Costa Rica

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Costa Rica actively courts FDI, placing a high priority on attracting and retaining high-quality foreign investment. There are some limitations to both private and foreign participation in specific sectors, as detailed in the following section.

PROCOMER and CINDE lead Costa Rica’s investment promotion efforts. CINDE has had great success over the last several decades in attracting and retaining investment in specific areas, currently services, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, light manufacturing, and the food industry. In addition, the Tourism Institute (ICT) attends to potential investors in the tourism sector. CINDE, PROCOMER, and ICT are strong and effective guides and advocates for their client companies, prioritizing investment retention and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with investors.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Costa Rica recognizes and encourages the right of foreign and domestic private entities to establish and own business enterprises and engage in most forms of remunerative activity. The exceptions are in sectors that are reserved for the state (legal monopolies – see #7 below “State Owned Enterprises, first paragraph) or that require participation of at least a certain percentage of Costa Rican citizens or residents (electrical power generation, transport services, professional services, and aspects of broadcasting). Properties in the Maritime Zone (from 50 to 200 meters above the mean high-tide mark) may only be leased from the state and with residency requirements. In the areas of medical services, telecommunications, finance and insurance, state-owned entities dominate, but that does not preclude private sector competition. Costa Rica does not have an investment screening mechanism for inbound foreign investment, beyond those applied under anti-money laundering procedures. U.S. investors are not disadvantaged or singled out by any control mechanism or sector restrictions; to the contrary, U.S. investors figure prominently among the various major categories of FDI.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD accession process for Costa Rica, which began in 2015, resulted in a wide swath of legal and technical changes across the economy that should help the economy function in a more just and competitive manner. Toward that goal, the OECD will continue to monitor Costa Rican progress in a number of areas and will publish periodic progress updates and sector analysis that may be useful to prospective investors. A comprehensive review of the Costa Rican economy was published by the OECD at the conclusion of the accession process, which offered valuable insights into challenges faced by the economy, “OECD Economic Surveys Costa Rica 2020: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/oecd-economic-surveys-costa-rica-2020-2e0fea6c-en.htm  . In the same context, the OECD offers a review of international investment in Costa Rica: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/OECD-Review-of-international-investment-in-Costa-Rica.pdf .

Additionally, in recent years the OECD has published a number of reports focused on specific aspects of economic growth and investment policy – several of these reports are referenced elsewhere in this report. For the index of OECD reports on Costa Rica, go to https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/3/ .

The World Trade Organization (WTO) conducted its 2019 “Trade Policy Review” of Costa Rica in September of that year. Trade Policy Reviews are an exercise, mandated in the WTO agreements, in which member countries’ trade and related policies are examined and evaluated at regular intervals: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp492_e.htm  .

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) produced in 2019 the report Overview of Economic and Trade Aspects of Fisheries and Seafood Sectors in Costa Rica: https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2583  .

https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2583  .

Business Facilitation

Costa Rica’s single-window business registration website, crearempresa.go.cr  , brings together the various entities – municipalities and central government agencies – which must be consulted in the process of registering a business in Costa Rica. A new company in Costa Rica must typically register with the National Registry (company and capital registry), Internal Revenue Directorate of the Finance Ministry (taxpayer registration), National Insurance Institute (INS) (basic workers’ comp), Ministry of Health (sanitary permit), Social Security Administration (CCSS) (registry as employer), and the local Municipality (business permit). Legal fees are the biggest single business start-up cost, as all firms registered to individuals must hire a lawyer for a portion of the necessary paperwork. Crearempresa is rated 17th of 33 national business registration sites evaluated by “Global Enterprise Registration” ( www.GER.co ), which awards Costa Rica a relatively lackluster rating because Crearempresa has little payment facility and provides only some of the possible online certificates.

Traditionally, the Costa Rican government’s small business promotion efforts have tended to focus on participation by women and underserved communities.  The National Institute for Women (INAMU), National Training Institute (INA), the Ministry of Economy (MEIC), and PROCOMER through its supply chain initiative have all collaborated extensively to promote small and medium enterprise with an emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship. In 2020, INA launched a network of centers to support small and medium-sized enterprises based upon the U.S. Small Business Development Center (SBDC) model.

