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From the outside, Costa Rica’s president calls for SICA reforms

June 1, 2016

President Luis Guillermo Solís called on the Central American Integration System (SICA) to take up new challenges like climate change, immigration, and health concerns such as Zika during a speech in New York Sunday. The reprimand of the regional club’s narrow focus comes shortly after Costa Rica decided it didn’t want to be a full member of SICA.

Along with calls for expanding the scope of the group, which is dedicated to the political and economic integration of Central American countries, Solís highlighted several longstanding problems with SICA, including a lack of transparency, accountability and a regional vision to present to the rest of the world. But despite the bloc’s problems, Costa Rica has little option but to keep working with its neighbors, international relations experts say.

Costa Rica left SICA in frustration after the regional bloc failed to agree on a solution to the wave of Cuban immigration that left nearly 8,000 migrants stranded here in December. Costa Rica no longer participates in SICA’s executive committee, which oversees policy implementation and evaluation, nor does it join meetings of presidents and foreign ministers, or the Central American Security Commission. It does still participate in other parts of SICA, including forums on commerce and trade.

During a trip to Guatemala in February, Solís said that Costa Rica’s return to SICA would require a roadmap for “effective and efficient integration.”

Carlos Cascante, Director of the School of International Relations at Costa Rica’s National University, told The Tico Times that Costa Rica does not appear to be interested in the political project of regional integration. Costa Rica is the most stable country in the isthmus and that sense of exceptionalism has pushed the country to more developed clics outside Central America like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Alliance of the Pacific, a trade bloc of Latin America’s biggest economies.

Cascante said that Costa Rica’s ambivalence toward the rest of Central America is balanced by its need to have established norms with its neighbors, especially when it comes to transportation, trade and commerce. Large trading partners, like the United States or the European Union, for example, insist on negotiating trade deals with the region as a single bloc. One reason is because of the market potential of Central America versus its individual countries. Costa Rica has just 4.8 million inhabitants while the total population of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement member states is more than 50 million.

“Whether or not the countries in Central America see themselves as a bloc, the rest of the world does,” Cascante said.

Paola Solano, director of International Relations at the Latin American University of Science and Technology, agreed. She said that SICA is “fundamental” for Central America, warts and all. That’s why she said that Costa Rica’s decision to “throw a tantrum” and leave the political leadership was a mistake.

“Costa Rica leaving the table has weakened SICA and its own image as partner in the region,” Solano said. The “CRexit” did nothing to resolve the Cuban immigration crisis or head off later crises, like the latest wave of African migration, and has done nothing to support reforms of the regional bloc, she said.

“You need to maintain dialogue with your neighbors,” she said.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking before Costa Rica is set to assume SICA’s presidency pro tempore in January 2017. It’s unclear whether or not Costa Rica will find a way to re-integrate itself fully into SICA by then. Solano noted, “It would be awkward for Costa Rica to assume the presidency of an organization to which it is not a full member.”

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