Costa Rica: Emphasis on People, Peace and Environment

Interview with Ambassador Muni Figueres

By Alan Dessoff 

In 2009, Costa Rica was named the happiest country in the world by Britain’s New Economics Foundation, and it remains a top tourist attraction. Visitors to this lovely country of 4.6 million say the accolade is well deserved and a reflection of its “warm, friendly people.” A politically stable country, with a sizeable foreign exchange and no army, it still is not utopia. To find out more about Costa Rica’s success and its problems in these challenging times, we sat down with Ambassador Muni Figueres for an open, friendly and frank discussion.

Born in Costa Rica to a Costa Rican father, she also was a U.S. citizen because of her mother’s nationality. She had to give up her U.S. citizenship to take the post in Washington in 2010. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said she saw Figureres’ former U.S. citizenship as an advantage in having her in the position.

“We’re not perfect, by any means,” Muni Figueres says with a smile, as she discusses her country’s continuing efforts to address environmental issues, improve its infrastructure, strengthen its economic base, and otherwise make the democratic republic an even better place for its residents as well as the foreign businesses and tourists it is trying to attract.

She speaks optimistically of Costa Rica’s ambition to “create a dream model of development that is civilized and respectful of nature, and human beings and human rights,” built on the “peaceful mindset” of the Costa Rican people.

With what she terms an “excellent relationship” with the United States, Costa Rica’s only issue with another country that needs resolution is the latest in a century-long series of border disputes with its northern neighbor, Nicaragua. The most recent began in October, 2010 over control and use of the Rio San Juan, the river that divides the countries and is valuable to both for transportation to the Atlantic Ocean.

Costa Rica has taken the dispute to the International Court of Justice in the Hague and “we’re confident that we will win the case within a few years,” Figueres says. But “in the meantime, we have this problem with our neighbor and we want to get along with them. We need to get along with them.”

So although tensions between the two countries remain “because each side feels it is right,” their presidents talk to each other and “we have warm relations” with Nicaraguan immigrants to Costa Rica, she says.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica pursues other goals, including achieving 100 percent sustainable development. “I think we are by far the environmental leader in Central America, because we started so long ago,” says Figueres, noting that 27 percent of the country’s land surface is protected from development.

She acknowledges that “it’s a very delicate matter” to balance Costa Rica’s dedication to environmental protection with providing the hotels and other commercial developments that are needed to accommodate tourists, but “there is a wide variety” of facilities from large hotels to small bed-and-breakfasts, she says, and “the big ones are not crowding out the little ones.”

“We seem to get a lot of people who like the smaller places. They come for bird-watching and want the peace and quiet. They just want to absorb nature in a non-flashy environment. They are more respectful of the rules and tend to be less destructive than the others,” Figueres says.

“We have managed to brand a paradigm, and aspirations for development, that we think a lot of other countries are now understanding and aspiring to as well. That’s a great contribution my country has made,” she asserts.

In early February, her embassy held a fundraising reception for an international environmental film festival. “We believe in it, and always send a movie or two, because it’s a wonderful way to educate people on the environment while also entertaining them. The people who come are environmentalists, and they speak about Costa Rica with admiration and love. It’s lovely to hear that,” Figueres says.

Rainbow over Costa Rica photo by  Sarah Ackerman

Rainbow over Costa Rica photo by Sarah Ackerman

One admirable environmental achievement is Costa Rica’s 90 percent use of clean energy. With an abundance of rivers and mountains, it creates enough hydro-electric power to drive its power needs, Figueres says, adding that the country also believes in geothermal energy. “We are an example of what can be done with non-extractable energy as a base,” she says.

But one environmental imperfection that remains is severe transportation pollution. “We need to change the energy base of all of our transportation from oil to gas or electric,” Figueres asserts. “We hope to become carbon-neutral by 2021. We’re not sure we’re going to make it, but that’s our goal. We keep working at it every day and we have a lot of public support. The people of Costa Rica, and tourists alike, are highly sympathetic to that goal. There’s a spirit of sustainability and harmony with nature, so that people are willing to pay the price and put up with the inconvenience.”

Even hotels are joining in the spirit and the movement, she says, by using fewer towels and linens and advertising their waste management practices. “They are trying to earn credit in an environment that puts a lot of pressure on them,” says Figueres.

