“No country has ever rejected a freetrade agreement that’s been approved by the U.S. Congress. Ever,” said U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale in his embassy office in western San José. “There’s no telling what Congress would think about a country that backed out of a contract… after everything they went through to get it passed.”
Langdale, appointed last year to fill the position vacated by John J. Danilovich in June 2004, is the top-ranked U.S. diplomat in a country that has drawn international attention because of the possibility that it might do just that – reject the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). Though the pact is now in the hands of the Legislative Assembly, its future there is uncertain, and the surprisingly strong showing in the recent elections of presidential candidate Ottón Solís, who favors the renegotiation of the agreement, put its ratification further in doubt.
Langdale sat down with The Tico Times for an interview Feb. 7 to discuss CAFTA, his impressions of Costa Rica and the need for the country to protect its natural wonders.
This is the first diplomatic post for the Texas lawyer and businessman, 51, though he worked in Latin America for years as president of PosadasUSA, a subsidiary of Mexico City-based hotel company Grupo Posadas. He spent time in Mexico and Brazil during his tenure there, and said this experience benefits him in his current role because though Costa Rica has advantages over much of the rest of Latin America, its challenges are “not too different” than those of other countries in the region.
“I’ve done business in Latin America for a long time, and have known the President (of the United States) for a long time,” said Langdale, who majored in business at the University of Texas and holds a law degree from the University of Houston. “He knew of my experience in Latin America and asked if I would join his foreign policy team in his second term, because he’s very interested in Latin America and wants to spend time helping it along.”
He moved to Costa Rica along with his wife, Patty, and 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, who is attending a private school in the area. What does he miss about the United States?
“You know, you can get just about everything here,” said Langdale, who lives in the Ambassador’s Residence in the western San José suburb of Escazú. “It’s so easy to buy stuff in the States – 10 different kinds of bread, eight different kinds of shaving cream – and you don’t have that so much here, but I’m not so sure I miss that… I do miss a nice bag of crunchy Cheetos.”
Because of his lack of diplomatic experience, the ambassador spent much of his first weeks – following his arrival in Costa Rica Nov. 4 – learning how the embassy functions and getting to know its staff. Starting last month, however, he began a series of trips around the country. First stop: Barra del Colorado for some tarpon fishing with his son, Paul, a freshman at the University of Texas.
Asked about his early impressions of the country, which he had visited only once before, when he attended President Abel Pacheco’s inauguration in 2002 as a member of U.S. President George W. Bush’s official delegation, Langdale laughed and said, “Well, it’s awfully green. It’s a really beautiful place, especially when you get out of San José.”
He said protecting that natural beauty should be a priority, particularly for the hotel industry, where his own experience lies. He called the problem “the conundrum between ‘eco’ and ‘tourism’.
“Costa Rica’s done a wonderful job of positioning itself as a preferred travel destination, especially for North Americans,” he said.“But if North Americans and Canadians come pouring in here and they build a bunch of hotels to accommodate them, they’re going to destroy what it is that’s attracting these people here… If this place ends up as another Cancún… frankly, everybody will just go to Cancún, because it’s closer.”
For Langdale, Costa Rica’s other attraction is its citizens, who “like Americans and have a real solid head on their shoulders about democracy and the importance of it.”
The recent elections – of which the official results, or even conclusive preliminary results, were not available when The Tico Times visited the embassy – are a perfect example of that, and also drove home the importance of voting, he said.
“We learned in the United States in the last two elections that voting matters, every vote counts,” he added, referring to Bush’s two victories over Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively. “I was very pleased to see that in the results from the (Legislative) Assembly election, which are pretty much known, two-thirds of the newly elected legislators are in favor of CAFTA.”
On the topic of CAFTA, Langdale, though maintaining his amiable demeanor, minces no words: for him, Costa Rica has little alternative but to approve the pact, now under consideration in the assembly.
“Free trade was really the basis of the formation of the country back in 1821,” he said, pointing out that the national seal shows the country between two oceans, flanked by ships on either side to represent trade. “Costa Rica was founded on the coffee trade, and then after that got into the banana trade, so Costa Rica exists because of its trade with the rest of the world. The idea that Costa Rica is not going to be involved in trade is to say that Costa Rica isn’t going to breathe or isn’t going to exist.”
He made it clear that renegotiating the agreement is not an option Costa Ricans should count on.
“Within the complexity of U.S. politics, and the difficulty of passing CAFTA in Congress, the idea that we would at this point renegotiate a completely new trade agreement and go get that ratified by Congress is just not realistic,” he said. “If (Costa Ricans) don’t want to embrace this agreement, then they need to not think that they can go get a different deal from us anytime soon, because I don’t think that’s the reality in Washington.”
Many CAFTA opponents argue that Costa Rica should be allowed to negotiate its own, bilateral trade deal with the United States, particularly since it is more developed that the other CAFTA signatories and could suffer from being grouped with poorer countries. Langdale, however, argued that the six-party negotiations helped Costa Rica, rather than hurting it.
“Costa Rica has the highest per-capita income in the region, institutions that are functioning, a great election process. (With) Nicaragua or Honduras, some of the poorest countries in Latin America, there was a certain desire on the United States’ part to make concessions to help these desperately poor, underdeveloped countries,” he explained. “Costa Rica benefited, came along for the ride.”
He said the improvements brought about by change “is what the United States is so envied for in the world…What doesn’t work is for people to keep doing the same thing whether it’s competitive or not.We would all be in the Middle Ages sewing our own shirts if that were the case.”