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In Europe, Costa Rican president draws aid, investment

From the print edition

President Laura Chinchilla concluded the second half of her two-week tour of Europe with an easygoing jaunt through France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the Vatican.

The purpose of her trip was to strengthen ties between Costa Rica and Europe and promote investment. But the heavy lifting of the journey seemed to take place last week. 

Chinchilla’s agenda since last Friday included a cozy chat with Pope Benedict XVI, a visit to a Paris museum, where she discussed Costa Rica’s cultural history, and the acceptance of a $1.6 million donation from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

The meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday generated plenty of press, but the gathering was quiet and diplomatic. Current debates in Costa Rica concerning in vitro fertilization and a possible transition to an officially secular state played minimal roles in the conversation. 

Chinchilla met with the head of the Catholic Church “in an atmosphere of cordiality, in which the pope expressed his admiration for the Costa Rican people and their values of peace as a constant factor of development, democracy and environmental protection,” the president said.

Chinchilla thanked the pope for his support of the country after Hurricane Tomás in 2010, and also for twice mentioning Costa Rica in papal addresses that year. 

The Holy See and the president briefly discussed a bilateral agreement designed to improve ties between Costa Rica and the Vatican.

She partook in some touristic comforts, too. Chinchilla went on an outing to the Quai Branly Museum in Paris last Friday. On display at the museum is a pre-Columbian stone, a gift from Costa Rica’s National Museum.

Chincilla Pope 2

Pope Benedict XVI greets Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla during a private audience at the Vatican on May 28. Chinchilla thanked the pope for helping out after 2010’s Hurricane Tomás. Photo by Gregorio Borgia | AFP

During the stop in Paris, Chinchilla arranged a talk with the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to ask the group to include Costa Rica’s stone spheres of Diquís, located in the south Pacific, on its World Heritage List. Jorge Jiménez, an archeologist and sphere expert, accompanied Chinchilla to the museum and the meeting with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bakova. 

The World Heritage List includes 936 items, both natural and cultural, that are deemed to have “outstanding universal value.” Costa Rica has been trying to put the huge stone spheres on the list for a decade. Chinchilla asked Bakova for advice on having the spheres approved for the list. 

Costa Rica hopes to present a proposal by September and have the stones recognized by next February.

Debt Paid, Loan Announced

On Tuesday, the president received a surprise in the middle of a press conference at the Italian-Latin American Institute in Rome. According to the daily La Nación, an Italian reporter asked her about the “biggest problem” between Costa Rica and Italy – a 25-year-old, $15 million debt the Central American country owed its European ally. 

The money troubles started in 1985, when then-President Luis Alberto Monge received a loan to build a huge dry dock at Caldera Port, on the central Pacific coast. Due to mishandling of the money, the project was never completed. Lawsuits followed as interest from the loan ran to $30 million. In 1995, Costa Rica was forced to pay back half of the money. Italy kept Costa Rica on a blacklist that discouraged the Italian government from aiding the Latin America democracy.

 Chinchilla deferred the journalist’s question to Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo, who announced the debt was paid off. The payments were made in December 2010, a fact Chinchilla admitted she had not realized.

She heard more positive news in Rome when the FAO announced a $1.6 million donation to Costa Rica over the next two years.

Agriculture and Livestock Minister Gloria Abraham said the money would go toward “implementing projects in areas such as climate-change mitigation in agriculture, innovation and technology development, and in developing marketing tools for small producers.” 

Additional agenda notes consisted of a meeting with the president of Enel, Italy’s largest power company. Paolo Andrea Colombo told Chinchilla he wants to increase his organization’s investment in clean energy in Costa Rica. Enel already has developed hydroelectric plants and wind-farm sites in parts of the country.

The European tour ended Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland. Chinchilla gave an address at the annual meeting of the International Labor Organization, and spent the following day flying back to Costa Rica.

During the first leg of the trip, the president met with technology sector business leaders in Paris, conversed about climate change with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Guack and worked on solidifying a partnership agreement between Central America and the EU (TT, May 25). The deal would allow for the elimination of tariffs on some products, among other trade benefits.

On Thursday, Chinchilla took an Iberia flight from Geneva to Madrid, Spain. After a brief layover, she and her team took Iberia flight No. 6313 back home.

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