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Ag Chief Brings Negotiation Skills to Post

“Three women will be in charge of approximately 80 percent of national production.”

With those words, then-President-elect Laura Chinchilla introduced three new cabinet ministers to the public in March, all female, to fill her top economic posts: Mayi Antillón (Economy), Anabel González (Foreign Commerce), and Gloria Abraham (Agriculture).

Abraham, 56, hit the ground running when she took the helm last month of the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry. On her second day in office she set off for Madrid for the final negotiations of a trade agreement between Central America and the European Union (TT, May 21). Previously, she had been involved in the pact’s discussions as an advisor to the ministry, and had played key roles in similar agreements with China and Singapore.

A sociologist specializing in economic development, Abraham has worked in agriculture for two decades, a combination she sees as perfectly logical, especially as Costa Rica moves beyond its traditional focus on the nuts and bolts of agricultural production.

“Policy and commercial negotiation were never themes in the agricultural agenda,” she  says. “Those were [always] economic andindustrial matters.”

Abraham spoke with The Tico Times recently about the recently inked agreement with Europe, the general process of negotiation, and women’s roles in government. Excerpts follow:

TT: What does it mean for Costa Rica to have women in the presidency and in such prominent ministry positions?

GA: It’s an enormous responsibility. When women take on such big tasks, we know we have to do it twice as well. Our parameters for evaluation are stricter.

For the country, it reflects the promise that the president and government have made to advance development, lower poverty levels, and improve the conditions of the lives of Costa Ricans.

I don’t think it means anything different for the ministry. In the end, if the chief is a man or a woman, that’s not so important as if the chief has the commitment and the means to fulfill its goals.

Does a woman bring a different style to a government position than a man?

Perhaps. We women, by nature, are better negotiators, because we negotiate permanently with our children, our husbands, our mothers-in-law. … Any woman is capable of talking on the phone, making breakfast, sewing on a button, all at the same time, all in 10 minutes. We can do many things at the same time. If the equilibrium breaks down, the equilibrium of the home breaks down. Above all, if a woman works outside the home, she needs everything to function well. That develops the woman’s ability to multitask.

In all these commercial negotiations, the teams from the different countries are predominantly women. That’s very revealing.

Is that by design?

Because of their abilities.

In general, what’s the negotiation process involved in a free-trade pact?

The process has its own rhythm. The first sessions are very cordial. We reach agreements about the parameters for the negotiation at the table. Afterwards we begin a process that gets more complicated. We bring up more sensitive issues. There are peaks of tension that later fall because we each a common denominator that satisfiesour expectations. It has its ups and downs.

The approval process for the Central America Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) was contentious, yet with Europe, everything seems pretty smooth. Why such a difference?

Negotiations over CAFTA to break up the insurance and telecommunications monopolies were very complex. They certainly placed new themes on the table for Costa Rica. We grew up thinking those were rights. CAFTA was also the first big commercial negotiation for the country. Those combined elements heated up the environment and [took it into] very sensitive political territory. It was necessary to approve a large number of laws to comply with CAFTA. You know what it means to have to approve a law in the Legislative Assembly.

The accord with Europe incorporates elements that have already been negotiated with the United States. Now we have a population more familiar with the subject. The productive sector is now very attentive and knows much more about the process of negotiation. It has more experience.

What does the new agreement mean for Costa Rica and its small agricultural producers?

The big winner in this agreement is the agricultural sector. Some 70 percent of Costa Rica’s exports to Europe are agricultural. We export more to them than they sell to us. We are ready to present ourselves to the European market and be leaders in bananas, coffee, pineapple, tilapia, shrimp, tuna and ornamental plants.

Half of Costa Rica’s agricultural exports to the world are in the hands of small and medium producers. We have to increase their participation and diversify their markets. This is a tool that will give incentives to small producers.

In Madrid you mentioned you hope Europe in its current negotiations with South America will not concede more than Central America received.

Absolutely, and it’s the biggest issue for our dairy industry. I appreciate my colleagues  n South America, but they havegigantic industries to compete with ours. We have achieved concessions that I hope are not perforated by bigger concessions. Not that don’t want [South America] to receive considerations but it has to be an equal competition … fair trade.


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