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Costa Rica

Executive Summary

Costa Rica is the oldest continuous democracy in Latin America with moderate but falling economic growth rates even before the Covid-19 pandemic with 3.5 percent average yearly GDP growth 2016 to 2018, 2.2% in 2019 (-4.5% in 2020) and moderate inflation. The country’s well-educated labor force, relatively low levels of corruption, physical location, living conditions, dynamic investment promotion board, and attractive free trade zone incentives offer strong appeal to investors. Costa Rica’s continued popularity as an investment destination is well illustrated even in the pandemic year 2020 with inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) as recorded by the Costa Rican Central Bank at an estimated USD 1.7 billion down from 2.75 billion in 2019 (2.8 percent of GDP down from 4.3 percent).

Costa Rica has had remarkable success in the last two decades in establishing and promoting an ecosystem of export-oriented technology companies, suppliers of input goods and services, associated public institutions and universities, and a trained and experienced workforce. A similar transformation took place in the tourism sector, with a plethora of smaller enterprises handling a steadily increasing flow of tourists eager to visit despite Costa Rica’s relatively high prices. Costa Rica is doubly fortunate in that these two sectors positively reinforce each other as they both require and encourage English language fluency, openness to the global community, and Costa Rican government efficiency and effectiveness. A 2019 study of the free trade zone (FTZ) economy commissioned by the Costa Rican Investment and Development Board (CINDE) shows an annual 9 percent growth from 2014 to 2018, with the net benefit of that sector reaching 7.9 percent of GDP in 2018. This sector has been booming while the overall economy has been slowing for years.

The Costa Rican investment climate is threatened by a high and persistent government fiscal deficit, underperformance in some key areas of government service provision, including health care and education, high energy costs, and deterioration of basic infrastructure. The ongoing Covid-19 world recession has decimated the Costa Rican tourism industry. Furthermore, the government has very little budget flexibility to address the economic fallout and is struggling to find ways to achieve debt relief, unemployment response, and the longer-term policy solutions necessary to finalize a stabilizing agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the plus side, the Costa Rican government has competently managed the crisis despite its tight budget and Costa Rican exports are proving resilient; the portion of the export sector that manufactures medical devices, for example, is facing relatively good economic prospects and companies providing services exports are specialized in virtual support for their clients in a world that is forced to move in that direction. Moreover, Costa Rica’s accession in 2021 to the Organization for Co-operation and Development (OECD) has exerted a positive influence by pushing the country to address its economic weaknesses through executive decrees and legislative reforms in a process that began in 2015. Also in the plus column, the export and investment promotion agencies CINDE and the Costa Rican Foreign Trade Promoter (PROCOMER) have done an excellent job of protecting the Free Trade Zones (FTZs) from new taxes by highlighting the benefits of the regime, promoting local supply chains, and using the FTZs as examples for other sectors of the economy. Nevertheless, Costa Rica’s political and economic leadership faces a difficult balancing act over the coming years as the country must simultaneously exercise budget discipline as it faces Covid-19 driven turmoil and an ever increasing demand for improved government-provided infrastructure and services.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 42 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 74 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 56 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 USD 1.5bill https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 11,700 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

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.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Costa Rican laws, regulations, and practices are generally transparent and meant to foster competition in a manner consistent with international norms, except in the sectors controlled by a state monopoly, where competition is explicitly excluded. Rule-making and regulatory authority is housed in any number of agencies specialized by function (telecom, financial, health, environmental) or location (municipalities, port authorities). Tax, labor, health, and safety laws, though highly bureaucratic, are not seen as unfairly interfering with foreign investment. It is common to have Professional Associations that play a regulatory role. For example, the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE), a private sector organization, promotes standardization of production models among national producers, roasters and exporters, as well as setting minimum market prices.

Costa Rica is a member of UNCTAD’s international network of transparent investment procedures ( http://www.businessfacilitation.org ). Within that context, the Ministry of Economy compiled the various procedures needed to do business in Costa Rica: https://tramitescr.meic.go.cr/ . Accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures are transparent and consistent with international norms. The stock and bond market regulator SUGEVAL requires International Accounting Standards Board for public companies, while the Costa Rican College of Public Accountants (Colegio de Contadores Publicos de Costa Rica -CCPA) has adopted full International Financial Reporting Standards for non-regulated companies in Costa Rica; for more, see the international federation of accountants IFAC: https://www.ifac.org/about-ifac/membership/country/costa-rica .

Regulations must go through a public hearing process when being drafted. Draft bills and regulations are made available for public comment through public consultation processes that will vary in their details according to the public entity and procedure in question, generally giving interested parties sufficient time to respond. The standard period for public comment on technical regulations is 10 days. As appropriate, this process is underpinned by scientific or data-driven assessments. A similarly transparent process applies to proposed laws. The Legislative Assembly generally provides sufficient opportunity for supporters and opponents of a law to understand and comment on proposals. To become law, a proposal must be approved by the Assembly by two plenary votes. The signature of 10 legislators (out of 57) is sufficient after the first vote to send the bill to the Supreme Court for constitutional review within one month, although the court may take longer.

Regulations and laws, both proposed and final, for all branches of government are published digitally in the government registry “La Gaceta”: https://www.imprentanacional.go.cr/gaceta/ . The Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham – http://amcham.co.cr  ) and other business chambers closely monitor these processes and often coordinate responses as needed.

The government has mechanisms to ensure laws and regulations are followed. The Comptroller General’s Office conducts operational as well as financial audits and as such provides the primary oversight and enforcement mechanism within the Costa Rican government to ensure that government bodies follow administrative processes. Each government body’s internal audit office and, in many cases, the customer-service comptroller (Contraloria de Servicios) provide additional support.

There are several independent avenues for appealing regulatory decisions, and these are frequently pursued by persons or organizations opposed to a public sector contract or regulatory decision. The avenues include the Comptroller General (Contraloria General de la Republica), the Ombudsman (Defensor de los Habitantes), the public services regulatory agency (ARESEP), and the constitutional review chamber of the Supreme Court. The State Litigator’s office (Procuraduria General) is frequently a participant in its role as the government’s attorney.

Costa Rica is transparent in reporting its public finances and debt obligations, including explicit and contingent liabilities. The Ministry of Finance provides updates on public debt through the year, with the debt categorized as Central Government, Central Government and Non-Financial Sector, and Central Bank of Costa Rica: https://www.hacienda.go.cr/contenido/12519-informacion-de-la-deuda-publica 

https://www.hacienda.go.cr/contenido/12519-informacion-de-la-deuda-publica 

The following chart covers contingent debt as of December 31, 2020: https://www.hacienda.go.cr/docs/60088ea554e11_12-2020%20Resumen%20Deuda%20Contingente%20publicar.xlsx

https://www.hacienda.go.cr/docs/60088ea554e11_12-2020%20Resumen%20Deuda%20Contingente%20publicar.xlsx

The General Controller’s Office produced the following 2019 report on unregistered debt, summing to 1.27 percent of GDP: https://cgrfiles.cgr.go.cr/publico/docs_cgr/2019/SIGYD_D_2019015487.pdf

https://cgrfiles.cgr.go.cr/publico/docs_cgr/2019/SIGYD_D_2019015487.pdf

The review and enforcement mechanisms described above have kept Costa Rica’s regulatory system relatively transparent and free of abuse, but have also rendered the system for public sector contract approval exceptionally slow and litigious. There have been several cases in which these review bodies have overturned already-executed contracts, thereby interjecting uncertainty into the process. Bureaucratic procedures are frequently long, involved and can be discouraging to new investors.

Furthermore, Costa Rica’s product market regulations are more stringent than in any other OECD country, according to the OECD’s 2020 Product Market Regulations Indicator, leading to market inefficiencies. Find this explanation as well as a detailed review of the regulatory challenges Costa Rica faces in the September 2020 OECD report on regulatory reform: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/enhancing-business-dynamism-and-consumer-welfare-in-costa-rica-with-regulatory-reform-53250d35-en.htm 

https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/enhancing-business-dynamism-and-consumer-welfare-in-costa-rica-with-regulatory-reform-53250d35-en.htm 

International Regulatory Considerations

While Costa Rica does consult with its neighbors on some regulations through participation in the Central American Integration System (SICA) ( http://www.sica.int/sica/sica_breve.aspx ), Costa Rica’s lawmakers and regulatory bodies habitually refer to sample regulations or legislation from OECD members and others. Costa Rica’s commitment to OECD standards and practices through the ongoing OECD accession process has accentuated this traditional use of best-practices and model legislation. Costa Rica regularly notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers in Trade (TBT).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Costa Rica uses the civil law system. The fundamental law is the country’s political constitution of 1949, which grants the unicameral legislature a particularly strong role. Jurisprudence or case law does not constitute legal precedent but can be persuasive if used in legal proceedings. For example, the Chambers of the Supreme Court regularly cite their own precedents. The civil and commercial codes govern commercial transactions. The courts are independent, and their authority is respected. The roles of public prosecutor and government attorney are distinct: the Chief Prosecuting Attorney or Attorney General (Fiscal General) operates a semi-autonomous department within the judicial branch while the government attorney or State Litigator (Procuraduria General) works within the Ministry of Justice and Peace in the Executive branch. The primary criminal investigative body “Organismo de Investigacion Judicial” OIJ, is a semi-autonomous department within the Judicial Branch. Judgments and awards of foreign courts and arbitration panels may be accepted and enforced in Costa Rica through the exequatur process. The Constitution specifically prohibits discriminatory treatment of foreign nationals. The Costa Rican Judicial System addresses the full range of civil, administrative, and criminal cases with a number of specialized courts.  The judicial system generally upholds contracts, but caution should be exercised when making investments in sectors reserved or protected by the Constitution or by laws for public operation. Regulations and enforcement actions may be, and often are, appealed to the courts.

Costa Rica’s commercial code details all business requirements necessary to operate in Costa Rica. The laws of public administration and public finance contain most requirements for contracting with the state.

The legal process to resolve cases involving squatting on land can be especially cumbersome. Land registries are at times incomplete or even contradictory. Buyers should retain experienced legal counsel to help them determine the necessary due diligence regarding the purchase of property.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Costa Rican websites are useful to help navigate laws, rules and procedures including that of the investment promotion agency CINDE, http://www.cinde.org/en  (“essential info”), the export promotion authority PROCOMER, http://www.procomer.com/ (incentive packages), and the Health Ministry, https://www.ministeriodesalud.go.cr/  (product registration and import/export). In addition, the State Litigator’s office ( www.pgr.go.cr ) the “SCIJ” tab compiles relevant laws.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

Two public institutions are responsible for consumer protection as it relates to monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The “Commission for the Promotion of Competition” (COPROCOM), an autonomous agency housed in the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce, is charged with investigating and correcting anti-competitive behavior across the economy. The Telecommunications Superintendence (SUTEL) shares that responsibility with COPROCOM in the Telecommunications sector. Both agencies are charged with defense of competition, deregulation of economic activity, and consumer protection. COPROCOM has traditionally been underfunded and weak, although a law passed in 2019 is designed to change that by giving COPROCOM greater regulatory independence and sufficient operating budget.

For an analysis of opportunities for improvement in Costa Rica’s regulatory environment, including in competition and antitrust, see: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/enhancing-business-dynamism-and-consumer-welfare-in-costa-rica-with-regulatory-reform-53250d35-en.htm . For the OECD assessment of competition law and policy in Costa Rica, see: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/costarica-competition.htm .

Expropriation and Compensation

The three principal expropriating government agencies in recent years have been the Ministry of Public Works – MOPT (highway rights-of-way), the state-owned Costa Rican Electrical Institute – ICE (energy infrastructure), and the Ministry of Environment and Energy – MINAE (National Parks and protected areas). Expropriations generally conform to Costa Rica’s laws and treaty obligations, but there are allegations of expropriations of private land without prompt or adequate compensation.

Article 45 of Costa Rica’s Constitution stipulates that private property can be expropriated without proof that it is done for public interest. The 1995 Law 7495 on expropriations further stipulates that expropriations require full and prior payment. The law makes no distinction between foreigners and nationals. Provisions include: (a) return of the property to the original owner if it is not used for the intended purpose within ten years or, if the owner was compensated, right of first refusal to repurchase the property back at its current value; (b) detailed provisions for determination of a fair price and appeal of that determination on the part of the former owner; (c) provision that upon full deposit of the calculated amount the government may take possession of land despite the former owner’s dispute of the price; and (d) provisions providing for both local and international arbitration in the event of a dispute. The expropriations law was amended in 1998, 2006, and 2015 to clarify and expedite some procedures, including those necessary to expropriate land for the construction of new roads. (For full detail go to https://PGRweb.go.cr/SCIJ  . When reviewing the articles of the law go to the most recent version of each article.)

There is no discernible bias against U.S. investments, companies, or representatives during the expropriations process. Costa Rican public institutions follow the law as outlined above and generally act in a way acceptable to the affected landowners. However, when landowners and government differ significantly in their appraisal of the expropriated lands’ value, the resultant judicial processes generally take years to resolve. In addition, landowners have, on occasion, been prevented from developing land which has not yet been formally expropriated for parks or protected areas; the courts will eventually order the government to proceed with the expropriations but the process can be long.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

In 1993, Costa Rica became a member state to the convention on International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention). Costa Rica paid the awards resulting from unfavorable ICSID rulings, most recently in 2012 regarding private property belonging to a German national within National Park boundaries.

Costa Rica is a signatory of the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention). Consequently, within the Costa Rican legal hierarchy the Convention ranks higher than local laws although still subordinate to the Constitution. Costa Rican courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards. Judgments of foreign courts are recognized and enforceable under the local courts and the Supreme Court.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Disputes between investors and the government grounded in the government’s alleged actions or failure to act – termed investment disputes ‒ may be resolved administratively or through the legal system.

Under Chapter 10 of the CAFTA-DR agreement, Costa Rica legally obligated itself to answer investor arbitration claims submitted under ICSID or the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), and accept the arbitration verdict. To date there have been two claims by U.S. citizen investors under the provisions of CAFTA-DR. Extensive documentation for both cases is filed on the Foreign Trade Ministry (COMEX) website: http://www.comex.go.cr/tratados/cafta-dr/ , under “documentos relevantes”. No local court denies or fails to enforce foreign arbitral awards issued against the government.

In some coastal areas of Costa Rica, there is a history of invasion and occupation of private property by squatters who are often organized and sometimes violent. It is not uncommon for squatters to return to the parcels of land from which they were evicted, requiring expensive and potentially dangerous vigilance over the land. Nevertheless, in recent years the Supreme Court has refused title to squatters on land already titled, thus removing some incentive for persistent squatters.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

The right to solve disputes through arbitration is guaranteed in the Costa Rican Constitution. For years, the practical application was regulated by the Civil Procedural Code, which made it ineffective with no arbitration cases until 1998, the year the local arbitration law #7727 was enacted. A 2011 law on International Commercial Arbitration (Law 8937), drafted from the UNCITRAL model law (version 2006), brought Costa Rica to a dual arbitration system, with two valid laws, one law for local arbitration and one for international arbitration. Under the local act, arbitration has to be conducted in Spanish and only attorneys admitted to the local Bar Association may be named as arbitrators.  All cases brought before an arbitration panel, under the rules of local arbitration centers, will normally be resolved within two months of the closing arguments hearing.  Parties can withdraw their case or reach an out-of-court settlement before the arbitral tribunal delivers an award.  If the award meets the review criteria, the losing party has the option to request that the Costa Rican Supreme Court examine the award, but only on procedural matters and never on the merits. Under the local Law for International Arbitration, proceedings may be held in English and foreign attorneys are authorized to serve as arbitrators. The following arbitration centers are in operation in Costa Rica:

Centro de Conciliacion y Arbitraje. Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce (CCA)

Centro de Resolución de Controversias. Costa Rican Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA)

Centro Internacional de Conciliacion y Arbitraje (CICA). Costa Rican American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM)

Centro de Arbitraje y Mediacion/Centro Iberoamericano de Arbitraje (CAM). Costa Rican Bar Association.

Beyond such arbitration options, law #7727 also facilitates courts’ enforcement of conciliation agreements reached under the law. Some universities and municipalities operate “Casas de Justicia” (Justice Houses) open to the public and offering mediation and conciliation at no cost. Law #8937 empowered local arbitration centers, beginning with that pertaining to the Engineers and Architects’ Association, to implement Dispute Board regulations, as a method to address construction disputes. Dispute Boards have acquired importance lately in construction contracts; with CFIA implementing new by-laws favoring the use of Dispute Boards in such contracts.

Outcomes in local courts do not appear to favor state-owned enterprises (SOEs) any more or less than other actors.  SOEs can sign arbitral agreements, but must follow strict public laws to obtain the permissions necessary and follow correct procedures, otherwise the agreement could be voided. Once SOEs find themselves in arbitration, they are subject to the same standards and treatment as any other actor.

U.S. companies cite the unpredictability of outcomes as a source of rising judicial insecurity in Costa Rica. The legal system is significantly backlogged, and civil suits may take several years from start to finish. In the tax arena, several U.S. businesses have objected to the Ministry of Finance’s aggressive stance in interpreting transfer pricing principles, compounded by what the businesses perceive as a lack of specialized judges to competently address such cases. Some U.S. firms and citizens satisfactorily resolved their cases through the courts, while others see proceedings drawn out over a decade without a final resolution. Commercial arbitration has become an increasingly common dispute resolution mechanism.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Costa Rican bankruptcy law, addressed in both the commercial code and the civil procedures code, has long been similar to corresponding U.S. law. In February 2021, Costa Rica’s National Assembly approved a comprehensive bankruptcy law reform #21.436 “LEY CONCURSAL”. As of late March 2021, the bill was waiting to be signed by the President and published in the official Gazette. It will come into effect six months after publication.

The new law will ease bankruptcy processes and help companies in financial distress to move through the “administrative intervention” intended to save the companies. The previous law too often ended with otherwise viable companies ceasing operations, rather than allowing them to recover, due to a bias towards dissolution of companies in distress. The new law simplifies processes in court, reduces time and costs, and allows judges to act fast, with a system that is clear and expeditious.

As in the United States, penal law will also apply to criminal malfeasance in some bankruptcy cases. In the World Bank’s “resolving insolvency” ranking within the 2020 “Doing Business” report, Costa Rica ranked #137 of 190 (http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings ).

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Four investment incentive programs operate in Costa Rica: the free trade zone system, an inward-processing regime, a duty drawback procedure, and the tourism development incentives regime. These incentives are available equally to foreign and domestic investors, and include tax holidays, training of specialized labor force, and facilitation of bureaucratic procedures. PROCOMER is in charge of the first three programs and companies may choose only one of the three. As of early 2021, 522 companies are in the free trade zone regime, 90 in the inward processing regime, and 10 in duty drawback.

ICT administers the tourism incentives; through 2020 over 1,126 tourism firms are declared as such with access to incentives of various types depending on the firm’s operations (hotels, rent-a-car, travel agencies, airlines and aquatic transport). The free trade zone regime is based on the 1990 law #7210, updated in 2010 by law #8794 and attendant regulations, while inward processing and duty drawback derive from the General Customs Law #7557. Tourism incentives are based on the 1985 law #6990, most recently amended in 2001.

The inward-processing regime suspends duties on imported raw materials of qualifying companies and then exempts the inputs from those taxes when the finished goods are exported. The goods must be re-exported within a non-renewable period of one year. Companies within this regime may sell to the domestic market if they have registered to do so and pay applicable local taxes. The drawback procedure provides for rebates of duties or other taxes that were paid by an importer for goods subsequently incorporated into an exported good. Finally, the tourism development incentives regime provides a set of advantages, including duty exemption – local and customs taxes – for construction and equipment to tourism companies, especially hotels and marinas, which sign a tourism agreement with ICT.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Individual companies are able to create industrial parks that qualify for free trade zone (FTZ) status by meeting specific criteria and applying for such status with PROCOMER. Companies in FTZs receive exemption from virtually all taxes for eight years and at a reduced rate for some years to follow. Established companies may be able to renew this exemption through additional investment. In addition to the tax benefits, companies operating in FTZs enjoy simplified investment, trade, and customs procedures, which provide a convenient way to avoid Costa Rica’s burdensome business licensing process. Call centers, logistics providers, and software developers are among the companies that may benefit from FTZ status but do not physically export goods. Such service providers have become increasingly important participants in the free trade zone regime. PROCOMER and CINDE are traditionally proactive in working with FTZ companies to streamline and improve law, regulation and procedures touching upon the FTZ regime. See their most recent study of the benefits of FTZ regime for the broader economy on PROCOMER’s website.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Costa Rica does not impose requirements that foreign investors transfer technology or proprietary business information or purchase a certain percentage of inputs from local sources. However, the Costa Rican agencies involved in investment and export promotion do explicitly focus on categories of foreign investor who are likely to encourage technology transfer, local supply chain development, employment of local residents, and cooperation with local universities. The export promotion agency PROCOMER operates an export linkages department focused on increasing the percentage of local content inputs used by large multinational enterprises.

Costa Rica does not have excessively onerous visa, residence, work permit, or similar requirements designed to inhibit the mobility of foreign investors and their employees, although the procedures necessary to obtain residency in Costa Rica are often perceived to be long and bureaucratic. Existing immigration measures do not appear to have inhibited foreign investors’ and their employees’ mobility to the extent that they affect foreign direct investment in the country. The government is responsible for monitoring so that foreign nationals do not displace local employees in employment, and the Immigration Law and Labor Ministry regulations establish a mechanism to determine in which cases the national labor force would need protection. However, investors in the country do not generally perceive Costa Rica as unfairly mandating local employment. The Labor Ministry prepares a list of recommended and not recommended jobs to be filled by foreign nationals. Costa Rica does not have government/authority-imposed conditions on any permission to invest.

Costa Rica does not require Costa Rican data to be stored on Costa Rican soil. Under law #8968 ‒ Personal Data Protection Law – and its corresponding regulation, companies must notify the Data Protection Agency (PRODHAB) of all existing databases from which personal information is sold or traded. Databases pay an annual registration fee.

Costa Rica does not require any IT providers to turn over source code or provide access to encryption. Costa Rica does not impose measurements that prevent or unduly impede companies from freely transmitting customer or other business-related data outside the economy/country’s territory. The measures that do apply under the data privacy law and regulation are equally applicable to data managed within the country.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The laws governing investments in land, buildings, and mortgages are generally transparent. Secured interests in both chattel and real property are recognized and enforced. Mortgage and title recording are mandatory and the vast majority of land in Costa Rica has clear title. However, the National Registry, the government entity that records property titles, has been successfully targeted on occasion with fraudulent filing, which has led in some cases to overlapping title to real property. Costa Rican law allows long-time occupants of a property belonging to someone else (i.e. squatters) to eventually take legal possession of that property if unopposed by the property owner. Potential investors in Costa Rican real estate should also be aware that the right to use traditional paths is enshrined in law and can be used to obtain court-ordered easements on land bearing private title; disputes over easements are particularly common when access to a beach is an issue. Costa Rica is ranked 49th of 190 for ease of “registering property” within the World Bank 2020 Doing Business Report.

Foreigners are subject to the same land lease and acquisition laws and regulations as Costa Ricans with the exception of concessions within the Maritime Zone (Zona Maritima Terrestre – ZMT). Almost all beachfront is public property for a distance of 200 meters from the mean high tide line, with an exception for long-established port cities and a few beaches such as Jaco. The first 50 meters from the mean high tide line cannot be used for any reason by private parties. The next 150 meters, also owned by the state, is the Maritime Zone and can only be leased from the local municipalities or the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) for specified periods and particular uses, such as tourism installation or vacation homes. Concessions in this zone cannot be given to foreigners or foreign-owned companies.

Intellectual Property Rights

Costa Rica’s legal structure for protecting intellectual property rights (IPR) is quite strong, but enforcement is sporadic and does not always get the attention and resources required to be effective. In the 2019 United States Trade Representative (USTR) Special 301 Report, USTR noted the substantial progress made by Costa Rica in protecting IPR. As a result, USTR did not include Costa Rica in the 2020 or 2021 Special 301 reports. Costa Rica was not listed in USTR’s 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

Costa Rica is a signatory of many major international agreements and conventions regarding intellectual property.  Building on the existent regulatory and legal framework, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) required Costa Rica to strengthen and clarify its IPR regime further, with several new IPR laws added to the books in 2008.  Prior to that, the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) took effect in Costa Rica on January 1, 2000.  In 2002, Costa Rica ratified the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Performances and Phonograms Treaty and the WIPO Copyright Treaty.

The IP Registry presented two bills to the General Directorate of the National Registry on January 12, 2021 for approval before sending to the National Assembly for final approval. In 2020, the IP Registry drafted a bill that will include the new proposed reform of the Law on Invention Patents, Industrial Designs, and Utility Models.  This bill will adjust the current law to international standards to make it a more useful tool for the promotion of innovation in the country. Additionally, the National Registry merged the Law on Copyrights and Related Rights and the Law on Procedures for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights into a single draft bill, with the aim of incorporating the provisions of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances.

On June 22, 2020, the General Directorate of the National Registry merged the Registry of Industrial Property and the Registry of Copyright and Related Rights into a single Registry of Intellectual Property, improving the National Registry’s efficiency and fulfilling a reform called for in the National Registry Law from 2010.

While online piracy remains a concern for the country, in February 2019, Costa Rica modified the existing regulation on internet service providers (ISPs) to shorten significantly the 45 days previously allowed for notice and takedown of pirated online content, creating an expeditious safe harbor system for ISPs in Costa Rica. To meet a longstanding CAFTA-DR requirement mandating government use of legal software, in March 2020, the National Registry launched LegalSoft, a new software program to track software licenses and renewal dates across 95 government institutions, with all agencies set to report by July 2020, followed by external audits to verify implementation. With the tracking program now in place, Costa Rica has a systematic solution for monitoring and ensuring the purchase and use of legal software.

In August 2020, Costa Rica’s Intellectual Property Registry launched a WIPO online platform that will allow interested parties to submit online applications to register trademarks.  The online service has improved efficiency and encouraged registrations from small-to-medium-sized companies across the country. During 2019, the National Registry of Industrial Property announced implementation of TMview and DesignView, search tools that allow users to consult trademarks and industrial design data.

The Costa Rican government does not release official statistics on the seizure of counterfeit goods, but the Chamber of Commerce compiles statistics from Costa Rican government sources: http://observatorio.co.cr/  In 2020, Costa Rica’s Economic Crimes Prosecutor investigated 14 IPR cases, down from the totals in the last four years. As in years past, prosecutors ultimately dismissed several cases due to lack of interest, collaboration, and follow-up by the representatives of trademark rights holders.  Government authorities complained that the lack of response by trademark representatives is a recurring behavior dating back to at least 2016 and may explain the drop in IPR cases.  In 2020, the Prosecutor’s Office established a specialized cybercrime unit with the purpose of improving the country’s response toward computer-oriented crimes, including copyrights infringements. The Costa Rican government publishes statistics on IPR criminal enforcement at http://www.comex.go.cr/estad percentC3 percentADsticas-y-estudios/otras-estad percentC3 percentADsticas/ .

On September 4, 2019, Costa Rican Customs issued an executive decree titled “Contact of the Representatives of Intellectual Property Rights for Enforcement Issues” establishing a formal customs recordation system for trademarks that allows customs officers to make full use of their ex officio authority to inspect and detain goods. Under the decree, customs offices have the power to include new trademark rights holders in a formal database for use by customs officials in the field. As of 2020, 150 trademarks are included in this database.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ . Resources for Rights Holders

Resources for Rights Holders

Contact at the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica:

Attention: Investment Climate Statement
Economics Section
Embassy San Jose, Costa Rica
2519-2000
SanJoseEcon@state.gov 

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Costa Rican government’s general attitude towards foreign portfolio investment is cautiously welcoming, seeking to facilitate the free flow of financial resources into the economy while minimizing the instability that might be caused by the sudden entry or exit of funds. The securities exchange (Bolsa Nacional de Valores) is small and is dominated by trading in bonds. Stock trading is of limited significance and involves less than 10 of the country’s larger companies, resulting in an illiquid secondary market. There is a small secondary market in commercial paper and repurchase agreements. The Costa Rican government has in recent years explicitly welcomed foreign institutional investors purchasing significant volumes of Costa Rican dollar-denominated government debt in the local market. The securities exchange regulator (SUGEVAL) is generally perceived to be effective.

Costa Rica accepted the obligations of IMF Article VIII, agreeing not to impose restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions or engage in discriminatory currency arrangements, except with IMF approval. There are no controls on capital flows in or out of Costa Rica or on portfolio investment in publicly traded companies. Some capital flows are subject to a withholding tax (see section on Foreign Exchange and Remittances). Within Costa Rica, credit is largely allocated on market terms, although long-term capital is scarce. Favorable lending terms for USD-denominated loans compared to colon-denominated loans have made USD-denominated mortgage financing popular and common. Foreign investors are able to borrow in the local market; they are also free to borrow from abroad, although withholding tax may apply.

Money and Banking System

Costa Rica’s financial system boasts a relatively high financial inclusion rate, estimated by the Central Bank by August 2020 at 81.5 percent (the percentage of adults over the age of 15 holding a bank account). Non-resident foreigners may open what are termed “simplified accounts” in Costa Rican financial institutions, while resident foreigners have full access to all banking services.

The banking sector is healthy, although the 2020 non-performing loan ratio of 2.46 percent of total loans as of December 2020 would be significantly higher if not for Covid-19 temporary regulatory measures allowing banks to readjust loans. The state-owned commercial banks had a higher 3.24 percent average. The country hosts a large number of smaller private banks, credit unions, and factoring houses, although the four state-owned banks are still dominant, accounting for just under 50 percent of the country’s financial system assets. Consolidated total assets of those state-owned banks were approximately USD 29.5 billion in December 2020, while consolidated total assets of the eleven private commercial and cooperative banks were about USD 21.5 billion. Combined assets of all bank groups (public banks, private banks and others) were approximately USD 63.1 billion as of December 2020. As of February 2020, Costa Rica adopted a deposit guarantee fund and bank resolution regime for the financial system, ending the previous much-criticized situation in which only publicly owned banks benefitted from de-facto state guarantees.

Costa Rica’s Central Bank performs the functions of a central bank while also providing support to the four autonomous financial superintendencies (Banking, Securities, Pensions and Insurance) under the supervision of the national council for the supervision of the financial system (CONASSIF). The Central Bank developed and operates the financial system’s transaction settlement and direct transfer mechanism “SINPE” through which clients transfer money to and from accounts with any other account in the financial system. The Central Bank’s governance structure is strong, having benefitted in 2019 from reforms that increase the Bank’s autonomy from the Executive Branch.

Foreign banks may establish both full operations and branch operations in the country under the supervision of the banking regulator SUGEF. The Central Bank has a good reputation and has had no problem maintaining sufficient correspondent relationships. Costa Rica is steadily improving its ability to ensure the efficacy of anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism finance. The Costa Rican financial sector in broad terms appears to be satisfied to date with the available correspondent banking services.

The OECD 2020 report “review of the financial system” for Costa Rica is an excellent resource for those seeking more detail on the current state of Costa Rica’s financial system: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/Costa-Rica-Review-of-Financial-System-2020.pdf .

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

No restrictions are imposed on expatriation of royalties or capital except when these rights are otherwise stipulated in contractual agreements with the government of Costa Rica. However, Costa Rican sourced rents and benefits remitted overseas, including royalties, are subject to a withholding tax (see below). When such remittances are paid to a parent company or related legal entity, transfer pricing rules and certain limitations apply.

There are no restrictions on receiving, holding, or transferring foreign exchange. There are no delays for foreign exchange, which is readily available at market clearing rates and readily transferable through the banking system. Dollar bonds and other dollar instruments may be traded legally. Euros are increasingly available in the market. Costa Rica has a floating exchange rate regime in which the Central Bank is ready to intervene, if necessary, to smooth any exchange rate volatility.

Remittance Policies

Costa Rica does not have restrictions on remittances of funds to any foreign country; however, all funds remitted are subject to applicable withholding taxes that are paid to the country’s tax administration.  The default level of withholding tax is 30 percent with royalties capped at 25 percent, dividends at 15 percent, professional services at 25 percent, transportation and communication services at 8.5 percent, and reinsurance at 5.5 percent (different withholding taxes also apply for other types of services).  By Costa Rican law, in order to pay dividends, procedures need to be followed that include being in business in the corresponding fiscal year and paying all applicable local taxes.  Those procedures for declaring dividends in effect put a timing restriction on them.  Withholding tax does not apply to payment of interest to multilateral and bilateral banks that promote economic and social growth, and companies located in free trade zones pay no dividend withholding tax.  Spain, Germany, and Mexico have double-taxation tax treaties with Costa Rica, lowering the withholding tax on dividends paid by companies from those countries.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Costa Rica does not have a Sovereign Wealth Fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Costa Rica’s total of 28 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are commonly known by their abbreviated names. They include monopolies in petroleum-derived fuels (RECOPE), lottery (JPS), railroads (INCOFER), local production of ethanol (CNP/FANAL), water distribution (AyA), and electrical distribution (ICE, CNFL, JASEC, ESPH). SOEs have market dominance in insurance (INS), telecommunications (ICE, RACSA, JASEC, ESPH) and finance (BNCR, BCR, Banco Popular, BANHVI, INVU, INFOCOOP). They have significant market participation in parcel and mail delivery (Correos) and ports operation (INCOP and JAPDEVA). Six of those SOEs hold significant economic power with revenues exceeding 1 percent of GDP: ICE, RECOPE, INS, BNCR, BCR and Banco Popular. The 2020 OECD report “Corporate Governance in Costa Rica” reports that Costa Rican SOE employment is 1.9% of total employment, somewhat below the OECD average of 2.5%. Audited returns for each SOE may be found on each company’s website, while basic revenue and costs for each SOE are available on the General Controller’s Office (CGR) “Sistema de Planes y Presupuestos” https://www.cgr.go.cr/02-consultas/consulta-pp.html . The Costa Rican government does not currently hold minority stakes in commercial enterprises.

