Blinken's visit to Costa Rica is smart first step

Blinken's visit to Costa Rica is smart first step
© CARLOS BARRIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In his first in-person foray into Inter-American affairs, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenIsraeli official says plans to reopen US mission for Palestinians maybe shelved Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Nearly 200 Americans want to leave Afghanistan, State Department tells Congress MORE visits Costa Rica this week with two presumed strategic aims: to jump-start the administration’s Central American strategy, and to prepare the terrain for Vice President Harris’ visit to Mexico and Guatemala later this month.

The State Department was wise to widen the scope of its Central America policies beyond the troubled, poverty-ridden Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the source-countries of the migrant surge at our southern border — to include prosperous, stable Costa Rica. To underscore this wider regional vision, Costa Rica has invited ministers from the other six Central American countries, plus the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

A staunch U.S. ally, Costa Rica (population more than 5 million) is a proud liberal democracy. Its open economy is deeply integrated into U.S.-based supply chains for pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies, electronics, food processing, call centers and back-office services.

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By happy coincidence, Costa Rica recently achieved membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only the fourth Latin American nation (after Mexico, Colombia and Chile) to meet the organization’s demanding evaluations. Two telling indicators: The World Bank ranks Costa Rica second (only to Chile) in human capital formation in Latin America; and 99 percent of its electricity generation comes from renewables (water, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar energies).

By its very presence and leadership, Costa Rica will demonstrate that progressive, sustainable development is possible in the Mesoamerican isthmus.

The warm reception that Blinken can anticipate in San José contrasts with the Biden administration’s frosty relations with the Northern Triangle. The White House has pointedly blamed the Triangle countries’ “predatory elites” for their national dysfunctions. At congressional prodding, the administration is engaging in a public “naming and shaming” of Northern Triangle senior officials for alleged corruption and human rights violations. 

Promoting a more positive agenda, Harris last week issued a “call to action” to the U.S. private sector to invest in the Northern Triangle. Already, Mastercard, Microsoft and Nespresso have pledged to increase their engagement with underserved communities. To encourage yet more investment, Harris called upon U.S. government development agencies and multilateral banks to join private capital in a new “Partnership for Central America.”

Harris proclaimed an ambitious but still inchoate economic reform agenda: to improve the business climate, the adoption of international best practices in procurement, regulation and taxation; support for transitions to clean energy; expansion of technical and secondary education and job-training programs; and digital and financial inclusion.

Earlier, the administration pledged $4 billion to address the region’s roots of poverty and migration, but programmatic details are still forthcoming. Stretched over four years and three countries, these funds by themselves — even if fully appropriated by the U.S. Congress — will be insufficient to overcome the region’s longstanding impediments to investment-led growth and social justice.

In San José, the Central Americans are likely to press Blinken to commit to more robust, concrete measures including:

  • Significant incentives for U.S.-based firms to locate their supply chains in the region. So far, Harris’ “Call to Action” omits commitments from manufacturing companies. Can the fiscal and tax incentives that President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE proposes to promote reshoring be extended to near-shoring investments in Central America and the Caribbean?
  • Meaningful trade reforms to reduce intra-regional barriers to commerce. Will the U.S. consider revisions to existing free trade deals to facilitate integration within supply chains by altering domestic content mandates?
  • Transformative investments in infrastructure. To improve connections among Central American nations and between the region and the United States, massive investments are required in ports, airports, railroads and roads. Might the U.S. administration wrap nearby Central America into its ambitious infrastructure development plans?
  • Large-scale investments in renewable energy and climate change initiatives. Biden has promised to include Central America and the Caribbean in his clean-energy programs. Specifically, what resources and incentives can the U.S. offer to catalyze public-private partnerships for sustainable development?

With their economies and health care systems still reeling under the pandemic, Blinken’s fellow ministers will certainly press him to urgently expand the provision of COVID-19 vaccines.

Blinken should signal his openness to such regional proposals. Further, he could propose follow-up working groups, with explicit timetables, that include not only governments but also other stakeholders, including the private sector and civil-society organizations.

A successful San José meeting will improve the prospects for the subsequent Harris trip. A resolute and generous U.S. commitment to regional development will help persuade the vice president’s interlocutors to cooperate in stemming unauthorized migratory flows — a glaring political vulnerability facing the Biden administration.

Richard E. Feinberg is a professor at the University of California in San Diego. He served as a senior director with the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.