Over the past three years, Neil Reeder has simultaneously served as Canada’s ambassador to three Central American countries, where he had to deal with three very different situations.
In Honduras, he helped in a recovery and reintegration effort last year after a military coup expelled the country’s president and a de facto government, which most countries in the hemisphere refused to recognize, was installed.
In Nicaragua, he opened pathways for Canadian investment, while finessing a relationship with a government that didn’t always adhere to standard procedures.
And in Costa Rica, he initiated several programs intended to strengthen the friendship between the Tico community and their Canadian counterparts, including support for Costa Rica Multilinguë, a push for increased air travel and the creation of a work visa program for young people.
As the Canadian representative to all three countries, Reeder was kept busy during what he called “an intense, but productive” tenure.
Reeder, 54, moved to Costa Rica in 2007 with his wife and then-15-year-old son Ryan. A career diplomat in the Canadian Foreign Service, he has served in Morocco, Hong Kong and the United States. Upon his return to Canada, he will accept a position as director general for the Americas of the Foreign Service, hinting that he “may be back sooner than we think.”
On the eve of his departure, he met with The Tico Times to talk about upcoming air space and youth mobility programs, the controversial open-pit gold mine in Crucitas – promoted by a Canadian company – and his efforts in Nicaragua and Honduras.
TT: How would you evaluate the last three years in terms of the relationship between Costa Rica and Canada?
NR: I think we’ve re-launched our relationship with Costa Rica, intensified it. … We’ve become very engaged with the host government. We have had a number of visits such as that of the governor general of Canada and high-level visits by ministers. We’ve started dialogue on political affairs and foreign affairs with the government of Costa Rica at the deputy minister level. We’ve seen some new Canadian investment come in, specifically in environmental services and tourism sectors.
Can you tell us about the projects you’ve been working on?
We’ve had three primary achievements: the air services agreement, the youth movement program and redrafting the trade agreement. The air services agreement is basically ready to ratify and, as soon as it is ratified in the congress here and in the Canadian cabinet, then we open up air services between the two countries. There would be no limits on who flies where, so we expect to see multiple Canadian airline carriers flying into Costa Rica at both Liberia and San José, which will increase tourism here … Right now, a lot of the traffic goes through the United States because all we have as far as direct flights is San José-Toronto on Air Canada three days a week.
We also now have ready for signature a youth mobility agreement, which Canada has worked on with a number of countries so far. … We will be offering Costa Ricans six-month work visas so as a Tico, you can go work in Canada to learn English or French, make a little money and live in a different country. (Likewise,) Canadians can come down here, work for six months with an employer and learn Spanish. It’s a crosscultural exchange.
We have also formally approached the government here to modernize our free trade agreement. We expect negotiations to start in the fall. It’s an eight-year agreement and since we signed it in 2002 we have seen about a 45 percent growth in bilateral trade. Roughly a billion dollars in Canadian investment has followed the trade agreement. We are very happy with the flow of investment and financial services, and Canadian participation in the environmental sector, tourism and mining.
On previous occasions you’ve mentioned Canada’s involvement with Costa Rica Multilinguë, the government’s English language training program.
(Canada is) a bilingual country. We have a great tradition in the promotion and instruction of two languages. At the educational level, we also specialize in offering short-term English and French courses and intensive training. We can set Costa Rica on the educational track. Already, we have 150,000 foreign students in Canada every year, and we’d like more. We get about 10,000 students every year from Brazil and Mexico who come to study English and French. It is good for their studies. It’s also good for work. We have kind of developed this niche where we are saying to Costa Rica, you as a government should be identifying students and taking advantage of these short-term training opportunities. We are also encouraging Costa Rican citizens to pursue a degree in Canada because, compared to our competitors, we are a cost effective study destination. Twenty thousand U.S. dollars a year is the norm in Canada which includes tuition, room and board, books and everything. It is quite reasonable for an international student.
Any reflections on the situation in Honduras?
Honduras has been a very intense past year for me. We were engaged from the beginning, trying to promote the work of then President Arias in the mediation effort, which led eventually to the Tegucigalpa-San José accord. … Canada was also president of the donor group at the beginning of the crisis. We were engaged in a lot of outreach and networks and meetings, trying to push that process forward. Ultimately, the de facto government stayed in power until the end. We tried our best and we supported President (Porfirio) Lobo. We were one of the first countries to send an official delegation to Honduras after his election. … We encouraged the international community, particularly countries in the Americas, to recognize the government. This government was elected with a mandate and if we keep isolating them, it will only hurt the poorest of the poor, and the poorest country after Haiti.
We work well with them on the development side. We have a considerable trade presence. We have investments in the mining sector, in financial services and in pharmaceuticals. Gold mining has become quite important. In contrast to Costa Rica, Nicaragua has been quite welcoming. We have three Canadian gold mines in the country, which represent the third largest source of export earnings for Nicaragua.
Where the relationship with Nicaragua is more complicated is at the political level. We have seen things we don’t like and, when we do, we tell the government of Nicaragua. Sometimes they don’t like that, but we will continue to express our view. We have a values-based foreign policy. We expect countries like Nicaragua to respect their commitments internationally to freedom of association, freedom of political expression, democratic values, and respect for democratic and judicial institutions. … They say its internal interference in their affairs. We say, “No. It’s a responsible view to respect your signed obligations under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the United Nations and the Organization of American States.”
Speaking about the success of gold mining in Nicaragua, can you speak to the controversy here in Costa Rica?
It has been a difficult file for us. … There is a certain frustration on the part of the Canadian company. You come in under the rules. You play by the rules. All along you’ve respected the rules. … This is a legitimate investment and they are stuck now in another corner. Where does it stop?
We expect the company to be socially responsible in its investment. We have a corporate social responsibility policy that we expect our investors to abide by. We undertake socially responsible mining throughout the Americas. We have $72 billion in direct investment by Canada in the mining sector. This can be a responsible investment. We hope it will go forward in the interest of the company, but also in the interest of Costa Rica. The project is expected to generate over $200 million over the life of the mine in royalties to the state, taxes to the municipality, employment, and infrastructure. It’s a huge injection into the economy of Costa Rica.
So the concerns about the environment are unfounded?
I wouldn’t say that. I think we are all very sensitive to the environment. Experts have determined that the cutting of the trees is in a transitory area for the parrots. It’s not a nesting area. They will refurbish the site. … They have very, very refined techniques for dealing with issues like the use of cyanide. This is a very modern technology and they are very professional people. I think we can mine in a sustainable way here like we do in other countries. We are mining in Nicaragua next door, and in Honduras. We may be mining in Panama soon. But I understand that Costa Rica has this green concept and it has also had a mixed history with mining, which hasn’t been positive. Well, let us show you a more positive approach to mining; that it can be done in a sustainable way.
What will you miss most about Costa Rica?
We like the people here a lot. They have been very warm and very good to us. We have enjoyed the outdoors, the beaches, the rainforests. There is a lot to like about Costa Rica and that’s why so many Canadians come. I think it’s a really good experience to live here for a while.