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BGIPU delegation strengthens parliamentary links with Costa Rica and Panama

Unusually and unexpectedly our delegation consisted of three Peers, Baroness Northover, Lord Mountevans and myself, supported by Holly Sloan from the BGIPU Secretariat.  The original delegation had been carefully selected to reflect balance and ongoing interest in the Region.  This was scuppered by the House of Commons Whips who, it appears, no longer accept the principle of ‘pairing’ and so the four MPs had to withdraw just days before departure.

This apart I can report that we all enjoyed the very thorough and well-prepared programme on what was the first BGIPU visit to either country for several years.

We were fortunate in being accompanied in Costa Rica by Ambassador Rafael Ortiz and in Panama by Ambassador Natalia Royo.  We were also grateful To Ambassador Ben Lister Binns and Ambassador Tim Stew and his Deputy Caroline Alcock and their staff who met us, briefed us and escorted us at all points.  Holly Sloan was invaluable in ensuring we were fully equipped for all eventualities.

Our meetings with Congress Members, Ministers, Chambers of Commerce and NGOs and other experts covered a wide variety of topics. Climate change and the green and blue economies were priority areas in both countries which is evident in Baroness Northover’s excellent report.

The other issues that overlapped were migration, people trafficking and the increase in violence and crime caused by drug trafficking. From a onetime transit country Costa Rica is in danger of becoming a hub for drug dealers. In light of the extreme situation in Ecuador that same week, this was clearly high on the agenda in both countries and we discussed  the importance of a policy of prevention and the role of  countries such as ours which provide the  market for narcotics  which is what gives rise to the production and  the trade in drugs.

The explosion in the volume of migrants, coming up from South America, was explained to us by a group of UN, Family and International Organisations including UNICEF and Save the Children.   In 2010 some 3,000 migrants made the hazardous journey through the Darien Gap.  In 2023 that figure had risen to 520,000, many of them unaccompanied children.  Most migrants hail from Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador and other South American countries and are on the whole economic migrants but this is also now becoming a route for refugees and other migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Asia including China.

With May Elections in the air for Panama, we had some interesting exchanges about the differences between Presidential systems and our own Parliamentary Democracy. In particular a meeting with ‘Vamos’ a newly formed coalition of young people, led by a former Chevening scholar, and standing as independents at Municipal, Regional and Congress levels in the forthcoming elections was very productive. We also met with the Electoral Commission in Costa Rica and learnt of their significant constitutional role.

Other important meetings and issues discussed during the visit related to first of all education, which included the teaching of English, institutional links between schools , universities and research institutions and EdTech developments.  The importance of strengthening and expanding the Chevening programme was emphasised and we met a number of Ministers and well placed, senior officials who had been Chevening scholars.   We also discussed trade: In Costa Rica Minister Tobar, the Minister for Foreign Trade emphasised the work of Procomer which recently established an office in London.  We were also able to visit Smith & Nephew’s factory in one of the new Free Trade Zones to learn about their contribution in the export of medical devices, now Costa Rica’s main export.  Another interesting topic for discussion in both countries was tourism: Costa Rica is now well known for its Eco Tourism and Panama has plans to develop further tourist specialities.  Direct flights was emphasised as an area for improvement.   And finally Human Rights was also discussed, although this was not a major issue except in the area of Indigenous People and in relation to mining activities.

All in all this was a most successful, interesting and worthwhile visit and the question about combining two countries in one Delegation visit was fully answered in light of the various overlapping issues and the integration system in Central America.  I believe we also advanced BGIPU’s aim of “advancing the parliamentary dimension of Britain’s foreign relations”.

Baroness Hooper CMG