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Colombia, Costa Rica look to strengthen ties

June 22, 2012

After a visit from the Colombian president, a free trade agreement is being negotiated between Costa Rica and the South American country.

Presidents Juan Manuel Santos, of Colombia, and Laura Chinchilla, of Costa Rica, met last Friday for talks toward a free trade agreement that could lead to millions of dollars in investment. Santos also discussed the war on drugs, security and protecting the environment in his brief meeting with Chinchilla.

At the Hotel Real InterContinental in Escazú, southwest of the capital, leaders signed a framework agreement setting out the principles governing the negotiations.

The Costa Rican private business sector will determine the national position on the agreement in early July. Negotiations between the two countries will begin in Colombia on July 30. 

“I hope we finish as soon as possible; it will depend on the dynamics of the negotiations, but Costa Rica and Colombia have plenty of experience in free trade and I do not see many problems,” Santos said during last week’s press conference with Chinchilla.

Chinchilla assured the Colombian president the proposal would include the elimination of visa requirements for Colombians who want to visit Costa Rica. The pitch – which would allow Colombians to enter Costa Rica with just a passport – was received with some controversy.

The announcement is viewed with concern by some officials such as former Public Security Minister Álvaro Ramos, who told local Channel 7 Telenoticias, “Costa Rica should analyze the decision of opening the doors to all kinds of citizens from that country.”

In addition, the United Nations Refugee Agency said a total of 227 Colombians entered Costa Rica as refugees in 2011, and eliminating the entry visa would increase the number. The U.N. agency wants the Costa Rican government to be certain it has required controls to handle an influx of Colombian visitors. Panama is the only country on the isthmus where Colombians can enter without a visa.

Colombians make up the second-largest foreign population in Costa Rica, after Nicaraguans. Of 386,000 immigrants living in the country, 4.3 percent – 16,600 – are Colombians, according to the 2011 census.

With growing relations between Costa Rica and Colombia, Chinchilla sees a “shared vision of development,” and similarities “provide the basis to form a lasting partnership.”

“Our relationship keeps growing stronger in the political arena, and now in the commercial arena, which will lead us to join efforts in forums where we share interests,” Chinchilla said.

Costa Rica’s exports to Colombia grew by 12.1 percent in 2011 compared to the last two years, but the trade balance heavily favors Colombia, according to official figures.

In 2011, Costa Rican sales to Colombia were $48.2 million, against $455.7 million in imports.

The two presidents, accompanied by their foreign, trade, environment and security ministers, discussed further aspects of bilateral interests including fighting drug trafficking and protecting marine resources.

On the topic of environment, both governments agreed to continue cooperating against illegal fishing and shark finning.

“It is precisely the theme of the oceans that will be one of the specific topics at the Rio+20 Summit [held this week in Brazil], because if we continue to destroy the seas we will have waters without fish,” Santos said.

On the issue of security, Santos stressed the countries must join efforts to prevail in the battle being waged against organized crime. Costa Rica, like the rest of Central America, is a bridge for Colombian cocaine cartels that are transporting the product to the world’s biggest drug consumer, the United States.

“This is a transnational crime and the more cooperation we have the more effective we will be,” the Colombian president said. “Colombia has managed to accumulate, at a high price, great experience in this fight, and we want to share it with Costa Rica.”

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