Within the World Bank’s “Doing Business” evaluation for 2020, http://www.doingbusiness.org , Costa Rica is ranked 144/190 for “starting a business”, with the process taking 10 days.

Outward Investment

The Costa Rican government does not promote or incentivize outward investment. Neither does the government discourage or restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

El Salvador

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment

The GOES recognizes the benefits of attracting FDI. El Salvador does not have laws or practices that discriminate against foreign investors. The GOES does not screen or prohibit FDI. However, FDI levels still lag behind regional neighbors, except for Nicaragua. The Central Bank reported net FDI inflows of $232.95 million at the end of September 2020.

The Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) supports investment in seven main sectors: textiles and apparel; business services; tourism; aeronautics; agro-industry; light manufacturing; and energy. PROESA provides information for potential investors about applicable laws, regulations, procedures, and available incentives for doing business in El Salvador. Websites: https://investelsalvador.com/  and http://www.proesa.gob.sv/investment/sector-opportunities .

The National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), El Salvador’s umbrella business chamber, serves as the primary private sector representative in dialogues with GOES ministries. http://www.anep.org.sv/ .

In 2019, the Bukele administration created the Secretariat of Commerce and Investment, a position within the President’s Office responsible for the formulation of trade and investment policies, as well as coordinating the Economic Cabinet. In addition, the Bukele administration created the Presidential Commission for Strategic Projects to lead the GOES major projects.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign citizens and private companies can freely establish businesses in El Salvador.

No single natural or legal person – whether national or foreign – can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. The Salvadoran Constitution stipulates there is no restriction on foreign ownership of rural land in El Salvador, unless Salvadoran nationals face restrictions in the corresponding country. Rural land to be used for industrial purposes is not subject to the reciprocity requirement.

The 1999 Investments Law grants equal treatment to foreign and domestic investors. With the exception of limitations imposed on micro businesses, which are defined as having 10 or fewer employees and yearly sales of $121,319.40 or less, foreign investors may freely establish any type of domestic business. Investors who begin operations with 10 or fewer employees must present plans to increase employment to the Ministry of Economy’s National Investment Office.

The Investment Law provides that extractive resources are the exclusive property of the state. The GOES may grant private concessions for resource extraction, though concessions are infrequently granted.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

El Salvador has been a World Trade Organization (WTO) member since 1995. The latest trade policy review performed by the WTO was published in 2016 (document: WT/TPR/S/344/Rev.1). https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/FE_Search/FE_S_S006.aspx?Query=(@Symbol=%20wt/tpr/s/*)%20and%20((%20@Title=%20el%20salvador%20)%20or%20(@CountryConcerned=%20el%20salvador))&Language=ENGLISH&Context=FomerScriptedSearch&languageUIChanged=true# 

https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/FE_Search/FE_S_S006.aspx?Query=(@Symbol=%20wt/tpr/s/*)%20and%20((%20@Title=%20el%20salvador%20)%20or%20(@CountryConcerned=%20el%20salvador))&Language=ENGLISH&Context=FomerScriptedSearch&languageUIChanged=true# 

The latest investment policy review performed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was in 2010. http://unctad.org/en/Docs/diaepcb200920_en.pdf

Business Facilitation

El Salvador has various laws that promote and protect investments, as well as providing benefits to local and foreign investors. These include: the Investments Law, the International Services Law; the Free Trade Zones Law; the Tourism Law, the Renewable Energy Incentives Law; the Law on Public Private Partnerships; the Special Law for Streamlining Procedures for the Promotion of Construction Projects; and the Legal Stability Law for Investments.

Business Registration

Per the World Bank, registering a new business in El Salvador requires nine steps taking an average of 16.5 days. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report, El Salvador ranks 148 in the “Starting a Business” indicator. El Salvador launched an online business registration portal in 2017 designed as a one-stop shop for registering new companies. The online portal allows new businesses the ability to formalize registration within three days and conduct administrative operations online. The portal ( https://miempresa.gob.sv/ ) is available to all, though services are available only in Spanish.