No Costa Rican state-owned enterprise currently requires continuous and substantial state subsidy to survive. Many SOEs turn a profit, which is allocated as dictated by law and boards of directors. Financial allocations to and earnings from SOEs may be found in the CGR “Sistema de Informacion de Planes y Presupuestos (SIPP)”.

U.S. investors and their advocates cite some of the following ways in which Costa Rican SOEs competing in the domestic market receive non-market-based advantages because of their status as state-owned entities.

  • According to Law 7200, electricity generated privately must be purchased by public entities and the installed capacity of the private sector is limited to 30 percent of total electrical installed capacity in the country: 15 percent to small privatelyowned renewable energy plants and 15 percent to larger “buildoperatetransfer” (BOT) operations.
  • Telecoms and technology sector companies have called attention to the fact that government agencies often choose SOEs as their telecom services providers despite a full assortment of privatesector telecom companies. The Information and Telecommunications Business Chamber (CAMTIC) has been advocating for years against what its members feel to be unfair use by government entities of a provision (Article 2) in the public contracting law that allows noncompetitive award of contracts to public entities (also termed “direct purchase”) when functionaries of the awarding entity certify the award to be an efficient use of public funds. CAMTIC has compiled detailed statistics showing that while the yearly total dollar value of Costa Rican government direct purchases in the IT sector under Article 2 has dropped considerably from USD 226 million in 2017, to $72.5 million in 2018, USD 27.5 million in 2019, and USD 7.1 million in 2020, the number of purchases has actually increased from 56 purchases in both 2017 and 2018 to 86 in 2019 and 83 in 2020.
  • The stateowned insurance provider National Insurance Institute (INS) has been adjusting to private sector competition since 2009 but in 2020 still registered 70 percent of total insurance premiums paid; 13 insurers are now registered with insurance regulator SUGESE: ( https://www.sugese.fi.cr/SitePages/index.aspx ). Competitors point to unfair advantages enjoyed by the stateowned insurer INS, including a strong tendency among SOE’s to contract their insurance with INS.

Costa Rica is not a party to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) although it is registered as an observer. Costa Rica is working to adhere to the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance for SOEs ( www.oecd.org/daf/ca/oecdguidelinesoncorporategovernanceofstate-ownedenterprises.htm ). For more information on Costa Rica’s SOE’s, see the OECD Accession report “Corporate Governance in Costa Rica”, dated October 2020: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/corporate-governance-in-costa-rica-b313ec37-en.htm  .

Privatization Program

Costa Rica does not have a privatization program and the markets that have been opened to competition in recent decades – banking, telecommunications, insurance and Atlantic Coast container port operations – were opened without privatizing the corresponding state-owned enterprise(s). However, in response to the growing fiscal deficit, the current administration has signaled willingness to privatize two relatively minor state owned enterprises: the state liquor company (Fanal), and the International Bank of Costa Rica (Bicsa).

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Corporations in Costa Rica, particularly those in the export and tourism sectors, generally enjoy a positive reputation within the country as engines of growth and practitioners of Responsible Business Conduct (RBC). The Costa Rica government actively highlights its role in attracting high-tech companies to Costa Rica; the strong RBC culture that many of those companies cultivate has become part of that winning package. Large multinational companies commonly pursue RBC goals in line with their corporate goals and have found it beneficial to publicize RBC orientation and activities in Costa Rica. Many smaller companies, particularly in the tourism sector, have integrated community outreach activities into their way of doing business. There is a general awareness of RBC among both producers and consumers in Costa Rica.

Multinational enterprises in Costa Rica have not been associated in recent decades in any systematic or high-profile way with alleged human or labor rights violations. The Costa Rican government maintains and enforces laws with respect to labor and employment rights, consumer protection and environmental protection. Costa Rica has no legal mineral extraction industry with its accompanying issues, but illegal small scale gold mining, particularly in the north of the country, is a focal point of serious environmental damage, organized crime, and social disruption. Costa Rica encourages foreign and local enterprises to follow generally accepted RBC principles such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (MNE) and maintains a national contact point for OECD MNE guidelines within the Ministry of Foreign Trade (see https://www.comex.go.cr/punto-nacional-de-contacto/  or http://www.oecd.org/investment/mne/ncps.htm ).

Costa Rica has been a participant since 2011 in the Montreux Document reaffirming the obligations of states regarding private military and security companies during armed conflict.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Costa Rica has laws, regulations, and penalties to combat corruption. Though the resources available to enforce those laws are limited, Costa Rica’s institutional framework is strong, such that those cases that are prosecuted are generally perceived as legitimate. Anti-corruption laws extend to family members of officials, contemplate conflict-of-interest in both procurement and contract award, and penalizes bribery by local businessmen of both local and foreign government officials. Public officials convicted of receiving bribes are subject to prison sentences up to ten years, according to the Costa Rican Criminal Code (Articles 347-360). Entrepreneurs may not deduct the costs of bribes or any other criminal activity as business expenses. In recent decades, Costa Rica saw several publicized cases of firms prosecuted under the terms of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Costa Rica ratified the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption in 1997. This initiative of the OECD and the Organization of American States (OAS) obligates subscribing nations to implement criminal sanctions for corruption and implies a series of follow up actions: http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/cri.htm . Costa Rica also ratified the UN Anti-Corruption Convention in March 2007, has been a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since 2012, and as of July 2017 is a party to the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery of Foreign Public Officials.

The Costa Rican government has encouraged civil society interest in good governance, open government and fiscal transparency, with a number of NGO’s operating unimpeded in this space. While U.S. firms do not identify corruption as a major obstacle to doing business in Costa Rica, some have made allegations of corruption in the administration of public tenders and in approvals or timely processing of permits. Developers of tourism facilities periodically cite municipal-level corruption as a problem when attempting to gain a concession to build and operate in the restricted maritime zone.

For further material on anti-bribery and corruption in Costa Rica, see the OECD study: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/costa-rica-has-improved-its-foreign-bribery-legislation-but-must-strengthen-enforcement-and-close-legal-loopholes.htm 

Also on the OECD website, information relating to Costa Rica’s membership in the OECD anti-bribery convention: https://www.oecd.org/countries/costarica/costarica-oecdanti-briberyconvention.htm 

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact within government Anti-Corruption Agency:

Name: Armando López Baltodano
Title: Procurador Director de la Area de la Etica Publica, PGR
Organization: Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR)
Address: Avenida 2 y 6, Calle 13. San Jose, Costa Rica.
Telephone Number: 2243-8330, 2243-8321
Email Address: evelynhk@pgr.go.cr 

Contact at “watchdog” organization:

Evelyn Villarreal F.
Asociación Costa Rica Íntegra
Tel:. (506) 8355 3762
Email 1: evelyn.villarreal@cr.transparency.org 
Email 2: crintegra.vice@gmail.com 

10. Political and Security Environment

Since 1948, Costa Rica has not experienced significant domestic political violence. There are no indigenous or external movements likely to produce political or social instability. However, Costa Ricans occasionally follow a long tradition of blocking public roads for a few hours as a way of pressuring the government to address grievances; the traditional government response has been to react slowly, thus giving the grievances time to air. This practice on the part of peaceful protesters can cause logistical problems.

Crime increased in Costa Rica in recent decades and U.S. citizen visitors and residents are frequent victims.  While petty theft is the main problem, criminals show an increased tendency to use violence. Some crime in Costa Rica is associated with the illegal drug trade.  Please see the State Department’s Travel Advisory page for Costa Rica for the latest information- https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/costa-rica-travel-advisory.html

11. Labor Policies and Practices

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic affected employment significantly by decreasing the number of employed persons. In general, the loss of employment affected women the most, as shown by a lower participation in the labor market compared to 2019. The National Statistics Institute (INEC) reported that during the last quarter of 2020, the labor force reached 60.8 percent, 2.1 percentage points below the same period in 2019. The unemployment rate remained high at 20 percent (16.4 percent among males and 25.2 percent among females), 7.6 percentage points higher than the same period in 2019 (the unemployment rate peaked at 24.4 percent during the second quarter of 2020). During the last quarter of 2020, 43.3 percent of the non-agricultural workforce was in the informal economy. In 2020, informal employment decreased to 44.1 percent (compared to 46.3 percent in in 2019) because of the loss of nearly 237,000 jobs, mainly affecting women and independent workers. From November 2020 to January 2021, the unemployment rate maintained a downward trend, reaching 19.1 percent.

The Costa Rican labor force has high educational standards. The country boasts an extensive network of publicly funded schools and universities while Costa Rica’s national vocational training institute (INA) and private sector groups provide technical and vocational training.

The growth of Costa Rica’s service, tourism, and technology sectors has stimulated demand for English-language speakers. The pool of job candidates with English and technical skills in the Central Valley is sufficient to meet current demand. However, the current finite number of job candidates with these skills limits the ability of foreign and local businesses to expand operations. In 2020, the U.S. Embassy provided support for English language education during the Covid-19 crisis, including virtual programs to improve English language learning and teaching.

The March 2020 border closure due to the pandemic caused a shortage of foreign labor in the agricultural sector throughout 2020, seriously affecting the coffee harvest, which depends almost entirely on foreign labor from Panama and Nicaragua. Initially, the government implemented a temporary program for undocumented migrants who were already in the country. Later, the government allowed a controlled entry of foreign migrant workers through the northern border under strict sanitary measures. The government also allowed entry of indigenous migrant workers through the southern border.

The government does not keep track of shortages or surpluses of specialized labor skills. Foreign nationals have the same rights, duties, and benefits as local employees. The government is responsible for ensuring that foreign nationals do not displace local employees in employment. Labor law provisions apply equally across the nation, both within and outside free trade zones. The Immigration Law and the Labor Ministry’s regulations establish a mechanism to determine in which cases the national labor force would need protection. The Labor Ministry prepares a list of recommended and not-recommended jobs to be filled by foreign nationals.

There are no restrictions on employers adjusting employment to respond to fluctuating market conditions. The law does not differentiate between layoffs and dismissal without cause. There are concepts established in the law related to unemployment and dismissals such as the mandatory savings plan (Labor Capitalization Fund (Fondo de Capitalizacion Laboral, FCL), as well as the notice of termination of employment (preaviso) and severance pay (cesantia). The FCL, which is funded through employer contributions, functions as an unemployment insurance; the employee can withdraw the savings every five years if the employee has worked without interruption for the same employer. Costa Rican labor law requires that employees released without cause receive full severance pay, which can amount to close to a full year’s pay in some cases. Although there is no insurance for workers laid off for economic reasons, employers may voluntarily establish an unemployment fund.

In response to government-ordered temporary business closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020, the Labor Ministry implemented the temporary suspension of employment contracts, a procedure established in the Labor Code, which grants employers the option of stopping the payment of wages temporarily during an emergency. Executive orders (Nos. 42522-MTSS and 42248-MTSS) established the procedures for employers to request the temporary suspension of labor contracts with their employees. Employers requested the suspension of contracts through the Labor Inspectorate of the Labor Ministry.

The National Assembly approved a new law to reduce working hours during the pandemic. Under the law, if income in a company decreases by 20 percent, compared to the income during the same month in 2019 or compared to the income of the previous three months, the employer can reduce the employees’ working hours and salaries up to 50 percent. If the decrease in income is greater than 60 percent, the reduction in salary can reach 75 percent. Legislators initially authorized this reduction for three months and employers could request extensions for two equal terms (9 months) and then to five terms (15 months) as the emergency continued.

The National Assembly authorized the employees, whose labor contracts were terminated or suspended or whose salaries were reduced during the state of emergency declaration, to withdraw their contributions to the FCL plan (Law 9839).

Costa Rican labor law and practice allows some flexibility in alternate schedules; nevertheless, it is based on a 48-hour week made up of eight-hour days. Workers are entitled to one day of rest after six consecutive days of work. The labor code stipulates that the workday may not exceed 12 hours. Use of temporary or contract workers for jobs that are not temporary in nature to lower labor costs and avoid payroll taxes does occur, particularly in construction and in agricultural activities dedicated to domestic (rather than export) markets. No labor laws are waived to attract or retain investment‒all labor laws apply in all Costa Rican territory, including free trade zones. The government has been actively exploring ways to introduce more flexibility into the labor code to facilitate teleworking and flexible work schedules.

Costa Rican law guarantees the right of workers to join labor unions of their choosing without prior authorization. Unions operate independently of government control and may form federations and confederations and affiliate internationally. Most unions are in the public sector, including in state-run enterprises. Collective bargaining agreements are common in the public sector. “Permanent committees of employees” informally represent employees in some enterprises of the private sector and directly negotiate with employers; these negotiations are expressed in “direct agreements,” which have a legal status. Based on 2020 statistics, 98.8 percent of government employees are union members as compared to 3.6 percent in the private sector. In 2020, the Labor Ministry reported 118 collective bargaining agreements, 84 with public sector entities and 34 within the private sector, covering 11.8 percent of the working population. The Ministry reported a total of 119 “direct agreements” mainly in the agriculture sector during 2020, as compared to 149 in 2019.

In the private sector, many Costa Rican workers join “solidarity associations,” through which employers provide easy access to saving plans, low-interest loans, health clinics, recreation centers, and other benefits. A 2011 law solidified that status by giving solidarity associations constitutional recognition comparable to that afforded labor unions. Solidarity associations and labor unions coexist at some workplaces, primarily in the public sector. Business groups claim that worker participation in permanent committees and/or solidarity associations provides for better labor relations compared to firms with workers represented only by unions. However, some labor unions allege private businesses use permanent committees and solidarity associations to hinder union organization while permanent workers’ committees displace labor unions on collective bargaining issues in contravention of internationally recognized labor rights.

The Ministry of Labor has a formal dispute-resolution body and will engage in dispute-resolution when necessary; labor disputes may also be resolved through the judicial process. The Ministry of Labor’s regulations establish that conciliation is the mechanism to solve individual labor disputes, as defined in the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Law (No. 7727, dated 9 December 1997). The Labor Code and ADR Law establish the following mechanisms: dialogue, negotiation, mediation, conciliation, and arbitration. The Labor Law promotes alternative dispute resolution in judicial, administrative, and private proceedings. The law establishes three specific mechanisms: arbitration to resolve individual or collective labor disputes (including a Labor Ministry’s arbitrator roster list); conciliation in socio-economic collective disputes (introducing private conciliation processes); and arbitration in socio-economic collective disputes (with a neutral arbitrator or a panel of arbitrators issuing a decision). The Labor Ministry also participates as mediator in collective conflicts, facilitating and promoting dialogue among interested parties. The law provides for protection from dismissal for union organizers and members and requires employers found guilty of anti-union discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities.

The law provides for the right of workers to conduct legal strikes, but it prohibits strikes in public services considered essential (police, hospitals, and ports). Strikes affecting the private sector are rare and do not pose a risk for investment.

Child and adolescent labor is uncommon in Costa Rica, and it occurs mainly in agriculture in the informal sector.  In 2020, the government published the results of a child labor risk identification model and a strategy to design preventive measures at local level. It also began to implement a pilot project for the prevention of child labor in two at-risk cantons in the province of Limón.

Chapter 16 of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement obliges Costa Rica to enforce its laws that defend core international labor standards. The government, organized labor, employer organizations, and the International Labor Organization signed a memorandum of understanding to launch a Decent Work Program for the period 2019-2023, which aims to improve labor conditions and facilitate employability for vulnerable groups through government-labor-business tripartite dialogue.

The government enacted the following labor-related laws: on March 23, 2020, the reduction of working hours in the private sector during the national emergency (Law No. 9832) and its amendment (dated January 13, 2021) extending the reduction of working hours during the national emergency (Law No. 9937); on April 3, 2020, authorization to withdraw the FCL funds by employees affected by the economic crisis (Law No, 9839); and on July 18, 2020, moving national holidays to Mondays to boost domestic tourism from 2020 to 2024 (Law No. 9875).

The National Assembly has been discussing a public employment reform bill that aims to establish the same salary for equal responsibilities in the public sector, eliminating different wage systems and salary bonus structures, which would reduce the fiscal deficit.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $61,801 2019 $61,801 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $25,682 2019 $1,521 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $124 2019 $-199 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
 
Total inbound FDI as % host GDP 2019 4.3% 2019 4.1% UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/
EconomicTrends/Fdi.html
* Source for Host Country Data: Costa Rica’s Central Bank BCCR is the source for GDP and FDI statistics. Year-end data is published March 31 of the following year.
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 43,564 100% Total Outward 3,446 100%
United States 24,543 56.3% Nicaragua 1,039 30.2%
Spain 2,709 6.2% Guatemala
Mexico 2,124 4.9% Panama 812 23.6%
The Netherlands 1,724 4.0% United States 128 3.7%
Colombia 1,606 3.7% Colombia 79 2.3%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Costa Rica’s open and globally integrated economy receives FDI principally from the United States followed by Europe and Latin America. Costa Rica’s outward FDI is more regionally focused on its neighbors Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama, with the United States and Colombia following. The source of this information on direct investment positions is the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (CDIS) site (http://data.imf.org/CDIS).
Table 4: Destination of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries 3,026 100% All Countries 1,776 100% All Countries 1,249 100%
United States 1,729 57% United States 871 49% United States 859 69%
Luxembourg 386 13% Luxembourg 381 21% UK 102 8%
Ireland 367 12% Ireland 365 21% Australia 44 4%
Germany 168 6% Germany 140 8% Germany 27 2%
U.K. 102 3% Cayman Islands 8 0% Honduras 22 2%
The source of this information is the IMF Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey (CPIS), June 2020. https://data.imf.org/?sk=B981B4E3-4E58-467E-9B90-9DE0C3367363&sId=1481577785817 

Dominican Republic

Executive Summary

Foreign direct investment (FDI) plays an important role for the Dominican economy, and the Dominican Republic is one of the main recipients of FDI in the Caribbean and Central America. The government actively courts FDI with generous tax exemptions and other incentives to attract businesses to the country. Historically, the tourism, real estate, telecommunications, free trade zones, mining, and financing sectors are the largest FDI recipients. In January 2020, the government announced a special incentive plan to promote high-quality investment in tourism and infrastructure in the southwest region and, in February 2020, it passed a Public Private Partnership law to catalyze private sector-led economic growth.

Besides financial incentives, the country’s membership in the Central America Free Trade Agreement-Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR) is one of the greatest advantages for foreign investors. Observers credit the agreement with increasing competition, strengthening rule of law, and expanding access to quality products in the Dominican Republic. The United States remains the single largest investor in the Dominican Republic. CAFTA-DR includes protections for member state foreign investors, including mechanisms for dispute resolution.

Despite the negative macroeconomic impacts of the pandemic, international indicators of the Dominican Republic’s competitiveness and transparency held steady. Foreign investors report numerous systemic problems in the Dominican Republic and cite a lack of clear, standardized rules by which to compete and a lack of enforcement of existing rules. Complaints include allegations of widespread corruption; requests for bribes; delays in government payments; weak intellectual property rights enforcement; bureaucratic hurdles; slow and sometimes locally biased judicial and administrative processes, and non-standard procedures in customs valuation and classification of imports. Weak land tenure laws and government expropriations without due compensation continue to be a problem. The public perceives administrative and judicial decision-making to be inconsistent, opaque, and overly time-consuming. Corruption and poor implementation of existing laws are widely discussed as key investor grievances.

U.S. businesses operating in the Dominican Republic often need to take extensive measures to ensure compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Many U.S. firms and investors have expressed concerns that corruption in the government, including in the judiciary, continues to constrain successful investment in the Dominican Republic.

In August 2020, President Luis Abinader became the 54th President of the Dominican Republic, presiding over the first change in power in 16 years. Taking office with bold promises to rein in corruption, the government quickly arrested a slew of high-level officials from the previous administration implicated in corruption—people who under prior governments would have been considered untouchable. It remains to be seen whether Abinader will deliver on more complex commitments, such as institutional reforms to advance transparency or long-delayed electricity sector reform.

The Dominican Republic, an upper middle-income country, contracted by 6.7 percent in 2020 and concluded the year with a 7.7 percent deficit thanks to the pandemic. The IMF and World Bank project growth for 2021 at 4.0-4.8 percent.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 137 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 115 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 90 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 $2,604 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/factsheet.cfm?Area=207&UUID=8544e377-fb53-42fe-a16e-01c425113446 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 $8,080 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Dominican Republic presents both opportunities and challenges for foreign investment. The government strongly promotes inward FDI and has prioritized creating a sound enabling environment for foreign investors. While the government has established formal programs to attract FDI, a lack of clear rules and uneven enforcement of existing rules can lead to difficulties.

The Dominican Republic provides tax incentives for investment in tourism, renewable energy, film production, Haiti-Dominican Republic border development, and the industrial sector. The country is also a signatory of CAFTA-DR, which mandates non-discriminatory treatment, free transferability of funds, protection against expropriation, and procedures for the resolution of investment disputes. However, some foreign investors indicate that the uneven enforcement of regulations and laws, or political interference in legal processes, creates difficulties for investment.

There are two main government agencies responsible for attracting foreign investment, the Export and Investment Center of the Dominican Republic (CEI-RD) and the National Council of Free Trade Zones for Export (CNZFE). CEI-RD promotes foreign investment and aids prospective foreign investors with business registration, matching services, and identification of investment opportunities. It publishes an annual “Investment Guide of the Dominican Republic,” highlighting many of the tools, incentives, and opportunities available for prospective investors. The CEI-RD also oversees “ProDominicana,” a branding and marketing program for the country launched in 2017 that promotes the DR as an investment destination and exporter. CNZFE aids foreign companies looking to establish operations in the country’s 75 free trade zones for export outside Dominican territory.

There are a variety of business associations that promote dialogue between the government and private sector, including the Association of Foreign Investor Businesses (ASIEX).

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign Investment Law No. 16-95 states that unlimited foreign investment is permitted in all sectors, with a few exceptions for hazardous materials or materials linked to national security. Private entities, both foreign and domestic, have the right to establish and own business enterprises and engage in all legal remunerative activity. Foreign companies are not restricted in their access to foreign exchange, there are no requirements that foreign equity be reduced over time or that technology be transferred according to defined terms, and the government imposes no conditions on foreign investors concerning location, local ownership, local content, or export requirements. See Section 3 Legal Regime for more information.

The Dominican Republic does not maintain a formalized investment screening and approval mechanism for inbound foreign investment. Details on the established mechanisms for registering a business or investment are elaborated in the Business Facilitations section below.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The Dominican Republic has not been reviewed recently by multilateral organizations regarding investment policy. The most recent reviews occurred in 2015. This included a trade policy review by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a follow-up review by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) regarding its 2009 investment policy recommendations.

2009 UNCTAD – https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationArchive.aspx?publicationid=6343 

2015 WTO – https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/s319_e.pdf

2015 UNCTAD – https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/diaepcb2016d2_en.pdf

Business Facilitation

Foreign investment does not require any prior approval in the Dominican Republic, but once made it must be registered with the CEI-RD. Investments in free zones must be registered with the CNZFE, which will notify the CEI-RD.  Foreign investment registration is compulsory, but failure to do so is not subject to any sanction.  In the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report, the Dominican Republic’s overall ranking for ease of doing business fell from 102 in 2019 to 115 in 2020, reflecting stagnant performance in several of the indicator categories.

Law No. 16-95 Foreign Investment, Law No. 98-03 on the Creation of the CEI-RD, and Regulation 214-04 govern foreign investment in the Dominican Republic and require an interested foreign investor to file an application form at the offices of CEI-RD within 180 calendar days from the date on which the foreign investment took place. The required documents include the application for registration, containing information on the invested capital and the area of the investment; proof of entry into the country of the foreign capital or physical or tangible goods; and documents of commercial incorporation or the authorization of operation of a branch office through the setting up of legal domicile in the country.  The reinvestment of profits (in the same or a different firm) must be registered within 90 days. Once the documents have been approved, the CEI-RD issues a certificate of registration within 15 business days subject to the payment of a fee which varies depending on the amount of the investment.

Lack of registration does not affect the validity of the foreign investment; but the fact that it is needed to fulfil various types of procedures, makes registration necessary in practice. For example, the registration certificate has to be presented to repatriate profits or investment in the event of sale or liquidation and to purchase foreign exchange from the authorized agencies for transfers abroad, as well as to process the residency of the investor.  In April 2021, CEI-RD launched an online Registry of Foreign Direct Investment, which aims to streamline and make the registration processes more transparent to investors. For more information on becoming an investor or exporter, visit the CEI-RD ProDominicana website at https://prodominicana.gob.do .

The Dominican Republic has a single-window registration website for registering a limited liability company (SRL by its Spanish acronym) that offers a one-stop shop for registration needs ( https://www.formalizate.gob.do/ ). Foreign companies may use the registration website. However, this electronic method of registration is not widely used in practice and consultation with a local lawyer is recommended for company registrations. According to the “Doing Business” report, starting a SRL in the Dominican Republic is a seven-step process that requires 16.5 days. However, some businesses advise the full incorporation process can take two to three times longer than the advertised process.

In order to set up a business in a free trade zone, a formal request must be made to the CNZFE, the entity responsible for issuing the operating licenses needed to be a free zone company or operator. CNZFE assesses the application and determines its feasibility. For more information on the procedure to apply for an operating license, visit the website of the CNZFE at http://www.cnzfe.gov.do .

Outward Investment

There are no legal or government restrictions on Dominican investment abroad, although the government does little to promote it. Outbound foreign investment is significantly lower than inbound investment. The largest recipient of Dominican outward investment is the United States.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The national government manages all regulatory processes. Information about regulations is often scattered among various ministry and agency websites and is sometimes only available through direct communication with officials. It is advisable for U.S. investors to consult with local attorneys or advisors to assist with locating comprehensive regulatory information.

On the 2020 Global Innovations Index, the Dominican Republic’s overall rank was 90 out of 131 nations analyzed. In sub-sections of the report, the Dominican Republic ranks 101 out of 131 for regulatory environment and 78 out of 131 for regulatory quality. In the same year, the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report ranked the Dominican Republic 133 out of 190 economies with respect to enforcing contracts, 124 out of 190 for resolving insolvency, and 74 out of 190 regarding registering property.

The World Bank Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance report states that Dominican ministries and regulatory agencies do not publish lists of anticipated regulatory changes or proposals intended for adoption within a specific timeframe. Law No. 200-04 requires regulatory agencies to give notice of proposed regulations in public consultations and mandates publication of the full text of draft regulations on a unified website: https://saip.gob.do/ . Foreign investors, however, note that these requirements are not always met in practice and many businesses point out that the scope of the website content is not always adequate for investors or interested parties as not all relevant Dominican agencies provide content, and those that do often do not keep the content up to date. U.S. businesses also reported years’ long delays in the enactment of regulations supporting new legislation, even when the common legal waiting period is six months.

The process of public consultation is not uniform across government. Some ministries and regulatory agencies solicit comments on proposed legislation from the public; however, public outreach is generally limited and depends on the responsible ministry or agency. For example, businesses report that some ministries upload proposed regulations to their websites or post them in national newspapers, while others may form working groups with key public and private sector stakeholders participating in the drafting of proposed regulations. Often the criteria used by the government to select participants in these informal exchanges are unclear, which at a minimum creates the appearance of favoritism and that undue influence is being offered to a handpicked (and often politically-connected) group of firms and investors. Public comments received by the government are generally not publicly accessible. Some ministries and agencies prepare consolidated reports on the results of a consultation for direct distribution to interested stakeholders. Ministries and agencies do not conduct impact assessments of regulations or ex post reviews. Affected parties cannot request reconsideration or appeal of adopted regulations.

The Dominican Institute of Certified Public Accountants (ICPARD) is the country’s legally recognized professional accounting organization and has authority to establish accounting standards in accordance with Law No. 479-08, which also declares that (as amended by Law No. 311-14) financial statements should be prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting standards nationally and internationally. The ICPARD and the country’s Securities Superintendency require the use of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and IFRS for small and medium-sized entities (SMEs).

By law, the Office of Public Credit publishes on its website a quarterly report on the status of the non-financial public sector debt, which includes a wide array of information and statistics on public borrowing ( www.creditopublico.gov.do/publicaciones/informes_trimestrales.htm ).

In addition to the public debt addressed by the Office of Public Credit, the Central Bank maintains on its balance sheet nearly $10 billion in “quasi-fiscal” debt. When consolidated with central government debt, the debt-to-GDP ratio is over 60 percent, and the debt service ratio is over 30 percent.

International Regulatory Considerations

As of the end of 2020, the Dominican Republic was involved in 17 dispute settlement cases with the WTO: one as complainant, seven as respondent, and nine as a third party. In recent years, the Dominican Republic has frequently changed technical requirements (e.g., for steel rebar imports and sanitary registrations, among others) and has failed to provide proper notification under the WTO TBT agreement and CAFTA-DR.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

The judicial branch is an independent branch of the Dominican government. According to Article 69 of the Constitution, all persons, including foreigners, have the right to appear in court. The basic concepts of the Dominican legal system and the forms of legal reasoning derive from French law. The five basic French Codes (Civil, Civil Procedure, Commerce, Penal, and Criminal Procedure) were translated into Spanish and passed as legislation in 1884. Some of these codes have since been amended and parts have been replaced, including the total derogation of the Code of Criminal Procedure in 2002. Subsequent Dominican laws are not of French origin.

In year 2020, the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report gave the Dominican Republic a score of 6.5 out of 18 in the quality of its judicial processes. In the 2020 Global Innovations Index, the Dominican Republic ranked 86 out of 131 countries for rule of law.

There is a Commercial Code and a wide variety of laws governing business formation and activity. The main laws governing commercial disputes are the Commercial Code; Law No. 479-08, the Commercial Societies Law; Law No. 3-02, concerning Business Registration; Commercial Arbitration Law No. 489-08; Law No. 141-15 concerning Restructuring and Liquidation of Business Entities; and Law No. 126-02, concerning e-Commerce and Digital Documents and Signatures.

Some investors complain of long wait times for a decision by the judiciary. While Dominican law mandates overall time standards for the completion of key events in a civil case, these standards frequently are not met. The World Bank’s 2020 “Doing Business” report noted that resolving complaints raised during the award and execution of a contract can take more than four years in the Dominican Republic, although some take longer. Dominican nationals and foreigners alike have the constitutional right to present their cases to an appeal court and to the Supreme Court to review (recurso de casación in Spanish) the ruling of the lower court. If a violation of fundamental rights is alleged, the Constitutional Court might also review the case. Notwithstanding, foreign investors have complained that the local court system is unreliable, is biased against them, and that special interests and powerful individuals are able to use the legal system in their favor. Others that have successfully won in courts, have struggled to get their ruling enforced.

While the law provides for an independent judiciary, businesses and other external groups have noted that in practice, the government does not respect judicial independence or impartiality, and improper influence on judicial decisions is widespread. Several large U.S. firms cite the improper and disruptive use of lower court injunctions as a way for local distributors to obtain more beneficial settlements at the end of contract periods. To engage effectively in the Dominican market, many U.S. companies seek local partners that are well-connected and understand the local business environment.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The legal framework supports foreign investment. Article 221 of the Constitution declares that foreign investment shall receive the same treatment as domestic investment. Foreign Investment Law No. 16-95 states that unlimited foreign investment is permitted in all sectors, with a few exceptions. According to the law, foreign investment is not allowed in the following categories: a) disposal and remains of toxic, dangerous, or radioactive garbage not produced in the country; b) activities affecting the public health and the environmental equilibrium of the country, pursuant to the norms that apply in this regard; and c) production of materials and equipment directly linked to national defense and security, except for an express authorization from the Chief Executive.

The Export and Investment Center of the Dominican Republic (ProDominicana, formally known as CEI-RD) aims to be the one-stop shop for investment information, registration, and investor after-care services. ProDominicana maintains a user-friendly website for guidance on the government’s priority sectors for inward investment and on the range of investment incentives ( https://prodominicana.gob.do ).

