San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ambassador Discusses Tico-Dutch Relations

After more than 150 years of friendly relations, Costa Rica has progressed from its days as the Netherlands’ development-aid beneficiary and moved on to a successful relationship as trade partners.

Although for the past 30 years, the small but prosperous northwestern European constitutional monarchy established itself as Costa Rica’s largest bilateral (government to government) donor, infusing approximately $250 million in development aid into the country, assistance was for the most part cut beginning this year, Dutch Ambassador Susan Blankhart told The Tico Times in a recent interview.

“We felt Costa Rica has progressed” and no longer needs the aid, Blankhart explained.

The ambassador, who last year succeeded former Ambassador Wim Wessels after he concluded his term in October, explained the Netherlands still provides some aid for projects in areas such as women’s reproductive health and human rights, and has destined $1 million for these purposes, to be distributed this year among the four countries that the San José-based Dutch Embassy oversees: Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica.(G uatemala and Nicaragua have their own embassies.)

Instead of focusing on development aid, for the next four years Blankhart plans to work on strengthening the countries’ commercial ties.I n the past decade, the Netherlands has become Costa Rica’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, she said.

Last year, Costa Rican exports to the Netherlands amounted to $449 million, while imports added up to $140 million, the embassy’s Deputy Head of Nation, Lambert Grijns, told The Tico Times.


Changing Relations

Costa Rica’s first contact with the Netherlands was with Dutch pirates, former Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations Marco Vinicio Vargas pointed out in a speech at the Queen’s birthday celebration April 27 at the Costa Rica Country Club, in the western San José suburb of Escazú.

The first encounter dates back to 1666, when Dutch pirate Eduard Mansvelt, along with his British colleague Henry Morgan, set out on a failed expedition to conquer Costa Rica, according to the Dutch Embassy publication “Costa Rica-Los Países Bajos: 150 Años de Relaciones Diplómaticas” (Costa Rica-The Netherlands: 150 Years of Diplomatic Relations).

By July 1852, relations had shifted and both countries signed a friendship, commerce and navigation treaty in Washington D.C., marking the beginning of 154 years of diplomatic relations between two countries, which share abundant similarities, according to Blankhart.

“Both are like-minded countries where environmental issues are very important, that share good governance, democratic values, and are relatively high on the human development index,” she said.

In an exclusive interview with The Tico Times at the Dutch Embassy office in Oficentro Ejecutivo La Sabana, in western San José the eve of April 30, the Dutch national holiday to celebrate the birthday of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (who was actually born in January but celebrates her birthday on her mother’s birth date because of the warmer weather in April), Blankhart discussed the evolution of Costa Rican-Dutch relations and her personal passion for diplomatic relations and travel that has driven her across the globe.

In the past 20 years, the investment climate, which is “always good here,” has drawn a number of Dutch investors to Costa Rica that form part of a Dutch community of approximately 2,000 members, Blankhart explained.

Members of this community are mostly involved in tourism, agriculture and the ornamental plant industry, which, along with fruit (particularly pineapple, cantaloupe, and watermelon) and electronics (mainly computer chips produced by Intel de Costa Rica), form part of the country’s major exports to the Netherlands, according to Ronald Goldberg, head of the commercial department and press and cultural affairs at the embassy.I ts imports include super gasoline, medicine, and metals.

Blankhart warned that despite Costa Rica’s attractiveness to investors, neighboring Panama, with advantages such as excellent roads, poses a challenge for Costa Rica’s new administration, which must strive to maintain the country’s high standards.

She said the issue of income disparities within Costa Rica – where the richer classes have become richer while the poor remain sunk at the bottom – is another challenge for the new administration of President Oscar Arias, who took office last week (TT, May 12).

The ambassador, who has been involved in foreign relations since 1983, when she joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Relations and specialized in conflict prevention, moved here last year with her husband Yke Berkouwer and daughter Sarah, who is nearly 16, from her previous post as ambassador in Sri Lanka.

Blankhart has two sons, Meskes, 24, and Stign, 21, who live in Amsterdam, where she has an apartment that she enjoys going back to for visits.

“Cycling here is a bit different,” she said, explaining that rather than practicing it as a form of transportation, as in Holland, in Costa Rica she cycles for pleasure in the mountains of Escazú on weekends.

Ambassador Blankhart has enjoyed a lifetime of living abroad, since her childhood days when her father’s job as a doctor in medical development aid took her family from Indonesia to Egypt.

A social geography graduate from the Free University in Amsterdam, Blankhart stayed rooted in the Netherlands for some years for family reasons after joining the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Relations.

“For some children it is difficult to move from one place to another,” she explained.

However, as general director of conflict prevention and human rights, she traveled frequently, supervising work in Afghanistan, Rwanda, North Korea and Somalia.

Although she confesses she is still struggling with her Spanish, Blankhart said she accepted her post in Costa Rica because she had never before worked in Latin America.

As ambassador for four Central American countries, this year Blankhart has already traveled twice to Panama, and once to Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.

“I like traveling and being busy, and I have a good, competent staff,” she said of the embassy staff of 21 mostly Dutch employees.

In line with the ambassador’s efforts to strengthen business ties with Costa Rica, a business attaché from the embassy represented the Netherlands at this week’s II European Union Business Conference in San José, entitled “The European Union: Your Business Partner” (see separate article).

Also, because the Netherlands is celebrating Rembrandt year to honor the 400th anniversary of the world famous painter’s birth, the embassy is planning discussions and exhibitions in Costa Rica, though no dates have been set.

Other activities sponsored by the embassy include an annual fair at the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) that includes tulip exhibitions, Dutch cheese samplings and the sale of Dutch products. This year’s fair was held earlier this month.

For more information on the Netherlands, the Dutch Embassy and its activities, visit the embassy Web site, in Spanish and Dutch, at www.nethemb.


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