The GOES’ Business Services Office (Oficina de Atención Empresarial) caters to entrepreneurs and investors. The office has two divisions: “Growing Your Business” (Crecemos Tu Empresa) and the National Investment Office (Dirección Nacional de Inversiones, DNI). “Growing Your Businesses” provides business advice, especially for micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. The DNI administers investment incentives and facilitates business registration.

Contact information:

Business Services Office
Telephone: (503) 2590-5107
Address: Boulevard Del Hipódromo, Colonia San Benito, Century Tower, 7th Floor , San Salvador. Schedule: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Crecemos Tu Empresa
E-mail: crecemostuempresa@minec.gob.sv
Website: http://www.minec.gob.sv/ 

The National Investment Office:

Stephanie Argueta de Rengifo , National Director of Investments, sargueta@minec.gob.sv;
Sandra Llirina Sagastume de Sandoval, Deputy Director of Special Investments , llirina.sagastume@minec.gob.sv Christel Schulz, Business Climate Deputy, cdearce@minec.gob.sv 
Laura Rosales de Valiente, Deputy Director of Investment Facilitation, lrosales@minec.gob.sv
Telephone: (503) 2590-5116/ (503) 2590-5264.

The Productive Development Fund (FONDEPRO) provides grants to small enterprises to strengthen competitiveness. Website: http://www.fondepro.gob.sv/ 

The National Commission for Micro and Small Businesses (CONAMYPE) supports micro and small businesses by providing training, technical assistance, financing, venture capital, and loan guarantee programs. CONAMYPE also provides assistance on market access and export promotion, marketing, business registration, and the promotion of business ventures led by women and youth. Website: https://www.conamype.gob.sv/ 

The Micro and Small Businesses Promotion Law defines a microenterprise as a natural or legal person with annual gross sales up to 482 minimum monthly wages, equivalent to $146,609.94 and up to ten workers. A small business is defined as a natural or legal person with annual gross sales between 482 minimum monthly wages ($146,609.94) and 4,817 minimum monthly wages ($1,465,186.89) and up to 50 employees. To facilitate credit to small businesses, Salvadoran law allows for inventories, receivables, intellectual property rights, consumables, or any good with economic value to be used as collateral for loans.

El Salvador provides equitable treatment for women and under-represented minorities. The GOES does not provide targeted assistance to under-represented minorities. CONAMYPE provides specialized counseling to female entrepreneurs and women-owned small businesses.

Outward Investment

While the government encourages Salvadoran investors to invest in El Salvador, it neither promotes nor restricts investment abroad.

Nicaragua

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Nicaraguan government seeks foreign direct investment to project normalcy and international support in a time when foreign investment has all but stopped following the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests starting in April 2018. As traditional sources of foreign direct investment fled the ongoing political crisis, the government has increasingly pursued foreign investment from other countries such as Iran and China. Investment incentives target export-focused companies that require large amounts of unskilled or low-skilled labor.

In general, there are local laws and practices that harm foreign investors, but few that target foreign investors in particular. Investors should be aware that local connections with the government are vital to success. Investors have raised concerns that regulatory authorities act arbitrarily and often favor one competitor over another. Foreign investors report significant delays in receiving residency permits, requiring frequent travel out of the country to renew visas.

ProNicaragua, the country’s investment and export promotion agency, has all but halted its investment promotion activities. It has virtually no clients due to the ongoing political crisis. ProNicaragua, already heavily politicized, became more so after President Ortega installed his son, Laureano Ortega (who was designated for sanctions by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)), as the organization’s primary public face. ProNicaragua formerly provided information packages, investment facilitation, and prospecting services to interested investors. For more information, see http://www.pronicaragua.org .

Personal connections and affiliation with industry associations and chambers of commerce are critical for foreigners investing in Nicaragua. Prior to the crisis, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) had functioned as the main private sector interlocutor with the government through a series of roundtable and regular meetings. These roundtables have ceased since the onset of Nicaragua’s 2018 crisis, as has collaboration between the government, private sector, and unions. Though municipal and ministerial authorities may enact decisions relevant to foreign businesses, all actions are subject to de facto approval by the Presidency.

