Historically speaking, Costa Rica has been one of Israel’s best friends ever.
The Central American nation enthusiastically supported the 1947 partition of Palestine and abolished its army in 1948—the same year Israel won its independence. One of Latin America’s strongest democracies, Costa Rica was also one of the last few holdouts to resist world pressure and keep its Israeli embassy in Jerusalem rather than move it to Tel Aviv.
Yet when it comes to business, there’s precious little to talk about.
Dyana Cordero, director of Costa Rica’s trade office in Tel Aviv, said bilateral trade in 2015 came to barely $45 million. Of that, $36.7 million was Israeli exports to Costa Rica, mainly plastics, herbicides and pesticides, and $8.2 million was Costa Rican exports to Israel, mainly coffee and pineapple juice concentrate.
That’s a far cry from the $230 million in annual trade in years past, when computer chip manufacturer Intel had an assembly plant just outside San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and the internal needs of the Silicon Valley giant—which also has R&D facilities in Israel—virtually dominated Israeli-Costa Rican trade.
Cordero would like to change that.
Next Wednesday, she and Pedro Beirute Prada, the CEO of Costa Rica’s Procomer export promotion agency, will host a breakfast seminar for Israeli investors at the Tel Aviv Hilton. About 50 executives are slated to attend a presentation by Beirute, who will also be joined by Gadi Ariely, general director of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute, a division of the Ministry of Economy.
“I think it’s very relevant for a country that is so far away to have the boldness and spirit to explore new markets like Israel,” said Esteban Penrod, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the Jewish state. “We are going beyond our usual markets in order to knock on the door of a country on the opposite side of the planet. Israel is a very interesting market that is certainly worthy of being explored.”
Beirute’s arrival here follows last month’s visit of another prominent Costa Rican, Foreign Minister Manuel González Sanz, as well as that of Alexander Mora, the country’s minister of foreign trade, in September 2016.
For many years, Costa Rica—home to around 2,500 Jews—was one of only a handful of nations that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But in 2006, then-President Oscar Arias relocated the mission to Tel Aviv in a bid to win sympathy—and business—in the Arab world. That forced El Salvador, the only other country that still had an embassy in Jerusalem, to pull out too.
“Where we have our embassy in Israel was a matter of discussion for a long time,” González told me during a May 16 press conference at Tel Aviv’s Norman Hotel. “All the pros and cons were considered. President Arias decided to follow the path of most countries and move it to Tel Aviv—and I don’t think that has necessarily changed our relationship. It has worked out very well since then. There are many deeper aspects to it than where to locate the embassy.”
He added: “The reality is that this decision was taken by another administration. But our relationship with Israel is just as deep and profound as when the embassy was in Jerusalem.”
Even so, that didn’t stop Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, from publicly urging Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís to move the country’s mission back to Jerusalem in a public speech welcoming González to Israel.
Her appeal—which is unlikely to be heeded, now that even President Trump has backtracked on his pre-election campaign vow to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem—came during a reception that attracted dignitaries, local journalists and many of the estimated 300 expatriate ticos living in Israel.
Among the guests in attendance were Yoed Magen, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Central America, Mexico and Caribbean department, and Ariel Goldgewicht, the Costa Rica-born director of the Jewish National Fund’s Latin American division.
During his visit—which included stops at the Knesset, the Western Wall and the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa—González met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Reuvin Rivlin, as well as Michael Oren, the country’s deputy foreign minister for diplomacy and former ambassador to the United States.
Asked by a local journalist how he felt about coming to a country as heavily militarized as Israel, González noted that 1948—the year of Israel’s establishment—was also the year Costa Rican President José Figueres Ferrer disbanded his nation’s army.
“Costa Ricans feel very comfortable living in a country that took this very difficult decision 69 years ago to abolish its armed forces and dedicate those resources to human development, principally education and health. It’s an investment that has given us important dividends,” said the foreign minister.
“We also understand that for countries in difficult situations, it could be much more complicated. But in 1948, when we took this decision, most countries in Latin America were under dictatorship or civil war.”
Magen noted proudly that Costa Rica was “among the nations that helped Israel even before the creation of Israel, back in 1947, when it appointed a special ambassador to visit different Latin American capitals and convince those countries to support the partition of Palestine,” which a year later led to Israel’s establishment.
“Ever since, we’ve had excellent relations with all Costa Rican governments,” said Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to both Panama and Colombia. “The fact that Costa Rica decided in 1982 to turn down the UN’s recommendation and not move its embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv signified a lot to Israel.”
He added that even though Costa Rica eventually fell in line and transferred its embassy out of Israel’s capital, “it’s been 10 years already, and we’ve moved on. We’ve tried to fill these relations with content, especially cooperation in the fields of health, education and agriculture. We still have many friends in Costa Rica, and the Jewish community there is pretty influential. Many Israelis visit Costa Rica every year, and some Israeli entrepreneurs have initiated projects in Costa Rica, mainly in tourism.”
Penrod took over as Costa Rica’s ambassador here just over a year ago from veteran diplomat Rodrigo X. Carreras, who is now retired.
Meanwhile, Israel is quietly trying to restore relations with countries that severed ties with Jerusalem in recent years—a list that includes Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. In late March, Israel restored relations with Nicaragua after a seven-year break; an unidentified Central American country reportedly acted as a go-between in getting the Sandinista government to reconsider its previously hostile stance toward Israel.
While the Netanyahu government is unlikely to convince the Solís government to return its embassy to Jerusalem, González said Costa Rica will continue to have Israel’s back at the UN with regard to any future Middle East peace initiative.
“With Israel, we share the values of democracy, and the defense of liberty and fundamental rights,” he said. “We cannot have close relations with countries that don’t share our values.”