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Laura Chinchilla: Costa Rica Strives for High Tech Future

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Laura Chinchilla: Costa Rica Strives for High Tech Future

The president of Costa Rica looks to broaden her country's economic base.
Laura Chinchilla
Costa Rica is striving to be a mecca for eco-tourism as well as high tech, according to President Laura Chinchilla.

Costa Rica is striving to be a mecca for ecotourism as well as high-technology business the nation's president Laura Chinchilla told a Stanford Graduate School of Business audience.

While best known for its commitment to environmental protection, Chinchilla said Costa Rica is now home to manufacturing or research facilities run by Bay Area-based technology giants Intel and HP. In all, more than 200 leading manufacturing, life sciences, and other firms have also established operations in her country, she said.

"We recognize that exports and investments are crucial for economic growth and the creation of new business ventures, jobs, and innovative production," Chinchilla explained. "We have been meeting with them, trying to invite them to invest even more."

The president also spent part of her May 17 campus visit with Condoleezza Rice, faculty director of the business school's Center for Global Business and the Economy and the former U.S. Secretary of State under the George W. Bush administration. Chinchilla's speech was sponsored by the global center and was part of the school's Global Speaker Series. Rice and Chinchilla discussed the benefits of U.S. investments in Cost Rica, according to online Costa Rican publication TicoTimes.net.

Costa Rica

Chinchilla described the opportunities and challenges facing her country of 4 million during her stop at the business school during a 6-day U.S. visit.

A career politician elected by a landslide to a 4-year term, she became Costa Rica's first-ever female head of state in 2010. The 52-year-old was the nation's former vice president under her protégé and predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Oscar Arias.

She has been a strong supporter of trade and economic liberalization and actively promotes Costa Rica's integration into the world economy. The country now has a dozen free trade agreements "that grant our products preferential access to the largest world markets, including the U.S., the European Union, and China" she said.

With exports of 4,000 products marketed to more than 150 countries, she said that Costa Rica has become one of the top exporters of computer software in Latin America.

She said her nation has achieved its prosperity "through peace, freedom, and the rule of law."

Costa Rica has no permanent standing army; its military force was abolished in 1949 so those resources could instead be devoted to education, health, and development.

She has enacted some "radical decisions" since taking office, including not continuing to promote Costa Rica's mining industry.

"We felt these types of extractive industries do not go along with the type of development we are trying to promote," which includes protecting 25% of the country's territory to preserve natural diversity, Chinchilla explained. "It was better to take this radical decision instead of sending confusing messages to investors. What's important is to be very clear about the kind of development you want, and then to promote the regulatory framework to implement those rules."

Green technology is apparently a more compatible industry. Costa Rica already generates 90% of its electricity using renewable sources, Chinchilla said, "and we are determined to become one of the first carbon-neutral countries. We want to prove to the world that economic development and environmental protection can go hand in hand."

Costa Rica has also made major strides in education to have a well-trained adult population. The decision made in 1870 to provide free access to primary education for all children has paid off, she said, with high literacy rates and plans to have all high school students be bilingual in English and Spanish by 2017.

The country also has a $6 million plan to make a variety of upgrades to utilities, roads and ports and install the cabling systems required to carry broadband internet signals and more than double broadband access from the current 7% to 15% by 2014. "This would make Costa Rica the second most connected country in Latin America" and would be followed by social programs to open "digital community centers" and provide laptops for students in less-developed regions, President Chinchilla said.

Even with its positive environment and bright plans, Costa Rica must deal with numerous challenges, Chinchilla said, problems ranging from an unemployment rate of about 7%, frequent domestic violence against women, crime seeping in from other Latin American nations, and illegal immigration, particularly from Nicaragua.

People are fleeing south from Nicaragua to Costa Rica "looking for jobs and opportunity," said Chinchilla. "We feel grateful to these immigrants from Nicaragua because they have supported the growing of our economy. But of course we'd love to see Nicaragua attending to the problems they have concerning employment so the Nicaraguan people would be able to stay home."

One student asked the accomplished Chinchilla what advice she could give to Stanford students looking for personal success.

"Probably the most important thing in life is trying to have very strong convictions. If you don't believe in what you are doing, it's very hard to be successful."

Also, she advised, success is never an individual effort: "So, what is good for you also has to be good for the rest of the people."

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