Source: Julieth Méndez, Casa Presidencial de Costa Rica
This week, making his first official trip to Latin America, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Costa Rica, meeting with Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada and representatives of the foreign ministries of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, and Belize. Blinken’s agenda for his Central American visit was a multidimensional one: congratulating Costa Rica for its entrance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); laying the groundwork for Vice President Kamala Harris’ upcoming trip to Guatemala and Mexico; urging the nations of Central America—primarily the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—to take concrete steps to address the root causes of northward migration to the United States; and doubling down on the Biden administration’s emphasis on combating corruption and graft in the region. Global Americans convened a panel of regional experts and analysts to weigh in on the implications of Blinken’s visit to Central America, seeking to answer the following questions: What can Costa Rica teach its Central American neighbors with respect to economic stability and transparent governance? How should the U.S. balance its hemispheric national security priorities with the thorny quandary of calling out democratic vulnerabilities and shortcomings? And, generally, which way forward for U.S.-Central American relations once Secretary Blinken has departed San José?
Andrés Valenciano, Costa Rican Minister of Foreign Trade: For his first in-person mission to Latin America, Secretary Blinken chose to visit Costa Rica, one of the main American strategic partners in the region and the newest member of the OECD. Blinken’s visit spoke visibly to the priority that the Biden administration has awarded to advancing its strategic policy objectives in Central America, and provided a meaningful signal of the role that Costa Rica could play in constructing a mutually beneficial agenda.
Secretary Blinken’s visit could not have been timelier. Central America has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and is struggling to find an effective path towards recovery. The challenge of restoring economic stability while simultaneously working to increase the region’s competitiveness, improve job creation, and raise living standards is a daunting one, especially considering the variables represented by climate change and an increasingly digital economy. A reinvigorated partnership between Costa Rica and the U.S represents an instrumental opportunity to advance such a positive agenda in the region. Internationally, Costa Rica is recognized as a constructive leader in Central America, particularly renowned for its defense of the environment and its embrace of innovative solutions to combat climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Indeed, Costa Rica’s national motto, “People, planet, and prosperity,” demonstrates the country’s longstanding commitment to a human-centered, socially and environmentally responsible vision of development.
Bilaterally, we have a deep, reliable alliance with the U.S., with whom we share essential values, including freedom, democracy and respect for the rule of law. Together with Costa Rica’s dedication to a market economy, human capital formation, and sustainable development, these common principles have enabled a profound economic integration between the U.S. and Costa Rica. A robust community of American companies have a strong presence in Costa Rica, adding value to their production processes and competitively serving global markets in a variety of strategic industries such as medical technology, pharmaceuticals, electronics, and digitally-enabled services.
In the context of the current pandemic, we have once again demonstrated that the Costa Rican model is resilient to global economic shocks, keeping our borders open to trade and promoting greater international investment flows despite the crisis. Measures implemented by the Costa Rican government throughout the pandemic have safeguarded both lives and livelihoods, especially those of the most vulnerable. Production facilities in Costa Rica have not had to endure a single day of lockdown, due to our insistence that minimizing disruption is crucial both for economic and humanitarian reasons.
Concerning the long-term prospects for economic recovery, Costa Rica endorses the view that regional and hemispheric collaboration will be absolutely essential. Expanding global trade and investment and increasing their contribution to a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient society, is more critical today than ever before. From vaccine production and distribution to supplies of medical equipment and devices, the efficient flow of manufacturing components and technologically enabled services support many of the processes that are vital for humankind. They offer distinct proof for the need to keep markets open, to continue reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers, and to prioritize streamlined procedures and trade and investment (all without sacrificing safe and fair regulatory standard-setting).
