Today, U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Costa Rica as part of a trip to promote trade and business ties, discuss the implications of U.S. immigration reform for the region, and address security issues in Central America and Mexico. Compared with past visits of U.S. presidents to the country, which were major events, Obama’s trip is generating little excitement, despite his personal popularity in Costa Rica.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, including an uninspiring agenda, few opportunities for the public to see and hear Obama and Costa Ricans’ disgust with their own politicians. According to polls, President Laura Chinchilla is the least popular leader in the Western Hemisphere, which dampens Costa Ricans’ interest in politics, generally. However, the best explanation is that the relationship between Costa Rica and the U.S. has changed fundamentally over the past few decades, making a U.S. presidential visit seem less significant than it used to.
When U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica in March 1963, he arrived to promote the Alliance for Progress. During his visit, huge crowds turned out to hear him speak, with many following him from event to event. Even today, many Costa Ricans remember clearly and speak with excitement about the events of those two days. While Kennedy’s charisma played a role, the United States and its support for Costa Rica’s development also elicited enthusiasm.
Since 1942, when bilateral economic assistance to Costa Rica began, the U.S. government had implemented a low-key, relatively inexpensive but highly effective and popular technical assistance program. In partnership with the Costa Rican government, the project built most of the Inter-American Highway in Costa Rica, supported significant increases in agricultural production, and promoted improvements in public health—notably infrastructure to provide potable water and help build the National Children’s Hospital.
The Alliance for Progress expanded U.S. assistance to many other activities, including publicly financed housing programs, support for local governments, land reform, rural electrification, expansion of agricultural cooperatives, loans for small farmers, new industries, and improved education. The Costa Rican government enthusiastically implemented this program, with the result that Costa Rica was one of the few countries in Latin America to achieve most of the ambitious development goals of the Alliance, with extremely important benefits for the country’s population then and since. (Costa Ricans, like others from the region, played an important role in the development of the Alliance for Progress and its goals).
President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Costa Rica in December 1982—also a popular event—coincided with another key moment in U.S.-Costa Rica relations. In 1981, Costa Rica experienced a severe economic collapse. In light of the worsening political situation in Central America, the U.S. feared that the region’s most stable democracy could be in danger and responded quickly, providing massive economic assistance to Costa Rica. Within two years, Costa Rica was the second-largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance per capita in the world. Like the Alliance for Progress, U.S. assistance during this period had a transformative impact on Costa Rica. However, it proved more controversial than earlier aid programs.
Costa Rica’s economic recovery was based on promoting a stronger role for the private sector, reduced public spending and foreign investment on a large scale. While based on consensus among Costa Rica’s leaders, these initiatives were also strongly encouraged by the U.S., the World Bank and the IMF. The U.S. promoted the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which entered into force in 1984, to strengthen the economic recovery (as with the Alliance for Progress, Costa Ricans played an important role in the development of the CBI).
In the aftermath of the 1981 crisis, Costa Rica underwent an economic transformation, with which the country is still coming to terms. In the 1970s, Costa Rica was a mainly agricultural country, largely dependent on the export of a few traditional crops. Today, it is increasingly urban and globalized, with an economy based on the production of non-traditional industrial and agricultural goods for export, an expanding services sector and tourism.
By the time the Bill Clinton administration ended bilateral economic assistance to Costa Rica in 1996, Costa Rica’s new direction and a new dynamic in US-Costa Rica relations had been cemented. Today, Costa Rica receives relatively little direct assistance from the U.S. government and the U.S. is one of many economic partners—albeit still the most important one. Although U.S. cultural and economic influence is ubiquitous in Costa Rica, as it is throughout the region, these days, the U.S. government’s influence is best seen in the enormous legacy of its past actions.
However, this influence and local perceptions regarding it are still powerful. In particular, the political left in Costa Rica has never forgiven the U.S. for what it sees as its role in undermining the country’s social development model and state institutions during the 1980s. Others counter, correctly, that the U.S. played a very positive role in the country’s economic and social development for many decades, including rescuing it from an extremely severe economic crisis.
So, when President Obama arrives to drum up business for U.S. corporations and deal with unintended negative ramifications of the war on drugs, he will play a much different—and for better or worse, a much diminished—role than his predecessors.