REVIEW: Article

Costa Rica and the United States: An Enduring Partnership

The United States’ strong partnership with Costa Rica has deep roots: our countries established diplomatic relations in 1851, when Costa Rican Minister Felipe Molina presented his credentials in Washington, and a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation was finalized the following year. This early cooperation provided a strong foundation for a bilateral relationship that has only gained depth and breadth, and which continues to grow, evolve, and reveal new sources of strength. Today, the United States is Costa Rica’s largest trading partner and greatest source of foreign investment. Costa Rica’s stability, natural beauty, and proximity to the United States make it a favorite destination for US citizens—tourists, investors, and residents alike—further deepening the connections between our countries. Our shared values, long history of close cultural and commercial ties, and growing cooperation on regional initiatives make Costa Rica a valued strategic partner as the United States promotes prosperity, good governance, and security—the three pillars of the US Strategy for Engagement in Central America (the Strategy)—throughout the region. 

Promoting Prosperity

In the 1980s, Costa Rica famously broke with the then-prevailing Latin American tendency to build a domestically oriented economy with high tariff walls by opening up to foreign trade and becoming the first country in Central America to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the predecessor of the World Trade Organization). It became the largest exporter of merchandise in Central America in the years that followed. In the 1990s, the country embarked on yet another economic game changer when it successfully convinced the global electronics giant Intel to locate its $300 million semi­conductor plant, by painstakingly matching its investment climate to the company’s requirements. This investment attraction coup put Costa Rica on the map for investors from around the world. These days, Costa Rica is becoming one of the world’s most desirable locations for back office (shared) services operations, as well as medical-supply manufacturers. It’s important to think about how Costa Rica can continue to compete, not just in the region, but around the world. To that end, Embassy San Jose is working with private sector and government partners to address persistent challenges to business develop­ment, such as inadequate infrastructure, intellectual property enforcement, rising inequality, fiscal challenges, and bureaucratic inefficiencies, so that Costa Rica remains competitive. 

Embassy San Jose is also furthering this same Strategy goal of increasing prosperity through inclusive economic development by funding a range of education and social services for at-risk populations, including youth job training; leadership training for women and youth in the country’s underdeveloped Caribbean coastal region; education programs in English, math, science, and technology; and youth social empowerment training to combat school truancy rates, youth drug use, and involvement with gangs or drug trafficking organizations. As Costa Rica faces increasing challenges, our assistance can help improve Costa Rica’s capacity to keep the country on a secure and prosperous path.

Costa Rica is internationally recognized for its efforts to protect and conserve its biodiversity and natural resources. In 1970, Costa Rica began to protect its remaining wilderness areas, initially by forming a national park system based on that of the United States. Today, by fostering a strong system of governmental and nongovernmental organiza­tions, Costa Rica’s National Conservation Areas collectively protect over 25 percent of its territory and Costa Rica has made impressive gains in reforestation, with forest cover in over half of its territory. The country has proven to be a thriving laboratory for conservation and sustainable development, pioneering and exporting innovative conserva­tion tools such as Payment for Ecosystem Services, a financial incentive scheme that recognizes services that ecosystems provide when protected on private lands, taking conservation beyond the national park system. The country became an early leader in eco-tourism, showing the world that conservation can be combined successfully with economic development. In fact, a record one million Americans—more than any other nationality— visited this country in 2015.

Not surprisingly, Costa Rica continues to be an international leader in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The country played an active role in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations and committed to reduce greenhouse gases by 44 percent by 2030. This year, Costa Rica expects to produce 98 percent or more of its electricity from renewable sources and to further diversify its clean energy matrix with more geothermal and wind power. As a regional exporter of clean electricity, Costa Rica is also helping its neighbors and playing an important role in Central America’s electricity integration process. The integration of clean and efficient technologies across Costa Rica’s economy, particularly in the transport and industrial sectors, is an important next step for Costa Rica to achieve its carbon neutrality goal and reinforce Costa Rica’s commitment to a clean energy economy. 

