Before coming to Washington as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States, gender, migration and development specialist Carolina Crespo Sanchó headed her country’s National Human Rights Institute.
“I did not make a lot of friends during those four years,” Crespo says of her time as an ombudswoman elected by the legislature to investigate anonymous complaints against public officials. “This is a national institution that holds the government accountable, and there were many anti-corruption issues which caused quite a lot of headaches.”
There were also death threats—and at least one assassination attempt, in which someone cut the brakes of her official vehicle. After the September 2022 crime, which remains unsolved, Crespo required constant police protection.
“Costa Rica is still relatively clean,” she said. “If this had been any other Latin American country, I would have been assassinated from the very beginning.”
The revelation comes as a surprise, considering Costa Rica’s reputation as a peace-loving, progressive democracy that 75 years ago disbanded its army and began investing heavily in education and healthcare. Today, the country—a signatory to the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement since 2009—is considered a regional leader when it comes to freedom of speech, open government and same-sex marriage (which it legalized in May 2020).
In Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, Costa Rica ranked 48th out of 180 countries worldwide; of all Latin American nations, only Uruguay and Chile were perceived to be less corrupt.
Unfortunately, it reported, “Costa Rica has dropped four points in the last three years, reaching its lowest-ever score. Recent corruption scandals point to transparency deficits, overpricing and a lack of competition in the infrastructure sector, which is a trend that can be seen across the region. Allegations of illegal political financing during the electoral campaign of President Rodrigo Chaves may also help explain recent results.”
According to Freedom House: “Costa Rica has a long history of democratic stability, with a multiparty political system and regular rotations of power through credible elections. Freedoms of expression and association are robust. The rule of law is generally strong, though presidents have often been implicated in corruption scandals. Among other ongoing concerns, indigenous people face discrimination, and land disputes involving indigenous communities persist.”
New ambassador: ‘Why isn’t Costa Rica getting more attention?’
The Central America migration crisis hasn’t spared Costa Rica, either. In fact, the number of asylum seekers has risen sharply in recent years, with about 190,000 currently pending asylum applications, as well as 50,000 people waiting to make a formal application. About 96% of those seeking asylum in Costa Rica are from Nicaragua, Venezuela or Cuba, with smaller numbers of Colombians, Haitians, Congolese, Indians and Pakistanis.
Migration, along with regional security and foreign investment, is at the top of Crespo’s agenda, the ambassador told us in impeccable, unaccented English during an interview at her embassy.
“It’s interesting that the president chose someone who worked on human rights and violence prevention as ambassador of Costa Rica—and also, only the third woman in over 100 years,” said Crespo, who presented her credentials to President Biden in April. “I’m a Costa Rican with the United States in my heart.”
She added: “My role here is to strengthen bilateral relations and get more attention from the US. We have behaved well, and all the stuff other countries are doing now, we did in the 1970s. We’re democratically robust and we believe in human rights, so why is it that Costa Rica isn’t getting more attention?”
Crespo has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Costa Rica’s Universidad de Monterrey, as well as a master’s in international education from Framingham State University in Massachusetts, and a PhD in sociology from SUNY Buffalo, which she attended as a Fulbright Scholar. Later, she was a professor at New York’s Columbia University and the University of Georgia, where she taught and conducted research on immigration, gender and education.
She became a resource mobilization specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank—focusing on youth, gender and climate change in the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—before being snatched up by the World Bank as a consultant.
Exports will keep GDP growth strong in 2024
Costa Rica, about the size of West Virginia, is home to about 5.2 million people, including more than 400,000 Nicaraguans, and has long been a favorite destination for US tourists as well as retirees. Among its strong points: an efficient healthcare system, ecological biodiversity, friendly people and a good social safety net.
“We’re the only country in the world that gets over 98% of its energy from renewables,” she said, noting that her embassy’s fleet of vehicles now run entirely on electricity. “We also had a group of visionaries in the ‘60s and ‘70s who decided we would spend 6% of our GDP on education. That was quite amazing for a very small country.”
That legacy has served Costa Rica well over the decades, resulting in Latin America’s second-highest literacy rate after Chile. It also explains why relatively few ticos—as the country’s inhabitants call themselves—have emigrated for better lives in the United States.
And when it comes to foreign investment, it helps that President Chaves is a former finance minister and World Bank official who understands free trade and market stability.
In 2021, Costa Rica posted 7.6% GDP growth—its best performance since 2008—and 79% of its foreign direct investment (FDI) that year came from the United States. Costa Rica is currently home to some 250 US companies that together employ over 126,000 workers; in addition, nearly 40% of all imports are of US origin, according to the US International Trade Administration. Top exports to the United States include medical devices, semiconductor chips and pineapples.
GDP growth for 2023 is forecast at 2.7%, down from 3.3% in 2022, though it’s likely to rebound to 3.1% next year, thanks to Costa Rica’s dynamic export sector, according to the World Bank.
“As inflation stabilizes, labor market conditions improve—driven by growth in the services sector— and the temporary emergency programs conclude, the poverty rate is expected to stabilize at around 14.3% in 2023 and 2024,” the report continues. “Poverty could be further reduced with the implementation of targeted social assistance measures to historically disadvantaged groups and those living under the poverty threshold.”
Drug cartels and migrant influx pose serious threats
Yet Crespo’s tropical paradise is in trouble, beset by drug cartels and an influx of desperate migrants flooding across the country’s southern border with Panama, the ambassador warned.
“Cartels have taken over the region, and we’re very worried about it,” she said. “Young men are dying, mainly in the coastal areas which are the poorest in the country. We don’t produce cocaine, but now that the cartels are paying with product, it’s going around.”
Like drug trafficking, an end to the migrant crisis does not seem to be anywhere in sight. It mushroomed into a major political issue for the United States, as well, when several months ago the Biden administration announced an end to the pandemic-era policy known as Title 42 that allowed officials to swiftly expel migrants. That move, reported the New York Times, “was expected to draw an additional 7,000 unauthorized people a day, adding to already record levels of migrants, from Latin America and elsewhere, driven north by poverty and violence and by perceptions of a more welcoming border under Mr. Biden.”
The immigration issue has been a boost to Republicans in Washington, as well as a headache for the Chaves government in Costa Rica, which is obliged to accept migrants passing through their country on their way to Mexico and the heavily patrolled US border.
“It takes a week to cross the Darien Gap [a treacherous 70-mile jungle separating Colombia and Panama], and many of them arrive sick with diarrhea,” said Crespo. “They keep coming and coming, between 500 and 600 people a day.”
The ambassador added: “Under Costa Rican law, you have to give children medical support. We must treat the kids for free. We give all these services that immigrants don’t get in other countries—and that costs money. In order for Costa Rica to continue to do that, we need the United States to help us.”