Other countries also are getting the message Costa Rica’s experience is sending, she continues, that “you can be environmentally responsible and still earn hard currency by drawing people to look at your natural and cultural treasures. That hasn’t occurred to many neighbors in our area until recently, but now all the countries in Central America and the Caribbean are beginning to understand the value of nature tourism. We are farther ahead because we laid down the infrastructure. We hope they will catch up.”

Meanwhile, the ambassador acknowledges that Costa Rica has some catching up to do on some of its own infrastructure, principally on repairing many roads and bridges that are “in bad condition.” Even more important, she says, is the need to “clean up our transportation system, the buses and private cars. It’s oppressive. We follow the model of development that is prevalent all over the world of too many cars and not enough efficient and clean public transportation.”

In 2010 Laura Chinchilla, a socially conservative, pro-business, former vice-president, became Costa Rica’s first female president, opening the way for more women to aspire to leadership roles. “With President Chinchilla in office it sends a signal of the possibility of any woman becoming a holder of the highest office in the land,” Ambassador Figueres points out. “In other countries as well, Brazil and Argentina in particular, women’s ascent to power is becoming familiar, from going up the ladder in the diplomatic world, to rising in the judiciary.”

Costa Rica now has more women than men graduating from its universities, “but we still have an unequal pay scale for women with respect to men,” Figueres says. “We’re working on that, too.” Also, notwithstanding the advances they have made, women in Costa Rica suffer the same afflictions as women in other developed countries, including domestic violence “at all levels of income” and mistreatment of children, says the Ambassador.

The Chinchilla administration, the Ambassador tells us, has openly encouraged girls to become better educated in “areas that are non-traditional for girls” — the sciences, engineering and math. It has also encouraged boys as well as girls to take courses like logic and home economics because, she explains, “we’re trying to convert our public education system to a ‘civiling’ process, in which they learn not just skills to earn an income, but also to be better family members, better citizens. We want them to be more creative and expressive, and participate actively in all areas of our society, not just the economic area.”

As for its economy, Costa Rica currently faces a serious $997 million fiscal deficit, Figueres says. “We were growing well until the economic crisis hit the developed world in the United States and Europe. Since then, we have depleted the substantial reserves that we had. Now we have to raise new taxes,” she says.

The country is trying to do it through reform of a tax system that now is “regressive,” she continues. In addition to raising new revenues, “we want to establish greater justice in the tax system,” she says. A bill with the title “The Tax Solidarity Bill” is moving through the Costa Rican Congress and “although it’s going to be hard to pass because people always oppose taxes, we feel we need to do it, and I think we’ll come out ok,” Ambassador Figueres says.

Meanwhile, direct, private investment in the country as well as exports, are increasing, “so our economy is quite vibrant,” she says. “We are an attractive site for investment because of the political stability we enjoy,” she declares, noting that IBM will be investing in a $300 million plant in the country.

With other Central American countries, Costa Rica has a free trade agreement with the United States that is “going gangbusters,” the Ambassador says. Costa Rica also has developed good economic relations with countries outside its region, including China. “We were the first country in Central America to establish relations with them, and it is a growing relationship,” she claims. “We have Chinese investments, loans and donations. They donated a soccer stadium and are lending us money for infrastructure.” There also are investments from about a dozen additional countries, including Germany, France and Canada. Ambassador Figueres notes that the Central American countries as a region recently signed a trade agreement with Europe as a region. “It’s the only region-to-region trade agreement tin the world, as far as I know. We hope it’s going to be extremely profitable.”

The Ambassador reports that Costa Rica has a diversified export base of about 4,000 different products. “We still export coffee and bananas, of course, but in the 1980s, we decided we wanted to diversity because those commodities were too unreliable, and we had no control over their prices or markets,” she explains. She credits President Oscar Arias, winner of the Noble Peace Prize in 1987, with launching the diversification initiative. When Arias became Costa Rica’s president, he appointed Figueres, whose father also was once the president, as his first Minister of Trade. They modeled the ministry after the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, and were advised and helped by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Figueres relates.

