Costa Rica president brings lessons to Silicon Valley

Nation's first female leader discusses roadmap to national stability at Stanford

On her swing through Silicon Valley Tuesday (May 17), Laura Chinchilla Miranda, the Republic of Costa Rica's first female president, held her country up as a shining example for the Bay Area in education, peace and the environment.

Chinchilla, 52, spoke at Stanford's new Knight Management Center as part of the Graduate School of Business Global Speaker Series. She has met with the U.S. State Department and came to the Bay Area to meet with high-tech and biotechnology leaders, some of which have invested in her country.

In summing up her country's achievements, Chinchilla focused first on Costa Rica's 62-year abolition of its standing army. Since weathering a dictatorship early in the 20th century and a civil war in the 1940s, Costa Rica has limited presidents to one term and has invested in peace, education, environmental protection and sustainable economic development, she said.

Costa Rica is one of the three safest nations in Latin America, has a broad middle class and a national literacy rate of nearly 95 percent -- one of the highest in the world, she said.

"Costa Rica shares many of the values of the Bay Area," Chinchilla said, including biotech and high-tech development and interests in alternative energy.

More than 90 percent of the nation's electricity comes from renewable sources. Costa Rica has announced its goal to become the world's first carbon-neutral country, she said.

Chinchilla said her nation believes economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand. In the 1960s, the country set aside 25 percent of its land in national parks and protected areas. Costa Rica now has a thriving ecotourism industry.

But the nation is also working to develop its economic infrastructure through foreign investment, albeit ecologically, she said. Costa Rica has an advantage because it preserved so much of its land prior to when there was much economic development. To try to do the same thing today would be much more difficult, she said.

"Both can go together. I don't think you have to sacrifice sustainability," she said. To that end, many regulations concern environmental protection, which extend to investors, she said.

As part of its educational, global communications and business development, Costa Rica will announce a digital social agenda in two weeks. Chinchilla's administration wants to double its broadband capacity and high-speed Internet access by 2014, she said.

Chinchilla attended Georgetown University. Although many Costa Ricans come to the U.S. for higher education, she said she does not know how much "brain drain" the country is experiencing from nationals who chose to live outside the country. "But we have the impression that more people stay abroad," she said.

Costa Rica's National Academy of Science is developing a database to pinpoint Costa Rican nationals who live outside of the country. Chinchilla said she hopes an analysis can help find ways to encourage more people to return home.

Costa Rica sees itself as an open country that is friendly to foreigners, she said. "Silicon Valley is not made up of people only from California. We want to be the technology country of Latin America," she said.

The country has partnerships with technology and biosciences companies worldwide, including Intel and HP. Part of her journey is to expand Silicon Valley investment. Costa Rica is the number three recipient of foreign investment in Latin America, she said.

"More than any time, it is clear to us that nations are interdependent. We have 12 free-trade agreements, including with the United States, Europe and China," she said.

Anabel Gonzalez, minister of foreign trade, and Alejandro Cruz Molina, minister of science and technology, joined Chinchilla. Gonzalez said the U.S. is Costa Rica's "most important trade and investment partner." But the country is also looking at other emerging markets for its future, she said.

China has a strong presence in Latin America, where it has invested in natural resources, although not in Costa Rica. Costa Rica wants to position itself for higher manufacturing and product research and development. The country is the second largest software exporter in Latin America, she said.

"Costa Rica can be the export platform and distribution hub for Latin America," she said. The two nations are near to approving a free-trade agreement, Chinchilla added.

She said Costa Rica has a long history of "achieving prosperity through peace" despite being surrounded by nations where wars and violence have taken hold.

"Latin America is the most violent continent in the world," she said.

Costa Rica has worked with neighboring nations such as Nicaragua and Panama to broker peace and to serve as an example of policies that limit strife. The country has a large Nicaraguan immigrant population that has fled violence.

Addressing a question about the country's aggressive policies that have included requiring immigrants to pay into the social security system and reportedly fining immigrants who have overstayed their visas $100 per month, Chinchilla said, "Immigration is a big-scale problem."

But she added that it is incumbent upon governments to analyze the ultimate causes.

"No one wants to leave their country. They leave because they are forced to. If we are able to work on the causes, we will have a better world," she said.

Prior to her election as president in 2010, Chinchilla was first vice president and minister of justice during the administration of Oscar Arias Sanchez (2006-2008). She has served on the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly and as minister of security, among other roles, and has led judicial reforms.

Women in Latin America are gaining ground in politics -- six women have been presidents in Latin American nations, she said. Thirty percent of Costa Rica's justices are women. But domestic violence, access to economic opportunities and equal pay are still big challenges throughout Latin America, she said.

Asked about factors that have contributed to her success, Chinchilla humbly responded, "You are the ones who can advise me how to do better."

Like everywhere else in the world, Costa Rica was affected by the global recession, but it is bouncing back. The country has 7 percent unemployment and about 20 percent live in poverty. Her administration hopes to improve those numbers.

The country is starting 90 technical schools to train students for high-tech jobs, she said.

Both in her professional life and as a nation, Chinchilla credited having strong convictions and goals as keys to success.

"If you don't believe in what you are doing, it's very hard to be successful. Success is not the result of individual efforts.... What's good for you has to be good for the rest of the people," she said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 19, 2011 at 10:38 am

Costa Rica is a wonderful country. They are energy self-sufficient. They educate their people. I worry that they may be developing a bit too fast when you look at the coast the whole thing is filled up with hotels and resorts ... but what a beautiful place. The food is great. It's reasonable to visit. They are even moving into high tech. Costa Rica is where Intel makes a lot of its microprocessors. I can't wait to go back!

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