Costa Rica’s Chinchilla welcomes Liberia’s Johnson Sirleaf in historic visit

September 30, 2013

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met at the Costa Rican Art Museum in the La Sabana neighborhood of western San José on Monday to discuss future relations between the two countries, as well as international work on women’s rights, the environment and peace.

Johnson Sirleaf talked about her visit with Liberian students at Costa Rica’s University for Peace, and then moved to praise for her host nation.

“I’ve been impressed by the country, by what you’ve been able to do with the environment, by the high level of education, and by the peace,” Johnson said at a press conference on Monday, referring to Costa Rica.

Chinchilla returned the praise, stating, “We have here a woman [Johnson] who has dedicated her life to public service, to many important things in her country and her continent.” 

The visit marked the first time heads of state from the two countries had met since the presidency of José Figueres Ferrer (1970-1974), according to Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry. The presidents said they hoped to establish a formal relationship between the two countries.

The University for Peace, southwest of San José, also unveiled a bust of the Liberian president during her visit.

In 2005, Johnson became the first elected woman head of state of Liberia and of any African country. In 2011, the Nobel Prize committee awarded her the Peace Prize with two other women.

“Since her inauguration in 2006, she has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women,” the Nobel committee said in a statement.

While Figueres disbanded the military in Costa Rica, the Liberian military overthrew the government of then-president William Tolbert in 1980 – killing Tolbert and the majority of his Cabinet. Johnson had worked as finance minister for Tolbert, according to her official biography. She eventually fled Liberia, working in Kenya, the Ivory Coast, and the United States. While in exile, Johnson ran for president in 1997 and came in second, losing to Charles Taylor. During that time, Liberia experienced two civil wars, with hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Johnson returned to Liberia during the exile of Taylor in 2003, chairing the Governance Reform Commission, which aimed to clean up corruption in Liberia. She won the presidency in 2005 and was re-elected in 2011.

Liberia, an English-speaking country, was founded by freed slaves from the U.S., who began returning to the region in the 1820s.

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