In the past months, Costa Rica has enjoyed several high profile diplomatic achievements, such as hosting a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, regarding domestic affairs, the Central American nation and its president, Laura Chinchilla, have not been free of scandal in recent years, which include the embarrassing allegations that the head of state flew in a “narco jet.”
A String of Successes for Costa Rica
Costa Rica has become Central America’s premier success story, making it the target of visits by the heads of state of world powers. For example, President Obama visited the country in early May – while there, he also attended to a summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA). In fact, during his brief trip to San José, President Obama said that Costa Rica was an “exceptional” candidate for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Additionally, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit the country in early June as part of a diplomatic tour (his second since coming to power last March). It is expected that the Costa Rican government will attempt to negotiate a deal to export food products (i.e. pork and poultry meats) to China. As a means of expressing its desire to improve relations with Beijing, Costa Rica has declared June 3, the day of Jinping’s visit, a government holiday.
Moreover, thanks to its growing economy, Costa Rica became a member of the Pacific Alliance – a loose economic bloc of Latin American states that includes Chile, Colombia, México, and Perú. On May 22, President Chinchilla traveled to an Alliance summit in Cali, Colombia, to sign a free trade agreement with Bogotá. This was the final requirement needed in order to achieve member status in theAlliance.
To continue with the good news, on May 30 San José was invited to become a member of the OECD. Unsurprisingly, such achievements have promoted Costa Rican government officials to praise themselves. For example, after the OECD confirmed that Costa Rica was invited to join this elite group, Chinchilla’s official Twitter account posted a tweet stating that her country has a “respectable history regarding democracy, respect for human rights and sustainable development,” which helped accomplish the government’s goal of joining the group.
Similarly, on May 16, the renowned Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank in Washington DC, organized a conference entitled “Network Governance and the Development Potential of Middle-Income Countries.” The keynote speaker was Enrique Castillo, Costa Rica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who praised his country’s economic development in recent years (a video of the conference, including the minister’s remarks, can be found here).
Challenges: From Border Disputes to Narco-Jets
In spite of the aforementioned successes, not everything has been going smoothly in San José. High profile visits from world leaders aside, the country does not have the best of relations with its neighbors. Namely, Costa Rica has an ongoing territorial dispute with Nicaragua. The historical diferendum reached a particularly tense moment in October 2010, when Nicaraguan soldiers went into a controversial territory on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border (or Costa Rican territory, depending on your point of view), to take control of it. The two governments have taken this altercation to the International Court of Justice. While the conflict has thankfully not ended in warfare, it certainly would be a welcomed development if a lasting settlement of some sort were to be achieved.
Furthermore, while Costa Rica is known worldwide for being an environmental paradise, the Chinchilla administration has taken some unpopular initiatives that are putting some of the country’s rich environment at risk. Namely, the government has built a road (a trocha in Spanish, officially known as the “Ruta de la Soberanía”), close to the border with Nicaragua. These actions have been criticized for destroying the local environment. In addition, the project has been further marred by allegations of corruption among the officials that were responsible for overseeing its construction.
Finally, Chinchilla herself has been involved in a number of scandals. While traveling to Venezuela to attend the funeral of the late President Hugo Chávez, as well as to Peru to attend a wedding, a scandal broke out regarding the private plane that she utilized for the trip. The aircraft is owned by a Colombian entrepreneur, Gabriel Morales Fallon, a “Colombian who is under investigation by Costa Rican authorities for possible involvement in drug trafficking and by Colombian authorities for money laundering.”
Chinchilla has tried to brush off some of the criticism, by placing blame on her cabinet ministers, as well as on political opponents who might be seeking retaliation against some of her decisions. She declared that “these facts have come out after I announced, with great determination, something that no one has ever dared do in Costa Rica: push for the extradition of Costa Ricans wanted by international justice.” While that may be the case, regional analysts have been quick to label the incident as a “narco jet” scandal.
Certainly, Costa Rica is the darling of the international community; it is Central America’s success story. The trips of Presidents Obama and China’s Xi Jinping certainly give the country more prestige. Nevertheless, incidents like the “narco jet” scandal and the controversy surrounding the construction of the trocha are signs that there may be trouble in paradise.