-welfare-in-costa-rica-with-regulatory-reform-53250d35-en.htm 

https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/enhancing-business-dynamism-and-consumer-welfare-in-costa-rica-with-regulatory-reform-53250d35-en.htm 

International Regulatory Considerations

While Costa Rica does consult with its neighbors on some regulations through participation in the Central American Integration System (SICA) ( http://www.sica.int/sica/sica_breve.aspx ), Costa Rica’s lawmakers and regulatory bodies habitually refer to sample regulations or legislation from OECD members and others. Costa Rica’s commitment to OECD standards and practices through the ongoing OECD accession process has accentuated this traditional use of best-practices and model legislation. Costa Rica regularly notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers in Trade (TBT).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Costa Rica uses the civil law system. The fundamental law is the country’s political constitution of 1949, which grants the unicameral legislature a particularly strong role. Jurisprudence or case law does not constitute legal precedent but can be persuasive if used in legal proceedings. For example, the Chambers of the Supreme Court regularly cite their own precedents. The civil and commercial codes govern commercial transactions. The courts are independent, and their authority is respected. The roles of public prosecutor and government attorney are distinct: the Chief Prosecuting Attorney or Attorney General (Fiscal General) operates a semi-autonomous department within the judicial branch while the government attorney or State Litigator (Procuraduria General) works within the Ministry of Justice and Peace in the Executive branch. The primary criminal investigative body “Organismo de Investigacion Judicial” OIJ, is a semi-autonomous department within the Judicial Branch. Judgments and awards of foreign courts and arbitration panels may be accepted and enforced in Costa Rica through the exequatur process. The Constitution specifically prohibits discriminatory treatment of foreign nationals. The Costa Rican Judicial System addresses the full range of civil, administrative, and criminal cases with a number of specialized courts.  The judicial system generally upholds contracts, but caution should be exercised when making investments in sectors reserved or protected by the Constitution or by laws for public operation. Regulations and enforcement actions may be, and often are, appealed to the courts.

Costa Rica’s commercial code details all business requirements necessary to operate in Costa Rica. The laws of public administration and public finance contain most requirements for contracting with the state.

The legal process to resolve cases involving squatting on land can be especially cumbersome. Land registries are at times incomplete or even contradictory. Buyers should retain experienced legal counsel to help them determine the necessary due diligence regarding the purchase of property.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Costa Rican websites are useful to help navigate laws, rules and procedures including that of the investment promotion agency CINDE, http://www.cinde.org/en  (“essential info”), the export promotion authority PROCOMER, http://www.procomer.com/ (incentive packages), and the Health Ministry, https://www.ministeriodesalud.go.cr/  (product registration and import/export). In addition, the State Litigator’s office ( www.pgr.go.cr ) the “SCIJ” tab compiles relevant laws.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

Two public institutions are responsible for consumer protection as it relates to monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The “Commission for the Promotion of Competition” (COPROCOM), an autonomous agency housed in the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce, is charged with investigating and correcting anti-competitive behavior across the economy. The Telecommunications Superintendence (SUTEL) shares that responsibility with COPROCOM in the Telecommunications sector. Both agencies are charged with defense of competition, deregulation of economic activity, and consumer protection. COPROCOM has traditionally been underfunded and weak, although a law passed in 2019 is designed to change that by giving COPROCOM greater regulatory independence and sufficient operating budget.

For an analysis of opportunities for improvement in Costa Rica’s regulatory environment, including in competition and antitrust, see: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/enhancing-business-dynamism-and-consumer-welfare-in-costa-rica-with-regulatory-reform-53250d35-en.htm . For the OECD assessment of competition law and policy in Costa Rica, see: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/costarica-competition.htm .

Expropriation and Compensation

The three principal expropriating government agencies in recent years have been the Ministry of Public Works – MOPT (highway rights-of-way), the state-owned Costa Rican Electrical Institute – ICE (energy infrastructure), and the Ministry of Environment and Energy – MINAE (National Parks and protected areas). Expropriations generally conform to Costa Rica’s laws and treaty obligations, but there are allegations of expropriations of private land without prompt or adequate compensation.

