I am in San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, conducting archival research for my dissertation proposal. My research project focuses on the creation of the Costa Rican Constitutional Court and how the rise of its accountability functions in the 1990s transformed the relationship between the citizenry and political power in Costa Rica. I argue that during the 1990s the Constitutional Court offered the common citizenry new ways to resolve social conflicts and directly engage in the process of having their rights and demands effectively recognized. My project seeks to locate the creation of this court within Costa Rican political, economic, and social frameworks more generally in order to understand how the country’s traditions of social protest conditioned the creation of the Constitutional Court.
I seek to understand if the rise of social movements during the 1990s –that rose as a response to the corruption and the implementation of neoliberal reforms, later found in the Court the mechanisms for restoring and revitalizing the relation between the citizenry and the formal authority. I argue that the accountability functions of the Constitutional Court lend respectability and legitimacy to the judicial system and therefore helped solidify the stability of formal authority and rule of law in Costa Rica.
Thanks to early research conducted last year, I have been able to identify a paradigmatic case that further illustrates this statement: In 1993 an eleven-year-old boy presented an amparo case against the Santa Ana’s Municipal and the Ministry of Health arguing that both institutions caused devastating environmental consequences to the Virilla River by allowing the construction of a dump in the boy’s community. Few months after the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the boy and demanded both institutions to relocate immediately the dump arguing that they both violated the boy’s rights to life and to a healthy environment. I argue that unprecedented cases like this speak of a transformation of the way social conflict and peoples’ demands were resolved, and at the same time evidences a process where the court’s accountability functions brought respectability and legitimacy to the judicial system.
This research requires a combination of archival and oral materials that will provide insight into the Constitutional Court’s judicial records, as well as into the testimonies of common Costa Ricans. As a first stage in my project I have been working at the Biblioteca Nacional to conduct archival research. The Biblioteca holds the largest printed collection of Costa Rican and Central American periodicals published since the nineteenth century. My intention is to learn how the different journal editorials and its writers perceived and documented two major events: the social unrest and mobilizations happening since the early 1980s and the rest of the 1990s and second, the Constitutional Court’s creation in August 1989 and its role. I have collected newspaper articles from five different newspapers La Nación (pictured above), La República, La Prensa Libre, Eco Católico and Semanario Universidad. La Nación is (and has been since its creation in 1946) the largest and most read newspaper on the country, therefore the important number of news articles and editorials published in this daily newspaper has taken me a considerable amount of time to examine. This preliminary selection of news articles and editorials directly or indirectly discuss the Court’s creation and its impact to the Costa Rican political system of the late 1980s and 1990s.
This first stage of identification and selection of periodical sources has helped me understand the impact of the Court’s creation at an early stage and how the diverse national newspapers documented this event.
This preliminary research has also been crucial to the development of my dissertation proposal. I wish to thank CLACS, as well as the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Global and International Studies for their generous support and help to fund this summer grant.
Isabel Alvarez-Echandi is a M.A student at CLACS and a Ph.D. student in History at Indiana University.