By Florisabel Rodríguez
Costa Rica is a small country, the size of West Virginia, with a population of 4.5 million inhabitants. It is known for having the longest and most developed democracy in Latin America, a peaceful history, advanced social development and no military.
Nowadays, however, it faces the same problems as its Central American neighbors: drug dealers who use the country as a route to smuggle their merchandise headed for the U.S. market, money laundering, and the violence that goes with it all.
In light of this, President Obama arrives today for talks with Costa Rica’s president, ahead of participating on Saturday in the Central American Forum on Sustainable Economic Development.
Costa Rica has its first woman president, Laura Chinchilla, a political scientist who earned her Masters degree at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. during the 80´s. As a candidate, she pledged to deliver a more secure country.
In spite of the difficult regional context, crime is no longer the first problem for Costa Ricans according to various public opinion polls. CID-Gallup reported that the number of people who think they live in a safe country increased from 33 percent in May 2010 (when Chinchilla took office) to 45 percent in January 2013.
In spite of her success, her popularity runs low. She has not managed to get her message across.
A corruption scandal about a road near the Nicaraguan frontier damaged her credibility. She acted promptly and fired those involved, but she has not received the credit from public opinion. Other critics, from the elite, focus on what they call “her lack of political management.”
It is a complex criticism that might have, among other elements, a sexist ingredient.
Obama will also meet with other Central American presidents participating in the forum. Each one with his own set of particular problems, aside from the drug problem that has escalated violence in the area.
Rather than present a united proposal to President Obama on how best to address the region’s issues, each one will speak for his own country.
Some of the problems they face are: El Salvador´s lack of economic growth in spite of very able political and economic leadership, and the international crisis that has lowered remittances from migrants.
Honduras faces the worst criminal statistics and social indicators of the continent. Guatemala has proposed, because of the extreme drug-related problems, to legalize drugs. Costa Rica is searching for markets and investment.
Panamá´s main topic is the Panama Canal which is being expanded. Nicaragua, a friend of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, probably wants to open more doors in Washington.
Francisco Chacón, minister of communications, said today about Obama’s visit that “The agenda includes collaboration in economic and social areas, as well as in infrastructure. The aim is to find common grounds for working together. It will be a working session”.
Costa Rican Ambassador to the United States, Muni Figueres, pointed out that the topics of “economic development, employment opportunities and organized crime” would also included on the agenda.
For sure, drug issues will highlight Obama´s meetings with the Central American presidents. Even as all of Central America is searching for a new agenda to have with Washington, beyond drugs and money laundering.
Florisabel Rodríguez is a freelance contributor based in Costa Rica.