Article 45 of Costa Rica’s Constitution stipulates that private property can be expropriated without proof that it is done for public interest. The 1995 Law 7495 on expropriations further stipulates that expropriations require full and prior payment. The law makes no distinction between foreigners and nationals. Provisions include: (a) return of the property to the original owner if it is not used for the intended purpose within ten years or, if the owner was compensated, right of first refusal to repurchase the property back at its current value; (b) detailed provisions for determination of a fair price and appeal of that determination on the part of the former owner; (c) provision that upon full deposit of the calculated amount the government may take possession of land despite the former owner’s dispute of the price; and (d) provisions providing for both local and international arbitration in the event of a dispute. The expropriations law was amended in 1998, 2006, and 2015 to clarify and expedite some procedures, including those necessary to expropriate land for the construction of new roads. (For full detail go to https://PGRweb.go.cr/SCIJ  . When reviewing the articles of the law go to the most recent version of each article.)

There is no discernible bias against U.S. investments, companies, or representatives during the expropriations process. Costa Rican public institutions follow the law as outlined above and generally act in a way acceptable to the affected landowners. However, when landowners and government differ significantly in their appraisal of the expropriated lands’ value, the resultant judicial processes generally take years to resolve. In addition, landowners have, on occasion, been prevented from developing land which has not yet been formally expropriated for parks or protected areas; the courts will eventually order the government to proceed with the expropriations but the process can be long.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

In 1993, Costa Rica became a member state to the convention on International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention). Costa Rica paid the awards resulting from unfavorable ICSID rulings, most recently in 2012 regarding private property belonging to a German national within National Park boundaries.

Costa Rica is a signatory of the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention). Consequently, within the Costa Rican legal hierarchy the Convention ranks higher than local laws although still subordinate to the Constitution. Costa Rican courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards. Judgments of foreign courts are recognized and enforceable under the local courts and the Supreme Court.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Disputes between investors and the government grounded in the government’s alleged actions or failure to act – termed investment disputes ‒ may be resolved administratively or through the legal system.

Under Chapter 10 of the CAFTA-DR agreement, Costa Rica legally obligated itself to answer investor arbitration claims submitted under ICSID or the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), and accept the arbitration verdict. To date there have been two claims by U.S. citizen investors under the provisions of CAFTA-DR. Extensive documentation for both cases is filed on the Foreign Trade Ministry (COMEX) website: http://www.comex.go.cr/tratados/cafta-dr/ , under “documentos relevantes”. No local court denies or fails to enforce foreign arbitral awards issued against the government.

In some coastal areas of Costa Rica, there is a history of invasion and occupation of private property by squatters who are often organized and sometimes violent. It is not uncommon for squatters to return to the parcels of land from which they were evicted, requiring expensive and potentially dangerous vigilance over the land. Nevertheless, in recent years the Supreme Court has refused title to squatters on land already titled, thus removing some incentive for persistent squatters.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

The right to solve disputes through arbitration is guaranteed in the Costa Rican Constitution. For years, the practical application was regulated by the Civil Procedural Code, which made it ineffective with no arbitration cases until 1998, the year the local arbitration law #7727 was enacted. A 2011 law on International Commercial Arbitration (Law 8937), drafted from the UNCITRAL model law (version 2006), brought Costa Rica to a dual arbitration system, with two valid laws, one law for local arbitration and one for international arbitration. Under the local act, arbitration has to be conducted in Spanish and only attorneys admitted to the local Bar Association may be named as arbitrators.  All cases brought before an arbitration panel, under the rules of local arbitration centers, will normally be resolved within two months of the closing arguments hearing.  Parties can withdraw their case or reach an out-of-court settlement before the arbitral tribunal delivers an award.  If the award meets the review criteria, the losing party has the option to request that the Costa Rican Supreme Court examine the award, but only on procedural matters and never on the merits. Under the local Law for International Arbitration, proceedings may be held in English and foreign attorneys are authorized to serve as arbitrators. The following arbitration centers are in operation in Costa Rica:

Centro de Conciliacion y Arbitraje. Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce (CCA)

Centro de Resolución de Controversias. Costa Rican Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA)

Centro Internacional de Conciliacion y Arbitraje (CICA). Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM)

Centro de Arbitraje y Mediacion/Centro Iberoamericano de Arbitraje (CAM). Costa Rican Bar Association.