As part of our foreign policy goal of increasing environmental resilience, Embassy San Jose works alongside Costa Rican partners to mitigate and adapt to climate change by expanding green agricultural practices, improving water resources management, and re­duc­ing emissions. We are working with farmers and dairy producers to reduce the vulner­a­bility of their products to changes in climate, and to develop and share climate-smart agri­cul­tural practices. We have also increased our efforts to strengthen disaster response and prepar­ed­ness ahead of the strong El Niño forecast for 2016, and in response to recent droughts and floods caused by changing weather patterns. To cement these efforts, our Embassy has brought leading US climate change experts to Costa Rica to share cutting-edge technical expertise on environment and climate change issues with their local counterparts.

Promoting Good Governance

In addition to its leadership on environmental issues, Costa Rica has earned a reputation as a regional and global leader in promoting and defending democracy and civil society, key elements of good governance, the second pillar of the Strategy. In 2014, when Latin American leaders met in Havana, Cuba for the second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Costa Rican delegation met with independent Cuban civil society representatives. That same year after Russia invaded Ukraine, Costa Rica helped lead the successful fight to pass a UN resolution dismissing Moscow’s push to annex Crimea, and Costa Rica has been one of the strongest, and often loneliest, voices calling for democratic reforms in Venezuela. In 2015, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis broke ranks regionally to demand access for election monitors from the Organization of American States ahead of Venezuela’s legislative elections, and more recently former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias used an address at Venezuela’s National Assembly to call for the release of political prisoners. At the same time, Costa Rican lawmakers were the only Central American representatives to sign a US-coordinated letter calling on President Maduro to guarantee free and fair elections.

Costa Rica’s vocal and symbolic leadership is matched by a deep commitment to institution building and civil society. From hosting the 2014 Americas Regional Open Government Partnership (OGP) conference, a pro-transparency multilateral initiative, to working with President Obama on civil society promotion at the 2015 Summit of the Americas, President Solis has been a steadfast advocate for government transparency and citizen participation. Looking ahead, Costa Rica will host the 2016 Freedom Online Coalition as part of its ongoing support for effective Internet governance. Embassy San Jose is proud to work with Costa Rica and other countries to advance these initiatives. 

Deepening Security Cooperation

Costa Rica’s location in the Central American isthmus makes it an attractive transit point for drug traffickers, and 80 percent of all cocaine that reaches the United States today transits Panama or Costa Rica. As a result, the same type of violent crime that accompanies this trade and that presents significant security challenges in other countries in the region has recently been on the rise in Costa Rica. In 2015, Costa Rica recorded its highest number of homicides to date. Unfortunately, these statistics are not isolated, and efforts to stem the rise of violence, which is closely linked to drug-related turf wars, are stymied by fiscal problems that prevent sufficient investment in security. An increase in migrants from Latin America and other regions transiting the country only adds to the potential threats Costa Rica must address. Yet despite these security and fiscal challenges, Costa Rica has a demonstrated willingness to work in tandem with the United States, to maximize limited resources, and to eventually export this knowledge to others in the region. 

In Costa Rica, US foreign assistance equips and trains local authorities to secure national borders and create safe communities, improving security, the third pillar of the Strategy, while addressing the underlying causes of violence. Our Embassy works with a broad range of actors—from the security forces to the justice sector, with correctional authorities, and directly with vulnerable communities—to increase their collective capacity to counter the threats posed by organized crime, bolstered by an International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement budget that has grown significantly over the past several years in order to help Costa Rica fight its increasing security threat. We also conduct robust Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Department of Defense engagement with Costa Rican counterparts and provide counternarcotics support under a joint patrol agreement between the US and Costa Rican Coast Guards. These joint patrols have resulted in excellent results on maritime drug interdiction and have garnered broad public support, with a recent poll showing that 78 percent of Costa Ricans strongly supported joint patrols with the United States. Our combined efforts focus on blocking transnational criminal organizations from penetrating Costa Rican society, reducing the tide of drugs transiting Costa Rica en route to the United States, and working with the government and civil society on prevention programs. 

And so, as the United States continues to increase its engagement and assistance in Central America, we can look to Costa Rica as a steadfast partner in achieving our broader regional goals. We are deeply connected, not just by proximity but by our history of common values—by our shared commitment to democracy, free trade, and sustainable development. Our strong cultural and commercial ties and our vibrant partnership on economic and environmental issues, human rights, and security all work together to make Costa Rica, Central America, and the United States stronger, safer, more equitable, and more prosperous.

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United States Ambassador to Costa Rica