The absence of commercial international flights—caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic— significantly hinders international investment. Although a few commercial airlines are operating flights to and from Nicaragua, the government only permits those airlines to operate under charter flight regulations, including providing the government with full passenger manifests 36 hours before the arrival or departure of each flight. Currently there is only one non-stop flight per day between the United States and Nicaragua, with the exception of Saturday, when there are two non-stop flights to Miami.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign and domestic private entities have the right to establish and own business enterprises and engage in all forms of remunerative activity. Any individual or entity may make investments of any kind. In general, Nicaraguan law provides equal treatment for domestic and foreign investment. There are a few exceptions imposed by specific laws, such as the Border Law (2010/749), which prohibits foreigners from owning land in certain border areas.

Investors should be cautious of the 2020 Foreign Agents Law—also commonly referred to as “Putin’s Law”—which places onerous reporting and registration burdens on all organizations receiving funds or direction from abroad. While the law purportedly exempts purely business entities, some companies have been required to register or end their social responsibility efforts to avoid scrutiny. The process to register as a foreign agent is overtly politicized, with the government outright refusing to register some entities for their perceived political leanings.

Nicaragua allows foreigners to be shareholders of local companies, but the company representative must be a Nicaraguan citizen or a foreigner with legal residence in the country. Many companies satisfy this requirement by using their local legal counsel as a representative. Legal residency procedures for foreign investors can take up to eighteen months and require in-person interviews in Managua.

The government can limit foreign ownership for national security or public health reasons under the Foreign Investment Law. The government requires all investments in the petroleum sector include one of Nicaragua’s state-owned enterprises as a partner. Similar requirements are in place for the mining sector as well.

The government does not formally screen, review, or approve foreign direct investments. However, President Daniel Ortega and the executive branch maintain de facto review authority over any foreign direct investment. This review process is not transparent.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Nicaragua had a trade policy review with the WTO in 2021. The trade policy review did not resolve the many informal trade barriers faced by importers in Nicaragua.

Business Facilitation

The government is eager to draw more foreign investment to Nicaragua. Its business facilitation efforts focus primarily on one-on-one engagement with potential investors, rather than a systematic whole-of-government approach.

Nicaragua does not have an online business registration system. Companies must typically register with the national tax administration, social security administration, and local municipality to ensure the government can collect taxes. Those registers are typically not available to the public. Investors should be aware the social security system is close to insolvency, having engaged in a series of “investments” over the past decade that funnel social security funds into the hands of Ortega insiders. The government has sought to close the shortfalls by increasing social security taxes and contributions. This has caused many workers to flee the social security system to the informal sector, which economists estimate hold between 70 and 90 percent of Nicaragua’s workers.

According to the Ministry of Growth, Industry, and Trade (MIFIC), the process to register a business takes a minimum of 14 days. In practice, registration usually takes more time. Establishing a foreign-owned limited liability company takes eight procedures and 42 days.

Outward Investment

Nicaragua does not promote or incentivize outward investment and does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

Panama

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Panama depends heavily on foreign investment and has worked to make the investment process attractive and simple.  With few exceptions, the Government of Panama makes no distinction between domestic and foreign companies for investment purposes.  Panama benefits from stable and consistent economic policies, a dollarized economy, and a government that consistently supports trade and open markets and encourages foreign direct investment.

Prior to the pandemic, Panama had the highest level of Foreign Direct investment (FDI) in Central America.  Through the Multinational Headquarters Law (SEM), the Multinational Manufacturing Services Law (EMMA), and a Private Public Partnership framework, Panama offers tax breaks and other incentives to attract investment.  The Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) is responsible for overseeing foreign investment, prepares an annual foreign investment promotion strategy, and provides services required by investors to expedite investments and project development.  MICI, in cooperation with the Minister Counselor for Investment, facilitates the initial investment process and provides integration assistance once a company is established in Panama.

