“EDUCATED, stable, safe” are threewords that come to Mario Laguë’s mindwhen he describes Costa Rica. Indeed, in afew short weeks, the new ambassador fromCanada has become one of the biggestboosters of the potential of relations, especiallycommercial ones, between his countryand this one.It was those qualities, along with theexcitement of continuing implementation ofthe 2002 Canadian-Costa Rican Free-TradeAgreement, that made this diplomatic posting,Laguë’s first, such an appealing one.“An odd way of getting into thisfield,” says the 46-year-old Montrealnative, pointing to his background as afilm-school graduate of ConcordiaUniversity in Montreal, and a media andpolling analyst.STILL, Laguë is no stranger to LatinAmerica, as he represented the provinceof Quebec in trade and commercialoffices in Mexico and Venezuela. Hejoined the federal government in 1997,working in the Privy Council Officebefore entering the Department ofForeign Affairs this year.His October arrival with wife CarolineVu-Nguyen and their two daughters, ages 6and 11, coincided with the end of formerambassador Louise Léger’s three-yearterm, the standard length of service inCanadian diplomatic posts.Laguë oversees a staff of sevenCanadians and 18 Costa Ricans at theCanadian Embassy in the Sabana Surneighborhood on San José’s west side.“THERE’S a natural and easy way toconnect to this country for a Canadian,”Laguë says of the historic good relationsbetween Canada and Costa Rica. He citescommon goals shared in the internationalarena, especially in democracy, press freedomand human rights.Then there’s the bond forged bytourism.“We look at tourism only as an industry,”the ambassador explains. “But it’smuch more than that.”Travelers return home with impressions,talk to friends, write newspaper andmagazine articles, and create a reputation,an extremely good one in Costa Rica’scase, Laguë points out.Those strong ties and values shared byCosta Rica and Canada helped fashiontheir bilateral free-trade agreement.Laguë cites a variety of products nowhere as a result of the agreement, fromCanadian brands Dare cookies andMcCain frozen French fries to the directAir Canada flights to Costa Rica that wereinaugurated a year ago.“PART of being trade partners, is thatpeople who do business can move backand forth more easily,” he explains, sayingthat the flights bring not only tourists, butalso business people.There’s no magic recipe totally specificto doing business in Canada, the ambassadorsaid about Costa Rican firms lookingat the northern market.“Know your market, know who yourcompetitors are, find your niche,” headvised.The reverse situation is more complex,he cautions. The highly legalistic nature ofCosta Rican business means that patienceis a virtue for Canadians entrepreneurslooking south, quickly adding with asmile, “Not that there’s no bureaucracy inCanada.”LAGUË identifies quintessentialCanadian traits – respectfulness, a strongtradition of multiculturalism, a less aggressiveapproach to doing businessthan their U.S. counterparts, and a historyas the bridge between Europe and NorthAmerica – as qualities appreciated inLatin America.Though the United States stands geographicallybetween Costa Rica andCanada, Laguë does not view that as animpediment, and says both countries canlearn from prior experience with free-tradetreaties.Though the vast majority of Canada’strade is with the United States, Laguë saidthe 1997 North American Free-TradeAgreement (NAFTA), which incorporatedMexico into an existing Canadian-U.S.accord, was a real turning point forCanadians in fostering awareness of whatwas happening far south of the border.THOUGH the Canadian market issmaller than the U.S. market, Laguë suggestsCosta Ricans can learn from their2002 agreement with Canada as theydebate the Central American Free-TradeAgreement, which would create a freetradeblock between the isthmus and theUnited States.“This country is not in a bad situationto compete,” Laguë said.He remembers little deliberationensued in Canada in the months leading upto the agreement with Costa Rica – as neitherviewed the other as a threat – but, as isoccurring now in Costa Rica, fierce debatewas the order of the day for the correspondingaccord with the United States.THE Canadian Embassy in San Joséoversees small consular and developmentoperations in Nicaragua and Honduras –the Tegucigalpa office being the larger ofthe two. Laguë said he plans to present hiscredentials to the governments of bothcountries soon.The ambassador said Nicaragua andthe rest of Central America are pullingresources in the right direction. Trade createswealth, and that is important for countriestrying to make up for some 20 yearsof little economic growth.“It’s not only a question of numbers,”Laguë says of the promising economicgrowth seen in Nicaragua. “It’s a questionof spirit too.”Canada’s foreign aid to CentralAmerica has historically focused on healthand education, which the ambassador citesas the greatest rewards a country canbestow upon its population.“EVEN in the present political crisis,you have to salute the wisdom of donPepe,” Laguë said, referring to three-timeCosta Rican President José “Pepe”Figueres, a revolutionary who abolishedthe military in 1948 and championed education.His son, former President JoséMaría Figueres (1994-1998), who is livingin Switzerland, is wanted for questioningby Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly inconnection with a government corruptionscandal here (TT, Dec. 3).The other countries in the region areaware of the importance of education,Laguë said, and are making progress. ButCosta Rica has a 50-year jump on them.People will always invest in war-torncountries because they can make a buck,Laguë said, but because Costa Rica is not acountry that’s going to come apart tomorrowmorning, in the long run it’s a much moreappealing place to live and do business.“Educated, stable, safe” he reiterates once more.