U.S. Vice President Joe Biden caught the attention of Central America watchers after publishing an op-ed in The New York Times on Jan. 29, announcing that President Barack Obama would ask Congress for $1 billion in aid to the isthmus. The three troubled countries known as the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — were prominently featured in the article, but Nicaragua and Costa Rica were not listed among the would-be recipients.
Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told The Tico Times that it appeared to him that much of the proposed aid was focus on countries that have been sending large numbers of migrants to the U.S. southwestern border, including the wave of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries during the summer of 2014. Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, meanwhile, send relatively few migrants to the United States and boast the lowest homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
If the intention behind the boost in funding is to prevent drug-related crime, however, González said, there is no reason Costa Rica should not be counted among the recipients, adding that Costa Rica enjoys an “excellent” relationship with the United States. Costa Rica seized over 21 metric tons of cocaine in 2014 and has become a stepping stone for drug traffickers pushing their product to the United States through the isthmus.
Following Biden’s announcement, William Brownfield, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs at the U.S. State Department, said in a conference call that U.S. assistance in the isthmus was shaped by “place-based security strategies,” focusing resources on specific, high-risk areas.
The assistant secretary said that aid to Central America has greatly expanded in the last two budgets compared to recent years. Brownfield said that Central American aid grew to $236 million, up from an average of $100 million during the last five years. The 2016 budget requested $1 billion for the region. Brownfield said that the great majority of the proposed Central American assistance was destined for economic and social development, with $205 million reserved for security assistance.
Costa Rica’s listing as an “upper middle income” country and its relative prosperity has left the nation in a doughnut hole when it comes to non-military foreign aid: too rich to qualify for some aid but not rich enough to makes ends meet for many of its national social, security and development programs.
The profile of Costa Rica’s U.S. aid is mostly limited to security assistance, but some regional programs under which Costa Rica falls, like the Central American Regional Security Initiative, include funding for education and at-risk youth programs, for example. Other Central American countries receive funding for trade, education, human rights, rule of law, nutrition and HIV/AIDS, among many more, alongside security initiatives.
“Donor countries almost consider us [Costa Rica] a developed nation, which we know is not so,” González said, “There are many sectors [of the country] that are very vulnerable.”
Costa Rica, despite its economic growth and high standing on social development indexes, has struggled with persistent poverty at or above 20 percent of the population for 20 years. The National Statistics and Census Institute reported that 22.4 percent of Ticos live in poverty, up from 21.2 percent in 2010. Extreme poverty rose from 5.8 percent to 6.7 percent during the same period.
Of course, compared to Guatemala’s 53.7 percent poverty rate, as reported by the World Bank, Costa Rica’s position looks relatively charmed.
The foreign minister clarified that he was not planning on filing any kind of protest over Costa Rica’s absence from the initial list of aid recipients published in the vice president’s article. González noted that the 2016 U.S. budget proposal was just that — a proposal — and that he would wait to see where the chips fall.
“In the event that Costa Rica does not directly benefit from this, we’ll benefit as a region,” González observed.