In February 2020, the Dominican government enacted the Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) Law No. 47-20 to establish a regulatory framework for the initiation, selection, award, contracting, execution, monitoring and termination of PPPs in line with the 2030 National Development Strategy of the Dominican Republic. The law also created the General Directorate of Public-Private Partnerships (DGAPP) as the agency responsible for the promotion and regulation of public-private alliances and the National Council of Public-Private Partnerships as the highest body responsible for evaluating and determining the relevance of the PPPs. The PPP law recognizes public-private and public-private non-profit partnerships from public or private initiatives and provides for forty-year concession contracts, five-year exemptions of the tax on the transfer of goods and services (ITBIS), and accelerated depreciation and amortization regimes. The DGAPP website has the most up to date information on PPPs ( https://dgapp.gob.do/en/home/  ).

Competition and Antitrust Laws

The National Commission for the Defense of Competition (ProCompetencia) has the power to review transactions for competition-related concerns. Private sector contacts note, however, that strong public pressure is required for ProCompetencia to act.

Expropriation and Compensation

The Dominican constitution permits the government’s exercise of eminent domain; however, it also mandates fair market compensation in advance of the use of seized land. Nevertheless, there are many outstanding disputes between U.S. investors and the Dominican government concerning unpaid government contracts or expropriated property and businesses. Property claims make up the majority of cases. Most, but not all, expropriations have been used for infrastructure or commercial development. Many claims remain unresolved for years.

Investors and lenders have reported that they typically do not receive prompt payment of fair market value for their losses. They have complained of difficulties in the subsequent enforcement even in cases in which the Dominican courts, including the Supreme Court, have ordered compensation or when the government has recognized a claim. In other cases, some indicate that lengthy delays in compensation payments are blamed on errors committed by government-contracted property assessors, slow processes to correct land title errors, a lack of budgeted funds, and other technical problems. There are also cases of regulatory action that investors say could be viewed as indirect expropriation. For example, they note that government decrees mandating atypical setbacks from roads or establishing new protected areas can deprive investors of their ability to use purchased land in the manner initially planned, substantially affecting the economic benefit sought from the investment.

Many companies report that the procedures to resolve expropriations lack transparency and, to a foreigner, may appear antiquated. Government officials are rarely, if ever, held accountable for failing to pay a recognized claim or failing to pay in a timely manner.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

In 2000, the Dominican Republic signed the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (Washington Convention; however, the Dominican Congress did not ratify the agreement as required by the constitution). In 2001, the Dominican Republic became a contracting state to the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention). The agreement entered into force by Congressional Resolution No. 178-01.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

The Dominican Republic has entered into 11 bilateral investment treaties that are in force, most of which contain dispute resolution provisions that submit the parties to arbitration.

As a signatory to CAFTA-DR, the Dominican Republic is bound by the investment chapter of CAFTA-DR, which submits the Parties to arbitration under either the ICSID or the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) rules. There have been three U.S. investor-state dispute cases filed against the Dominican Republic under CAFTA-DR. One case was settled; in the other two, an arbitration panel found in favor of the government.

Dual nationals of the United States and Dominican Republic should be aware that their status as a Dominican national might interfere with their status as a “foreign” investor if they seek dispute settlement under CAFTA-DR provisions. U.S. citizens who contemplate pursuing Dominican naturalization for the ease of doing business in the Dominican Republic should consult with an attorney about the risks that may be raised by a change in nationality with regard to accessing the dispute settlement protections provided under CAFTA-DR.

According to the Knowyourcountry’s “Dominican Republic: Risk and Compliance Report” from 2018, U.S. investors have had to resort to legal action against the Dominican government and parastatal firms to seek relief regarding payments, expropriations, contractual obligations, or regulatory obligations. Regardless of whether they are located in a free-trade zone, companies have problems with dispute resolution, both with the Dominican government and with private-sector entities. The investors range from large firms to private individuals.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Law 489-08 on commercial arbitration governs the enforcement of arbitration awards, arbitral agreements, and arbitration proceedings in the Dominican Republic. Per law 489-09, arbitration may be ad-hoc or institutional, meaning the parties may either agree on the rules of procedure applicable to their claim, or they may adopt the rules of a particular institution. Fundamental aspects of the United Nations Commission on International Trade (UNCITRAL) model law are incorporated into Law 489-08. In addition, Law 181-09 created an institutional procedure for the Alternative Dispute Resolution Center of the Chamber of Commerce Santo Domingo ( http://www.camarasantodomingo.do/ ).

Foreign arbitral awards are enforceable in the Dominican Republic in accordance with Law 489-09 and applicable treaties, including the New York Convention. U.S. investors complain that the judicial process is slow and that domestic claimants with political connections have an advantage.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Law 141-15 provides the legal framework for bankruptcy. It allows a debtor company to continue to operate for up to five years during reorganization proceedings by halting further legal proceedings. It also authorizes specialized bankruptcy courts; contemplates the appointment of conciliators, verifiers, experts, and employee representatives; allows the debtor to contract for new debt which will have priority status in relation to other secured and unsecured claims; stipulates civil and criminal sanctions for non-compliance; and permits the possibility of coordinating cross-border proceedings based on recommendations of the UNCITRAL Model Law of 1997. In March 2019, a specialized bankruptcy court was established in Santo Domingo.

The Dominican Republic scores lower than the regional average and comparator economies on resolving insolvency on most international indices.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Investment incentives exist in various sectors of the economy, which are available to all investors, foreign and domestic. Incentives typically take the form of preferential tax rates or exemptions, preferential interest rates or access to finance, or preferential customs treatment. Sectors where incentives exist include agriculture, construction, energy, film production, manufacturing, and tourism.

Incentives for manufacturing apply principally to production in free trade zones (discussed in the subsequent section) or for the manufacturing of textiles, clothing, and footwear specifically under Laws 84-99 on Re-activation and Promotion of Exports and 56-07 on Special Tax Incentives for the Textile Sector. Additionally, Law 392-07 on Competitiveness and Industrial Innovation provides a series of incentives that include exemptions on taxes and tariffs related to the acquisition of materials and machinery and special tax treatment for approved companies.

Special Zones for Border Development, created by Law No. 28-01, encourage development near the Dominican Republic-Haiti border. Law No. 12-21, passed in February 2021, modified and extended incentives for direct investments in manufacturing projects in the Zones for a period of 30 years. Incentives still largely take the form of tax exemptions but can be applied for a maximum period of 30 years, versus the 20 years in the original law. These incentives include the exemption of income tax on the net taxable income of the projects, the exemption of sales tax, the exemption of import duties and tariffs and other related charges on imported equipment and machinery used exclusively in the industrial processes, as well as on imports of lubricants and fuels (except gasoline) used in the processes.

Tourism is a particularly attractive area for investment and one the government encourages strongly. Law 158-01 on Tourism Incentives, as amended by Law 195-13, and its regulations, grants wide-ranging tax exemptions, for fifteen years, to qualifying new projects by local or international investors. The projects and businesses that qualify for these incentives are: (a) hotels and resorts; (b) facilities for conventions, fairs, festivals, shows and concerts; (c) amusement parks, ecological parks, and theme parks; (d) aquariums, restaurants, golf courses, and sports facilities; (e) port infrastructure for tourism, such as recreational ports and seaports; (f) utility infrastructure for the tourist industry such as aqueducts, treatment plants, environmental cleaning, and garbage and solid waste removal; (g) businesses engaged in the promotion of cruises with local ports of call; and (h) small and medium-sized tourism-related businesses such as shops or facilities for handicrafts, ornamental plants, tropical fish, and endemic reptiles.

For existing projects, hotels and resort-related investments that are five years or older are granted complete exemption from taxes and duties related to the acquisition of the equipment, materials and furnishings needed to renovate their premises. In addition, hotels and resort-related investments that are fifteen years or older will receive the same benefits granted to new projects if the renovation or reconstruction involves 50 percent or more of the premises.

In addition, individuals and companies receive an income tax deduction for investing up to 20 percent of their annual profits in an approved tourist project. The Tourism Promotion Council (CONFOTOUR) is the government agency in charge of reviewing and approving applications by investors for these exemptions, as well as supervising and enforcing all applicable regulations. Once CONFOTOUR approves an application, the investor must start and continue work in the authorized project within a three-year period to avoid losing incentives.

The Dominican Republic encourages investment in the renewable energy sector. Under Law 57-07 on the Development of Renewable Sources of Energy, investors in this area are granted, among other benefits, the following incentives: (a) no custom duties on the importation of the equipment required for the production, transmission and interconnection of renewable energy; (b) no tax on income derived from the generation and sale of electricity, hot water, steam power, biofuels or synthetic fuels generated from renewable energy sources; and (c) exemption from the goods and services tax in the acquisition or importation of certain types of equipment. Foreign investors praise the provisions of the law, but express frustration with approval and execution of potential renewable energy projects.

The Dominican government does not currently have a practice of jointly financing foreign direct investment projects. However, in some circumstances, the government has authority to offer land or infrastructure as a method of attracting and supporting investment that meets government development goals. In February 2020, the government passed a law on public-private partnerships (PPPs) that may encourage high-quality infrastructure projects and help catalyze private sector-led economic growth. In August 2020, the Abinader administration officially launched the General Directorate of Public Private Partnerships as the government office responsible for planning, executing, and overseeing investment projects financed via PPPs. Their website has the most up to date information on their initiatives and mandates (https://dgapp.gob.do/en/home/).

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Law 8-90 on the Promotion of Free Zones from 1990 governs operations of the Dominican Republic’s free trade zones (FTZs), while the National Council of Free Trade Zones for Export (CNZFE) exercises regulatory oversight. The law provides for complete exemption from all taxes, duties, charges, and fees affecting production and export activities in the zones. Operations located in one of the seven provinces along the Dominican-Haitian border benefit from these incentives for a 20-year period, while those located throughout the rest of the country benefit for a 15-year period. Products produced in FTZs can be sold in the Dominican market, but relevant taxes will apply.

CNZFE delineates policies for the promotion and development of Free Zones, as well as approving applications for operating licenses, with discretionary authority to extend the time limits on these incentives. CNZFE is comprised of representatives from the public and private sectors and is chaired by the Minister of Industry and Commerce.

In general, firms operating in the FTZs report fewer bureaucratic and legal problems than do firms operating outside the zones. Foreign currency flows from the FTZs are handled via the free foreign exchange market. Foreign and Dominican firms are afforded the same investment opportunities both by law and in practice.

According to CNZFE’s 2019 Statistical Report, the most recent available, 2019 exports from FTZs totaled $6.3 billion, comprising 3.2 percent of GDP. There are 695 companies operating in a total of 75 FTZs, of which approximately 33 percent are from the United States. Investments made in FTZs by U.S. companies in 2019 represented approximately 35 percent of total investments. Other major investors include companies registered in the Dominican Republic (21.2 percent), the United Kingdom (7.8 percent), Germany (6.5 percent), and Canada (4.2 percent). Companies registered in 38 other countries comprised the remaining investments. The main productive sectors receiving investment include services, apparel and textiles, tobacco and derivatives, agro-industrial products, and medical and pharmaceutical products.

Exporters/investors seeking further information from the CNZFE may contact:

Consejo Nacional de Zonas Francas de Exportación
Leopoldo Navarro No. 61
Edif. San Rafael, piso no. 5
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Phone: (809) 686-8077
Fax: (809) 686-8079
Website: http://www.cnzfe.gov.do 

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Law 16-92 on the Labor Code stipulates that 80 percent of the labor force of a foreign or national company, including free trade zone companies, must be comprised of Dominican nationals. Senior management and boards of directors of foreign companies are exempt from this regulation.

The Dominican Republic does not have excessively onerous visa, residence, work permit, or similar requirements inhibiting mobility of foreign investors and their employees. The host government does not have a forced localization policy to compel foreign investors to use domestic content in goods or technology.

There are no performance requirements as there is no distinction between Dominican and foreign investment. Investment incentives are applied uniformly to both domestic and foreign investors in accordance with World Trade Organization (WTO) requirements. In addition, there are no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code or provide access to encryption.

Law No. 172-13 on Comprehensive Protection of Personal Data restricts companies from freely transmitting customer or other business-related data inside the Dominican Republic or beyond the country’s borders. Under this law, companies must obtain express written consent from individuals to transmit personal data unless an exception applies. The Superintendency of Banks currently supervises and enforces these rules, but its jurisdiction generally covers banks, credit bureaus, and other financial institutions. Industry representatives recommend updating this law to designate a national data protection authority that oversees other sectors.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The Dominican Constitution guarantees the right to own private property and provides that the state shall promote the acquisition of property, especially titled real property, however, a patchwork history of land titling systems and sometimes violent political change has complicated land titling in the Dominican Republic. By law, all land must be registered, and that which is not registered is considered state land. There are no restrictions or specific regulations on foreigners or non-resident owners of land.

In 2008, the country transitioned to a new system based on GPS coordinates and has been working towards establishing clear titles, but, in March 2021, an industry source estimated that only 25 percent of all land titles were clear. The government advises that investors are ultimately responsible for due diligence and recommends partnering with experienced attorneys to ensure that all documentation, ranging from title searches to surveys, have been properly verified and processed.

Land tenure insecurity has been fueled by government land expropriations, institutional weaknesses, lack of effective law enforcement, and local community support for land invasions and squatting. Political expediency, corruption, and fraud have all been cited as practices that have complicated the issuance of titles or respect for the rights of existing title holders. Moreover, while on the decline, long-standing titling practices, such as issuing provisional titles that are never completed or providing titles to land to multiple owners without requiring individualization of parcels, have created ambiguity in property rights and undermined the reliability of existing records.

The Dominican Republic’s rank for ease of registering property in the 2020 World Bank’s “Doing Business” report improved from 77 to 74 (out of 190 countries). Registering property in the Dominican Republic requires 6 steps, an average of 33 days, and payment of 3.4 percent of the land value as a registration fee. In the last decade, the Dominican government received a $10-million, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loan to modernize its property title registration process, address deficiencies and gaps in the land administration system, and strengthen land tenure security. The project involved digitization of land records, decentralization of registries, establishment of a fund to compensate people for title errors, separation of the legal and administrative functions within the agency, and redefinition of the roles and responsibilities of judges and courts.

Mortgages and liens do exist in the Dominican Republic. The Title Registry Office maintains the system for recording titles, as well as a complementary registry of third-party rights, such as mortgages, liens, easements, and encumbrances. Property owners maintain ownership of legally purchased property whether unoccupied or occupied by squatters, however, it can be difficult and costly to enforce private rights against squatters. This may in part be due to a provision in the law known as “adverse possession,” which allows squatters to acquire legal ownership of land without a title (thereby state-owned).

Intellectual Property Rights

The Dominican Republic has strong intellectual property rights (IPR) laws and is meeting its IP obligations under international agreements such as the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Nevertheless, weak institutions and limited enforcement can present challenges for investors. Under the Abinader administration, the country’s posture toward the protection and enforcement of IPR appears to have improved. Still, illicit and counterfeit goods, as well as online and signal piracy, are common and continue to present challenges for authorities. In the Dominican Republic, illicit or counterfeit goods include the full gamut of fashion apparel and accessories, electronics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cigarettes, and alcohol.

Several IP authorities in the Dominican Republic grant intellectual property rights. The National Office of Industrial Property (ONAPI) issues trademarks and patents, the National Copyright Office (ONDA) issues copyrights, the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance (MISPAS) issues sanitary registrations required for marketing foods, pharmaceuticals, and health products, and the Directorate of International Trade (DICOEX) has jurisdiction over the implementation of geographical indications. IPR registration processes have improved in recent years, but delays and questionable adjudication decisions are still common. These institutions are in the process of implementing electronic filing systems to streamline procedures, however.

IPR Enforcement is carried out by the Customs Authority (DGA), the National Police, the National Copyright Office (ONDA), the Dominican Institute of Telecommunications (Indotel), the Special Office of the Attorney General for Matters of Health, and the Special Office of the Attorney General for High Tech Crimes. Although the Dominican government has taken steps that appear to indicate a strengthened posture and commitment to IP enforcement, in practice, the country faced challenges in 2020 that contributed to a net decrease in counterfeit seizures, arrests, and convictions. The government attributed much of this decrease to the pandemic and ensuing safety measures, which hampered enforcement activities for much of the year.

Although the Dominican Republic did not enact any new IP-related laws or regulations in the past year, the Office of the Attorney General launched a new IP Unit in November 2020. This unit plans not only to pursue more IP cases but also to develop an interagency mechanism uniting all the institutions involved in IP prevention and prosecution. As a result, these institutions are expected to collaborate more in enforcement activities and in capacity building efforts. For example, in February 2021, the new IP Unit partnered with ONAPI and ONDA to launch an IP training academy for prosecutors and judges to improve the country’s judicial capacity.

Since 2003, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has designated the Dominican Republic as a Special 301 Watch List country for serious IPR deficiencies. The country, however, is not listed in USTR”s Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Dominican Stock Market (BVRD by its Spanish acronym) is the only stock exchange in the Dominican Republic. It began operations in 1991 and is viewed as a cornerstone of the country’s integration into the global economy and domestic development. It is regulated by the Securities Market Law No. 249-17 and supervised by the Superintendency of Securities, which approves all public securities offerings. Since many companies do not wish to sell shares to the public (a common theme among family-owned companies in Latin America), the majority of activity has been in the capital and fixed income markets.

The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments. Foreign investors are able to obtain credit on the local market but tend to prefer less expensive offshore sources. The Central Bank regularly issues certificates of deposit using an auction process to determine interest rates and maturities.

In recent years, the local stock market has continued to expand, in terms of the securities traded on the BVRD. There are very few publicly traded companies on the exchange, as credit from financial institutions is widely available and many of the large Dominican companies are family-owned enterprises. Most of the securities traded in the BVRD are fixed-income securities issued by the Dominican State.

Money and Banking System

Dominican Republic’s financial sector is relatively stable, and the IMF declared the financial system largely satisfactory during 2019 Article IV consultations, citing a strengthened banking system as a driver of solid economic performance over the past decade. According to a Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion report from 2017, approximately 56 percent of Dominican adults have bank accounts. However, financial depth is relatively constrained. Private lending to GDP (around 27 percent, according to the IMF) is low by international and regional standards, representing around half the average for Latin America. Real interest rates, driven in part by large interest rate spreads, are also relatively high. The country’s relatively shallow financial markets can be attributed to a number of factors, including high fiscal deficits crowding out private investment; complicated and lengthy regulatory procedures for issuing securities in primary markets; and high levels of consolidation in the banking sector.

Dominican banking consists of 113 entities, as follows: 48 financial intermediation entities (including large commercial banks, savings and loans associations, financial intermediation public entities, credit corporations), 40 foreign exchange and remittance agents (specifically, 36 exchange brokers and 6 remittances and foreign exchange agents), and 24 trustees. According to the latest available information (January 2021), total bank assets were $40.8 billion. The three largest banks hold 69.5 percent of the total assets – Banreservas 30.0 percent, Banco Popular 23.1 percent, and BHD Leon 16.4 percent. While full-service bank branches tend to be in urban areas, several banks employ sub-agents to extend services in more rural areas. Technology has also helped extend banking services throughout the country.

The Dominican Monetary and Banking system is regulated by the Monetary and Financial Law No. 183-02, and is overseen by the Monetary Board, the Central Bank, and the Superintendency of Banks. The mission of the Dominican Central Bank is to maintain the stability of prices, promote the strength and stability of the financial system, and ensure the proper functioning of payment systems. The Superintendency of Banks carries out the supervision of financial intermediation entities, in order to verify compliance by said entities with the provisions of the law.

Foreign banks may establish operations in the Dominican Republic, although it may require a special decree for the foreign financial institution to establish domicile in the country. Foreign banks not domiciled in the Dominican Republic may establish representative offices in accordance with current regulations. To operate, both local and foreign banks must obtain the prior authorization of the Monetary Board and the Superintendency of Banks. Major U.S. banks have a commercial presence in the country, but most focus on corporate banking services as opposed to retail banking. Some other foreign banks offer retail banking. There are no restrictions on foreigners opening bank accounts, although identification requirements do apply.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

The Dominican exchange system is a market with free convertibility of the peso. Economic agents perform their transactions of foreign currencies under free market conditions. There are generally no restrictions or limitations placed on foreign investors in converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment.

The Central Bank sets the exchange rates and practices a managed float policy. Some firms have had repeated difficulties obtaining dollars during periods of high demand. Importers may obtain foreign currency directly from commercial banks and exchange agents. The Central Bank participates in this market in pursuit of monetary policy objectives, buying or selling currencies and performing any other operation in the market to minimize volatility.

Remittance Policies

Law No. 16-95 on Foreign Investment in the Dominican Republic grants special allowances to foreign investors and national individuals residing abroad who make contributions to a company operating in the Dominican Republic. It regulates the types of investments, the areas of investment, and the rights and obligations of investors, among others. Decree No. 214-04 on the Registration of Foreign Investment in the Dominican Republic establishes the requirements for the registration of foreign investments, the remittance of profits, the repatriation of capital, and the requirements for the sale of foreign currency, among other issues related with investments.

Foreign investors can repatriate or remit both the profits obtained and the entire capital of the investment without prior authorization of the Central Bank. Article 5 of the aforementioned decree states that “the foreign investor, whose capital is registered with the CEI-RD, shall have the right to remit or repatriate it…”

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The Dominican government does not maintain a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in general do not have a significant presence in the economy, with most functions performed by privately-held firms. Notable exceptions are in the electricity, banking, and refining sectors. In the partially privatized electricity sector, private companies mainly provide electricity generation, while the government handles the transmission and distribution phases via the Dominican Electric Transmission Company (ETED) and the Dominican Corporation of State Electrical Companies (CDEEE). CDEEE is the largest SOE in terms of government expenditures. However, the government participates in the generation phase, too (most notably in hydroelectric power) and one of the distribution companies is partially privatized. In the financial sector, the state-owned BanReservas is the largest bank in the country, with a 32 percent market share by assets. In the refining sector, the government is the majority owner of the only refinery in the country; Refinery Dominicana (Refidomsa) operates and manages the refinery, is the only importer of crude oil in the country, and is also the largest importer of refined fuels, with a 60 percent market share. Sanctioned-Venezuelan firm Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA by its Spanish acronym) is the minority shareholder.

Law No. 10-04 requires the Chamber of Accounts to audit SOEs. Audits should be published at https://www.camaradecuentas.gob.do/index.php/auditorias-publicadas , but audits from the SOEs could not be found. All audits should also be available upon request.

Privatization Program

Privatization of electricity distribution is part of a major reform planned for the electricity sector and outlined in the National Pact for Energy Reform signed February 2021. Plans are also being discussed for dissolving the CDEEE. While not yet expressly stated whether foreign firms will be invited to participate in these efforts, the Abinader administration has welcomed U.S. investment in the sector, generally. Questions should be directed toward the Ministry of Energy and Mines ( https://mem.gob.do/ ).

Partial privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the late 1990s resulted in foreign investors obtaining management control of former SOEs engaged in activities such as electricity generation, airport management, and sugarcane processing.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The government does not have an official position or policy on responsible business conduct, including corporate social responsibility (CSR). Although there is not a local culture of CSR, large foreign companies normally have active CSR programs, as do some of the larger local business groups. While most local firms do not follow OECD principles regarding CSR, the firms that do are viewed favorably, especially when their CSR programs are effectively publicized.

The Dominican Constitution states, “Everyone has the right to have quality goods and services, to objective, truthful and timely information about the content and characteristics of the products and services that they use and consume.” To that end, the national consumer protection agency, ProConsumidor, offers consumer advocacy services.

The country joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) as a candidate in 2016. The government incorporates EITI standards into its mining transparency framework. In 2019, EITI conducted a validation study of the Dominican Republic’s implementation of EITI standards.

Additional Resources 

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

The Dominican Republic has a legal framework that includes laws and regulations to combat corruption and provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. However, enforcement of existing laws is often ineffective. Individuals and NGOs noted the greatest hindrance to effective investigations was a lack of political will to prosecute individuals accused of corruption, particularly well-connected individuals or high-level politicians. Government corruption remained a serious problem and a public grievance, so much so, that it was a primary political motivation in the 2020 elections, leading to widespread protests. The Dominican Republic’s rank on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index held at 137 in 2020 (out of 180 countries assessed) but indicated that “the election of a new government…raised hopes for the fight against corruption.”

U.S. companies identified corruption as a barrier to FDI and some firms reported being solicited by public officials for bribes. U.S. investors indicate corruption occurs at all phases of investment, not just in public procurement or during the process for awarding tenders or concessions, as is most often alleged. At least one firm said it intended to back out of a competition for a public concession as a result of a solicitation from government officials. U.S. businesses operating in the Dominican Republic often need to take extensive measures to ensure compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

In September 2019, the Dominican Supreme Court began a trial against six of the 14 defendants indicted in 2017 for alleged links to $92 million in bribes paid by aBrazilian construction company to obtain public works contracts. A 2016 plea agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Brazilian company implicated high-level public officials in the Dominican Republic; the six current defendants include a senator, a lower house representative, a former senator, and a former minister of public works. Civil society welcomed the trial as a step forward in the fight against corruption, but activists highlighted what they perceived as a lack of political will to investigate thoroughly the case, which involved the country’s political and economic elites. U.S. companies also frequently cite the government’s slow response to the Odebrecht scandal as contributing to a culture of perceived impunity for high-level government officials, which fuels widespread acceptance and tolerance of corruption at all levels.

President Abinader has made it clear since his inauguration in August 2020 that fighting corruption will be a top priority of his administration. He appointed officials with reputations for professionalism and independence including a career anti-corruption advocate now serving as head of the Public Procurement General Directorate. In addition, the Abinader administration created the Directorate of Transparency, Prevention, and Control of Public Spending, and implemented other administrative and legislative measures that should increase internal auditing mechanisms.

In November 2020, the Attorney General’s Office detained 11 former officials and alleged front men, including two siblings of former President Danilo Medina, as part of the “Anti-octopus operation.” They are accused of “having used their family connections” to gain privileged access to the public procurement process and, consequently, of having accumulated fortunes illicitly during the past administration. Analysts have suggested that these arrests dealt a blow to the widespread practice of impunity around issues of corruption, particularly where politically connected people and families were involved, and sent a strong warning against such behavior. The arrests also appear to have appeased the demands of civil society, who threatened to protest if arrests did not happen before January 2021. However, it remains to be seen the extent to which the government will prioritize passage of legislative reforms to strengthen rule of law and prevent similar abuses in the future.

Civil society has been a critical voice in anti-corruption campaigns to date. Several non-governmental organizations are particularly active in transparency and anti-corruption, notably the Foundation for Institutionalization and Justice (FINJUS), Citizen Participation (Participacion Ciudadana), and the Dominican Alliance Against Corruption (ADOCCO).

The Dominican Republic signed and ratified the UN Anticorruption Convention. The Dominican Republic is not a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.

Resources to Report Corruption

Procuraduría Especializada contra la Corrupción Administrativa (PEPCA)
Calle Hipólito Herrera Billini esq. Calle Juan B. Pérez,
Centro de los Heroes, Santo Domingo, República Dominicana
Telephone: (809) 533-3522
Email: pepca@pgr.gob.do 

Linea 311 (government service for filing complaints and denunciations)
Phone: 311 (from inside the country)
Website: http://www.311.gob.do/ 

Participación Ciudadana
Wenceslao Alvarez #8, Zona Universitaria
Phone: 809 685 6200
Website: https://pciudadana.org/
Email: info@pciudadana.org 

10. Political and Security Environment

Despite political stability and strong pre-pandemic economic growth, citizen and public security concerns in the Dominican Republic impose significant costs on businesses and limit foreign and domestic investment. There are no known national security threats affecting foreign investment within the Dominican Republic.

Citizen Security

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Santo Domingo as a critical-threat location for crime. According to the Latin American Public Opinion Project, there is a steady increase in crime-related victimization and a growing perception of insecurity in the Dominican Republic since 2010. In 2020, Fund for Peace ranked the Dominican Republic 110 out of 176 countries in its security threats index, and 71 for human rights and rule of law. Other than domestic violence, criminal activity is mostly associated with street-level incidents consisting of robberies and petty larcenies. Of these, street robbery is particularly concerning as criminals often use weapons to coerce compliance from victims. In addition, the Dominican Republic faces challenges with organized crime. Mob schemes in the Dominican land, airspace, and territorial waters include transshipment of South American drugs destined for the United States and Europe, transshipment of ecstasy from the Netherlands and Belgium destined for United States and Canada, substantial money laundering activity particularly by Colombian narcotics traffickers, and significant amphetamine consumption.

Public Security

The U.S. Department of State has assessed the Dominican Republic as being a low-threat location for terrorism and a medium-threat location for political violence. There are no known organized domestic terrorist groups in the Dominican Republic. Nonetheless, the Dominican Republic is a likely transit point for extremists from within the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.

Politically motivated protests, demonstrations, and general strikes occur periodically, particularly during general election years. In February and March of 2020, there were multiple, mostly peaceful protests throughout the country over the Dominican electoral authority’s decision to suspend national municipal elections after widespread failure of its electronic voting system. Sabotage of electrical facilities for political purposes also allegedly occurred during the 2020 electoral cycle. In addition, civil unrest has become a common occurrence in the last several years due to the lack of adequate electricity, water resources, and the public opinion from certain groups that the government is not actively protecting the national interest.

Border porosity remains an ongoing concern for the Dominican Republic as the security situation with Haiti has arguably been complicated by the withdraw of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in 2017. Dominican officials have expressed concerns about the potential for widespread civil unrest or instability in Haiti contributing to illegal flows of people and illicit goods across the border.

National Security

There are no known national security threats menacing the survival of the Dominican Republic state. Therefore, its armed forces define a series of citizen and public security concerns as their priority security interests. The Dominican government uses its armed forces to support the police and border security forces within the framework of the Dominican Republic constitution. In this context, the military has deployed through citizen security programs in collaboration with the police and plays an important role in securing the border with Haiti, alongside border security forces.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

An ample labor supply is available, although there is a scarcity of skilled workers and technical supervisors. Some labor shortages exist in professions requiring lengthy education or technical certification. According to 2020 Dominican Central Bank data, the Dominican labor force consists of approximately 5 million workers. The labor force participation rate is 61.1 percent; 56.8 percent of the labor force works in services, 10.6 percent in industry, 9.6 percent in education and health, 9.2 percent in agriculture and livestock, 7.9 percent in construction, and 5.9 percent in public administration and defense. Approximately 46 percent of the labor force works in formal sectors of the economy and 54 percent in informal sectors. In 2020, unemployment increased from 5.9 percent to 7.4 percent over the course of the year due to pandemic-induced challenges. When factoring in discouraged workers and others who were not actively seeking employment, however, the unemployment rate increased from 9.9 percent to 15.0 percent. Youth unemployment remained steady at 13.5 percent, indicating the pandemic had a greater impact on employment for older, more vulnerable segments of the population. With respect to migrant workers, the most recent reliable statistical data is from 2017 and shows a population of 334,092 Haitians age ten or older living in the country, with 67 percent working in the formal and informal sectors of the economy. Migration experts believe that this number has increased to approximately 500,000 since 2017. The Dominican government and the United Nations are expected to provide an updated migrant survey in 2021.

The Dominican Labor Code establishes policies and procedures for many aspects of employer-employee relationships, ranging from hours of work and overtime and vacation pay to severance pay, causes for termination, and union registration. The code applies equally to migrant workers, however, many irregular Haitian laborers and Dominicans of Haitian descent working in the construction and agricultural industries do not exercise their rights due to fear of being fired or deported. The law requires that at least 80 percent of non-management workers of a company be Dominican nationals. Exemptions and waivers are available and regularly granted. The law provides for severance payments, which are due upon layoffs or firing without just cause. The amount due is prorated based on length of employment.

Although the Labor Code provides for freedom to form unions and bargain collectively, it places several restrictions on these rights, which the International Labor Organization (ILO) considers excessive. For example, it restricts trade union rights by requiring unions to represent 51 percent of the workers in an enterprise to bargain collectively. In addition, the law prohibits strikes until mandatory mediation requirements have been met. Formal requirements for a strike to be legal also include the support of an absolute majority of all company workers for the strike, written notification to the Ministry of Labor, and a 10-day waiting period following notification before proceeding with the strike. Government workers and essential public service personnel, in theory, may not strike; however, in practice such employees, including healthcare workers, have protested and gone on strike.

The law prohibits dismissal of employees for trade union membership or union activities. In practice, however, the law is inconsistently enforced. The majority of companies resist collective negotiating practices and union activities. Companies reportedly fire workers for union activity and blacklist trade unionists, among other anti-union practices. Workers frequently have to sign documents pledging to abstain from participating in union activities. Companies also create and support company-backed unions. Formal strikes occur but are not common.

The law establishes a system of labor courts for dealing with disputes. The process is often long, with cases pending for several years. One exception is workplace injury cases, which typically conclude quickly – and often in the worker’s favor. Both workers and companies report that mediation facilitated by the Ministry of Labor was the most rapid and effective method for resolving worker-company disputes.

Many of the major manufacturers in free trade zones have voluntary codes of conduct that include worker rights protection clauses generally aligned with the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work; however, workers are not always aware of such codes or the principles they contain. The Ministry of Labor monitors labor abuses, health, and safety standards in all worksites where an employer-employee relationship exists. Labor inspectors can request remediation for violations, and if remediation is not undertaken, can refer offending employers to the public prosecutor for sanctions.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $88,906 2019 $88,941 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $2,604 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/ 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $151 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2019 47.3% UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/
EconomicTrends/Fdi.html 

* Source for Host Country Data: Central Bank of the Dominican Republic (BCRD). The BCRD does not report investment stock positions.

