Costa Rica's 'White legend': how racial narratives undermine its health care system

Dev World Bioeth. 2011 Aug;11(2):99-107. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-8847.2011.00301.x.


A dominant cultural narrative within Costa Rica describes Costa Ricans not only as different from their Central American neighbours, but it also exalts them as better: specifically, as more white, peaceful, egalitarian and democratic. This notion of Costa Rican exceptionalism played a key role in the creation of their health care system, which is based on the four core principles of equity, universality, solidarity and obligation. While the political justification and design of the current health care system does, in part, realize this ideal, we argue that the narrative of Costa Rican exceptionalism prevents the full actualization of these principles by marginalizing and excluding disadvantaged groups, especially indigenous and black citizens and the substantial Nicaraguan minority. We offer three suggestions to mitigate the self-undermining effects of the dominant national narrative: 1) encouragement and development of counternarratives; 2) support of an emerging field of Costa Rican bioethics; and 3) decoupling health and national successes.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics* / trends
  • Black People
  • Central America
  • Costa Rica
  • Cultural Characteristics*
  • Delivery of Health Care* / ethics
  • Delivery of Health Care* / ethnology
  • Delivery of Health Care* / standards
  • Delivery of Health Care* / trends
  • Humans
  • Minority Groups*
  • Narration*
  • Nicaragua / ethnology
  • Politics
  • Racial Groups*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • White People