San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

15 years later, Bill Clinton returns to Costa Rica

See a photo gallery of Bill Clinton’s first visit to Costa Rica in 1997

In 1997, Bill Clinton came to Costa Rica as the president of the United States. Fifteen years later, Clinton showed up again, in perhaps a different persona.

After delivering a speech, Clinton sat down at a table to receive a few questions from Javier del Campo, director of Terra Partners, the organization that brought Clinton to Costa Rica. But before the Q-and-A session began, del Campo dubbed Clinton a “politician turned rocked star.”

Clinton, with his hair grayer than ever and sporting a suit with a sharp red tie, jested: “Only in the sense that people like to go to museums and see mummies.”

But whom was he kidding? Clinton, 65, is no relic.

The ex-president’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past decade. He maintains a personality that’s both cultivated and suave. He’s assisted too by the fact that his successor in the White House demonstrated neither of those traits. Moreover, Clinton oversaw a soaring economy in the U.S. during his time in office from 1993-2001, and avoided getting bogged down in foreign conflicts.

Bill Clinton 2

Former U.S President Bill Clinton meets with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla Wednesday at Casa Presidencial in the capital. The two discussed Costa Rica’s role in the growing global market for “green” technology. Courtesy of Casa Presidencial

Clinton’s reputation has paid off. An analysis of financial records by CNN done in 2010 showed that the former president had earned $75.6 million in speaking fees since leaving office in early 2001. In 2010 alone, Clinton earned $4.8 million speaking in 13 foreign countries, such as Mexico and South Africa.

Naturally, the payment for Wednesday night’s speech was not disclosed. Each of the 650-plus seats looked filled during Clinton’s presentation at the Hotel InterContinental in Escazú, southwest of the capital. Tickets for the two-day congress, known as the Sustainability and Happiness Business Forum, cost $750 (see box).

Clinton did his part by delivering a message on environmental sustainability. He cited statistics and gave colorful anecdotes, while relying on a practical theme: Green economies save the environment and money.

“My advice to everybody is to do something [so] that other people can see that the only economics that can make sense in the long run are sustainable economics,” Clinton said.

Clinton spoke for a little less than a half hour before joining event organizer del Campo for the sit-down interview for another half hour.

He gave the typical platitudes about Costa Rica. The former U.S. president praised the country’s protection of jungles and use of hydropower, and he lauded Costa Rica as an example for the rest of the world on how green economies can succeed.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla met with Clinton before the speech at Casa Presidencial, in the southeastern San José district of Zapote, where he suggested Costa Rica could be a leader in renewable energy technology. Clinton hoped to boost Chinchilla’s low approval rating by extolling her governing ability and her attempts to push a tax reform during difficult times. He called Central America an “innocent bystander” in a financial crisis that began in his own country, a swipe at the economic troubles that started under his successor, George W. Bush.

The former president apologized for the crisis and for the effects of global warming on Costa Rica, adding that Central America has taken the brunt of the effects of climate change. The region has seen a dramatic increase in the number of hurricanes and floods, disasters experts link with global warming.

Clinton also recalled his first visit to Costa Rica for the 1997 Summit of the Americas, where he joined Latin American leaders in pledging commitments to sustainable development. During that trip, Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, joined then-Costa Rican President José María Figueres on an electric bus tour into the Braulio Carrillo National Park northeast of the capital.

Yet, as Figueres recently acknowledged, it was he who shut down the cleaner-technology rail line to the Caribbean, forcing passengers and companies to travel via petrol-burning semitrailers and automobiles. In his new role as president of the Carbon War Room, a project created by Sir Richard Branson to reduce market barriers that prevent capital from flowing to sustainable projects and economies, Figueres is now calling for new rail projects to be established throughout the country.

At last year’s Sustainability and Happiness Business Forum, the keynote speaker was former Vice President Gore. Figueres – who returned to Costa Rica from a seven-year self-exile at the end of 2011 – spoke at this year’s forum, as did special guests former Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva and an expert on the Bhutanese government’s National Happiness Index, Lhaba Tshering, among others.

But the best way to sell a ticket was to snag a major headliner, and organizers one-upped last year’s guest star by bringing in his former boss.

While Clinton has less obvious environmental credentials than Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2006 for the climate change film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the ex-president has contributed plenty to environmentalism movements.

Clinton talked of these achievements along with successes and failures he’s witnessed in developing countries like Haiti, Brazil and Rwanda.

He said he’s witnessing a change of thinking in Third World countries, where they’re beginning to realize an economy can “get healthy without putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

A campaign launched by the Clinton Foundation called the Clinton Climate Initiative attempts to address climate change by working with governments to reduce emissions, utilize clean energy and prevent deforestation. He touched on all three of these issues during his speech, heaping abundant accolades on Brazil and Costa Rica.

The night ended with del Campo asking Clinton a question that the host said was written by his 11-year-old son. He didn’t go easy on the ex-president: He wanted Clinton to select six people who could save the world.

Clinton made his choices: Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who helped topple apartheid; the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner; Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder and a philanthropist; Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who invented microloans; Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author; and the women of Rwanda, who survived genocide.

The most resonating anecdotes described Clinton’s time in Rwanda, talking to survivors of genocide committed in the mid-1990s. He listened as women who lost their entire families and were betrayed by friends showed the fortitude to carry on, start new lives and forgive.

Still, Clinton cautioned the audience to not focus too much on looking for the next hero or rock star. He said, “I think sometimes we make a mistake looking for saviors.” The reason people tend to search for them is because we’re hoping to find that type of courage in ourselves, he said.

“Nothing elates us more than seeing a free spirit,” Clinton said. “We love Mandela because we’re afraid we couldn’t do it. We love those women because we believe we couldn’t do it. But if we want to save the planet in our own way. We have to do it.”

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