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“Our main advantage is our people”

Interview - September 11, 2014

The United World team met with Manuel Gonzalez Sanz to talk about foreign policy in Costa Rica. He gave us his opinion on the most important topics, emphasizing the great capacity of the country's human resources and talked about the relationship with the Unites States and his perspectives on increasing commercial exchange and investment.


Costa Rica is going to use the UN General Assembly to present its foreign policy priorities: peace and security, disarmament, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, the search for solutions for the economic-financial crisis and the protection of the environment. How will you work from this Ministry to support each of those matters?

The most important matter for the September 23rd summit is climate and environmental change. This is a fundamental matter for Costa Rica, not only because we believe in it but also because we have taken a certain leading role on the subject. We have taken the initiative in different international forums and summits. Costa Rica has a protection system for its natural resources that reaches 25 percent of the territory and we are committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021.

You can be very ambitious, but you also have to be realistic and know that there are difficulties like, for example, the reticence of developed and very powerful countries to advance in the matter. Still, we haven’t lost hope and we trust that we will be able to achieve positive results.

On the other hand, we are also very interested in attending to the issue of inequality, in how we can close the social gap, which was one of President Luis Guillermo Solís’ campaign pillars. In Costa Rica, inequality has several faces: women, people of African descent, the indigenous people. So the concept of inequality transforms itself into a more global concept that has to do with social inclusion.

The other pillar that President Solís’ government has developed is transparency and accountability. We would like to see this matter in the Post-2015 Objectives. We want the governments to be able to take on commitments of greater transparency in the execution of their public service. We want to recover the trust in the State apparatus and, above all, in the political class.

In his first 30 days in office, President Solís traveled to the United States and was clear on his intention of making Costa Rica a strategic business center. What are Costa Rica’s competitive advantages, compared to the rest of Latin American countries?

Our main advantage is our people. We have educated, healthy, quick-learning and multifaceted human resources. Our human resources are highly qualified thanks to the great investment the State has made in health and education. Also, for American companies, our people have a very good English level. A breaking point was the dissolution of the army in 1948 and the reorientation of those resources towards social progress.

Another advantage we have is the great amount of companies that have already put their trust in the country and established themselves here. They are our calling cards for many other companies to take the risks they have to take and come and invest here.

On the other hand, we also have legal certainty, which is very important for any investor. We have a trustworthy legal system. Both the private and public sectors have full respect for the Law. The system is sometimes slow, like in many parts of the world, but it is foreign to corrupt practices.

We also have the advantage of having chosen a development model that respects labor rights. This guarantees social stability and a positive relationship between employers and employees. Costa Rica has attained a stable social climate in which two entities coexist: the syndicates and the solidarista associations, a very particular form of organization, which receive contributions from the bosses and the employees and these funds are used for the employees wellbeing through scholarships, credits, etc.

We also have challenges. Infrastructure is one of them, but we are working on it. This administration has gained an important loan portfolio, for example from the IDB, which has been oriented towards the improvement of our infrastructure. We also have a project –which has had its detractors but which will nonetheless continue– to renovate the Atlantic port, through which 80 percent of our commercial activity moves.

Another challenge is to improve our electric energy costs. The administration has undertaken the task of defining and agreeing on a new energy matrix in the next 18 months. We must keep in mind that Costa Rica has bet on a development model that respects nature. In this sense, it's important to underline that currently 90 percent of our energy generation comes from clean sources (hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and solar).

We need to search for new renewable energy sources. We must take into account that this sort of project, the generation and commercialization of electricity, is still part of a State-intervention model. In telecommunications and insurance, for example, the market used to be a State monopoly, but a while back we began offering outsourced services to private companies and stimulating the competition.

In the permits and administrative process, we are trying to reach simpler processes and reduce the costs so that businessmen can focus on production with more ease and without worrying about the bureaucratic matters.

How important is it to communicate everything you are telling us to a market like the American market?

There is no doubt that the United States is our main commercial partner and that it will continue to be. Costa Rica wants to strengthen its commercial ties and direct foreign investment and, also, diversify its markets.

Four decades ago, Costa Rica basically produced four commodities: sugar, coffee, meat and bananas. Today, we produce almost 4,000 different products, which are exported to 160 countries. We are working on a diversification project so that any abrupt change in a product or external situation in another country won’t have such an impact on our economy. Therefore, while we recognize the importance of the American market, we are focused on strengthening our trade with Europe, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. These last two, specifically, will be the market for local producers that, because of our country’s characteristics, will unlikely reach markets like the American market. In the case of Asia, Costa Rica is the only country in the region that has a diplomatic relationship with China and that is a situation we have to make the best of. We can be the springboard for the Chinese products that want to enter the region and, with that, we will attract investments.

What changes in the agreements with the United States can bring the most benefits to Costa Rica?

The free trade agreement we signed with the United States is a reality and it is not up for discussion. So it doesn’t make any sense to be thinking of modifying it, we have to think of strengthening the benefits this scenario brings. The agreement has come to give us security in our relationship with the United States; a security we didn’t enjoy before.

President Solís’ vision –who had his doubts at the time of the Free Trade Agreement discussions– isn’t one of review in the sense of renegotiating. He is looking for a better way to apply these free trade agreements, not just the DR-CAFTA, so we can benefit the most from the advantages they can bring. The president’s vision is to accompany the private sector in the practical execution of the signed agreements to make the best out of them. Therefore, and to demystify the version going around about the president not wanting to sign new agreements, it is necessary to say that what he really wants is primarily to improve the way the existing agreements are applied and then to face the process of signing new ones.

President Solís has said repeatedly that the CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) is the future of Latin America. How is Costa Rica taking on its leadership as pro tempore president of the CELAC?

Costa Rica took on the presidency of the CELAC in January 2014 and the current government took over in May. It has been a hard job and we have had to act very quickly so that we could get up to speed in very short periods about what had been done so far.

The CELAC is a dialogue and political agreement mechanism that still doesn’t have a specific identity. It is a way for the countries to talk to each other and look for common agreements.

Another matter the CELAC is trying to define is whom it wants to relate with. For now, we have made contact with the European Union, China, Turkey, India and Russia. But that is a matter we have to define a bit more and with more detail. We have to select who the best candidates are, because the resources we have aren’t enough to encompass them all.

Also, all the countries don’t have the same idea about the CELAC internally, or they don’t coincide on the orientation they want to give the organization. Some countries believe the CELAC can substitute the OAS while others, like us, consider that both of them, the first in its role as a dialogue mechanism and the second as an organization, complement each other and are equally necessary. We don’t see the world in black and white, we see it’s full of shades and we are open to having relationships with everyone that brings us social, cultural and commercial benefits.

Another of the CELAC’s obligations is to define its topics. It began with three or four matters, but it already counts 20. Also, the countries have many initiatives to increase the number of topics we will work on, but it would be impossible to see them all through because resources are scarce.

You have a vast experience in matters of international relationship; you have been Foreign Trade Minister and Ambassador of Costa Rica in the UN. What are your objectives now that you are in this Ministry?

The main objective is to achieve a proactive foreign policy. I believe Costa Rica has been a little stuck on traditional matters and it should evolve to more proactive positions. That is to say, we don’t want to abandon the matters we have been working on, but we want to add new ones. Therefore, I am strongly dedicated to choosing the matters that we can add to our foreign policy agenda so we can start working on them.


Vanessa Massimini (ProjectDirector)
Matteo Transtevere (Editorial Director)