San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ambassador Defends U.S. Aid to Costa Rica

In recent months, President Oscar Arias has chided the United States for being miserly with its southern neighbors and praised generous aid by U.S. rivals Venezuela and China.

But Peter Cianchette, U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, insists bilateral ties are strong and based on shared values and cooperation – not just aid.

Cianchette, 47, arrived in Costa Rica in late May. A familiar face in Maine politics, he served in the state legislature from 1996 to 2000. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 and was state chairman for President Bush’s presidential campaign in 2004.

According to Maine newspapers, Cianchette (pronounced chin-KET) belongs to one of the state’s most prominent business families, founders of the Cianbro construction company.

Cianchette, who lives at the ambassador’s residence in Escazú with his wife and two children, is also a businessman in his own right. He is a partner in the private investment firm CHK Capital Partners and president of The Cianchette Group, a public affairs and business consulting firm.

In an interview his office limited to 25 minutes, he sat down with The Tico Times this week:

TT: Who do you think will win the U.S. presidential elections?

PC: The way American political system works, I wouldn’t even hedge a bet. When the votes are all tallied, the collective wisdom and judgment of the United States electorate will make the right decision.

What was the total U.S. aid to Costa Rica in 2007?

Various aid programs have totaled about $7 million in direct aid. Certainly there is a lot of what I would call softer aid that may not be tied to an appropriation of dollars. For example … people who work at the embassy also contribute to the relationship that the U.S. has with Costa Rica.

What about in 2008 so far?

I would say it’s a similar amount. I expect next year the aid will increase. … I know it will if you include the Merida Initiative (also known as Plan Merida, an aid package passed by Congress in July to help Central America and Mexico fight drug trafficking).

Under Plan Merida, Costa Rica will receive $4.2 million, compared to about $60 million for the rest of Central America and $400 million for Mexico. President Arias called this aid “stingy” in a recent Washington Post op-ed. What is your response?

I think that everybody who writes a check to be involved in a program like Merida … wishes that we had increased funds to truly eradicate this region of drugs. But the reality is that you have to work within available resources. Our government, as well as Costa Rica, has to look at the total funds available and then appropriate money based on their priorities.

Barack Obama (Democratic presidential nominee) has said that China’s growing influence in Latin America presents a “challenge” to the United States. Do you agree?

This isn’t a zero-sum game. A stronger relationship and more direct relationship with China doesn’t in any way detract from the strong relationship Costa Rica has with the United States.

China has given or promised $130 million in aid since mid-2007. Venezuela has agreed to sell Costa Rica thousands of barrels of fuel a day under very favorable conditions. Shouldn’t the U.S. be doing more to maintain its influence here?

If you look at the relationship that we’ve had with Costa Rica – if you go back 50 years – you’ll find that no other country has given the amount of resources, or even close to it, as the United States has.

Costa Rica should be very proud of the fact that it has progressed to the point where some of the assistance that it has received in the past is not as necessary as it was. The country has progressed very nicely and has a strong economy and has a stable democracy and respects the rule of law.

I think you’re looking at the wrong vantage point. You’re trying to ascribe dollars to (the relationship). That, I think, is not the appropriate way to try to view it. Look at the shared values we have, the shared efforts we have, the respect for human rights, the respect for the rule of law.

In the last three months, Costa Rica has denied requests by the United States to extradite two U.S. citizens wanted on international parental kidnapping charges. Did Costa Rica violate its extradition treaty with the United States?

Costa Rica acted within its law, and we respect that. We had hoped they would make a different decision and allow us to continue forward with the extradition. We had a disagreement with Costa Rica.

If you have to leave your post next year under a new U.S. administration, what would you like to point to as your greatest accomplishment?

Clearly, I hope for Costa Rica, as well as the United States, that Costa Rica enters CAFTA (the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States). For me, that would be a proud accomplishment.


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