No information for the Dominican Republic is available on the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (CDIS) website. According to the Dominican Central Bank (BCRD), total inward flows of FDI for 2020 were $2.6 billion. The BCRD provides a breakdown of FDI to the Dominican Republic by individual source country for the top investing countries. The five largest investing countries accounted for 82.3 percent of total inward FDI in 2019. Neither World Bank nor Dominican sources break down FDI from the Dominican Republic to individual destination countries.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $3,012.8 100% Total Outward Amount 100%
United States $948.3 31.5% N/A N/A N/A
Mexico $640.2 21.2% N/A N/A N/A
Spain $394.3 13.1% N/A N/A N/A
Canada $258.3 8.6% N/A N/A N/A
France $237.8 7.9% N/A N/A N/A
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

* Source for Host Country Data: Central Bank of the Dominican Republic (BCRD), 2020 FDI inward flows.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
No information for the Dominican Republic is available on the IMF’s Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey (CPIS) site and the Dominican government only publishes information on general investment flows ( https://www.bancentral.gov.do/a/d/2532-sector-externo ).

El Salvador

Executive Summary

Since President Nayib Bukele took office on June 1, 2019, his administration has sought to attract foreign investment and has taken steps to reduce cumbersome bureaucracy and improve security conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic complicated implementation of reforms and dampened investment.

To respond to COVID-19, the Government of El Salvador (GOES) implemented several emergency measures, including travel restrictions beginning in February 2020 and a nationwide lockdown from March to June 2020. Unclear or conflicting wording among the numerous emergency decrees created uncertainty, complicated business operations, and increased the risks of inadvertent non-compliance. The discretionary application of emergency measures and severe penalties for non-compliance contributed to the uncertainty. Lockdown measures disrupted and limited business operations with even manufacturers of medical supplies and other essential products unable to receive formal permission to reopen. The Supreme Court found the GOES phased reopening decrees to be unconstitutional, mandating a complete nationwide reopening of the economy at the end of August 2020.

As a result of the lockdown and worldwide recession, El Salvador lost approximately 20 percent of formal jobs in 2020. El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is forecasted to drop by 8.5 percent in 2020 according to the Central Bank, with recovery to pre-pandemic production in 2022.

Following the reopening, perceptions of the investment climate began to slowly recover. However, political gridlock and electoral uncertainty dampened business confidence. The victory of President Bukele’s New Ideas Party in the February 28 legislative and municipal elections should remove obstacles to governability during the remaining three years of Bukele’s presidential term. With a large majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele should be able to pass legislation and reforms. His administration has pledged to enact legislation to strengthen institutions and improve the regulatory environment to spur investment and create jobs. Policies and reforms, however, will take time to implement and show results.

Commonly cited challenges to doing business in El Salvador include the discretionary application of laws and regulations, lengthy and unpredictable permitting procedures, as well as customs delays. El Salvador has lagged its regional peers in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). The sectors with the largest investment have historically been textiles and retail establishments, though investment in energy has increased in recent years.

The Bukele administration has proposed several large infrastructure projects, which could provide opportunities for U.S. investment. The GOES has established a technical working group to help prioritize investment projects and attract private sector participation. Project proposals include enhancing road connectivity and logistics, expanding airport capacity and improving access to water and energy, as well as sanitation. Having inherited a large public debt, the Bukele administration has begun pursuing Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to execute infrastructure projects. El Salvador awarded its first PPP project in October 2020 to expand the cargo terminal at the international airport. The contract award is pending legislative approval. It launched a second PPP to install highway lighting and video surveillance in January 2020 and extended the deadline to submit bids until March 15, 2021 due to COVID-19. With these two PPPs, the Bukele administration delivered on its commitment under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, which ends April 30, 2021.

As a small energy-dependent country with no Atlantic coast, El Salvador relies on trade. It is a member of the Central American Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and the United States is El Salvador’s top trading partner. Proximity to the U.S. market is a competitive advantage for El Salvador. As most Salvadoran exports travel by land to Guatemalan and Honduran ports, regional integration is crucial for competitiveness. Although El Salvador officially joined the Customs Union established by Guatemala and Honduras in 2018, implementation has stalled. The Bukele administration announced in 2020 that it would prioritize bilateral trade facilitation with Guatemala.

The Bukele administration has taken initial steps to facilitate trade. In 2019, the government of El Salvador (GOES) relaunched the National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC), which produced the first jointly developed private-public action plan to reduce trade barriers. The plan contains 60 strategic measures focused on simplifying procedures, reducing trade costs, and improving connectivity and border infrastructure. In 2020, NTFC technical committees continued working to implement the action plan, as well as develop a national trade facilitation strategy. However, the NFTC has not presented progress on the action plan. The NFTC did not convene in 2020.

Table 1
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 104 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business” 2020 91 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 92 of 131 http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/content/page/data-analysis 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 3,380 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/factsheet.cfm 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 4,000 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

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.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

El Salvador has bilateral investment treaties in force with Argentina, Belize, BLEU (Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union), Chile, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Republic of Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Uruguay. El Salvador is one of the five Central American Common Market countries, which have an investment treaty among themselves.

The CAFTA-DR entered into force in 2006, between the United States and El Salvador. CAFTA-DR’s investment chapter provides protection to most categories of investment, including enterprises, debt, concessions, contract, and intellectual property. Under this agreement, U.S. investors enjoy the right to establish, acquire, and operate investments in El Salvador on an equal footing with local investors. Among the rights afforded to U.S. investors are due process protections and the right to receive a fair market value for property in the event of expropriation. Investor rights are protected under CAFTA-DR by an effective, impartial procedure for dispute settlement that is transparent and open to the public.

El Salvador also has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Mexico, Chile, Panama, Colombia, and Taiwan. Although the GOES announced the cancellation of the Taiwan FTA in February 2019, the Supreme Court halted the cancellation in March 2019 and the FTA remains in force pending a Supreme Court ruling.

In January 2020, the South Korea -Central America FTA entered into effect. This FTA includes investment provisions. El Salvador’s FTAs with Mexico, Chile, Dominican Republic, and Panama also include investment provisions. El Salvador continues trade agreement negotiations with Canada, which will likely include investment provisions. The Salvadoran government signed a Partial Scope Agreement (PSA) with Cuba in 2011 and an additional Protocol to the PSA in October 2018. El Salvador and Bolivia signed a PSA in November 2018 that is pending ratification in the Legislative Assembly. A PSA with Ecuador entered into force in 2017.

El Salvador, along with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, signed an Association Agreement with the European Union that establishes a Free Trade Area. The agreement entered into force with El Salvador in 2013. The United Kingdom-Central America Association Agreement entered into force in January 2021. The agreement ensures continuity of commercial ties following Brexit and provides a framework for cooperation and investment.

El Salvador does not have a bilateral taxation treaty with the United States. El Salvador has one tax agreement with Spain, in effect since 2008.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Central American Mutual Assistance and Technical Cooperation Agreement in Tax and Customs Matters in force since 2012. On October 2018, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly ratified the OECD Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters . The jurisdictions participating in the Convention can be found at:  www.oecd.org/ctp/exchange-of-tax-information/Status_of_convention.pdf

El Salvador became a member of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes in 2011. The OECD published El Salvador’s Phase 1 peer review report, which demonstrates its commitment to international standards for tax transparency and exchange of information, in 2015. The Phase 2 peer review on implementation of the standards, published in 2016, concluded that El Salvador is “largely compliant.”

In November 2020, El Salvador eliminated the Security Special Contribution on Large Taxpayers (CESC). Enacted in 2015, the CESC levied a five-percent tax on companies whose net income exceeded $500,000 to finance security measures, including the GOES’ Plan Control Territorial (Territorial Control Plan).

In May 2019, the legislature also approved an Authentic Interpretation of the Income Tax Law to clarify that energy distributors may deduct energy losses from the income tax, as energy losses are an unavoidable cost of distribution.  Prior to the authentic interpretation, tax authorities repeatedly imposed back taxes, interest, and penalties for improper deductions. Companies successfully challenged most of the tax assessments , but incurred legal costs and increased financial exposure.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The laws and regulations of El Salvador are relatively transparent and generally foster competition. Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms. However, the discretionary application of rules can complicate routine transactions, such as customs clearances and permitting applications. Regulatory agencies are often understaffed and inexperienced in dealing with complex issues. New foreign investors should review the regulatory environment carefully. In addition to applicable national laws and regulations, localities may impose permitting requirements on investors.

Companies note the GOES has enacted laws and regulations without following notice and comment procedures. The Regulatory Improvement Law, which entered into force in 2019, requires GOES agencies to publish online the list of laws and regulations they plan to approve, reform, or repeal each year. Institutions cannot adopt or modify regulations and laws not included in that list. The implementation of the law is gradual; the Regulatory Agenda is required for the executive branch since 2020, for the legislative and judicial branches, and autonomous entities in 2022, and municipalities in 2023. Prior to adopting or amending laws or regulations, the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law requires the GOES to perform a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) based on a standardized methodology. Proposed legislation and regulations, as well as RIAs, must be made available for public comment. In practice, the Legislative Assembly does not publish draft legislation on its website and does not solicit comments on pending legislation. The GOES does not yet require the use of a centralized online portal to publish regulatory actions. The reforms have not been fully implemented. In 2020, only three GOES agencies drafted and published their regulatory agendas. GOES agencies performed only three RIAs prior to approving new legislation. Although the implications of the reforms are still not apparent, private sector stakeholders have expressed support for the measures.

El Salvador began implementing the Simplified Administrative Procedures Law in February 2019. This law seeks to streamline and consolidate administrative processes among GOES entities to facilitate investment. In 2016, El Salvador adopted the Electronic Signature Law to facilitate e-commerce and trade. Policies, procedures and needed infrastructure (data centers and specialized hardware and software) are in place for implementation, but work continues on licensing digital certification providers. El Salvador also enacted the Electronic Commerce Law, which entered into force in February 2021. The law establishes the framework for commercial and financial activities, contractual or not, carried out by electronic and digital means, introduces fair and equitable standards to protect consumers and providers, and sets processes to minimize risks arising from the use of new technologies. The law aims to support rapidly growing online businesses and financial technology (FinTech).

In 2018, El Salvador enacted the Law on the Elimination of Bureaucratic Barriers, which created a specialized tribunal to verify that regulations and procedures are implemented in compliance with the law and sanction public officials who impose administrative requirements not contemplated in the law. However, the law is pending implementation until the GOES appoints members of the tribunal.

The GOES controls the price of some goods and services, including electricity, liquid propane gas, gasoline, public transport fares, and medicines. The government also directly subsidizes water services and residential electricity rates.

The Superintendent of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET) oversees electricity rates, telecommunications, and distribution of electromagnetic frequencies. The Salvadoran government subsidizes residential consumers for electricity use of up to 105 kWh monthly. The electricity subsidy costs the government between $50 million to $64 million annually.

El Salvador’s public finances are relatively transparent. Budget documents, including the executive budget proposal, enacted budget, and end-of-year reports, as well as information on debt obligations are accessible to the public at: http://www.transparenciafiscal.gob.sv/ptf/es/PTF2-Index.html  An independent institution, the Court of Accounts, audits the financial statements, economic performance, cash flow statements, and budget execution of all GOES ministries and agencies. The results of these audits are publicly available online.

However, the GOES provided incomplete information about its execution of $8.1 billion, including extraordinary resources to tackle COVID-19. The GOES also has not disclosed expenditure information requested by the Assembly nor provided the Court of Accounts with unrestricted access to pandemic-related financial records and procurement documentation, as well as to the accounts of the Intelligence Agency.

International Regulatory Considerations

El Salvador belongs to the Central American Common Market and the Central American Integration System (SICA), organizations which are working on regional integration, (e.g., harmonization of tariffs and customs procedures). El Salvador commonly incorporates international standards, such as the Pan-American Standards Commission (Spanish acronym COPANT), into its regulatory system.

El Salvador is a member of the WTO, adheres to the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement), and has adopted the Code of Good Practice annexed to the TBT Agreement. El Salvador is also a signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has notified its Categories A, B, and C commitments. El Salvador has established a National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC) as required by the TFA, which was reactivated in July 2019 as it had not met since 2017.

El Salvador is a member of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development’s international network of transparent investment procedures: http://tramites.gob.sv . Investors can find information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income-generating operations including the name and contact details for those in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time, and legal bases for the procedures.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

El Salvador’s legal system is codified law. Commercial law is based on the Commercial Code and the corresponding Commercial and Civil Code of Procedures. There are specialized commercial courts that resolve disputes.

Although foreign investors may seek redress for commercial disputes through Salvadoran courts, many investors report the legal system to be slow, costly, and unproductive. Local investment and commercial dispute resolution proceedings routinely last many years. The judicial system is independent of the executive branch, but may be subject to manipulation by diverse interests. Final judgments are at times difficult to enforce. The Embassy recommends that potential investors carry out proper due diligence by hiring competent local legal counsel.

In February 2021, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declined to review a 2019 civil judgement against a foreign bank on grounds that the case had no constitutional merits. The civil ruling that ordered the bank to pay substantial compensation caused widespread concern in the private sector due to perceived irregularities. .

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Miempresa is the Ministry of Economy’s website for new businesses in El Salvador. At Miempresa, investors can register new companies with the Ministry of Labor (MOL), Social Security Institute, pension fund administrators, and certain municipalities; request a tax identification number/card; and perform certain administrative functions. Website: https://www.miempresa.gob.sv/ 

The country’s eRegulations site provides information on procedures, costs, entities, and regulations involved in setting up a new business in El Salvador. Website: http://tramites.gob.sv/ 

The Exports and Investment Promoting Agency of El Salvador (PROESA) is responsible for attracting domestic and foreign private investment, promoting exports of goods and services, evaluating and monitoring the business climate, and driving investment and export policies. PROESA provides technical assistance to investors interested in starting operations in El Salvador, regardless of the size of the investment or number of employees. Website: http://www.proesa.gob.sv/ 

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Office of the Superintendent of Competition reviews transactions for competition concerns. The OECD and the Inter-American Development Bank note the Superintendent employs enforcement standards that are consistent with global best practices and has appropriate authority to enforce the Competition Law effectively. Superintendent decisions may be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, the country´s highest court. Website: http://www.sc.gob.sv/home/ 

Expropriation and Compensation

The Constitution allows the government to expropriate private property for reasons of public utility or social interest. Indemnification can take place either before or after the fact. There are no recent cases of expropriation. In 1980, a rural/agricultural land reform established that no single natural or legal person could own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land, and the government expropriated the land of some large landholders. In 1980, private banks were nationalized, but were subsequently returned to private ownership in 1989-90. A 2003 amendment to the Electricity Law requires energy-generating companies to obtain government approval before removing fixed capital from the country.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

El Salvador is a member state to the ICSID Convention. ICSID is included in a number of El Salvador’s investment treaties as the forum available to foreign investors.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

In 2016, ICSID ruled in favor of El Salvador on a case brought by an international mining company that sought to force government acceptance of a gold-mining project.  Following the ruling, El Salvador banned the exploration and extraction of metal mining in the country.

The rights of investors from CAFTA-DR countries are protected under the trade agreement’s dispute settlement procedures. There have been no successful claims by U.S. investors under CAFTA-DR. There are currently no pending claims by U.S. investors.

For foreign investors from a country without a trade agreement with El Salvador, amended Article 15 of the 1999 Investment Law limits access to international dispute resolution and may obligate them to use national courts. Submissions to national dispute panels and panel hearings are open to the public. Interested third parties have the opportunity to be heard.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

A 2002 law allows private sector organizations to establish arbitration centers to resolve commercial disputes, including those involving foreign investors. In 2009, El Salvador modified its arbitration law to allow parties to appeal a ruling to the Salvadoran courts. Investors have complained that the modification dilutes the efficacy of arbitration as an alternative method of resolving disputes. Arbitrations takes place at the Arbitration and Mediation Center, a branch of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of El Salvador. Website: http://www.mediacionyarbitraje.com.sv/ 

El Salvador is a signatory to the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention) and the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (Panama Convention). Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards and judgments, but the process can be lengthy and difficult.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Commercial Code, the Commercial Code of Procedures, and the Banking Law contain sections that deal with the process for declaring bankruptcy. There is no separate bankruptcy law or court. According to data collected by the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business report, resolving insolvency in El Salvador takes 3.5 years on average and costs 12 percent of the debtor’s estate, with the most likely outcome being that the company will be sold piecemeal. The average recovery rate is 32.4 percent. Globally, El Salvador ranks 92 out of 190 on Ease of Resolving Insolvency. Website: http://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/e/el-salvador/SLV.pdf

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The International Services Law, approved in 2007, established service parks and centers with incentives similar to those received by El Salvador’s free trade zones. Service park developers are exempted from income tax for 15 years, municipal taxes for ten years, and real estate transfer taxes. Service park administrators are exempted from income tax for 15 years and municipal taxes for ten years.

Firms located in the service parks/service centers may receive the following permanent incentives:

Tariff exemption for the import of capital goods, machinery, equipment, tools, supplies, accessories, furniture, and other goods needed for the development of the service activities;

Full exemption from income tax and municipal taxes on company assets.

Service firms operating under the existing Free Trade Zone Law are also eligible for the incentives, though firms providing services to the Salvadoran market cannot receive the incentives. Eligible services include: international distribution, logistical international operations, call centers, information technology, research and development, marine vessels repair and maintenance, aircraft repair and maintenance, entrepreneurial processes (e.g., business process outsourcing), hospital-medical services, international financial services, container repair and maintenance, technology equipment repair, elderly and convalescent care, telemedicine, cinematography postproduction services, including subtitling and translation, and specialized services for aircraft (e.g., supply of beverages and prepared food, laundry services and management of inventory).

The Tourism Law establishes tax incentives for those who invest a minimum of $25,000 in tourism-related projects in El Salvador, including: value-added tax exemption for the acquisition of real estate; import tariffs waiver for construction materials, goods, equipment (subject to limitation); and, a ten-year income tax waiver. The investor also benefits from a five-year exemption from land acquisition taxes and a 50 percent reduction of municipal taxes. To take advantage of these incentives, the enterprise must contribute five percent of its profits during the exemption period to a government-administered Tourism Promotion Fund. More information about tax incentives for tourism, please visit: http://www.mitur.gob.sv/ii-aspectos-legales-en-beneficio-de-la-inversion-contemplados-en-la-ley-de-turismo/ 

The Renewable Energy Incentives Law promotes investment projects that use renewable energy sources. In 2015, the Legislative Assembly approved amendments to encourage the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. These reforms extended the incentives to power generation using renewable energy sources, such as hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, marine, biogas and biomass. The incentives include a 10-year exemption from customs duties on the importation of machinery, equipment, materials, and supplies used for the construction and expansion of substations, transmission or sub-transmission lines. Revenues directly derived from renewable power generation enjoy full income tax exemptions for a period of five years in case of projects above 10 MW and 10 years for smaller projects. The Law also provides a tax exemption on income derived directly from the sale of certified emission reductions (CERs) under the Mechanism for Clean Development of the Kyoto Protocol, or carbon markets (CDM).

El Salvador does not issue guarantees or directly co-finance foreign direct investment projects. However, El Salvador has a Public-Private Partnerships Law that allows private investment in the development of infrastructure projects, including in areas of health, education, and security. Under the second MCC Compact, El Salvador launched international tenders for two Public-Private Partnerships projects. In October 2020, the GOES awarded the first-ever PPP project to design, expand, construct, and operate expanded cargo operations of El Salvador’s primary international airport.  The estimated $57 million contract award is pending Legislative Assembly approval. A second PPP tender was released in January 2020 for the design, financing, installation, equipment, operation and maintenance of a public lighting and video surveillance systems on approximately 143 kilometers of roads in San Salvador, La Libertad and La Paz departments.  The estimated investment for the project is $17 million.  Due to COVID-19, the deadline for the submission of bids was extended to March 15, 2021. El Salvador has also undertaken pre-feasibility studies on other potential PPP projects, including a second airport in eastern El Salvador, a toll road concession to connect its biggest port (Acajutla) to the La Hachadura border with Guatemala, and improvements of four border crossings (La Hachadura, Anguiatu, El Poy and El Amarillo) and three intermediate customs facilities (Metalio, Santa Ana and San Bartolo). The GOES has planned a total of 16 PPPs.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The 1998 Free Trade Zone Law is designed to attract investment in a wide range of activities, although the vast majority of the businesses in free trade zones are textile plants. A Salvadoran partner is not needed to operate in a free trade zone, and some textile operations are completely foreign-owned.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

There are 17 free trade zones in El Salvador. They host 202 companies in sectors including textiles, distribution, call centers, business process outsourcing, agribusiness, agriculture, electronics, and metallurgy. Owned primarily by Salvadoran, U.S., Taiwanese, and Korean investors, free trade zone firms employ more than 73,000 people. The point of contact is the Chamber of Textile, Apparel and Free Trade Zones of El Salvador (CAMTEX) at: https://www.camtex.com.sv/site/ .

The 1998 law established rules for free trade zones and bonded areas. The free trade zones are outside the nation’s customs jurisdiction while the bonded areas are within its jurisdiction, but subject to special treatment. Local and foreign companies can establish themselves in a free trade zone to produce goods or services for export or to provide services linked to international trade. The regulations for the bonded areas are similar.

Qualifying firms located in the free trade zones and bonded areas may enjoy the following benefits:

Exemption from all duties and taxes on imports of raw materials and the machinery and equipment needed to produce for export;

Exemption from taxes for fuels and lubricants used for producing exports if they not domestically produced;

Exemption from income tax, municipal taxes on company assets and property for either 15 years (if the company is located in the metropolitan area of San Salvador) or 20 years (if the company is located outside of the metropolitan area of San Salvador);

Exemption from taxes on certain real estate transfers, e.g., the acquisition of goods to be employed in the authorized activity; and

Exemption from value-added tax on goods and services sourced locally to be employed in the authorized activity, including goods that are not incorporated into the final product, security and transportation services, as well as construction services and materials.

Companies in the free trade zones are also allowed to sell goods or services in the Salvadoran market if they pay applicable taxes on the proportion sold locally. Additional rules apply to textile and apparel products.

Regulations allow a WTO-complaint “drawback” to refund custom duties paid on imported inputs and intermediate goods exclusively used in the production of goods exported outside of the Central American region. Regulations also included the creation of a Business Production Promotion Committee with the participation of the private and public sector to work on policies to strengthen the export sector, and the creation of an Export and Import Center.

All import and export procedures are handled by the Import and Export Center (Centro de Trámites de Importaciones y Exportaciones – CIEX El Salvador). More information about the procedures can be found at: http://www.ciexelsalvador.gob.sv/registroSIMP/ 

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

El Salvador’s Investment Law does not require investors to meet export targets, transfer technology, incorporate a specific percentage of local content, turn over source code or provide access to surveillance, or fulfill other performance criteria. Business-related data may be freely transferred outside of El Salvador.

Labor laws require that 90 percent of the workforce in plants and in clerical positions be Salvadoran citizens. Nationality restrictions are relaxed for professional and technical jobs.

Foreign investors and domestic firms are eligible for the same incentives. Exports of goods and services are exempt from value-added tax.

A new Immigration Law, enacted in May 2019, introduces the investment, business, or commercial representation visa for foreign nationals of countries with a visa requirement who want to conduct temporary business-related activities in El Salvador. This visa can be issued for a single entry or multiple entries with a duration of up to two years. Eligible nationals can enter El Salvador for business purposes without a visa for up to 90 days, extendable once for an additional 90 days, for a total maximum stay of 180 days.  The law institutes the Frequent Traveler Card for foreign nationals who frequently visit El Salvador for business. This card can be issued for up to three years and allows multiple entries for stays of up to 90 days per entry.

Investors who plan to live and work in El Salvador for an extended period need to obtain temporary residency, which may be renewed periodically. Under Article 11 of the Investment Law, foreigners with investments totaling more than $1 million may obtain Investor’s Residency status, which allows them to work and remain in the country. This residency may be requested within 30 days of registering the investment. It allows residency for the investor and family members for a period of two years and may be extended thereafter.

It is customary for companies to hire local attorneys to manage the process of obtaining residency. The American Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador can also provide information regarding the process. Website: http://amchamsal.com/ 

The International Services Law establishes tax benefits for businesses that invest at least $150,000 during the first year of operations, including working capital and fixed assets, hire at least 10 permanent employees, and have at least a one-year contract. For hospital/medical services , the minimum capital investment must be $10 million, if surgical services are provided, or a minimum of $3 million, if surgical services are not provided. Hospitals or clinics must be located outside of major metropolitan areas, and medical services must be provided only to patients with insurance.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Private property, both non-real estate and real estate, is recognized and protected in El Salvador. Mortgages and real property liens exist. Companies that plan to buy property are advised to hire competent local legal counsel to guide them on the property’s title prior to purchase.

Per the Constitution, no single natural or legal person–whether national or foreign–can own more than 245 hectares (605 acres) of land. Reciprocity applies to the ownership of rural land, i.e., El Salvador does not restrict the ownership of rural land by foreigners, unless Salvadoran citizens are restricted in the corresponding states. The restriction on rural land does not apply if used for industrial purposes.

Real property can be transferred without government authorization. For title transfer to be valid regarding third parties, however, it needs to be properly registered. Laws regarding rental property tend to favor the interests of tenants. For instance, tenants may remain on property after their lease expires, provided they continue to pay rent. Likewise, the law limits the permissible rent and makes eviction processes extremely difficult.

Squatters occupying private property in “good faith” can eventually acquire title. If the owner of the property is unknown, squatters can acquire title after 20 years of good faith possession through a judicial procedure; if the owner is known, squatters can acquire title after 30 years.

Squatters may never acquire title to public land, although municipalities often grant the right of use to the squatter.

Zoning is regulated by municipal rules. Municipalities have broad power regarding property use within their jurisdiction. Zoning maps, if they exist, are generally not available to the public.

The perceived ineffectiveness of the judicial system discourages investments in real estate and makes execution of real estate guarantees difficult. Securitization of real estate guarantees or titles is legally permissible but does not occur frequently in practice.

El Salvador ranks 79th of 190 economies on the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report in the Ease of Registering Property category. According to the report, registering a property takes an average of six steps over a period of 31 days, and costs 3.8 percent of the reported property value.

Intellectual Property Rights

El Salvador’s intellectual property rights (IPR) legal framework is strong. El Salvador revised several laws to comply with CAFTA-DR’s provisions on IPR, such as extending the copyright term to 70 years. The Intellectual Property Promotion and Protection Law (1993, revised in 2005), Law of Trademarks and Other Distinctive Signs (2002, revised in 2005), and Penal Code establish the legal framework to protect IPR. Investors can register trademarks, patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property with the National Registry Center’s Intellectual Property Office. In 2008, the government enacted test data exclusivity regulations for pharmaceuticals (for five years) and agrochemicals (for 10 years) and ratified an international agreement extending protection to satellite signals.

El Salvador’s enforcement of IPR protections falls short of its written policies. Salvadoran authorities have limited resources to dedicate to enforcement of IPR laws. The National Civil Police (PNC) has an Intellectual Property Section with three investigators, while the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has 13 prosecutors in its Private Property division that also has responsibility for other property crimes including cases of extortion. According to ASPI, the PNC section coordinates well with other government and private entities. Nevertheless, the PNC admits that a lack of resources and expertise (e.g., regarding information technology) hinders its effectiveness in combatting IPR crimes.

The National Directorate of Medicines (DNM) has 42 products registered for data protection, including five in 2019. The DNM protects the confidentiality of relevant test data and the list of such protected medications is available on the DNM website: https: https://www.medicamentos.gob.sv/index.php/es/servicios-m/informes/unidad-de-registro-y-visado/listado-de-productos-farmaceuticos-con-proteccion-de-datos-de-prueba .

The Salvadoran Intellectual Property Association (ASPI – Asociacion Salvadoreña de Propiedad Intelectual) notes that piracy is common in El Salvador because the police focus on investigating criminal networks rather than points of sale. Trade in counterfeit medicines and pirated software is common.

In 2020, the PNC arrested five individuals for copyright and trademark infringement. The PNC also conducted five inspections and ten raids, where it seized pirated optical media discs (CDs and DVDs) and fake products, including , footwear, belts and buckles. . Customs officials have identified some counterfeit products arriving directly from China through the Salvadoran seaport of Acajutla. In 2020, Customs officials seized 36 shipments based on the presumption of containing counterfeit products. These shipments primarily involved toys (e.g. Disney, Mattel and Nickelodeon), clothing and handbags (e.g. Cartier, Puma, Nike, and Tommy Hilfiger), mobile phone accessories (e.g. Huawei, iPhone, and Samsung), and accessories for vehicles (e.g. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai).Contraband and counterfeit products, especially cigarettes, liquor, toothpaste, and cooking oil, remain widespread. According to the GOES and private sector contacts, most unlicensed or counterfeit products are imported to El Salvador. The Distributors Association of El Salvador (ADES) estimated in 2019 that the annual cost of illicit trade in El Salvador amounts to $1 billion. . Most contraband cigarettes come in from China, Panama, South Korea, and Paraguay and undercut legitimately-imported cigarettes, which are subject to a 39 percent tariff. According to ADES, most contraband cigarettes are smuggled in by gangs, with the complicity of Salvadoran authorities.

The national Intellectual Property Registry has 22 registered geographical indications for El Salvador. In 2018, the GOES registered four geographical indications involving Denominations of Origin for “Jocote Barón Rojo San Lorenzo” (a sour fruit), “Pupusa de Olocuilta” (a variant of El Salvador’s traditional food), “Camarones de la Bahía de Jiquilisco” (shrimp from the Jiquilisco Bay), and “Loroco San Lorenzo” (flower used in Salvadoran cuisine). Existing geographic indications include “Balsamo de El Salvador” (balm for medical, cosmetic, and gastronomic uses – since 1935), “Café Ilamatepec” (coffee – since 2010), and “Chaparro” (Salvadoran hard liquor- since 2016).

El Salvador is not listed in the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Report or its Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy. There are no IP-related laws pending.

El Salvador is a signatory of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works; the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property; the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication; the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty; the WIPO Performance and Phonograms Treaty; the Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Phonogram Producers, and Broadcasting Organizations; and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (2012), which grants performing artists certain economic rights (such as rights over broadcast, reproduction, and distribution) of live and recorded works.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/details.jsp?country_code=SV 

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Superintendent of the Financial System ( https://www.ssf.gob.sv/ ) supervises individual and consolidated activities of banks and non-bank financial intermediaries, financial conglomerates, stock market participants, insurance companies, and pension fund administrators. Foreign investors may obtain credit in the local financial market under the same conditions as local investors. Interest rates are determined by market forces, with the interest rate for credit cards and loans capped at 1.6 times the weighted average effective rate established by the Central Bank. The maximum interest rate varies according to the loan amount and type of loan (consumption, credit cards, mortgages, home repair/remodeling, business, and microcredits).

In January 2019, El Salvador eliminated a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT), which was enacted in 2014 and greatly opposed by banks.

The 1994 Securities Market Law established the present framework for the Salvadoran securities exchange. Stocks, government and private bonds, and other financial instruments are traded on the exchange, which is regulated by the Superintendent of the Financial System.

Foreigners may buy stocks, bonds, and other instruments sold on the exchange and may have their own securities listed, once approved by the Superintendent. Companies interested in listing must first register with the National Registry Center’s Registry of Commerce. In 2020, the exchange traded $5.8 billon, with average daily volumes between $10 million and $24 million. Government-regulated private pension funds, Salvadoran insurance companies, and local banks are the largest buyers on the Salvadoran securities exchange. For more information, visit: https://www.bolsadevalores.com.sv/ 

Money and Banking System

All but two of the major banks operating in El Salvador are regional banks owned by foreign financial institutions. Given the high level of informality, measuring the penetration of financial services is difficult; however, it remains relatively low between 30 percent- according to the Salvadoran Banking Association (ABANSA) – and 35 percent- reported by the Superintendence of the Financial System (SSF). The banking system is sound and generally well-managed and supervised. El Salvador’s Central Bank is responsible for regulating the banking system, monitoring compliance of liquidity reserve requirements, and managing the payment systems. No bank has lost its correspondent banking relationship in recent years. There are no correspondent banking relationships known to be in jeopardy.

The banking system’s total assets as of December 2020 were $20.4 billion. Under Salvadoran banking law, there is no difference in regulations between foreign and domestic banks and foreign banks can offer all the same services as domestic banks.

The Cooperative Banks and Savings and Credit Associations Law regulates the organization, operation, and activities of financial institutions such as cooperative banks, credit unions, savings and credit associations, , and other microfinance institutions. The Money Laundering Law requires financial institutions to report suspicious transactions to the Attorney General. Despite having regulatory scheme in place to supervise the filing of reports by cooperative banks and savings and credit associations, these entities rarely file suspicious activity reports.