Beyond such arbitration options, law #7727 also facilitates courts’ enforcement of conciliation agreements reached under the law. Some universities and municipalities operate “Casas de Justicia” (Justice Houses) open to the public and offering mediation and conciliation at no cost. Law #8937 empowered local arbitration centers, beginning with that pertaining to the Engineers and Architects’ Association, to implement Dispute Board regulations, as a method to address construction disputes. Dispute Boards have acquired importance lately in construction contracts; with CFIA implementing new by-laws favoring the use of Dispute Boards in such contracts.

Outcomes in local courts do not appear to favor state-owned enterprises (SOEs) any more or less than other actors.  SOEs can sign arbitral agreements, but must follow strict public laws to obtain the permissions necessary and follow correct procedures, otherwise the agreement could be voided. Once SOEs find themselves in arbitration, they are subject to the same standards and treatment as any other actor.

U.S. companies cite the unpredictability of outcomes as a source of rising judicial insecurity in Costa Rica. The legal system is significantly backlogged, and civil suits may take several years from start to finish. In the tax arena, several U.S. businesses have objected to the Ministry of Finance’s aggressive stance in interpreting transfer pricing principles, compounded by what the businesses perceive as a lack of specialized judges to competently address such cases. Some U.S. firms and citizens satisfactorily resolved their cases through the courts, while others see proceedings drawn out over a decade without a final resolution. Commercial arbitration has become an increasingly common dispute resolution mechanism.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Costa Rican bankruptcy law, addressed in both the commercial code and the civil procedures code, has long been similar to corresponding U.S. law. In February 2021, Costa Rica’s National Assembly approved a comprehensive bankruptcy law reform #21.436 “LEY CONCURSAL”. As of late March 2021, the bill was waiting to be signed by the President and published in the official Gazette. It will come into effect six months after publication.

The new law will ease bankruptcy processes and help companies in financial distress to move through the “administrative intervention” intended to save the companies. The previous law too often ended with otherwise viable companies ceasing operations, rather than allowing them to recover, due to a bias towards dissolution of companies in distress. The new law simplifies processes in court, reduces time and costs, and allows judges to act fast, with a system that is clear and expeditious.

As in the United States, penal law will also apply to criminal malfeasance in some bankruptcy cases. In the World Bank’s “resolving insolvency” ranking within the 2020 “Doing Business” report, Costa Rica ranked #137 of 190 (http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings ).

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The laws governing investments in land, buildings, and mortgages are generally transparent. Secured interests in both chattel and real property are recognized and enforced. Mortgage and title recording are mandatory and the vast majority of land in Costa Rica has clear title. However, the National Registry, the government entity that records property titles, has been successfully targeted on occasion with fraudulent filing, which has led in some cases to overlapping title to real property. Costa Rican law allows long-time occupants of a property belonging to someone else (i.e. squatters) to eventually take legal possession of that property if unopposed by the property owner. Potential investors in Costa Rican real estate should also be aware that the right to use traditional paths is enshrined in law and can be used to obtain court-ordered easements on land bearing private title; disputes over easements are particularly common when access to a beach is an issue. Costa Rica is ranked 49th of 190 for ease of “registering property” within the World Bank 2020 Doing Business Report.

Foreigners are subject to the same land lease and acquisition laws and regulations as Costa Ricans with the exception of concessions within the Maritime Zone (Zona Maritima Terrestre – ZMT). Almost all beachfront is public property for a distance of 200 meters from the mean high tide line, with an exception for long-established port cities and a few beaches such as Jaco. The first 50 meters from the mean high tide line cannot be used for any reason by private parties. The next 150 meters, also owned by the state, is the Maritime Zone and can only be leased from the local municipalities or the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) for specified periods and particular uses, such as tourism installation or vacation homes. Concessions in this zone cannot be given to foreigners or foreign-owned companies.

Intellectual Property Rights

Costa Rica’s legal structure for protecting intellectual property rights (IPR) is quite strong, but enforcement is sporadic and does not always get the attention and resources required to be effective. In the 2019 United States Trade Representative (USTR) Special 301 Report, USTR noted the substantial progress made by Costa Rica in protecting IPR. As a result, USTR did not include Costa Rica in the 2020 or 2021 Special 301 reports. Costa Rica was not listed in USTR’s 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

Costa Rica is a signatory of many major international agreements and conventions regarding intellectual property.  Building on the existent regulatory and legal framework, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) required Costa Rica to strengthen and clarify its IPR regime further, with several new IPR laws added to the books in 2008.  Prior to that, the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) took effect in Costa Rica on January 1, 2000.  In 2002, Costa Rica ratified the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Performances and Phonograms Treaty and the WIPO Copyright Treaty.

