The Japan News Located in the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica has been the type of stable democracy not often seen in the region. Having rapidly transformed its economy from being dependent on primary products to one with vibrant high-tech industries such as medical equipment manufacturing, it applied for membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2015. With the country’s policy of unarmed neutrality, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the U.N. is chairing the ongoing U.N. conference to ban nuclear weapons. Costa Rican Ambassador to Japan Laura Esquivel discussed the country’s significance for the world and its bilateral ties with Japan.
Q: How did you become involved with Japan?
Esquivel: I worked for 28 years in the coffee sector. I came to Japan for the first time nine years ago. The first time I arrived in Tokyo, I was so impressed. I found it an amazing country — so clean and in order. When I talked to people, they were so respectful. I returned to Costa Rica and told my family that we need to go together to see Japan.
For me, it was like a [novel by 19th-century French author] Jules Verne. In the book, the main character takes a trip in a machine to the future. For me, to come to Japan was like traveling through the future and seeing an amazing and developed country. I am sure that I’m not going to forget it because it was amazing.
I was a member of the board of directors at the national coffee institute in Costa Rica. We visit every year for the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan’s show [in Tokyo]. When I came to Japan for the first time, it was to attend the coffee show.
Q: How do you find the coffee culture in Japan?
A: For us, coffee is like our soul. Coffee is part of our whole culture, diet and lives. Here in Japan, what I recognize is the people love to have very high-quality products.
For example, at the World Barista Championship three years ago, the champion was a Japanese [man] with a coffee from Costa Rica. I think that is the perfect match.
I went to Omotesando [in Tokyo]. The owner of a coffee shop [in the district] asked me to try Costa Rican coffee. But what I didn’t realize was that she was going to give me a very special coffee from my country. I saw ¥2,300 [as the coffee’s price]. “How many grams is this?” I asked. “No, it’s just the cup,” she said.
At that moment, I realized that Japanese people may pay a lot of money for a fine coffee. This is a very special market. I felt so proud.
Q: What were your worries and expectations when you first learned that you would become an ambassador in Tokyo?
A: My first worry was leaving my family. My best expectation was to increase trade.
I can say that I still miss my family. But I have the satisfaction that today Costa Rica is well known [in Japan] as a green and peaceful country.
We have increased our trade. We had a visit by Costa Rican Foreign Trade Minister Alexander Mora [in June]. It was very successful because all the meetings that we had were very positive.
In the trade area, for example, we had the first import of melons from Costa Rica. The first containers came in April. I have had meetings with the company that imports them, and they said they are going to increase the import of melons next year. With the visit of the minister, we are also going to show the other face of the country as a high-tech producer.
Q: You said you missed your family. How do you find the roles of family in Japan?
A: There are a lot of similarities [with Costa Rica]. You have small families here, as we do in Costa Rica, with one or two children.
There are also a lot of differences. The roles of women and men are quite different from Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica, we have a very important program in every school from the time we are children. We learn that the role of women and the role of men are not different. At school, girls can have the option to be president of the class and we encourage them to do it.
You can grow with this expectation that you are going to have a role in society, and to be a professional.
We have enacted a lot of laws about gender equality. But in the end, we need to work harder in education.
Costa Rica eyes OECD in 2018
Q: Costa Rica has a legislated gender quota by which 50 percent of candidates for public office must be women. What is the benefit of the law?
A: The goal is to encourage women and to tell them that they can be powerful. They can give not only good ideas, but they can be pioneers in many areas.
Again, I insist it is an educational matter. If you teach kids — from the age of 5 years old or 10 years old — that girls can do it, and boys understand that they will have a good partner with them, society will evolve.
Forty percent of our labor force in the public sector is women. In the private sector, 30 percent of women are at the top level of decision [making] in companies. I think we have been very successful in this area.
It’s very important for us to be part of the OECD, the group of developed countries. It is important because we have made a lot of efforts in many areas. We have been pioneers in the environment, human rights, education and health system. We think we have all we need to be part of the group [OECD]. We need to do a lot of adjustments, but we expect that we can join the OECD next year.
Q: As ambassador, what bilateral issues have you focused on?
A: For us, trade is very important. I also tell the story [about Costa Rica]. I’m not a career diplomat. When I received the call from the president [of Costa Rica] asking me to come as an ambassador, I think he said that economic diplomacy is the next step for diplomacy. It’s not only politics.