The Insurance Companies Law regulates the operation of both local and foreign insurance firms. Foreign firms, including U.S., Colombian, Dominican, Honduran, Panamanian, Mexican, and Spanish companies, have invested in Salvadoran insurers.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange Policies

There are no restrictions on transferring investment-related funds out of the country. Foreign businesses can freely remit or reinvest profits, repatriate capital, and bring in capital for additional investment. The 1999 Investment Law allows unrestricted remittance of royalties and fees from the use of foreign patents, trademarks, technical assistance, and other services. Tax reforms introduced in 2011, however, levy a five percent tax on national or foreign shareholders’ profits. Moreover, shareholders domiciled in a state, country or territory that is considered a tax haven or has low or no taxes, are subject to a tax of twenty-five percent.

The Monetary Integration Law dollarized El Salvador in 2001. The U.S. dollar accounts for nearly all currency in circulation and can be used in all transactions. Salvadoran banks, in accordance with the law, must keep all accounts in U.S. dollars. Dollarization is supported by remittances – almost all from workers in the United States – that totaled $5.91 billion in 2020.

Remittance Policies

There are no restrictions placed on investment remittances. The Caribbean Financial Action Task Force’s Ninth Follow-Up report on El Salvador ( https://www.cfatf-gafic.org/index.php/member-countries/el-salvador ) noted that El Salvador has strengthened its remittances regimen, prohibiting anonymous accounts and limiting suspicious transactions. In 2015, the Legislature approved reforms to the Law of Supervision and Regulation of the Financial System so that any entity sending or receiving systematic or substantial amounts of money by any means, at the national and international level, falls under the jurisdiction of the Superintendence of the Financial System.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

El Salvador does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

El Salvador has successfully liberalized many sectors, though it maintains state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in energy production, water supply and sanitation, ports and airports, and the national lottery (see chart below).

SOE 2021 Budgeted Revenue Number of Employees
National Lottery $ 50,974,850 147
State-run Electricity Company (CEL) $ 250,180,895 831
Water Authority (ANDA) $ 231,991,560 4,291
Port & Airport Administrator (CEPA) $ 117,556,539 2,537

Although the GOES privatized energy distribution in 1999, it maintains significant energy production facilities through state-owned Rio Lempa Executive Hydroelectric Commission (CEL), a significant producer of hydroelectric and geothermal energy. The primary water service provider is the National Water and Sewer Administration (ANDA), which provides services to 97 percent of urban areas and 78 percent of rural areas in El Salvador. As an umbrella institution, ANDA defines policies, regulates, and provides services. The Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) operates both the seaports and the airports. CEL, ANDA, and CEPA Board Chairs hold Minister-level rank and report directly to the President.

The Law on Public Administration Procurement and Contracting (LACAP) covers all procurement of goods and services by all Salvadoran public institutions, including the municipalities. Exceptions to LACAP include: procurement and contracting financed with funds coming from other countries (bilateral agreements) or international bodies; agreements between state institutions; and the contracting of personal services by public institutions under the provisions of the Law on Salaries, Contracts and Day Work. Additionally, LACAP allows government agencies to use the auction system of the Salvadoran Goods and Services Market (BOLPROS) for procurement. Although BOLPROS is intended for use in purchasing standardized goods (e.g., office supplies, cleaning products, and basic grains), the GOES uses BOLPROS to procure a variety of goods and services, including high-value technology equipment and sensitive security equipment. As of September 2020, public procurement using BOLPROS totaled $86.7 million. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) also support government agencies in the procurement of a wide range of infrastructure projects. The GOES has created a dedicated procurement website to publish tenders by government institutions ( https://www.comprasal.gob.sv/comprasal_web/ ).

In August 2020, President Bukele signed an executive order allowing the submission of bids for contractual services via email and eliminating bidders’ obligation to register online with the public procurement system (Comprasal), as well as lifting the responsibility of procurement officers to keep a record of companies and individuals who receive tender documents. Civil society organizations challenged the order, claiming it violates transparency standards and facilitates the manipulation of procurement information. The order is pending review in the Supreme Court of Justice.

Alba Petroleos is a joint venture between a consortium of mayors from the FMLN party and a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA. As majority PDVSA owned, Alba Petroleos has been subject to Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions since January 2019. Alba Petroleos operates a diminishing number of gasoline service stations and businesses in other industries, including energy production, food production, medicines, micro-lending, supermarkets, and bus transportation. Alba Petroleos has been surrounded by allegations of mismanagement, corruption and money laundering. Critics charged that the conglomerate received preferential treatment during FMLN governments and that its commercial practices, including financial reporting, are non-transparent. In May 2019, the Attorney General’s Office initiated an investigation against Alba Petroleos and its affiliates for money laundering. Alba Petroleos’ assets are frozen by court order and some of its gasoline service stations are being managed by the National Council for Asset Administration (CONAB).

Privatization Program

El Salvador is not engaged in a privatization program and has not announced plans to privatize.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The private sector in El Salvador, including several prominent U.S. companies, has embraced the concept of responsible business conduct (RBC). Many companies donated to COVID-19 relief efforts in 2020. Several local foundations promote RBC practices, entrepreneurial values, and philanthropic initiatives. El Salvador is also a member of international institutions such as Forum Empresa (an alliance of RBC institutions in the Western Hemisphere), AccountAbility (UK), and the InterAmerican Corporate Social Responsibility Network. Businesses have created RBC programs to provide education and training, transportation, lunch programs, and childcare. In addition, RBC programs have included inclusive hiring practices and assistance to communities in areas such as health, education, senior housing, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Organizations monitoring RBC are able to work freely.

Following a reorganization under the Bukele administration, the Legal Secretariat is responsible for developing strategies and actions to promote transparency and accountability of government agencies, as well as fostering citizen participation in government. The watchdog organization Transparency International is represented in-country by the Salvadoran Foundation for Development (FUNDE).

El Salvador does not waive or weaken labor laws, consumer protection, or environmental regulations to attract foreign investment. El Salvador’s ability to effectively and fairly enforce domestic laws is limited by a lack of resources. El Salvador does not allow metal mining activity.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices ( https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/);

Trafficking in Persons Report ( https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/);

Guidance on Implementing the “UN Guiding Principles” for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities ( https://www.state.gov/key-topics-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/due-diligence-guidance/) and;

North Korea Sanctions & Enforcement Actions Advisory ( https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/dprk_supplychain_advisory_07232018.pdf ).

Department of Labor

Findings on the Worst forms of Child Labor Report ( https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  );

List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor ( https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods );

Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking Around the World ( https://www.dol.gov/general/apps/ilab ) and;

Comply Chain ( https://www.dol.gov/ilab/complychain/ ).

9. Corruption

U.S. companies operating in El Salvador are subject to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

Corruption can be a challenge to investment in El Salvador. El Salvador ranks 104 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index. While El Salvador has laws, regulations, and penalties to combat corruption, their effectiveness is at times questionable. Soliciting, offering, or accepting a bribe is a criminal act in El Salvador. The Attorney General’s Anticorruption and Anti-Impunity Unit handles allegations of public corruption. The Constitution establishes a Court of Accounts that is charged with investigating public officials and entities and, when necessary, passing such cases to the Attorney General for prosecution. Executive-branch employees are subject to a code of ethics, including administrative enforcement mechanisms, and the government established an Ethics Tribunal in 2006.

In September 2019, El Salvador signed an agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS) for the establishment of the International Commission Against Impunity and Corruption (CICIES), which was followed by an agreement to determine CICIES objectives and competences. The CICIES will run for four years as an independent entity outside the GOES and underneath the OAS. The OAS has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security codifying the role of the CICIES with each entity. CICIES will assist in instituting policies to combat corruption and impunity, support investigations conducted by the Attorney General‘s Office and the National Civil Police, and capacity building to strengthen institutions actively involved in the fight against corruption.

In April 2020, CICIES announced the deployment of a team of 30 multidisciplinary professionals to audit and implement a follow-up mechanism on the use of funds devoted to fight the pandemic. In November 2020, the Attorney General’s Office launched a series of investigations into COVID-19 contracts and expenditures based on the preliminary results of CICIES audits. The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating at least 17 government agencies for alleged procurement fraud and misuse of public funds.On March 25,2021, CICIES submitted to the GOES a proposal to amend a several laws to prevent corruption and strengthen transparency and accountability, as well as to create crime typologies.

Corruption scandals at the federal, legislative, and municipal levels are commonplace and there have been credible allegations of judicial corruption. Three of the past four presidents have been indicted for corruption, a former Attorney General is in prison on corruption-related charges, a former president of the Legislative Assembly, who also served as president of the investment promotion agency during the prior administration, faces charges for embezzlement, fraud and money laundering, and the former Minister of Defense during two FMLN governments is under arrest for providing illicit benefits to gangs in exchange for reducing homicides (an agreement known as the 2012-2014 Truce). The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, but implementation is generally perceived as ineffective. In 2017, a civil court found former president Mauricio Funes guilty of illicit enrichment and ordered him to repay over $200,000. Additionally, Funes faces criminal charges for embezzlement and money laundering. In 2020, the Attorney General formally filed charges against Funes and other public officials for allegedly misappropriating $45 million in public funds in connection with a procurement fraud involving the Chaparral Hydroelectric Dam . Although there are several pending arrest warrants against Funes, he has fled to Nicaragua and cannot be extradited because he was granted Nicaraguan citizenship. In 2018, former president Elias Antonio (Tony) Saca pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $300 million in public funds. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison and ordered him to repay $260 million.

The NGO Social Initiative for Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Long-standing government practices in El Salvador, including cash payments to officials, shielded budgetary accounts, and diversion of government funds, facilitate corruption and impede accountability.  For example, the accepted practice of ensuring party loyalty through off-the-books cash payments to public officials (i.e., sobresueldos) persisted across five presidential administrations. However, President Bukele eliminated these cash payments to public officials and the “reserved spending account,” nominally for state intelligence funding. At his direction, in July 2019, the Court of Accounts began auditing reserve spending of the Sanchez Ceren administration.

El Salvador has an active, free press that reports on corruption. In 2015, the Probity Section of the Supreme Court began investigating allegations of illicit enrichment of public officials. In 2017, Supreme Court Justices ordered its Probity Section to audit legislators and their alternates. In 2019, in observance of the Constitution, the Supreme Court instructed the Probity Section to focus its investigations only on public officials who left office within ten years. In July 2020, the Supreme Court issued regulations to standardize the procedures to examine asset declarations of public officials and carry out illicit enrichment investigations, as well as to set clear rules for decision-making. The enacted regulations seek to avoid discretion and enhance transparency on corruption-related investigations. The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section. The declarations are not available to the public, and the law only sanctions noncompliance with fines of up to $500.

In 2011, El Salvador approved the Law on Access to Public Information. The law provides for the right of access to government information, but authorities have not always effectively implemented the law. The law gives a narrow list of exceptions that outline the grounds for nondisclosure and provide for a reasonably short timeline for the relevant authority to respond, no processing fees, and administrative sanctions for non-compliance. In 2020, in response to press reports about irregular purchases using COVID-19 funds, several government agencies declared pandemic-related procurements and financial records to be reserved (i.e., confidential) information. Transparency advocates raised concerns about shielding information to avoid citizen oversight of public funds.

In 2011, El Salvador joined the Open Government Partnership. The Open Government Partnership promotes government commitments made jointly with civil society on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and use of new technologies ( http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/el-salvador ).

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combating Bribery

El Salvador is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. El Salvador is a signatory to the UN Anticorruption Convention and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Convention against Corruption.

Resources to Report Corruption

The following government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Doctor Jose Nestor Castaneda Soto, President of the Court of Government Ethics
Court of Government Ethics (Tribunal de Etica Gubernamental)
87 Avenida Sur, No.7, Colonia Escalón, San Salvador (503) 2565-9403
(503) 2565-9403
Email: n.castaneda@teg.gob.sv 
http://www.teg.gob.sv/ 

Licenciado Raúl Ernesto Melara Morán
Fiscalia General de La Republica (Attorney General’s Office)
Edificio Farmavida, Calle Cortéz Blanco
Boulevard y Colonia Santa Elena
(503) 2593-7400
(503) 2593-7172
Email: xvpocasangre@fgr.gob.sv
http://www.fiscalia.gob.sv/ 

Chief Justice
Oscar Armando Pineda Navas
Avenida Juan Pablo II y 17 Avenida Norte
Centro de Gobierno
(503) 2271-8743
Email: conchita.presidenciacsj@gmail.com 
http://www.csj.gob.sv 

Contact at “watchdog” organization (international, regional, local, or nongovernmental organization operating in the country/economy that monitors corruption, such as Transparency International):

Roberto Rubio-Fabián
Executive Director
National Development Foundation (Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo – FUNDE)
Calle Arturo Ambrogi #411, entre 103 y 105 Avenida Norte, Colonia Escalón, San Salvador (503) 2209-5300
(503) 2209-5300
Email: direccion@funde.org 

Resources to request government information

Access to Public Information Institute (IAIP for its initials in Spanish)
Ricardo Gómez Guerrero
Commissioner President of the IAIP
Prolongación Ave. Alberto Masferrer y
Calle al Volcán, Edif. Oca Chang # 88
(503) 2205-3800
Email: gomez@iaip.gob.sv
https://www.iaip.gob.sv/ 

10. Political and Security Environment

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992. Since then, there has been no political violence aimed at foreign investors.

In September 2020, the State Department adjusted the U.S. travel advisory for El Salvador from Level 2 (Exercise Increased Caution) to Level 3 (Reconsider Travel), due to COVID-19 Level 4 (Very High) Travel Health Notice issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   The travel advisory also warns U.S citizens of high rates of crime and violence. . Most serious crimes in El Salvador are never solved. El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter crime.  For more information, visit: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/ElSalvador.html

El Salvador has thousands of known gang members from several gangs including Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (M18). Gang members engage in violence or use deadly force if resisted. These “maras” concentrate on extortion, violent street crime, car-jacking, narcotics and arms trafficking, and murder for hire. Extortion is a common crime in El Salvador. U.S. citizens who visit El Salvador for extended periods are at higher risk for extortion demands. Bus companies and distributors often must pay extortion fees to operate within gang territories, and these costs are passed on to customers. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Index reported that costs due to organized crime for businesses in El Salvador are the highest among 141 countries.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

In 2020, El Salvador had a labor force of just over three million, according to the Ministry of Economy. Informal employment accounts for approximately 75 percent of the economy. While Salvadoran labor is regarded as hard-working, general education and professional skill levels are low. According to many large employers, there is a lack of middle management-level talent, which sometimes results in the need to bring in managers from abroad. Employers do not report labor-related difficulties in incorporating technology into their workplaces.

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, although it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Military personnel, national police, judges, and high-level public officers may not form or join unions. Workers who are representatives of the employer or in “positions of trust” also may not serve on a union’s board of directors. Only Salvadoran citizens may serve on unions’ executive committees. The labor code also bars individuals from holding membership in more than one trade union.

Unions must meet complex requirements to register, including having a minimum membership of 35 individuals. If the Ministry of Labor (MOL) denies registration, the law prohibits any attempt to organize for up to six months following the denial. Collective bargaining is obligatory only if the union represents the majority of workers.

The law contains cumbersome and complex procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts therefore interpret this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law requires that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. Unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many unions often skip or expedite these steps. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Penalties remained insufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government inconsistently enforced labor rights for public workers, maquiladora/textile workers, food manufacturing workers, subcontracted workers in the construction industry, security guards, informal-sector workers, and migrant workers.

Unions functioned independently from the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with the traditional political parties of ARENA and the FMLN. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements.

Employers are free to hire union or non-union labor. Closed shops are illegal. Labor laws are generally in accordance with internationally-recognized standards, but are not enforced consistently by government authorities. Although El Salvador has improved labor rights since the CAFTA-DR entered into force and the law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, there remains room for better implementation and enforcement.

The MOL is responsible for enforcing the law. The government proved more effective in enforcing the minimum wage law in the formal sector than in the informal sector. Unions reported the ministry failed to enforce the law for subcontracted workers hired for public reconstruction contracts. The government provided its inspectors updated training in both occupational safety and labor standards and conducted thousands of inspections in 2019.

The law sets a maximum normal workweek of 44 hours, limited to no more than six days and to no more than eight hours per day, but allows overtime, which is to be paid at a rate of double the usual hourly wage.  The law mandates that full-time employees receive pay for an eight-hour day of rest in addition to the 44-hour normal workweek. The law provides that employers must pay double time for work on designated annual holidays, a Christmas bonus based on the time of service of the employee, and 15 days of paid annual leave. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The law states that domestic employees are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request, but they are entitled to double pay in these instances. The government does not adequately enforce these laws.

There is no national minimum wage; the minimum wage is determined by sector. In 2018, a minimum wage increase went into effect that included increases of nearly 40 percent for apparel assembly workers and more than 100 percent for workers in coffee and sugar harvesting. All of these wage rates were above poverty income levels.

On March 14, 2020, the Legislative Assembly unanimously approved Legislative Decree 593, which stated that workers could not be fired for being quarantined for COVID-19 or because they could not report to work due to immigration or health restrictions. President Bukele also mandated persons older than 60 and pregnant women to work from home.

Responding to COVID-19 pandemic and to legalize telework, El Salvador adopted the Telework Regulation Law on March 20, 2020. The law is applicable in both private and public sectors and requires a written agreement between employer and employee outlining the terms and conditions of the arrangement, including working hours, responsibilities, workload, performance evaluations, reporting and monitoring, and duration of the arrangement, among others. Legislation prescribes that employers are responsible for providing the equipment, tools, and programs necessary to perform duties remotely. Employers are subject to the obligations contained in labor laws, while workers are entitled to the same rights as staff working at the employer’s premises, including benefits and freedom of association. According to the Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador (PROESA), the implementation of the Telework Bill enabled El Salvador to save around 20,000 jobs that otherwise could have been lost to the pandemic, especially in the call center sector.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $27,022.64 2019 $27,023 https://data.worldank.org/country/el-salvador 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $22,183.96 2019 $3,380 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/international/
factsheet/factsheet.cfm?Area=209 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 N.A. 2019 $26.0 BEA data available at
http://bea.gov/international/direct_
investment_multinational_companies_
comprehensive_data.htm 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 37% 2019 126%

* Central Bank, El Salvador. In 2018, the Central Bank released GDP estimates using the new national accounts system from 2008 and using 2005 as the base year.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data (2019)*
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 10,113 100% Total Outward 4.4 100%
Panama 3,304 32.7% Guatemala 2.57 64.3%
United States 2,184 21.6% Honduras 1.32 33%
Spain 1,087 10.7% Costa Rica 0.48 12%
Colombia 819 8.1% Nicaragua 0.07 1.8%
Mexico 764 7.6%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

*Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, International Monetary Fund 

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, with a $ 77.4 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. The economy contracted by an estimated 1.5 percent in 2020 due to the impacts of COVID-19 and tropical storms Eta and Iota. Remittances, mostly from the United States, increased by 7.9 percent in 2020 and were equivalent to 14.6 percent of GDP. The United States is Guatemala’s most important economic partner. The Guatemalan government continues to make efforts to enhance competitiveness, promote investment opportunities, and work on legislative reforms aimed at supporting economic growth. More than 200 U.S. and other foreign firms have active investments in Guatemala, benefitting from the U.S. Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Foreign direct investment (FDI) stock was $17.3 billion in 2020, a 4.2 percent increase over 2019. Despite increased stock, FDI flows dropped by 6.1 percent in 2020. Some of the activities that attracted most of the FDI flows in the last three years were financial and insurance activities, manufacturing, commerce and vehicle repair, water, electricity, and sanitation services.

Despite steps to improve Guatemala’s investment climate, international companies choosing to invest in Guatemala face significant challenges. Complex laws and regulations, inconsistent judicial decisions, bureaucratic impediments, and corruption continue to impede investment. Citing Guatemala’s CAFTA-DR obligations, the United States has raised concerns with the Guatemalan government regarding its enforcement of both its labor and environmental laws.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 149 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 96 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 106 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 USD 746 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 4,610 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Guatemalan government continues to promote investment opportunities and work on reforms to enhance competitiveness and the business environment. As part of the government’s efforts to promote economic recovery during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Economy (MINECO) began implementing an economic recovery plan, which focuses on recovering lost jobs and generating new jobs, attracting new strategic investment, and promoting consumption of Guatemalan goods and services locally and globally. Private consultants contributed to the government’s September 2020 economic recovery plan, which focuses on increasing exports and attracting foreign direct investment.

Guatemala’s investment promotion office operates within MINECO´s National Competitiveness Program (PRONACOM). PRONACOM supports potential foreign investors by offering information, assessment, coordination of country visits, contact referrals, and support with procedures and permits necessary to operate in the country. Services are offered to all investors without discrimination. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report ranked Guatemala 96 out of 190 countries, one position lower than its rank in 2019. The two areas where the country had the highest rankings were electricity and access to credit. The areas of the lowest ranking were protecting minority investors, enforcing contracts, and resolving insolvency.

International investors tend to engage with the Guatemalan government via chambers of commerce and industry associations, or directly with specific government ministries. PRONACOM began to prioritize investment retention in 2020.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

The Guatemalan Constitution recognizes the right to hold private property and to engage in business activity. Foreign private entities can establish, acquire, and dispose freely of virtually any type of business interest, with the exception of some professional services as noted below. The Foreign Investment Law specifically notes that foreign investors enjoy the same rights of use, benefits, and ownership of property as Guatemalan citizens. Guatemalan law prohibits foreigners, however, from owning land immediately adjacent to rivers, oceans, and international borders.

Guatemalan law does not prohibit the formation of joint ventures or the purchase of local companies by foreign investors. The absence of a developed, liquid, and efficient capital market, in which shares of publicly owned firms are traded, makes equity acquisitions in the open market difficult. Most foreign firms operate through locally incorporated subsidiaries.

The law does not restrict foreign investment in the telecommunications, electrical power generation, airline, or ground-transportation sectors. The Foreign Investment Law removed limitations to foreign ownership in domestic airlines and ground-transport companies in January 2004. The Guatemalan government does not have any screening mechanisms for inbound foreign investment.

Some professional services may only be supplied by professionals with locally recognized academic credentials. Public notaries must be Guatemalan nationals. Foreign enterprises may provide licensed, professional services in Guatemala through a contract or other relationship with a Guatemalan company. In July 2010, the Guatemalan congress approved an insurance law that allows foreign insurance companies to open branches in Guatemala, a requirement under CAFTA-DR. This law requires foreign insurance companies to fully capitalize in Guatemala.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Guatemala has been a World Trade Organization (WTO) member since 1995. The Guatemalan government had its last WTO trade policy review (TPR) in November 2016. In 2011, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) conducted an investment policy review on Guatemala. The WTO TPR highlighted Guatemala’s efforts to increase trade liberalization and economic reform efforts by eliminating export subsidies for free trade zones, export-focused manufacturing and assembly operations (maquilas) regimes, as well as amendments to the government procurement law to improve transparency and efficiency. The WTO TPR noted that Guatemala continues to lack a general competition law and a corresponding competition authority. The UNCTAD IPR recommended strengthening the public sector’s institutional capacity and highlighted that adopting a competition law and policy should be a priority in Guatemala’s development agenda. The government agreed to approve a competition law by November 2016 as part of its commitments under the Association Agreement with the European Union, but the draft law has not been approved as of March 2021. Other important recommendations from the UNCTAD IPR were to further explore alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and the establishment of courts for commercial and land disputes, though the government had not made substantive progress on these recommendations as of March 2021.

Business Facilitation

The Guatemalan government has a business registration website (https://minegocio.gt/), which facilitates on-line registration procedures for new businesses. Foreign companies that are incorporated locally are able to use the online business registration window, but the system is not yet available to other foreign companies. As a result of the entry into force of the commercial code amendments in January 2018, the time to register a new business online for a locally incorporated company went down from an average of 18.5 days in 2016 to an average of six days in 2019. The legal cost to register a business also fell by approximately 75 percent. The new procedures allow locally incorporated businesses to receive their business registration certificates online. Every company must register with the business registry, the tax administration authority, the social security institute, and the labor ministry.

Outward Investment

Guatemala does not incentivize nor restrict outward investment.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Tax, labor, environment, health, and safety laws do not directly impede investment in Guatemala. Bureaucratic hurdles are common for both domestic and foreign companies, including lengthy processes to obtain permits and licenses as well as clear shipments through Customs. The legal and regulatory systems can be confusing and administrative decisions are often not transparent. Laws and regulations often contain few explicit criteria for government administrators, resulting in ambiguous requirements that are applied inconsistently by different government agencies and the courts. Such inconsistencies can favor local firms with more familiarity about the system as well as more extensive local networks.

Public participation in the formulation of laws or regulations is rare. In some cases, private sector or civil society groups are able to submit comments to the issuing government office or to the congressional committee reviewing the bill, but with limited effect. There is no legislative oversight of administrative rule making. The Guatemalan congress publishes all draft bills on its official website, but does not make them available for public comment. The congress often does not disclose last-minute amendments before congressional decisions. Final versions of laws, once signed by the President, must be published in the official gazette before going into force. Congress publishes scanned versions of all laws that are published in the official gazette. Information on the budget and debt obligations is publicly available at the Ministry of Finance’s primary website, but information on debt obligations does not include contingent liabilities and state-owned enterprise debt.

The Guatemalan congress passed a law to strengthen fiscal transparency and governance of Guatemala’s Tax and Customs Authority (SAT) in July 2016, which included amendments to SAT’s organic law, the tax code, and other legislation to allow SAT access to banking records for auditing purposes with a judge’s approval. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC) suspended the 2016 law’s provision that allowed SAT access to banking records in August 2018 due to a claim of unconstitutionality filed against that provision, later issuing its final decision in August 2019, in which it revoked the provisional suspension and restored SAT’s access to banking records.

International Regulatory Considerations

Guatemala is a member of the Central American Common Market and has adopted the Central American uniform customs tariff schedule. As a member of the WTO, the Guatemalan government notifies the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) of draft technical regulations. The Guatemalan congress approved the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement in January 2017, which entered into force for Guatemala March 8, 2017. Guatemala classified 63.9 percent of its commitments under Category A, which includes commitments implemented upon entry into the agreement; 8.8 percent under Category B, which includes commitments to be implemented between February 2019 to July 2020; and 27.3 percent under Category C, which includes commitments to be implemented between February 2020 and July 2024. Guatemala transmitted its list of official websites with information for governments and trade participants to the WTO’s Committee on Trade Facilitation in March 2019.

In 1996, Guatemala ratified Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO 169), which entered into force in 1997. Article 6 of the Convention requires the government to consult indigenous groups or communities prior to initiating a project that could affect them directly. Potential investors should determine whether their investment will affect indigenous groups and, if so, request that the Guatemalan government lead a consultation process in compliance with ILO 169. The Guatemalan congress is currently considering a draft law to create a community consultation mechanism to fulfill its ILO-mandated obligations. The lack of a clear consultation process significantly impedes investment in large-scale projects.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Guatemala has a civil law system. The codified judicial branch law stipulates that jurisprudence or case law is also a source of law. Guatemala has a written and consistently applied commercial code. Contracts in Guatemala are legally enforced when the holder of a property right that has been infringed upon files a lawsuit to enforce recognition of the infringed right or to receive compensation for the damage caused. The civil law system allows for civil cases to be brought before, after, or concurrently with criminal claims. Guatemala does not have specialized commercial courts, but it does have civil courts that hear commercial cases and specialized courts that hear labor, contraband, or tax cases.

The judicial system is designed to be independent of the executive branch, and the judicial process for the most part is procedurally competent, fair, and reliable. There are continued accusations of corruption within the judicial branch.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

More than 200 U.S. firms as well as hundreds of foreign firms have active investments in Guatemala. CAFTA-DR established a more secure and predictable legal framework for U.S. investors operating in Guatemala. Under CAFTA-DR, all forms of investment are protected, including enterprises, debt, concessions, contracts, and intellectual property. U.S. investors enjoy the right to establish, acquire, and operate investments in Guatemala on an equal footing with local investors in almost all circumstances. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala places a high priority on improving the investment climate for U.S. investors. Guatemala passed a foreign investment law in 1998 to streamline and facilitate processes in foreign direct investment. In order to ensure compliance with CAFTA-DR, the Guatemalan congress approved in May 2006 a law that strengthened existing legislation on intellectual property rights (IPR) protection, government procurement, trade, insurance, arbitration, and telecommunications, as well as the penal code. Congress approved an e-commerce law in August 2008, which provides legal recognition to electronically executed communications and contracts; permits electronic communications to be accepted as evidence in all administrative, legal, and private actions; and, allows for the use of electronic signatures. The Guatemalan government does not regulate online payments outside of the formal financial sector, however.

The United States has filed two separate cases related to the Guatemalan government’s adherence to its CAFTA-DR obligations. For a labor law case, the government established an arbitration panel, pursuant to CAFTA-DR procedures, to consider whether Guatemala met its obligations to effectively enforce its labor laws. The arbitration panel held a hearing in June 2015 and issued a decision favorable to Guatemala in June 2017. Regarding an environmental case, the CAFTA-DR Secretariat for Environmental Matters suspended its investigation in 2012 when the Guatemalan government provided evidence that the relevant facts of the case were under consideration by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. The constitutional court dismissed the case on procedural grounds in 2013.

Complex and confusing laws and regulations, inconsistent judicial decisions, bureaucratic impediments and corruption continue to constitute practical barriers to investment. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Reports for 2015 and 2016, Guatemala made paying taxes easier and less costly by improving the electronic filing and payment system (“Declaraguate”) and by lowering the corporate income tax rate. The Guatemalan government developed a useful website to help navigate the laws, procedures and registration requirements for investors (http://asisehace.gt/). The website provides detailed information on laws and regulations and administrative procedures applicable to investment, including the number of steps, names, and contact details of the entities and persons in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time and legal grounds justifying the procedures.

Companies that carry out export activities or sell to exempted entities have the right to claim value added tax (VAT) credit refunds for the VAT paid to suppliers and documented with invoices for purchases of the goods and services used for production. Local and foreign companies continue to experience significant delays in receiving their refunds. Guatemala’s Tax and Customs Authority (SAT) began implementing a new plan in 2017 to streamline the process and expedite VAT credit refunds. The Guatemalan congress approved legal provisions in April 2019 that went into effect in November 2019, which were expected to contribute to expediting VAT credit refunds to exporters, but there were still delays in VAT refunds as of March 2021.

As part of its 2012 income tax reform, the Guatemalan government began implementing transfer pricing provisions in 2016. The Guatemalan congress approved a leasing law in February 2021 to regulate real estate and other types of leasing operations, including lease contracts with an option to purchase.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

Guatemala does not have a law to regulate monopolistic or anti-competitive practices. The Guatemalan government agreed to approve a competition law by November 2016 as part of its commitments under the Association Agreement with the European Union. The Guatemalan government submitted a draft competition law to Congress in May 2016, but it was still pending approval by Congress as of March 2021.

Expropriation and Compensation

Guatemala’s constitution prohibits expropriation, except in cases of eminent domain, national interest, or social benefit. The Foreign Investment Law requires proper compensation in cases of expropriation. Investor rights are protected under CAFTA-DR by an impartial procedure for dispute settlement that is fully transparent and open to the public. Submissions to dispute panels and dispute panel hearings are open to the public, and interested parties have the opportunity to submit their views.

The Guatemalan government maintains the right to terminate a contract at any time during the life of the contract, if it determines the contract is contrary to the public welfare. It has rarely exercised this right and can only do so after providing the guarantees of due process.

In June 2007, a U.S. company operating in Guatemala filed a claim under the investment chapter of CAFTA-DR against the Guatemalan government with the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention). The claimant alleged the Guatemalan government indirectly expropriated the company’s assets through a breach of contract. The company requested $65 million in compensation and damages from the government. The ICSID court issued its ruling on this case in June 2012 and stated that the Guatemalan government had in fact breached the minimum standard of treatment under Article 10.5 of CAFTA-DR and required the government to pay an award of $14.6 million. The government paid the award in November 2013.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Guatemala is a signatory to the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitration Awards (1958 New York Convention), the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (Panama Convention), and is a member state to the International Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention).

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

CAFTA-DR incorporated dispute resolution mechanisms for investors. Over the past ten years, two investment disputes involving U.S. businesses were filed under the investment chapter of CAFTA-DR against the Guatemalan government with the ICSID –one in 2010 and the other in 2018. A Colombian investor filed a claim with the ICSID in November 2020 on a dispute related to the 2009 Power Transmission System Expansion Plan. The ICSID suspended the proceeding in accordance with the parties’ agreement a few days later.