The IP Registry presented two bills to the General Directorate of the National Registry on January 12, 2021 for approval before sending to the National Assembly for final approval. In 2020, the IP Registry drafted a bill that will include the new proposed reform of the Law on Invention Patents, Industrial Designs, and Utility Models.  This bill will adjust the current law to international standards to make it a more useful tool for the promotion of innovation in the country. Additionally, the National Registry merged the Law on Copyrights and Related Rights and the Law on Procedures for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights into a single draft bill, with the aim of incorporating the provisions of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances.

On June 22, 2020, the General Directorate of the National Registry merged the Registry of Industrial Property and the Registry of Copyright and Related Rights into a single Registry of Intellectual Property, improving the National Registry’s efficiency and fulfilling a reform called for in the National Registry Law from 2010.

While online piracy remains a concern for the country, in February 2019, Costa Rica modified the existing regulation on internet service providers (ISPs) to shorten significantly the 45 days previously allowed for notice and takedown of pirated online content, creating an expeditious safe harbor system for ISPs in Costa Rica. To meet a longstanding CAFTA-DR requirement mandating government use of legal software, in March 2020, the National Registry launched LegalSoft, a new software program to track software licenses and renewal dates across 95 government institutions, with all agencies set to report by July 2020, followed by external audits to verify implementation. With the tracking program now in place, Costa Rica has a systematic solution for monitoring and ensuring the purchase and use of legal software.

In August 2020, Costa Rica’s Intellectual Property Registry launched a WIPO online platform that will allow interested parties to submit online applications to register trademarks.  The online service has improved efficiency and encouraged registrations from small-to-medium-sized companies across the country. During 2019, the National Registry of Industrial Property announced implementation of TMview and DesignView, search tools that allow users to consult trademarks and industrial design data.

The Costa Rican government does not release official statistics on the seizure of counterfeit goods, but the Chamber of Commerce compiles statistics from Costa Rican government sources: http://observatorio.co.cr/  In 2020, Costa Rica’s Economic Crimes Prosecutor investigated 14 IPR cases, down from the totals in the last four years. As in years past, prosecutors ultimately dismissed several cases due to lack of interest, collaboration, and follow-up by the representatives of trademark rights holders.  Government authorities complained that the lack of response by trademark representatives is a recurring behavior dating back to at least 2016 and may explain the drop in IPR cases.  In 2020, the Prosecutor’s Office established a specialized cybercrime unit with the purpose of improving the country’s response toward computer-oriented crimes, including copyrights infringements. The Costa Rican government publishes statistics on IPR criminal enforcement at http://www.comex.go.cr/estad percentC3 percentADsticas-y-estudios/otras-estad percentC3 percentADsticas/ .

On September 4, 2019, Costa Rican Customs issued an executive decree titled “Contact of the Representatives of Intellectual Property Rights for Enforcement Issues” establishing a formal customs recordation system for trademarks that allows customs officers to make full use of their ex officio authority to inspect and detain goods. Under the decree, customs offices have the power to include new trademark rights holders in a formal database for use by customs officials in the field. As of 2020, 150 trademarks are included in this database.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ . Resources for Rights Holders

Resources for Rights Holders

Contact at the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica:

Attention: Investment Climate Statement
Economics Section
Embassy San Jose, Costa Rica
2519-2000
SanJoseEcon@state.gov 

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Costa Rican government’s general attitude towards foreign portfolio investment is cautiously welcoming, seeking to facilitate the free flow of financial resources into the economy while minimizing the instability that might be caused by the sudden entry or exit of funds. The securities exchange (Bolsa Nacional de Valores) is small and is dominated by trading in bonds. Stock trading is of limited significance and involves less than 10 of the country’s larger companies, resulting in an illiquid secondary market. There is a small secondary market in commercial paper and repurchase agreements. The Costa Rican government has in recent years explicitly welcomed foreign institutional investors purchasing significant volumes of Costa Rican dollar-denominated government debt in the local market. The securities exchange regulator (SUGEVAL) is generally perceived to be effective.