In sum, Costa Rica’s experiences over the past fifteen months exemplifies how balanced and ambitious policy platforms, based upon high international environmental and labor standards, can help smaller, developing nations better navigate external shocks. We stand ready to continue work with the U.S., our main trading partner, in pushing forward reforms to increase competitiveness and productivity in our region, and to promote stability and generate opportunities for our citizens. Costa Rica eagerly embraces its role as a regional and international model of democratic integrity, economic stability, and sustainable developmentalism, and looks forward to continuing to work with the U.S. and its Central American allies to build a more stable and prosperous Central America, a goal that is in the interest of all.
Richard Feinberg, Professor of International Political Economy at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California at San Diego, and member of the Global Americans International Advisory Council: In his first in-person foray into inter-American affairs, Secretary Blinken visited Costa Rica this week with two presumed strategic aims: to jump-start the Biden administration’s Central American strategy, and to prepare the terrain for Vice President Harris’ visit to Mexico and Guatemala later this month. The State Department was wise to widen the scope of its Central America policies beyond the troubled, poverty-ridden Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the source-countries of the migrant surge at the U.S. southern border—to include prosperous, stable Costa Rica. Underscoring this wider regional vision, Costa Rica invited ministers from the other six Central American countries, plus the Dominican Republic and Mexico. A staunch U.S. ally, Costa Rica, with a population of slightly more than five million, is a proud liberal democracy and a living demonstration that progressive, sustainable development and leadership is possible in the Mesoamerican isthmus. Costa Rica’s open economy is deeply integrated into U.S.-based supply chains for pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies, electronics, food processing, call centers and back-office services.
The warm reception that Blinken received in San José contrasts with the Biden administration’s frosty relations with the Northern Triangle. The White House has pointedly blamed the Triangle countries’ “predatory elites” for their national dysfunctions. At congressional prodding, the administration is engaging in a public “naming and shaming” of senior officials from the Northern Triangle countries for alleged corruption and human rights violations. Promoting a more positive agenda, Harris last week issued a “call to action” to the U.S. private sector to invest in the Northern Triangle. Already, Mastercard, Microsoft and Nespresso have pledged to increase their engagement with underserved communities in the region. To encourage yet more investment, Harris called upon U.S. government development agencies and multilateral banks to join private capital in a new “Partnership for Central America.” A successful San José meeting has hopefully improved the prospects for the forthcoming Harris trip. A resolute and generous U.S. commitment to regional development will help persuade the Vice President’s interlocutors to cooperate in stemming unauthorized migratory flows—a glaring political vulnerability facing the Biden administration.
Javier Corrales, Professor and Chair of Political Science at Amherst College and member of the Global Americans International Advisory Council: Secretary Blinken arrived in Costa Rica this week with the U.S. facing key national security challenges in the region—namely, migration and drug trafficking. The problem the U.S. faces is that addressing these challenges will require collaboration with states with questionable traits. In Latin American policy circles, it is an open secret: addressing these challenges necessitates partnerships with multiple states that are afflicted with corruption or otherwise sliding toward autocracy.
There is, of course, variation in governance shortcomings among the countries of Central America. Nicaragua is a full-fledged, kleptocratic and repressive dictatorship; arguably, no other state in the region comes close to matching its record of impunity and brutality. Some states, such as Costa Rica and Panama, are still regarded by most observers as bastions of relative stability and democratic integrity. That said, all states in the region, to some degree, suffer from democratic vulnerabilities and infractions. And yet, the U.S. is nonetheless unable to walk away from them or lecture them too harshly, due to the looming specter of China: if the U.S. abandons Central America, or if its efforts to ensure compliance on issues of anti-corruption and democracy in the region become too troublesome, China will inevitably fill the void left by the United States. This would be a lose-lose proposition, leaving the U.S. to become an absentee actor while still failing to address crucial national security challenges.
The U.S.’ best option, therefore, is to emphasize and promote incentives, rather than harsh words and hard sticks. The U.S. should offer states in the region aid and resources that they urgently need: COVID-19 vaccines; aid for economic recovery; reformed security apparatuses capable of dealing with emboldened and sophisticated transnational criminal organizations; energy resources to facilitate the transition away from hydrocarbon fuel dependence.