Under President Arias, the country undertook a long-term, strategic plan to diversify its exports, including training and educating its workforce and moving increasingly into more value-added products. It began with low-scale, assembly line production, importing pieces of cut clothing, sewing them and re-exporting them. Ambassador Figueres says that has evolved into “much more sophisticated” products and services, including microprocessing from an Intel plant in the country, many light manufacturing products, pharmaceuticals, medical, dental and cosmetic services, and fresh and processed fruits and vegetables.

Now, Figueres reports with pride, the small country of 20,000 square miles is the world’s fourth largest high-tech exporter and the largest in Latin America. It exports its products to 150 other countries and has nine free-trade agreements, making it “a very open economy.”

As it focuses on other issues, Costa Rica is aware of its distinctive role in international affairs without an army, which it abolished in 1948, and what that means both at home and around the world. “We are basing it on the premise that military forces are expensive, and when you have the luxury of not needing them, you should divest yourself of them,” Figueres says. But “we realize now that over the years, we have not shored up our police and security institutions the way we should have. Being disarmed should not mean being defense-less.”

So Costa Rica now is developing a policy of “disarmed defense” that she hopes will be a model for other countries. First, though, she says, it has to build up its police force and prevention systems, working with young people, the church and the schools, to deter organized crime and drug trafficking. “We want to prove to the world that you do not need a military establishment to be safe. You can be safe if you have the right security establishment, the right police force, if you educate your citizenry, if you have strong institutions that obligate people to stick to the rule of law. We think Costa Rica can prevail in doing that, and we hope to prove it,” Figueres asserts.

“I think that over time, this will become an increasingly important component of our foreign policy,” she continues. “We want to form an international coalition of countries that are disarmed but can defend themselves. This is a long time in the future; we have to get ourselves together first, and we have not yet connected with any of the other countries about it. But we know of them and they know of us, and we think that some day, we will be able to build that kind of alliance.”

That remains in the Ambassador’s mind as she goes about her duties in Washington, including cementing Costa Rica’s partnership with other Central American countries with common issues. “Apart from each country having a bilateral dialogue with the United States and each other, which we do, we want to develop regional dialogue to the fullest. We want to begin to be perceived by the U.S. as a harmonious group of economic and political entities that are partners of the U.S.,” she says.

While pursuing that goal, she says she also wants to increase Costa Rica’s trade with the U.S., including American investment in eco-tourism, and “that’s going well, because I feel Americans have an increasing respect for nature, for ecological balance and biodiversity.”

The Ambassador cites educational exchange programs as another “important part” of relations with the U.S. and for all of Central America, not just Costa Rica. “We really need to send our students and faculty here and have Americans go to Costa Rica to study, because nothing educates you more about a foreign country, and tells you how much the same we all are, than studying in that country. It’s probably the most educational experience anyone can have.”

Ambassador Figueres is a former chair of LASPAU, Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., that operates educational exchange programs for university faculty and graduate students. “That’s where I learned what huge contributions you can make to a country’s development if you educate your children in another culture, because once they learn a second culture, they can learn anything else. Their minds are open forever.”

The Washington embassy has two other causes important to her. One that she is passionate about is to help provide education for underprivileged Latino-Hispanic children in the U.S. The embassy is hosting a fundraising gala in March for the Latino Student Fund, which provides tutors for underprivileged children and helps them into college. Figueres says, “It’s a very small organization, with a 100 percent success rate, but we think we can make it grow.”

Also gaining the embassy’s backing is International Social Service USA, an organization that seeks to rejoin families that were separated by border crossings, leaving their children behind in “legal limbo” when relatives came to the U.S. In addition, it deals with children sometimes left behind in the U.S. when their immigrant parents, from Mexico and Central America and some from South America, are deported. “So it’s a two-way problem,” Ambassador Figueres says. She adds that there also are Nicaraguan children left behind or otherwise separated from their parents in Costa Rica.

In a cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of Central America’s contribution to the arts, the Ambassador is looking forward to an exhibit of Central American ceramics, an exhibit of the indigenous culture of five countries that will open at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington in 2013.

Underscoring all that this busy Ambassador is endeavoring to achieve in Washington is a glowing pride in her country’s culture, based, she says, on “dedication to peace in the broad sense; peace with each other, peace with nature. We think the dividend from that has paid off many times over. The mindset of the Costa Rican people is a peaceful mindset. It is what made us the happiest country in the world, and I think that happiness comes from peace towards everybody.”

Cover photo by Armando Maynez