In October 2010, a U.S. company operating in Guatemala filed the second claim against the Guatemalan government with the ICSID. The claim seeks to resolve a dispute against the government regarding the regulation of electricity rates and the eventual sale of the company. In 2013, ICSID’s arbitration tribunal issued its judgment and awarded the company over $ 21 million in damages over electricity rates and $ 7.5 million to cover legal expenses. In 2014, the Guatemalan government filed an appeal to have the 2013 award annulled. On the same date, the company also filed for a partial annulment of the award. The ICSID ad-hoc committee issued its decision on both annulment proceedings in April 2016. The company then filed a request to resubmit the dispute over the sale to a new tribunal in October 2016. The new ICSID tribunal issued its ruling on the resubmission proceeding over the sale of the company in May 2020 and awarded the company over $27.5 million in damages to recover the cash flow shortfall and the pre-sale interest. The company filed a request for supplementary decision of the award with ICSID in June 2020. The ICSID tribunal issued its ruling on the supplementary decision in October 2020 and stated that the Guatemalan government shall pay the company $7.5 million of its costs incurred in the original arbitration plus interest running from December 2013. The Guatemalan government paid $37 million to the company in November 2020 that corresponded to the 2013 award. In February 2021, the ICSID Secretary General registered an application for annulment of the award filed by the Republic of Guatemala and notified the parties of the provisional stay of enforcement of the award. The case remains pending before the ICSID as of April 2021.

In December 2018, a U.S company operating in Guatemala filed the third claim against the Guatemalan government under the investment chapter of CAFTA-DR with the ICSID. The claim seeks to resolve a dispute against the government regarding the suspension of the claimant’s mining exploitation license by the Guatemalan courts in 2016 due to lack of consultations with local communities pursuant to International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169. The ICSID tribunal, constituted in July 2019, held a hearing on preliminary objections in December 2019. The company filed a memorial, (an arbitration specific term similar to a pleading) on the merits with the ICSID in July 2020 and the Guatemalan government filed a memorial on jurisdiction and a counter-memorial on the merits including a counter-claim with the ICSID in December 2020. The case is pending before the ICSID as of April 2021.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Guatemala’s Foreign Investment Law allows alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, if agreed to by the parties. Currently, there are two alternative dispute resolution mechanisms available in Guatemala to settle disputes between two private parties: the Center of Arbitration and Conciliation of the Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce (CENAC) and the Conflict Resolution Commission of the Guatemalan Chamber of Industry (CRECIG). Both dispute resolution centers provide support with arbiters and logistics. Guatemala’s Arbitration Law of 1995 uses the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law as the basis for its rules on international arbitration. The Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitration Awards (1958 New York Convention), of which Guatemala is a signatory, recognizes the subsequent enforcement of arbitration awards under these arbitration rules. The Law of the Judiciary recognizes judgments of foreign courts, but judgments must be final and comply with a legalization process to corroborate validity of the judgment.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Guatemala does not have an independent bankruptcy law. However, the Code on Civil and Mercantile Legal Proceedings contains a specific chapter on bankruptcy proceedings. Under the code, creditors can request to be included in the list of creditors; request an insolvency proceeding when a debtor has suspended payments of liabilities to creditors; and constitute a general board of creditors to be informed of the proceedings against the debtor. Bankruptcy is not criminalized, but it can become a crime if a court determines there was intent to defraud. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report, Guatemala ranked 157 out of 190 countries in resolving insolvency. The Ministry of Economy and members of the Congressional Economic and Foreign Trade Committee submitted a draft bankruptcy law to Congress in May 2018, which is pending Congressional approval as of March 2021.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Guatemala’s main investment incentive programs are specified in law and are offered nationwide to both foreign and Guatemalan investors without discrimination.

Guatemala’s primary incentive program – the Law for the Promotion and Development of Export Activities and Maquilas (factories that produce products in free trade zones) – is aimed mainly at the apparel and textile sector and at services exporters such as call centers and business processes outsourcing (BPO) companies. The government grants investors in these two sectors a 10-year income tax exemption. Additional incentives include an exemption from duties and value-added taxes (VAT) on imported machinery and equipment and a one-year suspension of the same duties and taxes on imports of production inputs, samples, and packing material. The Free Trade Zone Law provides similar incentives to the incentive program described above, but its beneficiaries include only some services providers and a limited number of manufacturing activities such as apparel manufacturers and motorcycle assemblers. The Guatemalan congress approved the Law for Conservation of Employment (Decree 19-2016) in February 2016, amending Guatemala’s two major incentive programs to replace tax incentives related to exports that Guatemala dismantled on December 31, 2015, per WTO requirements.

The public Free Trade Zone of Industry and Commerce Santo Tomas de Castilla (ZOLIC) that operates contiguous to the state-owned port Santo Tomas de Castilla issued a regulation in January 2019 allowing the establishment of ZOLIC’s special public economic development zones outside of ZOLIC’s customs perimeter. The ZOLIC law grants businesses operating within the new special public economic development zones a 10-year income tax exemption. Additional exemptions include an exemption from VAT, customs duties, and other charges on imports of goods entering the area, including raw materials, supplies, machinery and equipment, as well as a VAT exemption on all taxable transactions carried out within the free trade zone when goods are exported. The law states that the incentives are available to local and foreign investors engaged in manufacturing and commercial activities as well as the provision of services.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Decree 65-89, Guatemala’s Free Trade Zones Law and its amendments approved through Decree 19-2016, Law for Conservation of Employment, permits the establishment of free trade zones (FTZs) in any region of the country. Developers of private FTZs must obtain authorization from MINECO to install and manage a FTZ. Businesses operating within authorized FTZs also require authorization from MINECO. The law specifies investment incentives, which are available to both foreign and Guatemalan investors without discrimination. As of March 2021, there were seven authorized FTZs operating in Guatemala. Currently, services and a limited number of manufacturing activities are the only beneficiaries of Guatemala’s Free Trade Zones Law. The Guatemalan congress is considering amendments to the Free Trade Zones Law to reinstate tax incentives to some of the activities removed during the previous reform. Decree 22-73, ZOLIC’s law and its amendments approved through Decree 30-2018, allow the establishment of ZOLIC’s special public economic development zones outside of ZOLIC’s customs perimeter as described under the Investment Incentives subsection above. Special public economic development zones can be installed in ZOLIC´s facilities or property owned by third parties that is leased or granted in usufruct to ZOLIC. Administrators of special public economic development zones must obtain authorization from ZOLIC´s board of directors for a minimum period of 12 years. ZOLIC´s board of directors has approved two special public economic development zones as of March 2021.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Guatemalan law does not impose performance, purchase, or export requirements nor does the government require foreign investors to use domestic content in goods or technology. The Labor Code requires that at least 90 percent of employees must be Guatemalan, but the requirement does not apply to high-level positions such as managers and directors. Companies are not required to include local content in production.

Guatemalan companies do not require foreign IT providers to turn over source code. Some industries, such as the banking and financial sector, can request in the software license contract that their institution or a source code facilities management company receive a copy of the source code in case of potential problems with the IT provider.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Guatemala follows the real property registry system. Defects in the titles and ownership gaps in the public record can lead to conflicting claims of land ownership, especially in rural areas. The government stepped up efforts to enforce property rights by helping to provide a clear property title. Nevertheless, when rightful ownership is in dispute, it can be difficult to obtain and subsequently enforce eviction notices.

Mortgages are available to finance homes and businesses. Most banks offer mortgage loans with terms as long as 20 years for residential real estate. Mortgages and liens are recorded at the real estate property registry. According to the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Report, registering property in Guatemala takes 24 days, and it costs 3.6 percent of the property value. In the 2020 report, Guatemala ranked 89 out of 190 countries in the category of Registering Property.

The legal system is accessible to foreigners who may buy, sell, and file suit under the law. However, the legal system is not easily navigated without competent counsel. Foreign investors are advised to seek reliable local counsel early in the investment process.

Intellectual Property Rights

Guatemala has been a member of the WTO since 1995 and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) since 1983. It is also a signatory to the Paris Convention, Berne Convention, Rome Convention, Phonograms Convention, and the Nairobi Treaty. Guatemala has ratified the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT). In June 2006, as part of CAFTA-DR implementation, Guatemala ratified the Patent Cooperation Treaty and the Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure. Also in June 2006, the Guatemalan congress approved the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV Convention). Implementing legislation that would allow Guatemala to become a party to the convention, however, is still pending. The Guatemalan congress approved the Trademark Law Treaty (TLT) and the Marrakesh Treaty in February 2016.. The Guatemalan government is currently reviewing draft amendments to the Industrial Property Law to incorporate TLT provisions into local law.

Guatemala has a registry for intellectual property. Trademarks, copyrights, patents rights, industrial designs, and other forms of intellectual property must be registered in Guatemala to obtain protection in the country.

Guatemala has a sound intellectual property rights (IPR) legal framework. The Guatemalan congress passed an industrial property law in August 2000, bringing the country’s intellectual property rights laws into compliance with the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Congress modified the legislation in 2003 to provide pharmaceutical test data protection consistent with international practice and again in 2005 to comply with IPR protection requirements in CAFTA-DR. CAFTA-DR provides for improved standards for the protection and enforcement of a broad range of IPR, which are consistent with U.S. standards of protection and enforcement as well as emerging international standards. Congress approved a law to prohibit the production and sale of counterfeit medicine in November 2011. It approved amendments to the Industrial Property Law in June 2013 to allow the registration of geographical indications (GI), as required under the Association Agreement with the European Union. Guatemalan administrative authorities issued rulings on applications to register GIs that appear sound and well-reasoned for compound GI names, but U.S. exporters are concerned that 2014 rulings on single-name GIs will effectively prohibit new U.S. products in the Guatemalan market from using what appear to be generic or common names when identifying their goods locally.

Guatemala remains on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Special 301 Report’s Watch List in 2021 and has been on the Watch List for more than 10 years. Despite a generally strong legal framework, IPR enforcement is weak due to lack of resource prioritization and poor coordination among law enforcement agencies. Piracy and copyright and trademark infringement, including those of some major U.S. food and pharmaceutical brands, remain problematic in Guatemala.

Guatemala is not included in USTR’s 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Guatemala’s capital markets are weak and inefficient because they lack a securities regulator. The local stock exchange (Bolsa Nacional de Valores) deals almost exclusively in commercial paper, repurchase agreements (repos), and government bonds. The Guatemalan Central Bank (Banguat) and the Superintendent of Banks (SIB) were drafting an updated capital markets bill that included a chapter on securitization companies and the securitization process as of March 2021. Notwithstanding the lack of a modern capital markets law, the government debt market continues to develop. Domestic treasury bonds represented 56.9 percent of total public debt as of December 2020.

Guatemala lacks a market for publicly traded equities, which raises the cost of capital and complicates mergers and acquisitions. As of December 2020, borrowers faced a weighted average annual interest rate of 15.5 percent in local currency and 6.6 percent in foreign currency, with some banks charging over 40 percent on consumer or micro-credit loans. Commercial loans to large businesses offered the lowest rates and were on average 6.8 percent in local currency as of December 2020. Dollar-denominated loans typically are some percentage points lower than those issued in local currency. Foreigners rarely rely on the local credit market to finance investments.

Money and Banking System

Overall, the banking system remains stable. The Monetary Board, Banguat, and SIB approved various temporary measures during 2020 to increase liquidity of the banking system during the first months of the pandemic and to allow banks to approve restructuring of loans or deferral of loans to businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic. Non-performing loans represented 2 percent of total loans as of January 2021. According to information from the SIB, Guatemala’s 17 commercial banks had an estimated $51 billion in assets in December 2020. The six largest banks control about 87 percent of total assets. In addition, Guatemala has 11 non-bank financial institutions, which perform primarily investment banking and medium- and long-term lending, and three exchange houses. Access to financial services is very high in Guatemala City, as well as in major regional cities. Guatemala has 17.2 access points per 10,000 adults at the national level and 24.1 access points per 10,000 adults in the capitol area as of December 2020. There were 15,024 banking accounts per 10,000 adult at the national level and 35,901 banking accounts per 10,000 adults in the capital area as of December 2020. Most banks offer a variety of online banking services.

Foreigners are normally able to open a bank account by presenting their passport and a utility bill or some other proof of residence. However, requirements may vary by bank.

In April 2002, the Guatemalan congress passed a package of financial sector regulatory reforms that increased the regulatory and supervisory authority of the SIB, which is responsible for regulating the financial services industry. The reforms brought local practices more in line with international standards and spurred a round of bank consolidations and restructurings. The 2002 reforms required that non-performing assets held offshore be included in loan-loss-provision and capital-adequacy ratios. As a result, a number of smaller banks sought new capital, buyers, or mergers with stronger banks, reducing the number of banks from 27 in 2005 to 17 in 2020.

Guatemalan banking and supervisory authorities and the Guatemalan congress actively work on new laws in the business and financial sectors. In August 2012, the Guatemalan congress approved reforms to the Banking and Financial Groups Law and to the Central Bank Organic Law that strengthened supervision and prudential regulation of the financial sector and resolution mechanisms for failed or failing banks. The Guatemalan government submitted to congress proposed amendments to the Banking and Financial Groups Law in November 2016 and an anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing draft law in August 2020. Both proposed laws were pending congressional approval as of April 2021.

Foreign banks may open branches or subsidiaries in Guatemala subject to Guatemalan financial controls and regulations. These include a rule requiring local subsidiaries of foreign banks and financial institutions operating in Guatemala to meet Guatemalan capital and lending requirements as if they were stand-alone operations. Groups of affiliated credit card, insurance, financial, commercial banking, leasing, and related companies must issue consolidated financial statements prepared in accordance with uniform, generally accepted, accounting practices. The groups are audited and supervised on a consolidated basis.

The total number of correspondent banking relationships with Guatemala’s financial sector showed a slight decline in 2016, but the changes in the relationships were similar to those seen throughout the region and reflected a trend of de-risking. The situation stabilized in 2017. The number of correspondent banking relationships increased in 2020.

Alternative financial services in Guatemala include credit and savings unions and microfinance institutions.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Guatemala’s Foreign Investment Law and CAFTA-DR commitments protect the investor’s right to remit profits and repatriate capital. There are no restrictions on converting or transferring funds associated with an investment into a freely usable currency at a market-clearing rate. U.S. dollars are freely available and easy to obtain within the Guatemalan banking system. In October 2010, monetary authorities approved a regulation to establish limits for cash transactions of foreign currency to reduce the risks of money laundering and terrorism financing. The regulation establishes that monthly deposits over $3,000 will be subject to additional requirements, including a sworn statement by the depositor stating that the money comes from legitimate activities. There are no legal constraints on the quantity of remittances or any other capital flows and there have been no reports of unusual delays in the remittance of investment returns.

The Law of Free Negotiation of Currencies allows Guatemalan banks to offer different types of foreign-currency-denominated accounts. In practice, the majority of such accounts are in U.S. dollars. Some banks offer pay through dollar-denominated accounts in which depositors make deposits and withdrawals at a local bank while the bank maintains the actual account on behalf of depositors in an offshore bank.

Capital can be transferred from Guatemala to any other jurisdiction without restriction. The exchange rate moves in response to market conditions. The government sets one exchange rate as reference, which it applies only to its own transactions and which is based on the commercial rate. The Central Bank intervenes in the foreign exchange market only to prevent sharp movements. The reference exchange rate of quetzals (GTQ) to the U.S. dollar has remained relatively stable since 1999. However, as U.S. inflation has been lower than Guatemalan inflation over this period there has been significant real exchange appreciation of about 100 percent of the quetzal against the dollar since 1999 that has reduced Guatemala’s export competitiveness.

Remittance Policies

There are no time limitations on remitting different types of investment returns.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Guatemala does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Guatemala has three state owned enterprises: National Electricity Institute (INDE) and two state-owned ports, Santo Tomas on the Caribbean coast, and Port Quetzal on the Pacific coast. INDE is a state-owned electricity company responsible for expanding the provision of electricity to rural communities. INDE owns approximately 14 percent of the country’s installed effective generation capacity, and it participates in the wholesale market under the same rules as its competitors. It also provides a subsidy to consumers of up to 88 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. Its board of directors comprises representatives from the government, municipalities, business associations, and labor unions. The board of directors appoints the general manager. The President appoints the Ports’ boards of directors, and each board of Directors hires the respective general managers.

The Guatemalan government currently owns 16 percent of the shares of the Rural Development Bank (Banrural), the second largest bank in Guatemala, and holds 3 out of 10 seats on its board of directors. Banrural is a mixed capital company and operates under the same laws and regulations as other commercial banks. The Guatemalan government also appoints the manager of GUATEL, the former state-owned telephone company dedicated to providing rural and government services that split off from the fixed-line telephone company during its privatization in 1998. GUATEL’s operations are small and it continuously fails to generate sufficient revenue to cover expenses. The GUATEL director reports to the Guatemalan president and to the board of directors.

Privatization Program

The Guatemalan government privatized a number of state-owned assets in industries and utilities in the late 1990s, including power distribution, telephone services, and grain storage. Guatemala does not currently have a privatization program.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is a general awareness of expectations of standards for responsible business conduct (RBC) on the part of producers and service providers, as well as Guatemalan business chambers. A local organization called the Center for Socially Responsible Business Action (CentraRSE) promotes, advocates, and monitors RBC in Guatemala. They operate freely with multiple partner organizations, ranging from private sector to United Nations entities. CentraRSE currently has over 100 affiliated companies from 20 different sectors that provide employment to over 150,000 individuals. CentraRSE defines RBC as a business culture based on ethical principles, strong law enforcement, and respect for individuals, families, communities, and the environment, which contributes to businesses competitiveness, general welfare, and sustainable development. The Guatemalan government does not have a definition of RBC as of March 2021. Guatemala joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in February 2011 and was designated EITI compliant in March 2014. The EITI board suspended Guatemala in February 2019 for failing to publish the 2016 EITI report and the 2017 annual progress report by the December 31, 2018 deadline. Guatemala published the 2016-2017 EITI report and the 2017 annual progress report in February and March 2019. The EITI board suspended Guatemala again in January 2020 after deciding that Guatemala has made inadequate progress in implementing the 2016 EITI standard. The EITI board requested Guatemala to undertake corrective actions before a second validation related to the requirements starts on July 23, 2021. On December 24, 2020, the EITI board agreed to postpone the date to start Guatemala’s second validation process to April 1, 2022.

In January 2014, the State Department recognized a U.S.-based company as one of twelve finalists for the Secretary of State’s 2013 Award for Corporate Excellence for its contributions to sustainable development in Guatemala. The Department has also recognized U.S. companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Denimatrix for corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in Guatemala that aimed to foster safe and productive workplaces as well as provide health and education programs to workers, their families, and local communities. Communities with low levels of government funding for health, education, and infrastructure generally expect companies to implement CSR practices.

Conflict surrounding certain industrial projects – in particular mining and hydroelectric projects – is frequent, and there have been several cases of violence against protestors in the recent past, including several instances of murder. The Guatemalan government continues to improve its capacity to respond to protests and help facilitate a peaceful resolution. Protests against companies are normally peaceful and usually take place only after the aggrieved parties have attempted to dialogue directly with the company in question.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Bribery is illegal under Guatemala’s Penal Code. However, corruption remains a serious problem that companies may encounter at many levels. Guatemala scored 25 out of 100 points on Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index, ranking it 149 out of 180 countries globally, and 28 out of 32 countries in the region. The score dropped one point compared to the score observed in the 2019 report.

Investors find corruption pervasive in government procurement. In the past few years, the Public Ministry (MP – equivalent to the U.S. Department of Justice) has investigated and prosecuted various corruption cases that involved the payment of bribes in exchange for awarding public construction contracts. Investors and importers are frequently frustrated by opaque customs transactions, particularly at ports and borders away from the capital. The Tax and Customs Authority (SAT) launched a customs modernization program in 2006, which implemented an advanced electronic manifest system and resulted in the removal of many corrupt officials. However, reports of corruption within customs’ processes remain. From 2006 to 2019, the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) undertook numerous high-profile official corruption investigations, leading to significant indictments. Notably, CICIG unveiled a customs corruption scheme in 2015 that led to the resignations of the former president and vice president.

Guatemala’s Government Procurement Law requires most government purchases over $116,580 to be submitted for public competitive bidding. Since March 2004, Guatemalan government entities are required to use Guatecompras (https://www.guatecompras.gt/), an Internet-based electronic procurement system to track government procurement processes. Guatemalan government entities must also comply with government procurement commitments under CAFTA-DR. In August 2009, the Guatemalan congress approved reforms to the Government Procurement Law, which simplified bidding procedures; eliminated the fee previously charged to receive bidding documents; and provided an additional opportunity for suppliers to raise objections over the bidding process. Despite these reforms, large government procurements are often subject to appeals and injunctions based on claims of irregularities in the bidding process (e.g., documentation issues and lack of transparency). In November 2015, the Guatemalan congress approved additional amendments to the Government Procurement Law that improved transparency of procurement processes by barring government contracts for some financers of political campaigns and parties, members of congress, other elected officials, government workers, and their immediate family members. The 2015 reforms expanded the scope of procurement oversight to include public trust funds and all institutions (including NGOs) executing public funds. The U.S. government continues to advocate for the use of open, fair, and transparent tenders in government procurement as well as procedures that comply with CAFTA-DR obligations, which would allow open participation by U.S. companies.

Guatemala ratified the U.N. Convention against Corruption in November 2006, and the Inter-American Convention against Corruption in July 2001. Guatemala is not a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. In October 2012, the Guatemalan congress approved an anti-corruption law that increases penalties for existing crimes and adds new crimes such as illicit enrichment, trafficking in influence, and illegal charging of commissions.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agencies responsible for combating corruption:

Public Ministry
Address: 23 Calle 0-22 Zona 1, Ciudad de Guatemala
Phone: (502) 2251-4105; (502) 2251-4219; (502) 2251-5327; (502) 2251-8480; (502) 2251-9225
Email address: fiscaliacontracorrupcion@mp.gob.gt 

Comptroller General’s Office
Address: 7a Avenida 7-32 Zona 13
Phone: (502) 2417-8700

Contact at “watchdog” organization:

Accion Ciudadana (Guatemalan Chapter of Transparency International)
Address: Avenida Reforma 12-01 Zona 10, Edificio Reforma Montufar, Nivel 17, Oficina 1701
Phone: (502) 2388- 3400
Toll free to submit corruption complaints: 1-801-8111-011
Email address: alac@accionciudadana.org.gt ; accionciudadana@accionciudadana.org  

10. Political and Security Environment

Historically, Guatemala had one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America; however, according to the National Civil Police (PNC), the murder rate in 2020 was 15 per 100,000, a 28% drop from 2019.  The Attorney General’s Office (AG) recorded 455 femicides in 2020 and reported 23 in the first month of 2021. Departments reporting the highest rate of violent crimes were Guatemala, Escuintla, and Izabal.  The AG credits the general decline in violence to the economic shutdown due to the corona virus pandemic, including interdepartmental travel restrictions and the prohibition of most alcohol sales.  Rule of law is still lacking, and the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient. The police are often understaffed and sometimes corrupt.  Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.  Although security remains a widespread concern, foreigners are not usually singled out as targets of crime.  Recent examples of violence include extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, and property damage as a result of protests of against some investment projects.

The political climate in Guatemala, marked by its 36 years of armed conflict, is characterized by occasional civil disturbances and politically motivated violence.  The most recent example is the November 2020 civil unrest sparked by congressional approval of the 2021 budget proposal, which added to long-standing grievances.  Peaceful protests marred by acts of vandalism and violence resulted in fire damage to the national congress building, as well as allegations of brutality against protestors by Guatemalan security forces, as well as acts of violence by some protestors against security forces.  The main source of tension among indigenous communities, Guatemalan authorities, and private companies is the lack of prior consultation and alleged environmental damage.

Damage to projects or installations is rare. However, there were instances in October 2018 and January 2019 in which unidentified arsonists burned machinery and other equipment at the site of a hydroelectric construction project near the northern border with Mexico.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

The Guatemala workforce consists of an estimated 2.5 million individuals employed in the formal sector and roughly 4.7 million individuals who work in the informal sector, including some who are too young for formal sector employment. According to the 2017 Survey on Employment and Income, the most recent survey available, child labor, particularly in rural areas, remains a serious problem in certain industries. Approximately 30 percent of the total labor force is engaged in agricultural work. The availability of a large, unskilled, and inexpensive labor force led many employers, such as construction and agricultural firms, to use labor-intensive production methods. Roughly, 14 percent of the employed workforce is illiterate. In developed urban areas, however, education levels are much higher, and a workforce with the skills necessary to staff a growing service sector emerged. Even so, highly capable technical and managerial workers remain in short supply, with secondary and tertiary education focused on social science careers.

No special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws cover export-processing zones. In December 2015, then-President Alejandro Maldonado issued an executive order establishing a lower minimum wage for workers employed by light manufacturing export companies in four of 340 municipalities of the country, with the intention of attracting foreign investment and creating jobs in those areas. The order never took effect due to a temporary injunction. The Morales Administration revoked the executive order in February 2016. The Labor Code requires that at least 90 percent of employees be Guatemalan, but the requirement does not apply to high-level positions. The Labor Code sets out: employer responsibilities regarding working conditions, especially health and safety standards; benefits; severance pay; premium pay for overtime work; minimum wages; and bonuses. Mandatory benefits, bonuses, and employer contributions to the social security system can add up to about 55 percent of an employee’s base pay. However, many workers, especially in the agricultural sector, do not receive the full compensation package mandated in the labor law. All employees are subject to a two-month trial period during which time they may resign or be discharged without any obligation on the part of the employer or employee. An employer may dismiss an employee at any time, for any reason (except pregnancy) and without giving the employee any notice during the trial period. For any dismissal after the two-month trial period, the employer must pay unpaid wages for work already performed, proportional bonuses, and proportional vacation time. If an employer dismisses an employee without just cause, the employer must also pay severance equal to one month’s regular pay for each full year of employment. Guatemala does not have unemployment insurance or other social safety net programs for workers laid off for economic reasons.

Guatemala’s Constitution guarantees the right of workers to unionize and to strike, with an exception to the right to strike for security force members and workers employed in hospitals, telecommunications, and other public services considered essential to public safety. Before a strike can be declared, workers and employers must engage in mandatory conciliation and then approve a strike vote by 50 percent plus one worker in the enterprise. If conciliation fails, either party may ask the judge for a ruling on the legality of conducting a strike or lockout. Legal strikes in Guatemala are extremely rare. The Constitution also commits the state to support and protect collective bargaining, and holds that international labor conventions ratified by Guatemala establish the minimum labor rights of workers if they offer greater protections than national law. In most cases, labor unions operate independently of the government and employers both by law and in practice. The law requires unions to register with the Ministry of Labor (MinTrab) and their leadership must obtain credentials from MinTrab to carry out their functions. Delays in such proceedings are common. The law prohibits anti-union discrimination and employer interference in union activities and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for organizing union activities. A combination of inadequate allocation of budget resources to MinTrab and other relevant state institutions, and inefficient administrative and justice sector processes, act as significant impediments for more effective enforcement of labor laws to protect these workers’ rights. As a result, investigating, prosecuting, and punishing employers who violate these guarantees remain a challenge, particularly the enforcement of labor court orders requiring reinstatement and payment of back wages resulting from dismissal. The rate of unionization in Guatemala is very low. The PDH’s 2019 report indicates that there were 532 active unions.64 percent in the public sector. The PDH report notes a reduction of 34 percent in the number of private sector active unions in 2019.

Both the U.S. government and Guatemalan workers have filed complaints against the Guatemalan government for allegedly failing to adequately enforce its labor laws and protect the rights of workers. In September 2014, the U.S. government convened an arbitration panel alleging that Guatemala had failed to meet its obligations under CAFTA-DR to enforce effectively its labor laws related to freedom of association and collective bargaining and acceptable conditions of work. The panel held a hearing in June 2015 and issued a decision favorable to Guatemala in June 2017. Separately, the Guatemalan government faced an International Labor Organization (ILO) complaint filed by workers in 2012 alleging that the government had failed to comply with ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association. The complaint called for the establishment of an ILO Commission of Inquiry, which is the ILO’s highest level of scrutiny when all other means failed to address issues of concern. In 2013, the Guatemalan government agreed to a roadmap with social partners in an attempt to avoid the establishment of a Commission. The government took some steps to implement its roadmap, including the enactment of legislation in 2017 that restored administrative sanction authority to the labor inspectorate for the first time in 15 years. As part of a tripartite agreement reached at the ILO in November 2017, a National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association was established in February 2018 to monitor and facilitate implementation of the 2013 roadmap. Based in large part on the 2017 tripartite agreement, the ILO Governing Body closed the complaint against Guatemala in November 2018.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, reaching a USD 77.4 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 with an estimated contraction of 1.5 percent in 2020 due to COVID-19 impact.  Remittances, mostly from the United States, increased by 7.9 percent in 2020 from the $10.5 billion received in 2019 to $11.34 billion in 2020 and were equivalent to 14.6 percent of GDP.  The United States is Guatemala’s most important economic partner. According to preliminary Banguat data, FDI stock was $17.3 billion in 2020, a 4.2 percent increase in relation to 2019.  Preliminary foreign portfolio investment totaled $7.59 billion in 2020, with about 79.4 percent invested in government bonds.  There is no official data available on sources of stock of FDI or foreign portfolio investment.

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2020 $77,431 2019 $76,710 www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $746 BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $9 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2020 22.3 2019 21.1 UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/
EconomicTrends/Fdi.html 

* Bank of Guatemala http://www.banguat.gob.gt.  Preliminary GDP year-end figures were published in December 2020 and preliminary FDI year-end data were published in March 2021.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 17,299 100% Total Outward 1,665 100%
United States 3,852 22.3% El Salvador 324 19.5%
Mexico 2,609 15.1% The Bahamas 294 17.7%
Colombia 2,022 11.7% Barbados 184 11.1%
Spain 854 4.9% Mexico 182 10.9%
Switzerland 818 4.7% Costa Rica 112 6.7%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

According to data from the Coordinated Investment Survey for 2019 published by the IMF, about one fifth of FDI in Guatemala comes from the United States.  Other important sources of FDI are Mexico, Colombia, and Spain (please see Table 3 on sources and destinations of FDI above).  Preliminary data from Banguat also show that the flow of FDI totaled $915.2 million in 2020 (1.18 percent of GDP), a 6.1 percent decline compared to $974.7 million (1.27 percent of GDP) received in 2019.  Some of the activities that attracted most of the FDI flows in the last three years were financial and insurance activities, manufacturing, commerce and vehicle repair, and water, electricity, and sanitation services.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio investment data are not available for Guatemala.

Guyana

Executive Summary

Guyana is located on South America’s North Atlantic coast, bordering Venezuela, Suriname, and Brazil, and is the only English-speaking country on the continent. Guyana became an oil producing nation in 2019 and, with a population of 782,766, is poised to dramatically increase its per capita wealth. While it is currently the third poorest country in the western hemisphere, Guyana’s economy grew by 43.5 percent in 2020, the only country in the Caribbean to register positive GDP growth. Guyana’s gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to grow by 16.4 percent in 2021 with inflation expected to hover around 2 percent. The Government of Guyana (GoG) is taking steps to diversify the economy way from production of commodities such as gold, bauxite, rice and sugar, towards value added industries and services. The United States has been Guyana’s largest trading partner since 2019.

Guyana emerged from a 20-month extra-constitutional and electoral crisis on August 2, 2020 when opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) coalition presidential candidate Irfaan Ali was elected as president. This crisis began with a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly in December 2018 that brought down the then-ruling A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition government. Subsequent to the vote, protracted litigation over the no-confidence motion and contested March 2020 national elections ended with certification of the PPP/C coalition victory and Ali’s swearing-in.

Despite global economic headwinds due to COVID-19, Guyana’s nascent oil production made it the fastest growing economy in the world while non-oil and gas GDP contracted by 6 percent. Guyana reopened its borders in October 2020 to all countries so long as travelers present a negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test obtained within 72 hours of their travel to Guyana.

Guyana’s medium-term prospects remain positive with the discovery of vast oil reserves in Guyana’s waters that will provide decades of substantial oil revenues. The GoG plans to overhaul the regulatory framework governing its sovereign wealth fund and has yet to tap into the fund, which is held at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The National Budget of 2021 prioritizes education, health, infrastructure, and agriculture.

The Government of Guyana (GoG) actively encourages foreign direct investment (FDI) and offers tax concessions for priority projects through the Guyana Office for Investment (GO-INVEST). According to the Bank of Guyana’s Half Year Report for 2020, Guyana’s FDI increased from $826.4 million to $834.7 million. The growth in FDI was fueled mainly by developments within the oil and gas sector and its support industries. The GoG plans to table local content legislation before parliament in the first half of 2021. Until the details of this legislation are made publicly available the impact on oil and gas companies investing in Guyana remains unknown.

As of April 2021, the ExxonMobil-led consortium (which includes Hess and the China National Offshore Oil Company) drilling offshore has achieved an 80 percent success rate for its exploratory wells. In March 2021, Exxon announced that it now estimates the Guyana Suriname basin has a basin potential of twice the discovered resources, more than 18 billion barrels of oil.

Guyana offers foreign and domestic investors investment opportunities in agriculture, oil and gas, construction, wholesale and retail, health, transportation, and agro-processing. Opportunities exist within the services sector such as renewable energy, business process outsourcing (BPO), call centers, information technology services, hospitality, and tourism. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, creating unique potential for call centers and other service industries.