Costa Rica accepted the obligations of IMF Article VIII, agreeing not to impose restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions or engage in discriminatory currency arrangements, except with IMF approval. There are no controls on capital flows in or out of Costa Rica or on portfolio investment in publicly traded companies. Some capital flows are subject to a withholding tax (see section on Foreign Exchange and Remittances). Within Costa Rica, credit is largely allocated on market terms, although long-term capital is scarce. Favorable lending terms for USD-denominated loans compared to colon-denominated loans have made USD-denominated mortgage financing popular and common. Foreign investors are able to borrow in the local market; they are also free to borrow from abroad, although withholding tax may apply.

Money and Banking System

Costa Rica’s financial system boasts a relatively high financial inclusion rate, estimated by the Central Bank by August 2020 at 81.5 percent (the percentage of adults over the age of 15 holding a bank account). Non-resident foreigners may open what are termed “simplified accounts” in Costa Rican financial institutions, while resident foreigners have full access to all banking services.

The banking sector is healthy, although the 2020 non-performing loan ratio of 2.46 percent of total loans as of December 2020 would be significantly higher if not for Covid-19 temporary regulatory measures allowing banks to readjust loans. The state-owned commercial banks had a higher 3.24 percent average. The country hosts a large number of smaller private banks, credit unions, and factoring houses, although the four state-owned banks are still dominant, accounting for just under 50 percent of the country’s financial system assets. Consolidated total assets of those state-owned banks were approximately USD 29.5 billion in December 2020, while consolidated total assets of the eleven private commercial and cooperative banks were about USD 21.5 billion. Combined assets of all bank groups (public banks, private banks and others) were approximately USD 63.1 billion as of December 2020. As of February 2020, Costa Rica adopted a deposit guarantee fund and bank resolution regime for the financial system, ending the previous much-criticized situation in which only publicly owned banks benefitted from de-facto state guarantees.

Costa Rica’s Central Bank performs the functions of a central bank while also providing support to the four autonomous financial superintendencies (Banking, Securities, Pensions and Insurance) under the supervision of the national council for the supervision of the financial system (CONASSIF). The Central Bank developed and operates the financial system’s transaction settlement and direct transfer mechanism “SINPE” through which clients transfer money to and from accounts with any other account in the financial system. The Central Bank’s governance structure is strong, having benefitted in 2019 from reforms that increase the Bank’s autonomy from the Executive Branch.

Foreign banks may establish both full operations and branch operations in the country under the supervision of the banking regulator SUGEF. The Central Bank has a good reputation and has had no problem maintaining sufficient correspondent relationships. Costa Rica is steadily improving its ability to ensure the efficacy of anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism finance. The Costa Rican financial sector in broad terms appears to be satisfied to date with the available correspondent banking services.

The OECD 2020 report “review of the financial system” for Costa Rica is an excellent resource for those seeking more detail on the current state of Costa Rica’s financial system: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/Costa-Rica-Review-of-Financial-System-2020.pdf .

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

No restrictions are imposed on expatriation of royalties or capital except when these rights are otherwise stipulated in contractual agreements with the government of Costa Rica. However, Costa Rican sourced rents and benefits remitted overseas, including royalties, are subject to a withholding tax (see below). When such remittances are paid to a parent company or related legal entity, transfer pricing rules and certain limitations apply.

There are no restrictions on receiving, holding, or transferring foreign exchange. There are no delays for foreign exchange, which is readily available at market clearing rates and readily transferable through the banking system. Dollar bonds and other dollar instruments may be traded legally. Euros are increasingly available in the market. Costa Rica has a floating exchange rate regime in which the Central Bank is ready to intervene, if necessary, to smooth any exchange rate volatility.

Remittance Policies

Costa Rica does not have restrictions on remittances of funds to any foreign country; however, all funds remitted are subject to applicable withholding taxes that are paid to the country’s tax administration.  The default level of withholding tax is 30 percent with royalties capped at 25 percent, dividends at 15 percent, professional services at 25 percent, transportation and communication services at 8.5 percent, and reinsurance at 5.5 percent (different withholding taxes also apply for other types of services).  By Costa Rican law, in order to pay dividends, procedures need to be followed that include being in business in the corresponding fiscal year and paying all applicable local taxes.  Those procedures for declaring dividends in effect put a timing restriction on them.  Withholding tax does not apply to payment of interest to multilateral and bilateral banks that promote economic and social growth, and companies located in free trade zones pay no dividend withholding tax.  Spain, Germany, and Mexico have double-taxation tax treaties with Costa Rica, lowering the withholding tax on dividends paid by companies from those countries.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Costa Rica does not have a Sovereign Wealth Fund.

