Costa Rica is a nation of big paradoxes. It is living green and fighting poverty at the same time, while fending off regional threats without an army. President Luis Guillermo Solis Rivera, who visited Atlanta last week, says his country is on course to reduce poverty by 65 percent in three years and become carbon neutral by 2021. Drumming up foreign investment during his U.S. visit, which also included stops in Charlotte, N.C., Austin, Texas, and Chicago, is key to meeting those goals.
In March, Costa Rica marked 75 straight days without using fossil fuels for electricity, thanks to a good rainy season. The country uses mostly hydropower, but also some geothermal energy from volcanoes and small amounts of wind and solar. But Costa Rica still relies on fossil fuels for transportation, and cars are its biggest hurdle on the way to 2021.
“What we are trying to do is to achieve a system in which not only are we producing electricity with renewable resources – 97 percent of the country’s electricity production is renewable – but also reducing car emissions, and that requires several other things, among them an electric train which is one of the bigger projects which my government has.”
Despite its environmental success, more than 20 percent of Costa Ricans live in poverty, which is “an economic, social and ethical question,” Mr. Solis told Global Atlanta in an interview, adding that the country would like to bring 57,000 families out of extreme poverty. “A modern democracy can’t afford one-fifth of its population to live in poverty.”
That will largely require outside investment in industry and education to help the country move up the value chain, and Georgia has been a strong contributor. TheÂ University of Georgia has a 155-acre campus near the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Capitalizing on the country’s environmentalism and stability, it offers a variety of courses, including studies on sustainability and biodiversity.Georgia Institute of Technology has a logistics center optimizing ways to get Costa Rican exports to the market. During his visit, Mr. Solis gave a lecture at Georgia Tech and met with UGA officials to discuss ways to scale up a teacher training program for math and science.
But Costa Rica already has the skilled labor for a variety of value-added sectors, Mr. Solis said. He asked investors to consider Costa Rica not just as an eco-tourism destination, but also as a hub for high-tech collaboration in fields such as medical devices, call centers, engineering, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, information technology and more. On his U.S. trip, Mr. Solis brought his ministers of trade and external affairs, along with the president ofÂ CINDE, the country’s investment promotion agency.
Costa Rica stands out in the region, partly because it hasn’t wasted precious government resources on defense, Mr. Solis said. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and opted to invest that money into health, education and social programs. It is now one of 23 mostly small nations with no military. The nation of 5 million people relies on international institutions and a robust police force to manage threats to its security.
“We have a significant police force that can do this for us, and then in external sense, for protecting the sovereignty of the country, we rely on the international system, and it has worked for us,” the president said.
But Costa Rica’s tough neighborhood casts a long shadow. The country sits along a key drug smuggling route, and has a simmering border dispute with neighboringÂ Nicaragua. In 2011 Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of invading its territory by sending troops and engineers to dredge part of the San Juan River. This year the border river dispute flared up again, and is now in the hands of theÂ International Court of Justice. For its part, Nicaragua accuses Costa Rica of endangering the environment by building a road along the border.
Despite the threats to its security, Mr. Solis is not under pressure to bring back the army.
“The experience of Latin America with the armed forces has not been happy. They have become part of the problem, not part of the solution … and therefore I don’t see any possibility whatsoever even in times of great tensions with Nicaragua, to go back to the creation of an armed force, which I find completely alien to Costa Rica’s political culture.”
Of course, all this doesn’t seem to be weighing too heavily on the minds of Costa Ricans. The country ranks No. 1 on “The Happy Planet” Index, which compares personal happiness to resource use. Mr. Solis told Global Atlanta that it’s “quality of life in general, referring to access to good education, good health, services and being freed of fear, which I think is one of the most importantÂ components of being happy.“
The president has three years left to keep his promise to reduce poverty, fight corruption and cut emissions, and then the former historian says he’s going back to teaching, though will continue to serve his country without being head of state.