I have been doing conferences, seminars and other things. We participate in any opportunity to present Costa Rica as a place worth visiting. We are a green country, but also a safe country.
Costa Rica sells itself as a country of beautiful beaches. But Japanese care a lot about their skin. I saw that it’s not a good idea to tell them about the beaches. For us Latins, what we imagine is how to have a very nice tan at the beach. But that’s not a good point to sell to Japanese people.
So, I thought, “Let’s talk about our hot springs!” We are a very small country with 51,000 square kilometers, but we have more than 112 volcanoes with a lot of hot springs. “OK, maybe what we can do is to show them our onsens, because our hot springs are quite different,” I thought.
In Costa Rica, you have a whole river with hot water, surrounded with nature. You can go into the river and enjoy nature surrounding you.
The Japanese love to see and admire nature. We have a lot of birds. It’s another good point to tell Japanese people that we have a lot of things in common because in my country nature is a very important part of what we do.
Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko visited Costa Rica [in 2011]. I felt so proud that when I presented my credentials to the Emperor, he told me that his son was so happy seeing the birds. How did I feel? Of course, I felt very, very, very proud, and very grateful, that the Emperor told me that.
Q: What role does your country’s ecologically clean development of its economy play in the promotion of ties between your country and Japan?
A: It’s the most amazing presentation card. Every time I go to a meeting or an event, a lot of people say, “Costa Rica? It’s green, isn’t it?” To be well known as a green country is very important not only for our economy but for our image.
It’s also important for us to be a leader in the world that more than ever needs to make decisions about the environment. All the issues about climate change are real and will affect us. We need to do something.
We are small, but we are doing our homework. We are showing the world that no matter how small we are, others should follow our example.
Nuke ban talks important
Q: Costa Rica is respected for its commitment to peace as well. What is the importance of its ambassador to the U.N. chairing the nuclear ban treaty talks in New York?
A: Japan and Costa Rica know well what peace means. We abolished the army 69 years ago. You suffered atomic bombs.
What we are doing now at the U.N. is quite important. [At a session of the U.N. conference], Izumi Nakamitsu, U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, has said that the need for a nuclear weapons-free world is more urgent than ever. We think the same. We think that any indication that we can advance in this matter is important.
Of course, it’s quite different to talk about peace in a country like Costa Rica, with its circumstances that are quite different from Japan. But we can both be leaders. That’s what we need to do. We have to advance anything we can finally decide at the level of the U.N., for example. Anything we can do will be a win in the issue, I think.
Q: What would be the importance of the U.N. conference not being attended by nuclear powers, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Japan?
A: It’s a pity. I’m sure that in the future those countries that today are not there are going to understand the importance of being there. Well, I’m very optimistic about it. What we need is more countries working as leaders as we are doing.
Q: You cut ties with Taiwan and established a relationship with China 10 years ago. How has your country’s decision been seen?
A: China has had a very aggressive role in Latin America in recent years. As it is to Japan, China is a very important partner [for Costa Rica], with which you need to have relations.
I always say I would love to have more aggressiveness in Japan, because there are a lot of differences between those two countries [in Asia].
Japan, for me and for many Costa Ricans, is one of the best partners you can have. In the Japanese, you have honesty, long-time relations and loyalty. How can we not expect to have more Japanese companies in our country doing trade and commerce?
We have relations with China, and it’s a very important country. But Japan has a very prominent place, not only in our economy, but in our hearts.
Human rights as core issue
Q: What are the roles of Costa Rica in this era of global uncertainties?
A: What we need is to keep up our work in human rights, because almost everything is about human rights. It’s about quality of life, development and education. If you think about arms or the environment, all of them, in the end, are about human rights.
Costa Rica is going to increase its leadership in all those areas, because we are talking about what we are doing. Our words are based on acts.
We can stand up in front of the international community and ask [them] to work on that, because we are doing our homework. We can tell the whole world that every one of us needs to do the same, as we are doing our work.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Born in San Jose in 1966, Ambassador Laura Esquivel has a law degree from the University of Costa Rica. She started to work as the chief of the legal department at the Institute of Coffee in Costa Rica in 1988. Esquivel has taken executive positions in business groups including the Costa Rican Chamber of Exporters and the Central American Organization of Coffee Exporters. She began her ambassadorial tenure in Japan in 2015.Speech