9. Corruption

Costa Rica has laws, regulations, and penalties to combat corruption. Though the resources available to enforce those laws are limited, Costa Rica’s institutional framework is strong, such that those cases that are prosecuted are generally perceived as legitimate. Anti-corruption laws extend to family members of officials, contemplate conflict-of-interest in both procurement and contract award, and penalizes bribery by local businessmen of both local and foreign government officials. Public officials convicted of receiving bribes are subject to prison sentences up to ten years, according to the Costa Rican Criminal Code (Articles 347-360). Entrepreneurs may not deduct the costs of bribes or any other criminal activity as business expenses. In recent decades, Costa Rica saw several publicized cases of firms prosecuted under the terms of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Costa Rica ratified the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption in 1997. This initiative of the OECD and the Organization of American States (OAS) obligates subscribing nations to implement criminal sanctions for corruption and implies a series of follow up actions: http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/cri.htm . Costa Rica also ratified the UN Anti-Corruption Convention in March 2007, has been a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since 2012, and as of July 2017 is a party to the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery of Foreign Public Officials.

The Costa Rican government has encouraged civil society interest in good governance, open government and fiscal transparency, with a number of NGO’s operating unimpeded in this space. While U.S. firms do not identify corruption as a major obstacle to doing business in Costa Rica, some have made allegations of corruption in the administration of public tenders and in approvals or timely processing of permits. Developers of tourism facilities periodically cite municipal-level corruption as a problem when attempting to gain a concession to build and operate in the restricted maritime zone.

For further material on anti-bribery and corruption in Costa Rica, see the OECD study: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/costa-rica-has-improved-its-foreign-bribery-legislation-but-must-strengthen-enforcement-and-close-legal-loopholes.htm 

Also on the OECD website, information relating to Costa Rica’s membership in the OECD anti-bribery convention: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/costarica-oecdanti-briberyconvention.htm 

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact within government Anti-Corruption Agency:

Name: Armando López Baltodano
Title: Procurador Director de la Area de la Etica Publica, PGR
Organization: Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR)
Address: Avenida 2 y 6, Calle 13. San Jose, Costa Rica.
Telephone Number: 2243-8330, 2243-8321
Email Address: evelynhk@pgr.go.cr 

Contact at “watchdog” organization:

Evelyn Villarreal F.
Asociación Costa Rica Íntegra
Tel:. (506) 8355 3762
Email 1: evelyn.villarreal@cr.transparency.org 
Email 2: crintegra.vice@gmail.com 

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $61,801 2019 $61,801 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $25,682 2019 $1,521 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $124 2019 $-199 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Total inbound FDI as % host GDP 2019 4.3% 2019 4.1% UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/
EconomicTrends/Fdi.html
* Source for Host Country Data: Costa Rica’s Central Bank BCCR is the source for GDP and FDI statistics. Year-end data is published March 31 of the following year.
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 43,564 100% Total Outward 3,446 100%
United States 24,543 56.3% Nicaragua 1,039 30.2%
Spain 2,709 6.2% Guatemala
Mexico 2,124 4.9% Panama 812 23.6%
The Netherlands 1,724 4.0% United States 128 3.7%
Colombia 1,606 3.7% Colombia 79 2.3%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Costa Rica’s open and globally integrated economy receives FDI principally from the United States followed by Europe and Latin America. Costa Rica’s outward FDI is more regionally focused on its neighbors Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama, with the United States and Colombia following. The source of this information on direct investment positions is the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (CDIS) site (http://data.imf.org/CDIS).
Table 4: Destination of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries 3,026 100% All Countries 1,776 100% All Countries 1,249 100%
United States 1,729 57% United States 871 49% United States 859 69%
Luxembourg 386 13% Luxembourg 381 21% UK 102 8%
Ireland 367 12% Ireland 365 21% Australia 44 4%
Germany 168 6% Germany 140 8% Germany 27 2%
U.K. 102 3% Cayman Islands 8 0% Honduras 22 2%
The source of this information is the IMF Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey (CPIS), June 2020. https://data.imf.org/?sk=B981B4E3-4E58-467E-9B90-9DE0C3367363&sId=1481577785817 
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