Costa Rica as the SICA Outlier

Carlos Arturo Villagrán PhD Candidate from the Melbourne Law School has shared with the Pacific Alliance Blog his insights on the role that Costa Rica has played and continues to play in Central America and particularly in the Central American integration.

Difference Stuart MilesPhotocredits: Stuart Miles/
Costa Rica’s relationship with and within integration processes has been, and continues to be unique and different to its regional partners in Central America.
Since the 1950’s, the Central American region has been attempting to consolidate a regional integration scheme; however, these efforts continue to display and repeat the same old differences and pathologies since the fall of the Central American federation in 1838.
In this enterprise for integration, Costa Rica displays itself as an interesting outlier. Costa Rica, different to its regional neighbors, has been historically interested in consolidating its export industry and agricultural diversification. In addition, Costa Rica has been successful in maintaining a stable and democratic rule since the 1950s. This had aided Costa Rica to provide its citizens a higher quality of life than its regional counterparts. This has made Costa Rica, understandably, weary of its neighbors and to remain outside of the regional struggle.

Nevertheless, Costa Rica during the regional turmoil period, between 1975 and 1985, understood itself as not part of the regional problem, but as affected by it. In those years the Central American common market, born in the early 1960s, halted and, also due to the external conditions, Costa Rica fell into economic depression.

In this pursuit of economic recovery, Costa Rica became a leader for the return of the region to democracy and peace. Nevertheless, Costa Rica promoted a policy of ‘intervention without integration’. Following this line of thought, Costa Rica was not particularly against integration, rather it focused on using regional machinery, or the integration process, in order to successfully insert itself into the international markets. This position has led Costa Rica to become a reluctant player within the new Central-American integration enterprise, founded in 1991.

This reluctance has been displayed by the fact that it has not ratified many of the Central-American integration treaties, including those agreements  to become a member of the regional parliament and the court. In addition, Costa Rica aided for the creation of a new WTO-like dispute settlement scheme in the region, taking away the competencies of the newly established regional court.

Also, Costa Rica has left aside the regional machinery in order to benefit from better deals and bilateral agreements in the pursuit of its economic policy, of inserting itself in the international market. This is seen with it ratifying individual FTAs with Mexico, Colombia and other South-American countries, while the rest continue with a more regional approach for insertion in the global economy.

Costa Rica’s reluctance achieved new heights, in December 2015, by suspending its participation from the Central-American integration political aspect. This means that, although Costa Rica suspended its participation from the political forum, it made clear that its economic participation will continue. Therefore, Costa Rica reasserted its view on integration as an economic enterprise, without the need of any strong supranational institutions.

In conclusion, Costa Rica has been, and continues to be, a unique and significant player in the Central American integration process. It was a key player for the rebirth of the new integration scheme, and for the return of the region towards democracy. However, it has not been shy to drift away from the Central American integration process in order to pursue better economic and commercial conditions.

Carlos Arturo’s current research considers comparative regional integration with particular emphasis on Central America. Before starting his PhD, Carlos Arturo was a Human Rights Adviser for the Guatemalan Government within the Project of Historical Memory and Human Rights for Peace of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The Pacific alliance Blog is grateful  for this insightful contribution that taking account of historical factors informs our understanding of Costa Rica’s general approach to regional integration.

You can contact Carlos Arturo at: