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Regional business leaders, Obama agree on need for better infrastructure and cheaper energy

U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up a two-day visit to Costa Rica on Saturday by talking business before taking off in Air Force One a few minutes after 12:30 p.m., bound for the United States.

Obama’s last activity in Costa Rica was a meeting with Central American business leaders at the Antigua Aduana facilities in downtown San José, where he received a list of recommendations drafted during discussions on Friday and early Saturday. Those talks were organized by the Costa Rica-based INCAE Business School and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Although no official agreements were signed, business leaders presented proposals including a priority request for the U.S. to support alternative energy initiatives to lower production costs for companies. 

“[Alternative] energy sources must be developed as part of a regional effort,” INCAE Rector Arturo Condo said. Condo served as moderator of the Saturday meeting, attended by Obama, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. The region’s other presidents returned home on Friday night.

Obama said his government “is willing to support these issues, along with the help of the Inter-American Development Bank.” He added that “an energy market would benefit the region’s economy, as it would free up resources that then can be invested in education.”

Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro told The Tico Times that one of the main strategies the U.S. government can implement to support clean energy projects in the region is “spreading the word to U.S. universities and research centers on the advances of our research to encourage investment.”

Castro said Costa Rica currently is researching the use of hydrogen and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), but he noted that the research is still in its early stages, and collaboration from U.S. universities is crucial for the efforts to move forward. 

“If we can get appropiate help, the transition to hydrogen could start in 5-10 years,” Castro said. For LNG, “it could take up to 20-25 years,” he added.

Tico astronaut and entrepreneur Franklin Chang agreed with Castro and stressed that “everything that is good is also hard to achieve,” referring to the use of new energy sources. “In some cases the technology already exists, but in others it is still under development. So, the participation of private, academic and scientific sectors is vital,” Chang said.

A different focus

Obama said that Central American summits tend to heavily focus on security and immigration issues, and he had set out to emphasize trade and development opportunities during this week’s meetings.

He also said that in coming months his administration would decide if the U.S. will begin exporting Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), a move that wouldn’t happen at least until 2020.

Another popular proposal discussed Saturday was a request for help from the U.S. in building a gas pipeline that would extend across the isthmus and allow Central America to become more competitive by reducing energy costs.

Lowering energy costs would “allow countries to establish an energy market to buy and sell energy,” business leaders noted in their list of recommendations.

Chinchilla said buying LPG gas from the U.S. is a priority for the region, as it is one of the most viable options to reduce high energy costs.

She and her colleagues also hope to study the creation of a regional electricity market, a project supported by the IDB. 

Recommendations also included improving infrastructure, adding investment and adopting better customs legislation to improve trade. Towards that end, business groups hope the U.S. will finance improvements to highways that connect the countries of the region, as well as programs for better technology at border facilities. Central American legislators also must improve trade laws to expedite customs procedures, the report added.

Obama said he agreed with the recommendations, and that modernized legislation would make it easier to ship goods from any Central American country to the United States, instead of first transporting them through Central America. 

He also mentioned the need to improve access to education, including for children “0-5 years old.” Better schooling should start at birth and aim to keep students engaged until they are prepared for college, the U.S. president said. 

Chinchilla called Costa Rica a pioneer of educational improvements, including a national daycare program that was expanded under her administration, which took office in 2010. 

L. Arias
L. Arias
Reporter | The Tico Times |

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