The GoG is revising its Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), which serves as its overarching strategy guiding document for government priorities. The GoG’s 2021 priorities include a focus on agriculture, supporting emerging and value-added industries, improving the business climate, investing in sea defenses, and transitioning to renewable energy using gas as a transition fuel. One key concern remains high crime rates. Guyana also ranked 134 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2020 report on Ease of Doing Business. President Ali committed to improving the country’s Ease of Doing Business ranking by establishing a single window business registration system, reducing energy costs and facilitate faster approvals for permits.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 83 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 134 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 N/A https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country 2015 USD 178 million https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 6,630 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The GoG recognizes foreign direct investment (FDI) as critical for growing and diversifying the Guyanese economy. Guyanese law does not discriminate against foreign investors. Shortly after being sworn in, President Ali committed to institute an electronic single window application process to expedite business registration, permitting, and improve the country’s Ease of Doing Business ranking. The GoG has prioritized investments in the following sectors: agriculture, agro-processing, light manufacturing, renewable energy, tourism and information and communications technology (ICT). The Guyana Office for Investment (GO-INVEST) is the GoG’s primary vehicle for promoting FDI opportunities and assisting foreign corporations with their business registrations and applying for tax concessions. Companies and investors are encouraged to do their due diligence and have robust business plans completed before approaching GOINVEST.

The GoG expects to table local content legislation before Parliament in the second quarter of 2021, which will set baseline requirements for foreign firms to hire Guyanese and establish taxation standards to foster greater local participation in the oil and gas sector. The aim of this legislation is to promote long term investments in Guyana, build local capacity, and avoid the resource curse.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Guyana’s constitution protects the rights of foreigners to own property in Guyana. Foreign and domestic firms possess the right to establish and own business enterprises and engage in all forms of commerce. Private entities are governed by the 1991 Companies Act (amended in 1995) under which they have the right to establish business enterprises and are free to acquire or dispose of interest in accordance with the law. Some key sectors like aviation, forestry, banking, mining, and tourism are heavily regulated and require licensing. The process to obtain licenses can be time consuming and may in some instances require ministerial approval.

The GoG prohibits foreign ownership of small-and-medium-scale mining (ASM) concessions. Foreign investors interested in participating in the industry at those levels may establish joint ventures with Guyanese nationals, under which the two parties agree to jointly develop a mining property. However, this type of relationship can carry a high level of risk because arrangements are governed only by private contracts and the sector’s regulatory agency, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), offers little recourse for ASM disputes. The U.S. Embassy strongly encourages investors to thoroughly conduct their due diligence when exploring business opportunities.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Guyana’s macro-economic fundamentals have remained stable over the past decade. The Ali administration is revising its Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) to balance sustainable development goals with booming oil production. Developmental policies include incentives for priority areas, including education, health, renewable energy, agriculture, and agro-processing.

Government policy focuses on attracting inward FDI. The GoG applies national treatment to all economic activities, except for certain mining operations, although some foreign-owned companies conduct large-scale mining operations in the country. During its first months in office, the Ali administration took actions to improve the business environment such as repealing of taxes on corporate taxes on health, education, and construction materials. Incentives for FDI includes income tax holidays, and tariff and value-added tax (VAT) exemptions.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) published its most recent trade policy review of Guyana in 2015: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp420_e.htm 

Business Facilitation

All companies operating in Guyana must register with the Registrar of Companies. Registration fees are lower for companies incorporated in Guyana than those incorporated abroad.  Locally incorporated companies are subjected to a flat fee of approximately $300 and a company incorporated abroad is subject to a fee of approximately $400. Depending on the type of business, registration may take three weeks or more. Newly registered businesses are encouraged to visit the Guyana Revenue Authority and apply for a tax identification number (TIN). If a company employs Guyanese workers, the company must demonstrate compliance with the National Insurance Scheme (social security). Businesses in the sectors requiring specific licenses, such as mining, telecommunications, forestry, and banking must obtain operation licenses from the relevant authorities before commencing operations. Guyana has six municipal authorities which also assess municipal taxes: Anna Regina, Corriverton, Georgetown, Linden, New Amsterdam, and Rosehall.

GO-INVEST advises the GoG on the formulation and implementation of national investment policies and provides facilitation services to foreign investors, particularly in completing administrative formalities, such as commercial registration and applications for land purchases or leases.  Under the Status of Aliens Act, foreign and domestic investors have the same rights to purchase and lease land. However, the process to access licensing can be complex and many foreign companies have opted to partner with local companies which may assist with acquiring a license. The Investment Act specifies that there should be no discrimination between foreign and domestic private investors, or among foreign investors from different countries. The authorities maintain that foreign investors have equal access to opportunities arising from privatization of state-owned companies.

Resources

Guyana Deeds and Commercial Registry: https://dcra.gov.gy/ 
GO-INVEST: https://goinvest.gov.gy/ 
Guyana Revenue Authority: https://www.gra.gov.gy/ 

Outward Investment

While the GoG is focused on attracting inward investment into Guyana, there are no restrictions for domestic investors to invest abroad. GO-INVEST supports Guyanese investors and exporters looking to operate overseas.  In 2019, the Natural Resource Fund Act (NRF) was passed which created Guyana’s sovereign wealth fund. The Act provides the Minister of Finance with responsibility for the overall management of the fund.  The NRF is currently held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and, as of February 2021, has a balance of $246.5 million from its nascent oil revenues and royalty payments. The Ali administration plans to amend the existing Natural Resource Fund Act and has committed to leave all funds on deposit until a new regulatory framework is adopted. The GoG has not stated an official investment policy for the sovereign wealth fund as of March 2021.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are consistent with international norms. Guyana is a democratic state and a separation of powers exists among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

As captured in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome, often requiring the involvement of multiple ministries. Investors report having received conflicting messages from various officials, and difficulty determining where the authority for decision-making lies.  In the absence of adequate legislation, most decision-making remains centralized. An extraordinary number of issues continue to be resolved in the presidential cabinet, a process that is commonly perceived as opaque and slow. Attempts to reform Guyana’s many bureaucratic procedures have not succeeded in reducing red tape.

International Regulatory Considerations

Guyana has been a World Trade Organization (WTO) member since 1995 and adheres to Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) guidelines. Guyana is also a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and is working to harmonize its regulatory systems with the rest of the CARICOM member states. Guyana is a member of the UNFCCC and reduces emissions from deforestation and forest degradation REDD+ initiative.

Guyana has laws on intellectual property rights and patents. However, a lack of enforcement offers few protections in practice and allows for the relatively uninhibited distribution and sale of illegally obtained content.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Guyana’s legal system is mixed following the combination of civil and common laws. Guyana’s judicial system operates independently from the executive branch. The Caribbean Court of Justice, located in Trinidad and Tobago, is Guyana’s highest court. Registered companies are governed by the Companies Act and contracts are enforced by Guyanese courts or through a mediator. Guyana has a commercial court in its High Court, which has both original and appellate jurisdiction.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Legislation exists in Guyana to support foreign direct investment, but the enforcement of these regulations continues to be inadequate. The objective of the Investment Act of 2004 and Industries and Aid and Encouragement Act of 1951 is to stimulate socio-economic development by attracting and facilitating foreign investment. Other relevant laws include: the Income Tax Act, the Customs Act, the Procurement Act of 2003, the Companies Act of 1991, the Securities Act of 1998, and the Small Business Act. Regulatory actions are still required for much of this legislation to be effectively implemented. The Companies Act provides special provisions for companies incorporated outside of Guyana called “external companies.” Companies should direct their inquiries about regulations on FDI to GO-INVEST.

Guyana has no known examples of executive interference in the court system that have adversely affected foreign investors. The judicial system is generally perceived to be slow and ineffective in enforcing legal contracts. The 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Report states that it takes 581 days to enforce a contract in Guyana.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

The Competition Commission of Guyana was established under the 2006 Competition and Fair Trading Act. The Competition and Fair Trading act seeks to promote, maintain, and encourage competition; to prohibit the prevention, restriction, or distortion of competition, the abuse of dominant trade positions; and to promote the welfare and interests of consumers. The Competition Commission and Consumer Affairs Commission (CCAC) is responsible for investigating complaints by agencies and consumers, eliminating anti-competitive agreements, and may institute or participate in proceedings before a Court of Law.  For mergers and acquisitions within of the banking sector, the Bank of Guyana has ultimate oversight and approval.

Expropriation and Compensation

The government can expropriate property in the public interest under the 2001 Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes Act, although there are no recent cases of expropriation. There is adequate legislation to promote and protect foreign investment, however, enforcement is often ineffective. Many reports view Guyana’s judicial system as being slow and ineffective in enforcing legal contracts. All companies are encouraged to conduct due diligence and seek appropriate legal counsel for any potential questions prior to doing business in Guyana.

Dispute Settlement

Guyana is a party to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention). Additionally, Guyana has ratified the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention), which entered into force in December 2014.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Guyana does not have a bilateral investment treaty with the United States. Negotiations began in 1993 but broke down in 1995. Since then, the two countries have not conducted subsequent negotiations.

Double taxation treaties are in force with Canada (1987), the United Kingdom (1992), and CARICOM (1995). Other double taxation agreements remain under negotiation with India, Kuwait, and the Seychelles. The CARICOM-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement provides for the negotiation of a double taxation agreement, but no significant developments have occurred since March 2009.

There is one ongoing investment dispute involving a U.S. telecommunications company, which previously held a legal monopoly in Guyana, contesting its liability for back taxes.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

International arbitration decisions are enforceable under the 1931 Arbitration Act of British Guiana, as amended in 1998. The Act is based on the Geneva Convention for the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards of 1927. The GoG enforces foreign awards by way of judicial decisions or action, and such awards must be in line with the policies and laws of Guyana.

According to the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Report, resolving disputes in Guyana takes 581 days, and on average costs 27 percent of the value of the claim. According to many businesses, suspected corrupt practices and long delays make the courts an unattractive option for settling investment or contractual disputes, particularly for foreign investors unfamiliar with Guyana.

The GoG has set up a Commercial Court to expedite commercial disputes, but this court only has one judge presiding, and companies have reported that it is overwhelmed by a backlog of cases.  The Caribbean Court of Justice, based in Trinidad and Tobago, is Guyana’s court of final instance. In practice, most business disputes are settled by mediation which avoids a lengthy court battle and keeps costs low to both parties. Guyanese state-owned enterprises are not widely involved in investor disputes. To date, there are no complaints on the court process relating to judgments involving state owned enterprises.

Bankruptcy Regulations 

The 1998 Guyana Insolvency Act provides for the facilitation of insolvency proceedings.  The 2004 Financial Institutions Act gives the Central Bank power to take temporary control of financial institutions in trouble.  This Act provides legal authority for the Central Bank to take a more proactive role in helping insolvent local banks.

According to data collected by the World Bank Doing Business Report, resolving insolvency in Guyana takes three years on average and costs 28.5% of the debtor’s estate, with the most likely outcome being that the company will be sold piecemeal.  The average recovery rate is 18 cents on the dollar. Globally, Guyana ranks 163 out of 190 economies on the Ease of Resolving Insolvency Report.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Guyana offers an array of incentives to foreign and domestic investors alike in the form of exemption from various taxes, accelerated depreciation rates, full and unrestricted repatriation of capital, profits and dividends. The first point of contact in applying for tax concessions is GO-INVEST. The GoG utilizes investment incentives to advance its broader policy goals, such as boosting research and development, or spurring growth in a particular region.

Information on investment incentives in Guyana can be found on the following websites:

Guyana Office for Investment:   http://goinvest.gov.gy/investment/investment-guide/ 
The National Procurement & Tender Administration (NPTA):   http://www.npta.gov.gy/ 
National Industrial & Commercial Investment Limited:  http://www.privatisation.gov.gy 
Ministry of Finance:  https://finance.gov.gy/procurements 

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Guyana does not have free trade zones, however, the GoG is contemplating establishing free trade zones in Lethem, a Guyanese town on the Brazilian border that relies heavily on cross border commerce.

Guyana was the 53rd WTO member and first South American country to ratify the new Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).  The WTO Secretariat received Guyana’s instrument of acceptance on November 30, 2015.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

There are no data localization requirements in Guyana.  Foreign investors are not required to establish or maintain a certain amount of data storage within the country. There is no visa requirement for U.S. citizens to visit Guyana. There are no government-imposed conditions to invest. However, if seeking tax concessions, an entity will be bound to an investment agreement.

A requirement to hire locally at least 80 percent of employees is applied equally to domestic and foreign investment projects. This percentage, however, will likely change once the GoG enacts its new local content policy, likely in the second quarter of 2021.  Although no explicit government policy exits regarding performance requirements, some are written into contracts with foreign investors and could include the requirement of a performance bond.  Some contracts require a certain minimum level of investment. Investors are not required to source locally, nor must they export a certain percentage of output.  Foreign exchange is not rationed in proportion to exports, nor are there any requirements for national ownership or technology transfer. There are no requirements for foreign IT providers to provide source code. There are no measures to prevent or restrict companies from transmitting customer or business data. The government agencies involved for local data storage include the National Data Management Authority and the Office of the Prime Minister.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights are enforced but it is often time consuming to determine the rightful owner of a particular plot of land. Ownership of property can be unclear even among government entities and potential investors are encouraged to have a local lawyer review any potential property purchase before executing the deal.

Guyana has a dual registry system of property rights with distinct requirements, processes, and enforcement mechanisms.  The two types of registry systems are deeds (regulated by the Deeds and Commercial Registry) and title (regulated by the Land Registry) registries that operate in separate jurisdictions, which in theory helps avoid the problem of double entry and dual registration.  Companies often complain about Guyana’s property rights being overly bureaucratic and complex, with opaque regulations that overlap and compete. Some report that this affects the proper allocation, enforcement, and effectiveness of property rights, as well as the efficiency of property-based markets, such as real estate and financial markets (especially primary ones, such as mortgage markets).  As previously stated, the judicial system is generally perceived to be slow and ineffective in enforcing legal contracts. The GoG is the country’s largest landowner. Property can be reverted to squatters who have squatted for over 10 years, but in most instances the GoG repossesses the land.

Intellectual Property Rights

Upon independence in 1966, Guyana adopted British law on intellectual property rights (IPR). Guyana’s relevant laws governing intellectual property rights (IPR) are the 1956 Copyright Act and the 1973 Trademark Act and Patents and Design Act.  Local contacts report that numerous attempts to pass comprehensive reforms to this legislation have been unsuccessful. However, piecemeal modernization amendments contained in the 2005 Geographic Indication Act, the 2006 Competition and Fair Trading Act, the 2000 Business Names Registration Act, and the 1999 Deeds Registry Authority Act have offered additional protection to local products and companies.

No modern legislation exists to protect the foreign-registered rights of investors. However, investors are encouraged to seek a lawyer to register and/or make an application for intellectual property. In the case of trademarks, registration is done through writing to the registrar, which once accepted after advertisement in the official gazette, the registrar inserts the particulars and issues a registration bearing the seal of the patent office. Guyana joined the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and acceded to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property in 1994. Guyana has not ratified a bilateral IPR agreement with the United States. The previous government drafted IPR legislation, which has yet to be taken up in Parliament.

Many businesses report that the registration time for a patent or trademark may take in excess of six months. However, there is a lack of effective enforcement to protect intellectual property rights. Patent and trademark infringement are common, as is evident among local television broadcasts of pirated and rebroadcasted TV satellite signals. Guyana has seen seizures of counterfeited food items by the Guyana Foods and Drugs Analyst Department (GFDD). However, the GFDD is severely short staffed and unable to police all commerce effectively. Local news media sources report that piracy of foreign academic textbooks is common. Guyana’s laws have not been amended to fully conform to the requirements of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement.

Guyana is not listed in the U.S. Trade Representative’s 2021 Special 301 Report or its 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Guyana has its own stock market, which is supervised by the Guyana Association of Securities Companies and Intermediaries (GASCI).  Dividends earned from the local stock exchange are tax free.  Guyana’s local stock market performed well in 2020 with a 15 percent increase in its market capitalization.  Credit is available on market terms. The Central Bank respects IMF Article VIII with regard to payments and transfers for international transactions.

Money and Banking System

Guyana relies heavily on cash payments for most financial transactions, but credit cards and mobile payment options are increasingly common. The GoG’s monetary policy remains accommodative, aimed at achieving price stability and controlling liquidity within the economy. The financial sector is regulated by the Bank of Guyana (BOG), the country’s central bank.  The BOG is empowered under the 1995 Financial Institutions Act and the Bank of Guyana Act to regulate the financial sector.  Under these regulations a bank operating in Guyana must maintain high levels of liquidity and a strong deposit and asset base.

In the middle of 2020, licensed depository financial institutions’ (LDFIs’) capital levels continued to be high, while non-performing loans (NPLs) increased marginally during the first half of 2020. The capital adequacy ratio (CAR) remained well above the prudential benchmark of 8.0 percent at 30.7 percent. The stock of NPLs deteriorated to 10.6 percent of total loans. Stress testing was performed by the Central bank with preliminary results indicating that the banking industry’s and individual institutions’ shock absorptive capacities remained adequate under the various scenarios for foreign currency and liquidity. However, vulnerabilities were observed in the investment and credit portfolios. Guyana’s Banking Stability index strengthened from -0.22 in March 2020 to 0.15 in June 2020 attributed to improvement in liquidity. The commercial banking sector grew by 7.2 percent from March 2019 to March 2020. Foreign banks seeking to open operations in Guyana are encouraged to engage with the Bank of Guyana and GO-INVEST.

Guyana has six commercial banks.  Foreign banks can provide domestic services or enter the market with a license from the BoG.  There are no restrictions on a foreigner’s ability to establish a bank account.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

The Guyanese Dollar (GYD) is fully convertible and transferable, and generally stable in its value against the U.S. dollar. The Guyana dollar weighted mid-rate, relevant for official transactions, remained constant at GYD 208.50 as at half year 2020. Guyana employs a de jure float exchange rate.

No limits exist on inflows or repatriation of funds. However, regulations require that all persons entering and exiting Guyana declare all currency in excess of $10,000 to customs authorities at the port of entry. It is common practice for foreign investors to use subsidiaries outside of Guyana to handle earnings generated by exports.

Remittance Policies 

There is no limit on the acquisition of foreign currency, although the government limits the amount that several state-owned firms may keep for their own purchases.  Regulations on foreign currency denominated bank accounts in Guyana allow funds to be wired in and out of the country electronically without having to go through cumbersome exchange procedures.  Foreign companies operating in Guyana have not reported experiencing government-induced difficulties in repatriating earnings in recent years.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Guyana established a sovereign wealth fund, the Natural Resource Fund (NRF), in 2019, which is governed by the 2019 Natural Resources Act in accordance with the Santiago Principles. In December 2019, the Ministry of Finance and Bank of Guyana signed an operational agreement for the NRF . However, the Ali administration, noting the NRF’s passage under a previous government, has committed to repeal and replace the act to further insulate the NRF from potential political intervention. Until the NRF is amended the GoG does not expect to access the funds which has are held in the New York Federal Reserve Bank. As at March 10, 2021, the SWF held a balance of approximately $268 million.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Guyana has ten state-owned enterprises (SOEs) including: National Industrial and Commercial Investments Ltd. (NICIL), Guyana Sugar Corporation (GUYSUCO), MARDS Rice Complex Ltd., National Insurance Scheme (NIS), Guyana Power and Light (GPL), Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB), Guyana National Newspapers Ltd. (GNNL), Guyana National Shipping Corporation (GNSC) and Guyana National Printers Ltd. (GNPL).

The private sector competes with SOEs for market share, credit, and business opportunities. It is common for SOEs in Guyana to experience political interventions, driven by boards of directors filled with political appointees. Procurement on behalf of SOEs may be passed through the National Procurement and Tender Administration or handled directly by the SOE.

The Public Corporation Act requires public corporations to publish an annual report no later than six months after the end of the calendar year. These reports must be audited by an independent auditor.

Privatization Program

In the 1990s, Guyana underwent significant privatization with the divestment of many sectors.  In 1993, the Privatisation Policy Framework Paper known as the “Privatisation White Paper” was tabled in Parliament and led to the creation of the Privatisation Unit (PU). Its function was to co-ordinate the implementation of the GoG’s privatization program and was tasked with:

  • Combining the functions of the Public Corporations Secretariat (PCS) and the National Industrial & Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL);
  • Preparing for the program strategy and annual program targets for privatization or liquidation Cabinet’s approval;
  • Implementing the privatization of SOEs and assets selected for inclusion in the program;
  • Participating in negotiations for the privatization of SOEs;
  • Reviewing offers and making recommendations to Cabinet on the terms and conditions for the sale of SOEs;
  • Preparing financial and administrative audits of SOEs not selected for privatization;
  • Developing a strategy to build public understanding and support for privatization;
  • Ensuring that transparency of the privatization program is strictly respected and followed;
  • Monitoring operations of privatized entities in accordance with the terms and conditions of each respective contract;
  • Preparing for Cabinet, broad guidelines on operating policies for privatization, develop action plans for implementation, conduct a public relations campaign and help to build national consensus in support of government’s program.

Foreign investors have equal access to privatization opportunities. However, there are many reports that the process is opaque and favors politically connected local businesses. Currently, the GoG is interested in privatizing at least a portion of GUYSUCO.

U.S. firms are generally given equal access to these projects through a public bidding process. However, many bidders continue to complain about the criteria and question their unsuccessful attempt at securing a contract.  In cases where international financial institution (IFI) funding has been involved in the project, such allegations have been credibly addressed. In cases where the project relied solely on GoG funds, redress has been more problematic to achieve.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Compared to responsible business conduct (RBC) norms in North America and Europe, Guyana-based businesses lag in adopting RBC policies and activities. Most companies conform to their business responsibilities outlined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including human rights and labor rights, information disclosure, environment, bribery, consumer interests, science and technology, competition, and taxation. Guyana’s laws align with the guidelines for RBC by the OECD. Despite these improvements, Guyana has human rights concerns, especially involving child labor in outlying regions.

Local companies have improved RBC as firms react to increased levels of competition, partly to compete or subcontract with companies in the oil and gas sector that emphasize it.  Guyanese consumers are increasingly aware of RBC principles as the population becomes more sensitized. The GoG has expressed hope that large multinational companies will lead the way on RBC practices, setting an example for smaller local firms to follow, particularly in the extractive industries sector.  Guyana joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) as a candidate country in October 2017.  Guyana is not a signatory of the Montreux Document.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

The law provides criminal penalties for corrupt practices by public officials. The relevant laws enacted include the Integrity Commission Act, State Assets Recovery Act, and the Audit Act. Several media outlets reported on government corruption in recent years and it remains a significant public concern.  Guyana has regulations to counter conflict of interests in the award of contracts. There are instances where the previous administration engaged in those practices, and it remains to be seen if the current administration will continue the trend; new administrations often seek legal action against members of previous administrations based on charges of fraudulent dealings. Media and civil society organizations continued to criticize the government for being slow to prosecute corruption cases.  The government passed legislation in 1997 that requires public officials to disclose their assets to an Integrity Commission prior to assuming office.  There are no significant compliance programs to detect bribery of government officials.

Widespread concerns remain about inefficiencies and corruption regarding the awarding of contracts, particularly with respect to concerns of collusion and non-transparency.  In his 2020 annual report, the Auditor General noted continuous disregard for the procedures, rules, and the laws that govern public procurement system.  There were reports of overpayments of contracts and procurement breaches.  Nevertheless, the country has made some improvements. According to Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Guyana ranked 83 out of 180 countries for perceptions of corruption, falling 2 spots in comparison to 2019.

Companies interested in doing business in Guyana may contact a “watchdog” organization (international, regional, local nongovernmental organization operating in the country/economy that monitors corruption, such as Transparency International) for more information:

Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc.
157 Waterloo Street
Second Floor Private Sector Commission Building
North Cummingsburg
Georgetown
+592 231 9586
infotransparencygy@gmail.com 

10. Political and Security Environment

Guyana has a high crime rate, and violence associated with drug and gold smuggling is on the rise. The country peacefully transitioned to a new government on August 2, 2020 after a 20 month-long extra-constitutional and electoral crisis, which saw few instances of politically-incited violence. The GoG has committed to electoral reform in the wake of the 2020 electoral crisis in order to avoid electoral impasses in the future.

The security environment in the country continues to be a concern for many businesses. Businesses considering investing in Guyana are strongly encouraged to develop adequate security systems.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Guyana’s labor market is tightening due to high investments in sectors driven by the oil and gas industry. In 2020, the total population aged 15 and above residing in Guyana was 602,795. In the first quarter of 2020, the labor force participation rate was 50.4 percent. Unemployment stood at 12.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020. A concerning trend is an increase in youth unemployment, jumping from 29.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 30.2 percent in first quarter of 2020. Guyana has witnessed an influx of Venezuelan migrants which predominantly work in mining areas and in the restaurant industry. Chinese firms continue to invest heavily in Guyana with many companies importing Chinese workers for most of their operations. The Ali administration has committed to implement local content legislation which may include a requirement for hiring a fixed percentage of nationals. Guyana has a national insurance scheme, but social safety net programs do not exist for the general population. Strikes are common in the sugar industry and may vary with the public sector during collective bargaining sessions.

Local legislation governing labor in Guyana includes the National Insurance Act, Guyana Labour Act, Occupation Health and Safety Act, and the Termination of Severance and Pay Act.  Guyana’s Human Development Index for 2020 increased to 0.67 from 0.682. Guyana’s literacy rate is estimated at 90%. There is an ongoing push for information and communications technology curriculum in Guyana’s schools to develop a talent pool for this industry.

Guyana has one of the highest emigration rates in the world for nationals with a university degree of 89 percent. A significant number of businesses report having challenges with staff recruitment and retention.  These issues are linked to a small pool of semi-skilled and skilled workers.  Companies entering Guyana should consider training and capacity building opportunities for their employees.

The 1997 Trade Union Recognition Act requires businesses operating in Guyana to recognize and collectively bargain with the trade union selected by a majority of its workers.  The government, on occasion, has unilaterally imposed wage increases. Guyana adheres to the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention, protecting worker rights.  The private sector has a minimum monthly wage of approximately $210.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $5.1 2019 Billion www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 179.5 178 Millions BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $8.3 20xx Millions BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 20xx $Amt 20xx xx% UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/
EconomicTrends/Fdi.html   

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Data not available.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

Honduras

Executive Summary

The United States is Honduras’ most important economic partner.  During the past year, the Honduran government has continued to implement reforms to attract investment and promote economic growth, but meaningful improvement has been slow.  Macroeconomic reforms and continued commitment to fiscal stability have led to a stable macroeconomic environment, ongoing financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and stable credit ratings from the major international agencies.

Foreign investors operating in Honduras operate thriving enterprises, but all face challenges including unreliable and expensive electricity, corruption, unpredictable tax application and enforcement, high crime, low education levels, and poor infrastructure. Squatting on private land is a growing problem in Honduras and anti-squatting laws are poorly enforced. Continued low-level protests and uncertainty surrounding the November 2021 general elections are additional concerns for private investors. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report points to the difficulty of starting a new business, the high burden of paying taxes, and poor contract law enforcement as major disincentives to private investment.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy was both immediate and severe.  The March 2020 shutdown of the formal and informal economies placed a tremendous strain on workers who rely on daily wages.  Approximately 175,000 Hondurans were temporarily suspended from their jobs, 250,000 became unemployed, and almost 300,000 saw their income decrease by at least 40 percent.  This economic contraction was further exacerbated by back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes in November, which caused severe flooding and mudslides, damaging roads, washing away 134 bridges, and killing over 100 people. The combined effects of COVID-19 and the November hurricanes caused an economic recession, with GDP contracting by 8 percent in 2020 and job losses as high as 800,000 workers (18 percent of the labor force). Honduran authorities report economic destruction as high as $10 billion from the storms. The storms’ effects were particularly damaging to the agriculture and tourism industries, both crucial for millions of Hondurans. NGOs, development banks and Honduran officials are working to reactivate the economy via cash injections and technical assistance for small business and farms, rehabilitation of key infrastructure, and improving climate change resiliency.

The Government of Honduras (GOH) implements a variety of measures to attract investment and facilitate trade.  Trade policy is overseen by the National Trade Committee, chaired by the Minister of Economic Development.  Honduras is a ratifying country of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, which contains provisions for expediting the movement, release, and clearance of goods, and sets out measures for effective cooperation on customs compliance and trade facilitation.  Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador operate a trilateral customs union to foster and increase efficient cross-border trade, but implementation remains inconsistent.  In June 2020, Honduras switched to digitized import permits for agricultural products, reducing costs and dispatch times dramatically. Also in 2020, Honduras and Guatemala launched an online pre-arrival screening protocol to reduce border times and transit costs for goods. Many processes, including applications for permitting and licensing businesses are now available online as part of Honduras’ Sin Filas (no lines) initiative.

Many of the approximately 200 U.S. companies that operate in Honduras take advantage of the commercial framework established by the Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).  Through its participation in CAFTA-DR, Honduras has enhanced U.S. export opportunities and diversified the composition of bilateral trade.  Substantial intra-industry trade now occurs in textiles and electrical machinery, alongside continued trade in traditional Honduran exports such as coffee and bananas.  In addition to liberalizing trade in goods and services, CAFTA-DR includes important requirements relating to investment, customs administration and trade facilitation, technical barriers to trade, government procurement, telecommunications, electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, transparency, and labor and environmental protection.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 157 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 133 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 103 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 $1,281 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita (USD) 2019 $2,390 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The GOH is open to foreign investment, and low labor costs, proximity to the U.S. market, and the large Caribbean port of Puerto Cortes can make Honduras attractive to investors.

The legal framework for investment includes the Honduran constitution, the investment chapter of CAFTA-DR (which takes precedence over most domestic law), and the 2011 Law for the Promotion and Protection of Investments. The Honduran constitution requires all foreign investment to complement, but not substitute for, national investment. Honduras’ legal obligations guarantee national treatment and most favored nation treatment for U.S. investments in most sectors of the Honduran economy and include enhanced benefits in the areas of insurance and arbitration for domestic and foreign investors. CAFTA-DR has equal status with the constitution in most sectors of the Honduran economy.

Critics complain that lack of clarity and overlapping responsibilities among the multiple entities charged with attracting increased foreign direct investment undermine the government’s ability to effectively promote Honduras as a profitable destination for foreign capital. The National Investment Council, the Ministry of Investment Promotion, and the Ministry of Economic Development all have equities in attracting foreign investment and an ambitious job creation mandate.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Honduras’ Investment Law does not limit foreign ownership of businesses, except for those specifically reserved for Honduran investors, including small firms with capital less than $6,300 and the domestic air transportation industry. For all investments, at least 90 percent of companies’ labor forces must be Honduran, and companies must pay at least 85 percent of their payrolls to Hondurans. Majority ownership by Honduran citizens is required for companies in the commercial fishing sector, forestry, local transportation, radio, television, or benefiting from the Agrarian Reform Law. There is no screening or approval process specific to foreign direct investments in Honduras. Foreign investors are subject to the same requirements for environmental and other regulatory approvals as domestic investors.

According to the law, investors can establish, acquire, and dispose of enterprises at market prices under freely negotiated conditions without government intervention, but some foreign business operators report difficulty closing businesses. Private enterprises fairly compete with public enterprises on market access, credit, and other business operations. Foreign investors have the right to own property, subject to certain restrictions established by the Honduran constitution and several laws relating to property rights. Investors may acquire, profit, use, and dispose of property ownership with the exception of land within 40 kilometers of international borders and shorelines. Honduran law does permit, however, foreign individuals to purchase properties close to shorelines in designated “tourism zones.”

Other Investment Policy Reviews

In 2016, the World Trade Organization conducted a Trade Policy review of Honduras: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp436_e.htm .

Business Facilitation

The Honduran government has worked to simplify administrative procedures for establishing a company in recent years, including by offering many processes online. GOH officials are pressing for, and have made good progress in, the digitalization of business, import, permitting and licensing, and taxation processes to increase efficiency and transparency, but procedural red tape to obtain government approval for investment activities remains common, especially at the local level. Honduras’ business registration information portal ( https://honduras.eregulations.org/ ) provides clear step-by-step information on registering a business, including fees, agencies, and required documents.

Honduras ratified the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) in July 2016, agreeing to expedite the movement, release, and clearance of goods, including goods in transit. The TFA also sets out measures for effective cooperation between customs and other appropriate authorities on trade facilitation and customs compliance issues. According to the WTO/TFA database, Honduras’ current rate of implementation of TFA Category A notification commitments stands at 59.2 percent.

During the past year the GOH moved 38 of its ministries and agencies into the newly finished Centro Civico government complex, where it hopes to achieve efficiencies in business facilitation and other processes. In addition to moving information storage to digital formats across the government, the GOH plans to streamline public services though use of single windows for multiple services at the new center.

