The new administration of U.S President Barack Obama has brought the mantra of “change” to Washington, D.C. But Costa Rica has been bringing change to the U.S. capital as well, naming a new ambassador to the United States who assumed his charge this week.
Luis Diego Escalante, Costa Rica’s new ambassador to the United States, is a former classmate and longtime friend of President Oscar Arias, who helped found and served as president of the CR-USA Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development in Costa Rica and cooperation with the U.S. Escalante, 65, was economy, industry and commercial minister, as well as foreign trade minister and president of the Costa Rican Tourism Board during the first Arias presidency (1986-1990). He also was president of the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE) and has been actively involved with business and conservation organizations such as the National Competitiveness Council and Arias’ initiative, Peace With Nature.
In an interview with The Tico Times this week, his first since Arias named him ambassador, Escalante said the Obama administration presented a “beautiful opportunity” for strengthened ties between the two nations.
TT: First, perhaps not all our readers understand this ambassador replacement process. How long will your term last? Do you know if you will remain in Washington after the presidential election in Costa Rica next year?
LDE: Not really. In reality, the ambassador in Washington is precisely one of the (most important) tools of the president. The president has the absolute right to place and remove at any moment the ambassador in Washington. With President Arias leaving and a new president arriving, obviously there may be a new ambassador named. That’s the rule.
What encourages you the most about the relationship looking forward? I think maybe the most encouraging is to hear the message that there is the desire to find consensus and to listen to countries.
What was your reaction when you heard that you would be ambassador? Naturally I was aware, of the possibility of my nomination, so I was ready and prepared. But the official news came in a totally unexpected way.
I was enjoying dinner with my wife, my daughter and two of our granddaughters in a little restaurant in Manzanillo, a little town in the beautiful, south Caribbean coast while waiting for news of the arrival of my son-inlaw, Oscar. When… suddenly the phone rang, I answered, thinking it was the father of the girls, “Luis Diego, this is Oscar.” and I said, “Hey, great to hear from you! We were waiting for your call.” And so President Oscar Arias, immediately responded, “Well, I’m happy. Because you’re going to Washington.”
What would you say the biggest strengths are in the relationship between Costa Rica and the United States?
(The) recent history of cooperation, the recent history in trade, the recent history in tourism, they are all areas that indicate there is that joint possibility. Now I think that our country, even though we are small in size, we have been productive and big in ideas in many areas. … I think that we have been visionary in the way we have managed our public health (care system). Because if there is anything that people need, and would do anything to have, it would be health care.
That’s definitely been one thing the U.S. has been struggling to deal with on its own, so Costa Rica could be an example for that …
They should watch, pay attention, to what we’re doing. … We still have some problems, big problems and smaller problems, to resolve. Our urban planning is very delayed, public transport is very delayed. … Urban planning, I would say, is one of the things we have to work on. We should (also) try to sell our progress in the area of the environmental conservation.
What challenges lie ahead as you forge new relations between the two countries? Security, for example, is a major issue in the United States and in Costa Rica, as well as for the rest of the countries in the area. And I’m sure that we should (work) for a more active Merida program.
Because those rivers of (illegal drug trafficking) are going north and south, and south and north, and east and west, it’s hard to think that this is an isolated issue. We have to take a regional approach to that, and include not only (government officials), we have to include the communities involved … all of the countries in Central America and the area, from Colombia to the United States.
In this country in particular, lately … a big concern of the government … is the amount of (drug) traffic that we’re having on land now. Because, although you could see it as a tremendous success that we have captured (more drugs), it looks like we’re doing a good job – but no, it looks like we have a bigger problem.
So will you not necessarily only work with other Central American countries? Will you work with other countries that may see the world the same as Costa Rica does, that may be in Asia or Europe, for example?
I think Costa Rica has and must continue to work closely with all the Central American countries, definitely. … Now, Mexico and Colombia … have to be close partners in anything we say and do. … (We are) trying to develop further trade treaties with the European community. … President Arias is very good at trying to talk to people, listen to people.
You mentioned trade. As someone who supported the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA), how can you make trade work for both Costa Rica and the United States?
We should concentrate in how we can help smaller businesses to develop. … We in (the government of) Costa Rica have to be very sure that we do help people with our (export policies), particularly those people who have great ideas, little money and few marketing possibilities to develop, establish joint ventures with other smaller businesses in the United States in order to promote trade.
You mean make sure that small businesses don’t get lost among the bigger multinational companies?
Exactly. The success of the United States, though the years, has been small enterprise. And small enterprise eventually becomes bigger enterprise, from a garage in California to the top of the world.
Last question: If President Obama asked for your advice, what one U.S. policy would you suggest he change? Why?
On behalf of the Costa Rican government, to try to look more deeply and try to learn about the Costa Rican success stories that we have in many areas.