Panama’s Attraction of Investment and Promotion of Exports (PROPANAMÁ) program, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), provides investors with information, expedites specific projects, leads investment-seeking missions abroad, and supports foreign investment missions to Panama.  In some cases, other government offices work with investors to ensure that regulations and requirements for land use, employment, special investment incentives, business licensing, and other conditions are met.  The Government of Panama (GoP) proposed a bill in February 2021 to make PROPANAMÁ an independent agency with its own budget (http://propanama.mire.gob.pa/sobre-propanama).

In 2020, the United States ran a $5.1 billion trade surplus in goods with Panama.  Both countries have signed a Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) that entered into force in October 2012.  The U.S.-Panama TPA has significantly liberalized trade in goods and services, including financial services.  The TPA also includes sections on customs administration and trade facilitation, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, technical barriers to trade, government procurement, investment, telecommunications, electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental protections.

Panama is one of the few economies in Latin American that is predominantly services-based. Services represent nearly 80 percent of Panama’s GDP.  The TPA has improved U.S. firms’ access to Panama’s services sector and gives U.S. investors better access than other WTO members under the General Agreement on Trade in Services.  All services sectors are covered under the TPA, except where Panama has made specific exceptions.  Under the agreement, Panama has provided improved access to sectors like express delivery and granted new access in certain areas that had previously been reserved for Panamanian nationals. In addition, Panama is a full participant in the WTO Information Technology Agreement.

Panama passed a Private Public Partnership (PPP) law in 2019 and published regulations for the program in 2020, as an incentive for private investment, social development, and job creation. The law is a first-level legal framework that orders and formalizes how the private sector can invest in public projects, thereby expanding the State’s options to meet social needs.  Panama’s 2021 budget included funding to implement PPP projects.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

The Panamanian government imposes some limitations on foreign ownership in the retail and media sectors, in which, in most cases, owners must be Panamanian. However, foreign investors can continue to use franchise arrangements to own retail within the confines of Panamanian law (under the TPA, direct U.S. ownership of consumer retail is allowed in limited circumstances). There are also limits on the number of foreign workers in some foreign investment structures.

In addition to limitations on ownership, more than 200 professions are reserved for Panamanian nationals. Medical practitioners, lawyers, engineers, accountants, and customs brokers must be Panamanian citizens. Furthermore, the Panamanian government instituted a regulation that ride share platforms must use drivers who possess commercial licenses, which are available only to Panamanians.

With the exceptions of retail trade, the media, and many professions, foreign and domestic entities have the right to establish, own, and dispose of business interests in virtually all forms of remunerative activity, and the Panamanian government does not screen inbound investment. Foreigners do not need to be legally resident or physically present in Panama to establish corporations or obtain local operating licenses for a foreign corporation. Business visas (and even citizenship) are readily obtainable for significant investors.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Panama has not undergone any third-party investment policy reviews (IPRs) through a multilateral organization in the past three years. Panama does not have a formal investment screening mechanism, but the government monitors large foreign investments, especially in the energy sector.

Business Facilitation

Procedures regarding how to register foreign and domestic businesses, as well as how to obtain a notice of operation, can be found on the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s website (https://www.panamaemprende.gob.pa/), where one may register a foreign company, create a branch of a registered business, or register as an individual trader from any part of the world. Corporate applicants must submit notarized documents to the Mercantile Division of the Public Registry, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and the Social Security Institute. Panamanian government statistics show that applications from foreign businesses typically take between one to six days to process.

The process for online business registration is clear and available to foreign companies. Panama is ranked 51 out of 190 countries for ease of starting a business and 88 out of 190 for protecting minority investors, according to the 2019 World Bank’s Doing Business Report: https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/data/exploretopics/starting-a-business#close

Other agencies where companies typically register are:

Tax administration: https://dgi.mef.gob.pa/
Corporations, property, mortgage: https://www.rp.gob.pa
Social security: http://www.css.gob.pa|
Municipalities: https://mupa.gob.pa

Outward Investment

Panama does not promote or incentivize outward investment, but neither does it restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future