Interview with Dr. Roman Macaya, Ambassador of Costa Rica

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Written by Ambassador Jim Rosapepe

In the newest episode of the CAA Live@Meridian podcast, Costa Rica’s Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Roman Macaya, discusses Costa Rica’s unique history, renewable energy, and migration.

Ambassador Macaya has developed a multidisciplinary career as a scientist, businessman, advocate, politician, and academic. Ambassador Macaya has lived, studied, and worked for many years in both Costa Rica and the United States. As a chemist and biochemist by training, Ambassador Macaya has led R&D teams in the fields of biotechnology and biomedical research, worked in the health care sector, and been involved in Costa Rican politics. Ambassador Macaya holds an MBA in Health Care Management from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from UCLA, and a B.A. in Chemistry from Middlebury College.

The host for this interview is Ambassador Jim Rosapepe, who represented the United States in Romania from 1998 to 2001, and is a member of the CAA Board of Directors.

 

Costa Rica’s Historic Investment in Education and Health Care

ROSAPEPE: Let me start out by asking you about Costa Rica…I think one of the major impressions we have of Costa Rica is that it is a little different than places in Latin America, particularly in Central America, in terms of its history and its current situation…It has not had many of the stresses that some of its neighbors have had. Why is that?

MACAYA:  That is a very interesting question, and a very relevant one that you perceive from here. A couple years ago, the U.S. received about 68,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America. Not a single one of them was Costa Rican. The question is why? We are also in Central America and about the same size country of most of our neighbors. To answer that question, we have to go into our history.

We all achieved our independence on the same day in Central America. We were a federation of five colonies: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. On September 15, 1821, Spain granted us all our independence. We all had the same starting gun to start developing as independent nations. We decided eventually to go our own ways, because we could have stuck together, but the decision was to develop independently.

The path that Costa Rica took was unique–not only in Central America, but almost on a worldwide scale. And I’ll go into some of the details. I think one of the major correct policies that we bet on early on was education. We committed fully and without much hesitation to educating our population. We made education mandatory, free, and paid for by the state in 1869.

Now if you envision Costa Rica back in the 1800s, we were a coffee growing country, a very agricultural country, a very rural county, and a very poor country as well. And here we are betting on education for all of our population. And that was not just for boys, but also for girls.

ROSAPEPE: From the beginning?

MACAYA: From the beginning. So that meant that on a typical coffee farm, the son of the owner on the coffee farm would have about the same education as the daughter of a worker on the coffee farm. That started to lay a level playing field from which to build a more equal society.

We kept betting further on education during the coming years. I’ll talk a little bit about the 1940s because that decade was a very politically turbulent decade. In 1941, we had a three-way negotiation between the government that was in office at the time, the communist party who was in the opposition, and the Catholic church. So imagine that three-way negotiation. That produced what we call today our social guarantees.

Social guarantees provide our work code, our labor code that established the minimum wage, vacation time, severance pay, and eventually pensions. It also established the University of Costa Rica, which was founded that year, so that was continuing on our bet on education, in this case higher education. It is still one of our biggest and most well recognized universities. It is very inexpensive; most people don’t pay to go to university. And then it established our public health care system. Initially it only covered workers but it was expanded…Today we have virtually universal health care insurance and coverage. So that set the tone in investing in education over the long term.

In 1948, we had a brief but very decisive civil war. It was brief in that it was only a 40-day war and very decisive in that it established after that a number of policies that carried us to where we are today. One of the most relevant of those decisions right after the civil war was to abolish the army. That freed up a lot of our budget that went to our military—as you know militaries are expensive—and we doubled down on education and health care and that has carried us to where we are today.

Costa Rica and Renewable Energy 

ROSAPEPE: Let’s move up to the present day. I believe one of the thrusts of Costa Rican foreign policy is very much related to science. There are many scientific issues that affect people but obviously one that is very much of concern around the world is climate change. I’d be interested if you could tell us about Costa Rica’s initiatives are in this area and interests are in this area.

MACAYA: We have bet heavily on renewable energy sources. This was done way before climate change was an issue. Several decades ago we were betting hard on hydroelectric plants and even geothermal plants. Today, we have an energy matrix which is almost 100 percent renewable. In fact, last year, 2015, we finished our year generating 99 percent of our total electricity from renewable resources. About 70 percent was hydroelectric, another 15 percent was geothermal, and the remaining almost 15 percent was mostly wind with a little bit of biomass generated from sugar cane. Only 1 percent was fossil fuel.

Now that has its benefits, in that we are a country that believes in having a minimal footprint on the environment. We believe that we should mitigate climate change as much as possible, as we are doing are part. And we are also a country that does not produce one drop of crude oil, so everything that we use in terms of fossil fuel is imported. So that is a relief to our outflow of hard currency.

 

To hear the full interview with Ambassador Macaya visit: https://soundcloud.com/caaliveatmeridian/sets/ambassador-roman-macaya