The U.S. (or any other external actor) does not have, and has never had, the sole capacity to free Central America from corruption or wipe out the autocratic impulses of leaders in the region. But the U.S., nonetheless, is capable of obtaining certain commitments from these states (even if they are ultimately limited to a few, specific domains) to protect certain democratic institutions and norms, or at least to minimize transgressions against the rule of law. The U.S. must think big in terms of aid, and surgically in terms of expected commitments.
The Secretary of State’s visit to Costa Rica was a timely one. In the current era of democratic backsliding throughout the Western Hemisphere, encouraging the nations of Central America to adhere to democratic guardrails, and even protect the integrity of certain institutions, would not constitute a major democratic revolution, or a major reversal of contemporary trends. However, even small moments of progress can constitute triumphs—reversing some dimensions of democratic erosion, if not necessarily guaranteeing liberal democratic governance for perpetuity.
Alberto Trejo, Dean of the INCAE Business School and former Costa Rican Minister of Foreign Trade: Secretary Blinken’s visit to Costa Rica was a welcomed demonstration of the Biden administration’s focus on the region. Given the security and economic challenges endemic to the region (and to the Northern Triangle, in particular), Central America has become a predominant source of illegal drugs and immigration, posing challenges for the United States. Conversely—or rather, complimentarily—when approaching inter-American relations from the Central American perspective, the U.S. also plays a part as both a market for such illicit drugs and as the destination for the brain and talent drain that results from mass Central American migration.
It is valuable that Secretary Blinken is looking at Central America as a collective region, rather than focusing solely on individual countries, since a recognition of their interconnectedness is critical in better understanding the nuances within the region. Notably, five of the nations involved in Blinken’s visit (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) share a common market, and—with the addition of the Dominican Republic—act as equal parties in the single legal instrument that links Central America economically to the United States: the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Since the beginning of the agreement’s implementation in 2006, when something has gone amiss in one of the signatory countries, the others have acted as escape valves and counterbalances. Thinking of these countries as individual players alone would be a disservice to any efforts to support Central America and to the diplomatic goals of the United States.
Coming off the heels of the oft-contentious inter-American relations that characterized the Trump administration, Secretary Blinken’s visit also offers a valuable opportunity to restore strong ties across the Western Hemisphere. More than other regions in the world, Central America’s significant—although arguably still ongoing—transition toward democracy, integration into the global economy, and enforcement of the rule of law have been aided by a clear, positive American influence. With the shakier diplomatic dynamics of the last four years, the U.S. lost some of its influence in the region; the fact that Secretary Blinken is coming relatively early in the new U.S. administration’s term, and with a clear agenda, is therefore doubly beneficial.
Central America needs—with the influence, if not the help, of the U.S.—to focus its attention on the problems that continue to stagnate its national and regional economies: weak training and education regarding economic activities and effective financial development (including strategic approaches to capitalize on foreign direct investment) and a lack of support for infrastructure. Additionally, the region needs a renewed framework for social policies that seek to improve the quality of life of the lower and working classes. This will require widespread political collaboration to reform policies that, historically, have mostly benefited the bureaucratic elite that designs and implements them. Third, the U.S. should focus greater attention on Central America’s widespread struggles with insecurity and corruption, and center the region in the global struggle to promote human rights, diversity, and inclusiveness. Finally, the U.S. must recognize that Central America has the natural resources and knowledge base to be a strong ally in the fight against climate change.
Considering this moment of opportunity for the U.S. and Central America, we should celebrate the renewed focus that Washington is paying to Central America (and in particular, its Northern Triangle). The U.S. needs to reestablish itself as a key Central American partner, and the countries of Central America need a renewed confidence that the U.S. recognizes each nation within the region as an ally and a friend. As such, in the aftermath of his visit, Secretary Blinken and other U.S. representatives must approach their southern neighbors not as obstacles to be overcome, but rather as constructive partners in achieving mutual inter-American prosperity.