Outward Investment

Honduras does not promote or incentivize outward investment.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

A Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) between the United States and Honduras entered into force in 2001. The U.S.-Honduras Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Consular Rights (1928) provides for Most Favored Nation treatment for investors of either country. The United States and Honduras also signed an agreement for the guarantee of private investments in 1955 and an agreement on investment guarantees in 1966. CAFTA-DR supersedes most provisions of these agreements. Honduras and the United States signed a Tax Information Exchange Agreement in 1990. In 2014, Honduras and the United States signed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

Provisions for investment are included in free trade agreements between Honduras and the United States, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Taiwan, South Korea, and the European Union. These agreements supersede many of the provisions of Honduras’ separate Bilateral Investment Treaties with these countries. Honduras also has separate Bilateral Investment Treaties with the Republic of Korea and with Switzerland.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The government of Honduras publishes approved regulations in the official government Gazette. Honduras lacks an indexed legal code so lawyers and judges must maintain the publication of laws on their own.

CAFTA-DR requires host governments publish proposed regulations that could affect businesses or investments. Honduras made significant progress in 2019 and 2020 in relation to the publication and availability of information under CAFTA-DR. Honduras notified Article 1 technical provisions, per CAFTA-DR requirements, and the Customs Administration (ADUANAS) and Sanitary Regulatory Agency (ARSA) have improved publication of regulations through their official online portals.

Some U.S. investors experience long waiting periods for environmental permits and other regulatory and legislative approvals. Sectors in which U.S. companies frequently encounter problems include infrastructure, telecoms, mining, and energy. Generally, regulatory requirements are complex and lengthy and easily influenced by political factors. Regulatory approvals require congressional intervention if the time exceeds a presidential term of four years. Current regulations are available at the Honduran government’s eRegulations website ( http://honduras.eregulations.org/ ). While the majority of regulations are at the national level, municipal level regulations also exist and can be very discouraging to investment. No significant regulatory changes of relevance to foreign investors were announced since the last report. Public comments received by regulators are not published

International Regulatory Considerations

As a member of the WTO, Honduras notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Honduras has a civil law system. The Honduran Commercial Code, enacted in 1950, regulates business operations and falls under the jurisdiction of the Honduran civil court system. The Civil Procedures Code, which entered into force in 2010, introduced the use of open, oral arguments for adversarial procedures. The Civil Procedures Code provides improved protection of commercial transactions, property rights, and land tenure. It also offered a more efficient process for the enforcement of rulings issued by foreign courts. Despite these codes, U.S. claimants have noted the lack of transparency and the slow administration of justice in the courts. U.S. firms report favoritism, external pressure, and bribes within the judicial system. They also mention the poor quality of legal representation from Honduran attorneys.

Resolving an investment or commercial dispute in the local Honduran courts is often a lengthy process. Foreign investors report dispute resolution typically involves multiple appeals and decisions at different levels of the Honduran judicial system. Each decision can take months or years, and it is usually not possible for the parties to predict the time required to obtain a decision. Final decisions from Honduran courts or from arbitration panels often require subsequent enforcement from lower courts to take effect, requiring additional time. Foreign investors sometimes prefer to resolve disputes with suppliers, customers, or partners out of court when possible. Honduras has a very high-quality mechanism for alternate dispute resolution.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Honduras’ Investment Law requires all local and foreign direct investment be registered with the Investment Office in the Secretariat of Industry and Commerce. Upon registration, the Investment Office issues certificates to guarantee international arbitration rights under CAFTA-DR. An investor who believes the government has not honored a substantive obligation under CAFTA-DR may pursue CAFTA-DR’s dispute settlement mechanism, as detailed in the Investment Chapter. The claim’s proceedings and documents are generally open to the public.

The Government of Honduras requires authorization for both foreign and domestic investments in the following areas:

  • Basic health services
  • Telecommunications
  • Generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity
  • Air transport
  • Fishing, hunting, and aquaculture
  • Exploitation of forestry resources
  • Agricultural and agro-industrial activities exceeding land tenancy limits established by the Agricultural Modernization Law of 1992 and the Land Reform Law of 1974
  • Insurance and financial services
  • Investigation, exploration, and exploitation of mines, quarries, petroleum, and related substances.

The Government of Honduras offers one-stop business set-up at its My Business Online website, which helps domestic and international investors submit initial business registry information and provides step-by-step instructions. https://www.miempresaenlinea.org/  ) However, formalizing a business still requires visiting a municipal chamber of commerce window for registration and permits, a process vulnerable to rent-seeking and corruption.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Competition (CDPC) is the Honduran government agency that reviews proposed transactions for competition-related concerns. Honduras’ Competition Law established the CDPC in 2005 as part of the effort to implement CAFTA-DR. The Honduran Congress appoints the members of the CDPC, which functions as an independent regulatory commission.

Expropriation and Compensation

The Honduran government has the authority to expropriate property for purposes of land reform or public use. The National Agrarian Reform Law provides that idle land fit for farming can be expropriated and awarded to indigent and landless persons via the Honduran National Agrarian Institute. In 2013, the Honduran government passed legislation regarding recovery and reassignment of concessions on underutilized assets. Both local and foreign firms have expressed concerns that the law does not specify what the government considers “underutilized.” The government has not published implementing regulations for the law nor indicated plans to use the law against any private sector firm.

Government expropriation of land owned by U.S. companies is rare. Seizure actions by squatters on both Honduran and non-U.S. foreign landowners are most common in agricultural areas. Some occupations have turned violent. Owners of disputed land have found pursuing legal avenues costly, time consuming, and legally inconclusive. CAFTA-DR’s Investment Chapter Section 10.7 states no party may expropriate or nationalize a covered investment either directly or indirectly, with limited public purpose exceptions that require prompt and adequate compensation.

Under the Agrarian Reform Law, the Honduran government must compensate expropriated land partly in cash and partly in 15-, 20-, or 25-year government bonds. The portion to be paid in cash cannot exceed $1,000 if the expropriated land has at least one building and it cannot exceed $500 if the land is in use but has no buildings. If the land is not in use, the government will compensate entirely in 25-year government bonds.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Honduras is a member state to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) Convention. Honduras has also ratified the convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention)

Investor State Dispute Settlement

CAFTA-DR provides dispute settlement procedures between the United States and Honduras. CAFTA-DR’s Investment Chapter dispute settlement mechanism allows an investor who believes the government has not honored a substantive obligation under CAFTA-DR to request a binding international arbitration. Proceedings and documents submitted to substantiate the claim are generally open to the public. The agreement provides basic protections, such as non-discriminatory treatment, limits on performance requirements, the free transfer of funds related to an investment, protection from expropriation other than in conformity with customary international law, a minimum standard of treatment, and the ability to hire key managerial personnel regardless of nationality.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Honduras’ Conciliation and Arbitration Law, established in 2000, outlines procedures for arbitration and defines the procedures under which they take place. The Investment Law permits investors to request arbitration directly, a swifter and more cost-effective means of resolving disputes between commercial entities. Arbitrators and mediators may have specialized expertise in technical areas involved in specific disputes. Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards issues against the government. Judgements from foreign courts are recognized and enforceable under local courts.

The following links provide more localized information:

  • Tegucigalpa Chamber of Industry and Commerce – Center for Conciliation and Arbitration:
  • San Pedro Sula Chamber of Industry and Commerce – Center for Conciliation and Arbitration:

Numerous U.S. investors who have been involved with the judicial system in Honduras mention it can be inefficient, lacks transparency, and is subject to political influence and/or corruption.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Companies that default in payment of their obligations in Honduras can declare bankruptcy. A Honduran court must ratify a bankruptcy in order for it to take effect. These cases are regulated by the country’s Commercial Code.

The judicial ruling that declares the bankruptcy of the company establishes the value of the assets, the recognition and classification of the credits, the procedure for the sale of assets and the schedule for the payment of the obligations, in the case that it is not possible for the company to continue its operations. The ruling must be published in The Gazette. The liquidation of companies is always a judicial matter, except in the case of banking institutions which are liquidated by the National Banking and Insurance Commission.

Any creditor or a company itself may initiate the liquidation procedure, which is generally a civil matter. The Judge appoints a liquidator to execute the procedure. A mechanism that a company may exercise to prevent bankruptcy is to request a suspension of payments from the judge. If approved by the judge and the creditors, the company may be able to reach an agreement with its creditors that allows the same administrative board to maintain control of the company.

A company may be prosecuted for fraudulently declaring bankruptcy in the case that the administrative board or shareholders withdraw their assets before the declaration, alter accounting books making it impossible to determine the real situation of the company, or favor certain creditors granting them benefits that they would not be entitled to otherwise.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The 2017 Tourism Incentives Law offers tax exemptions for national and international investment in tourism development projects. The law provides income tax exemptions for the first 10 years of a project and permits the duty-free import of goods needed for a project, including publicity materials. To receive benefits, a business must be located in a designated tourism zone. Restaurants, casinos, nightclubs, movie theaters, and certain other businesses are not eligible for incentives under this law. Foreigners or foreign companies seeking to purchase property exceeding 3,000 square meters for tourism or other development projects in designated tourism zones must present an application to the Honduran Tourism Institute at the Ministry of Tourism. The buyer must prove a contract to purchase the property exists and present feasibility studies and plans about the proposed tourism project.

In view of grave losses suffered by small and medium enterprises from the 2020 Hurricanes Eta and Iota, the GOH and the Honduran Association of Banking Institutions (AHIBA) agreed to greater flexibility for restructuring loans and credit card debt, as well as a 2 percent reduction in applicable interest rates. The expectation is that with the implementation of these financial relief measures, vulnerable SMEs could avoid bankruptcy and contribute to the reactivation of the Honduran economy.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The Honduran government does not provide direct export subsidies, but does offer tax exemptions to firms operating in a free trade zone. The Temporary Import Law allows exporters to introduce raw materials, parts, and capital equipment (except vehicles) into Honduras exempt from surcharges and customs duties if a manufacturer incorporates the input into a product for export (up to five percent can be sold locally). The government allows the establishment of export processing zones (EPZ) anywhere in the country. Companies operating in EPZs are exempt from paying import duties and other charges on goods and capital equipment. In addition, the production and sale of goods within EPZs are exempt from state and municipal income taxes for the first 10 years of operation. In May 2020 the Honduran Congress updated the law to extend the tax incentives and duty and surcharge exemptions from 10 to 15 years, renewable for an additional 10 years if the company meets certain investment and job creation criteria. Also in 2020, the GOH announced the ability to apply for EPZ status and status extensions through an online portal.

The government permits companies operating in an EPZ unrestricted repatriation of profits and capital. Companies are required, however, to purchase the Lempiras needed for their local operations from Honduran commercial banks or from foreign exchange trading houses registered with the Central Bank.

Most industrial parks and EPZs are located in the northern Department of Cortes, with close access to Puerto Cortes, Honduras’ major Caribbean port, and San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ largest commercial city. The government treats industrial parks and EPZs as offshore operations, requiring companies to pay customs duties on products manufactured in the parks and sold in Honduras. In addition, the government treats Honduran inputs as exports, which companies must pay for in U.S. dollars. Most companies operating in these parks are involved in apparel assembly, though the government and park operators have begun to diversify into other types of light industry, including automotive parts and electronics assembly. Additional information on Honduran free trade zones and EPZs is available from the Honduran Manufacturers Association ( http://www.ahm-honduras.com/ ).

In 2013, the Government of Honduras signed a law to allow establishment of a second type of Economic Development and Employment Zone (ZEDE) with its own governance structure, to boost job growth and attract foreign investment. Following a backlash from local and international NGOs concerned about labor rights, land issues, and environmental protection, the push for ZEDEs remained dormant until August 2017, when President Hernández promoted the concept as a key job creation policy of his reelection campaign.  In 2019, two companies received Government of Honduras (GOH) approval to move forward with ZEDE planning and development.

Completion of enough construction on the country’s new Palmerola International Airport to allow a soft opening is expected in 2022.  Located on an open plateau in the center of the country, Palmerola will not require specially licensed pilots to land in mountainous terrain, unlike the airport in Tegucigalpa. The airport will facilitate trade by reducing costs for airlines, passengers, and shipping companies. Its development will impact freight, logistics, distribution, the ease of doing business, and tourist travel for the entire country.  The airport connects with a newly completed highway (the ‘Dry Canal’) to the Pacific coast and with another highway to the Caribbean coast and its deep-water port – for a sea-to-sea logistics and transit system.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

The Honduran government encourages foreign investors to hire locally and to make use of domestic content, especially in manufacturing and agriculture. The government looks favorably on investment projects that contribute to employment growth, either directly or indirectly. U.S. investors in Honduras have not reported instances in which the government has imposed performance or localization requirements on investments.

The Honduran government and courts can require foreign and domestic investors that operate in Honduras to turn over data for use in criminal investigations or civil proceedings. Honduran law enforcement, prosecutors, and civil courts have the authority to make such requests.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Honduran law recognizes secured interests in movable and real property. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tegucigalpa (CCIT) and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of San Pedro Sula (CCIC) both manage their own merchant records. The national property registry is managed by the Property Institute. The right for CCIT and CCIC to administer their own merchant registries is derived from a concession in Honduras’ secured transactions law.

Land title procedures have been an issue leading to investment disputes involving U.S. nationals who are landowners, especially, but not limited to, the tourist destination of Roatan. Title insurance is not widely available in Honduras and approximately 80 percent of the privately held land in the country is either untitled or improperly titled. Resolution of disputes in court often takes years. There are claims of widespread corruption in land sales, deed filing, and dispute resolution, including claims against attorneys, real estate companies, judges, and local officials. Although Honduras has made some progress, the property registration system is perceived as unreliable and represents a constraint on investment, particularly in the Bay Islands. In addition, a lack of implementing regulations leads to long delays in the awarding of titles in some regions.

Intellectual Property Rights

The legislative framework for the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR), which includes the Honduran copyright law and its industrial property law, is generally adequate but often poorly implemented. Honduras implements its obligations under the Agreement on Trade- Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Honduran law protects data exclusivity for a period of five years and protects process patents, but does not recognize second-use patents. The Property Institute (IP) and Public Ministry handle IPR protection and enforcement.

CAFTA-DR Chapter 15 on Intellectual Property Rights further provides for the protection and enforcement of a range of IPR, which are consistent with U.S. and international standards as well as with emerging international standards of IPR protection and enforcement. There are also provisions on deterrence of piracy and counterfeiting. Additionally, CAFTA-DR provides authorities the ability to confiscate pirated goods and investigate intellectual property cases on their own initiative.

The Honduran legal framework provides deterrence against piracy and counterfeiting by requiring the seizure, forfeiture, and destruction of counterfeit and pirated goods and the equipment used to produce them. The law also provides for statutory damages for copyright and trademark infringement, to ensure monetary damages are awarded even when losses associated with an infringement are difficult to assign.

In spite of this regulatory framework, digital piracy is widespread and frequently ignored in Honduras, especially by telecommunications companies.

Honduras is not listed in United States Trade Representative’s 2021 Special 301 Report or its 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

Resources for Rights Holders

A list of local attorneys is available at https://hn.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/attorneys/. The U.S. Commercial Service office also maintains a screened list of attorneys through its Business Service Provider (BSP) directory . The Honduran-American Chamber of Commerce works with U.S. and Honduran companies that encounter commercial challenges, including intellectual property rights issues ( http://www.amchamhonduras.org/ ). For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see World Intellectual Property Organization’s country profiles: http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

There are no government restrictions on foreign investors’ access to local credit markets, though the local banking system generally extends only limited amounts of credit. Investors should not consider local banks a significant capital resource for new foreign ventures unless they use specific business development credit lines made available by bilateral or multilateral financial institutions such as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

A limited number of credit instruments are available in the local market. The only security exchange operating in the country is the Central American Securities Exchange (BCV) in Tegucigalpa, but investors should exercise caution before buying securities listed on it. Supervised by the National Banking and Insurance Commission (CNBS), the BCV theoretically offers instruments to trade bankers’ acceptances, repurchase agreements, short-term promissory notes, Honduran government private debt conversion bonds, and land reform repayment bonds. In practice, however, the BCV is almost entirely composed of short- and medium-term government securities and no formal secondary market for these bonds exists.

A few banks have offered fixed rate and floating rate notes with maturities of up to three years, but outside of the banks’ issuances, the private sector does not sell debt or corporate stock on the exchange. Any private business is eligible to trade its financial instruments on the BCV, and firms that participate are subject to a rigorous screening process, including public disclosure and ratings by a recognized rating agency. Historically, most traded firms have had economic ties to the other business and financial groups represented as shareholders of the exchange. As a result, risk management practices are lax and public confidence in the institution is limited.

Money and Banking System

The Honduran financial system is comprised of commercial banks, state-owned banks, savings and loans institutions, and financial companies. There are currently 16 commercial banks operating in Honduras. There is no offshore banking or homegrown blockchain technology in Honduras. Honduras has a highly professional, independent Central Bank and an effective banking regulator, the Comisión Nacional de Bancos y Seguros. While access to credit remains limited in Honduras, especially for historically underserved populations, the financial sector is a source of economic stability in the country.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Article 10.8 of CAFTA-DR ensures the free transfer of funds related to a covered investment. Local financial institutions freely exchange U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies. Foreigners may open bank accounts with a valid passport. For deposits exceeding the maximum deposits specified for different account types (corporate or small-medium enterprises), banks require documentation verifying the fund’s origin.

The Investment Law guarantees foreign investors access to foreign currency needed to transfer funds associated with their investments in Honduras, including:

  • Imports of goods and services necessary to operate
  • Payment of royalty fees, rents, annuities, and technical assistance
  • Remittance of dividends and capital repatriation

The Central Bank of Honduras  instituted a crawling peg in 2011 that allows the lempira to fluctuate against the U.S. dollar by seven percent per year. The Central Bank mandates any daily price of the crawling peg be no greater than 100.075 percent of the average for the prior seven daily auctions. These restrictions limit devaluation to a maximum of 4.8 percent annually. As of March 31, 2021, the exchange rate is 24.0199 lempira to the U.S. dollar.

The Central Bank uses an auction system to allocate foreign exchange based on the following regulations:

  • The Central Bank sets base prices every five auctions according to the differential between the domestic inflation rate and the inflation rate of Honduras’ main commercial partners.
  • The Central Bank’s Board of Directors determines the procedure to set the base.
  • The Board of Directors establishes the exchange commission and the exchange agencies in their foreign exchange transactions.
  • Individuals and corporate bodies can participate in the auction system for dollar purchases, either by themselves or through an exchange agency. The offers can be no less than $10,000, no more than $300,000 for individuals, and no more than $1.2 million for corporations.

To date, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras has not received complaints from individuals regarding the process for converting or transferring funds associated with investments.

Remittance Policies

The Investment Law guarantees investors the right to remit their investment returns and, if they liquidate their investments, to remit the principal capital invested. Foreign investors that choose to remit their investment proceeds from Honduras do so through foreign exchange transactions at Honduran banks or foreign banks operating in Honduras. These exchange transactions are subject to the same foreign exchange process and regulation as other transactions.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Honduras does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Most state-owned enterprises are in telecommunications, electricity, water utilities, and commercial ports. The main state-owned Honduran telephone company, Hondutel, has private contracts with eight foreign and domestic carriers. The Government of Honduras has yet to establish a legal framework for foreign companies to obtain licenses and concessions to provide long distance and international calling. As a result, investors remain unsure if they can become fully independent telecommunication service providers.

The state-owned National Electric Energy Company (ENEE) is the single greatest contributor to the country’s fiscal deficit.  According to the IMF, in 2019, ENEE’s total losses reached 1.2 percent of GDP, while its $3.2 billion debt level was almost ten percent of GDP. Energy reform legislation, passed in 2014, called for the separation of ENEE into three independent units for distribution, transmission, and generation. Lack of political will and vested interests, however, have stalled efforts to unbundle ENEE. The electrical sector faces serious structural problems, including high electricity system losses, a transmission system in need of upgrades, vulnerability of generation costs to volatile international oil prices, an electricity tariff that does not reflect actual costs, and the high costs of long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs), which are often awarded directly to companies with political connections instead of via a fair and transparent tendering and procurement process.

ENEE controls most hydroelectric generation, which made up about 28 percent of total installed capacity and 24 percent of all power generation in 2020. Fossil fuels accounted for about 33 percent of installed capacity and 45 percent of power generation, while other renewable sources (wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal) accounted for about 40 percent of installed capacity and 21 percent of power generation. Together, renewable sources accounted for about 53 percent of power generation. The Honduran government plans to increase renewable energy sources to 80 percent of installed capacity by 2037. Many businesses have installed on-site power generation systems to supplement or substitute for power from ENEE due to frequent blackouts and high tariffs.

Honduran law grants municipalities the right to manage water distribution and to grant concessions to private enterprises. Major cities with public-private concessions include San Pedro Sula, Puerto Cortes, and Choloma. The state water authority National Autonomous Aqueduct and Sewer Service (SANAA) manages Tegucigalpa’s water distribution. The Honduran National Port Company (ENP) is the state-owned organization that oversees management of the country’s government-operated maritime ports, including Puerto Cortes, La Ceiba, Puerto Castilla, and San Lorenzo. Private companies Central American Port Operators and Maritime Ports of Honduras have 30-year concessions to operate container and bulk shipping facilities at Honduras’ principal port Puerto Cortes.

Privatization Program

The Honduran government is not actively seeking to privatize state-owned enterprises though it is seeking to increase private sector participation in the electric system. As part of the IMF’s December 2014 Stand-By Arrangement (SBA), concluded in December 2017, the Honduran government began to reform the state-owned energy company ENEE, creating an independent regulator, the Electric Energy Regulatory Commission. Under a new IMF SBA signed in July 2019, the Honduran government is preparing a plan to separate ENEE. While the structure of the new entity is unclear, under the previous SBA, Honduras was supposed to reform ENEE by creating a holding company with four components: a distribution company with an operations subcontractor supported by a trust agreement; a concession for the transmission network; a not-for-profit organization with public-private ownership to control the overall electrical system; and a privatized generation company that owns all ENEE generating facilities. These reforms were not realized, with the exception of a 2016 sub-contract by a Colombian-Honduran consortium to manage energy distribution.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Awareness of the importance of Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) is growing among both producers and consumers in Honduras. An increasing number of local and foreign companies operating in Honduras include conduct-related responsibility practices in their business strategies. The Honduran Corporate Social Responsibility Foundation (FUNDAHRSE) has become a strong proponent in its efforts to promote transparency in the business climate and provides the Honduran private sector, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, with the skills to engage in responsible business practices. FUNDAHRSE’s approximately110 members can apply for the foundation’s “Corporate Social Responsibility Enterprise” seal for exemplary responsible business conduct involving work in areas related to health, education, environment, codes of ethics, employment relations, and responsible marketing.

RBC related to the environment and outreach to local communities is especially important to the success of investment projects in Honduras. Several major foreign investment projects in Honduras have stalled due to concerns about environmental impact, land rights issues, lack of transparency, and problematic consultative processes with local communities, particularly indigenous communities. Although the International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples was ratified by the GOH in 1995 and Honduras voted in favor of UN’s Indigenous People’s rights in 2007, there is still much to do in the area. There is still a need for foreign investors to build trust with local communities, while employing international best practices and standards to reduce the risk of conflict and promote sustainable and equitable development.

Examples of international best practices include the following:

  • Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Initiative
  • The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
  • The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Despite international pressure, President Hernandez allowed the four-year mandate of the OAS Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) to expire in January 2020.  MACCIH began work in 2015 following widespread anti-corruption protests in the wake of a scandal involving Honduras’ social security fund. During its tenure, MACCIH worked with the Public Ministry to bring cases against current and former public officials and to advance justice reform, including by presenting draft legislation for a Law of Effective Collaboration (plea-bargaining law) which remains stalled in Congress.  MACCIH and the Public Ministry created a special anti-corruption unit (UFECIC) to pursue large-scale corruption cases which continues to exist despite the end of MACCIH’s mandate. Its replacement, UFERCO, operates within the Public Ministry with fewer resources and personnel.

U.S. businesses and citizens report corruption in the public sector and the judiciary is a significant constraint to investment in Honduras.  Historically, corruption has been pervasive in government procurement, issuance of government permits, customs, real estate transactions (particularly land title transfers), performance requirements, and the regulatory system.  Civil society groups are critical of recent legislation granting qualified immunity to government officials and a law that gives the highly politicized government audit agency a first look at corruption cases.  In 2018, Congress passed a revision of the 1984 penal code that lowered penalties for some corruption offenses. The new code went into effect in June 2020 and was retroactively applied to several high-profile corruption cases resulting in a spate of dismissals and retrials.  Since 2012, the Honduran government has signed agreements with Transparency International, the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, and the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative.  In late 2020, the GOH created a new Ministry of Transparency to act as the government’s lead institution in coordinating and implementing efforts to promote transparency and integrity and prevent government corruption.

Honduras’s Rankings on Key Corruption Indicators:

Measure Year Index/Ranking
TI Corruption Index 2020 24/100, 157 of 180
World Bank Doing Business May 2020 133/190
MCC Government Effectiveness FY 2021 -0.19 (32 percent)
MCC Rule of Law FY 2021 -0.59 (7 percent)
MCC Control of Corruption FY 2021 -0.29 (18 percent)

The United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) deems it unlawful for a U.S. person, and certain foreign issuers of securities to make corrupt payments to foreign public officials for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business for directing business to any person. The FCPA also applies to foreign firms and persons who take any act in furtherance of such a corrupt payment while in the United States. For more information, see the FCPA Lay-Person’s Guide: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/ .

Honduras ratified the UN Anticorruption Convention, in December 2005. The UN Convention requires countries to establish criminal penalties for a wide range of acts of corruption. The UN Convention covers a broad range of issues from basic forms of corruption such as bribery and solicitation, embezzlement, trading in influence, and the concealment and laundering of the proceeds of corruption. The UN Convention contains transnational business bribery provisions that are functionally similar to those in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Anti-Bribery Convention.

Honduras ratified the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (OAS Convention) in1998. The OAS Convention establishes a set of preventive measures against corruption; provides for the criminalization of certain acts of corruption, including transnational bribery and illicit enrichment; and contains a series of provisions to strengthen the cooperation between its states’ parties in areas such as mutual legal assistance and technical cooperation.

Resources to Report Corruption

Companies that face corruption-related challenges in Honduras may contact the following organizations to request assistance.

Public Ministry
Eva Nazar
Coordinator for External Cooperation
cooperacionexterna.mp@gmail.com 

The Public Ministry is the Honduran government agency responsible for criminal prosecutions, including corruption cases.

Association for a More Just Society (ASJ)
Yahayra Yohana Velasquez Duce
Director of Transparency
Residencial El Trapiche, 2da etapa Bloque B, Casa #25
+504-2235-2291
info@asjhonduras.com 

ASJ is a nongovernmental Honduran organization that works to reduce corruption and increase transparency. It is an affiliate of Transparency International.

National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA)
Alejandra Ferrera
Executive Board Assistant
Colonia San Carlos, calle Republica de Mexico
504-2221-1181
aferrera@cna.hn 

CNA is a Honduran civil society organization comprised of Honduran business groups, labor groups, religious organizations, and human rights groups.

U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Attention: Economic Section
Avenida La Paz
Tegucigalpa M.D.C., Honduras
Telephone Numbers: (504) 2236-9320, 2238-5114
Fax Number: (504) 2236-9037

Companies can also report corruption through the Department of Commerce Trade Compliance Center Report a Trade Barrier website: http://tcc.export.gov/Report_a_Barrier/index.asp .

10. Political and Security Environment

Crime and violence rates remain high and add cost and constraint to investments. Demonstrations occur regularly in Honduras and political uncertainty poses a challenge to ongoing stability. Tensions could increase significantly in advance of the November 2021 presidential and general elections.

U.S. citizens should be aware that large public gatherings might become unruly or violent quickly. For more information, consult the Department of State’s latest travel warning: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Honduras.html.

Although violent crime remains a persistent problem, Honduras has successfully reduced homicides to less than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest in a decade.  Cases of violence, extortion, and kidnapping are still relatively common, particularly in urban areas where gang presence is more pervasive.  Drug traffickers continue to use Honduras as a transit point for cocaine and other narcotics en route to the United States and Europe, which fuels local turf battles in some areas and injects illicit funds into judicial proceedings and local governance structures to distort justice.  The business community historically had been a target for ransom kidnappings, but the number of such kidnappings dropped from 92 in 2013 to 13 in 2020, primarily through the establishment of the USG-supported Honduran National Police National Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Although violent crime rates are trending downward, there is a neutral to upward trend in corruption and white-collar crime, including money laundering, that negatively affects economic prosperity and stability for the business community.

11. Labor Policies and Practices 

The Honduran Labor Law prescribes a maximum eight-hour workday, 44-hour workweek, and at least one 24-hour rest period per week. The Labor Code provides for paid national holidays and annual leave. Most employment sectors also receive two one-month bonuses as part of the base salary, known as the 13th and 14th month salary, issued in mid-December and mid-June, respectively. New hires receive a prorated amount based on time-in-service during their first year of employment. The Labor Code requires companies to pay one month’s salary to employees terminated without cause. Companies do not owe severance to employees who resign or are terminated for cause. Employees terminated for cause can contest the basis for the termination in court to claim severance. There are no government-provided unemployment benefits in Honduras, although unemployed individuals may have access to their accumulated pension funds.

Many employers hire employees on a temporary basis under the Temporary Employment Law. In some cases, employers will renew employees under short-term contracts, sometimes over a period of years. Labor groups allege that some employers use temporary contracts to avoid responsibility for severance, provide employee benefits, and prevent union formation. The STSS is responsible for registering collective bargaining agreements. The Labor Code prohibits the employment of persons under the age of 14. Minors between the ages of 14 and 18 must receive special permission from STSS to work. The majority of the violations of the labor-related provisions of the children’s code occur in the agricultural sector and informal economy.

While Honduran labor law closely mirrors International Labor Organization standards, the U.S. Department of Labor has raised serious concerns regarding the effective enforcement of Honduran labor laws. Labor organizations allege the STSS fails to enforce labor laws, including laws on the right to form unions, reinstating employees unjustly fired for union activities, child labor, minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. A U.S. Department of Labor report provided recommendations to address labor concerns in Honduras and called for a monitoring and action plan (MAP) to improve labor law enforcement in Honduras. In October 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor released a MAP assessment update noting significant progress toward addressing areas of concern and extending the MAP’s mandate. The MAP was further extended in May 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices describes a number of labor and human rights compliance issues that affect the Honduran labor market (https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/honduras/). These include employers’ anti-union discrimination, refusal to engage in collective bargaining, and employer control of unions.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical Source USG or International Statistical Source Source
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) N/A N/A 2019 $25.095 billion World Bank Honduras
https://data.worldbank.org/country/honduras
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source USG or International Statistical Source Source
U.S. FDI in Partner Country N/A N/A 2019 $1.3
billion
BEA Data
http://bea.gov/international/direct
_investment_multinational_companies_
comprehensive_data.htm
Host Country’s FDI in the United States N/A N/A 2019 $-84 BEA Data
http://bea.gov/international/direct
_investment_multinational_companies
_comprehensive_data.htm
Total Inbound Stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2019 2% UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/Economic
Trends/Fdi.html
    
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions), 2019
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $16,479 100% Total Outward $2,456 100%
USA $3,944 24% Panama $1,194 49%
Panama $2,903 18% El Salvador    $481 20%
Guatemala $1,612 10% Guatemala    $314 13%
Mexico $1,409   9% Costa Rica    $224 9%
Colombia $1,050   6% Colombia    $151  6%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries $322 100% All Countries $8 100% All Countries $315 100%
International Organizations $190 59% United States $6 75% International Organizations $190 61%
Unites States $81 26% Panama $1 12.5% United States $75 24%
Costa Rica $25 8% Not Specified $8 3%
Not Specified $8 3% N/A N/A N/A Canada $4 1%
Canada $4 2% N/A N/A N/A France $4 1%

Jamaica

Executive Summary

The Government of Jamaica (GOJ) considers foreign direct investment (FDI) a key driver for economic growth and in recent years has undertaken macroeconomic reforms that have improved its investment climate. However, the reform program was stymied by measures implemented to contain the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jamaican economy is estimated to have contracted by a record 12 percent during fiscal year (FY) 2020/21, underpinned by a near collapse in tourism and travel and weaker disposable incomes. The country also lost around 130,000 jobs, wiping out the almost 100,000 created in the last four years. With revenues declining and the debt to GDP ratio rising, the government contained expenditure and suspended its fiscal rules. The debt to GDP ratio increased by 16 percentage points to 110 percent due largely to the fallout in GDP, as the nominal debt remained relatively flat. Despite the fallout, inflation was within the four to six percent target range and the current account deficit remained close to the three percent of GDP level. The stock of Net International Reserves (NIR) ended 2020 at USD3.1 billion or 38.81 weeks of goods and services imports.

Jamaica has continued to pursue fiscal consolidation to reduce its debt to GDP ratio. Expenditure will remain flat for the FY 2021/22 and the primary surplus will more than double to 6.1 percent to achieve the debt to GDP target of 100.7 percent by March 2022. This is expected to put the country’s debt to GDP on track to reach the 60 percent target by FY 2027/28. The economy is widely projected to rebound in FY 2021/22, growing by a relatively robust 5.2 percent, while inflation will remain within the four to six percent range. A successful vaccine roll-out program will be critical to the achievement of the targets.

On March 18, 2021, Fitch Ratings Agency affirmed Jamaica’s Long-Term Foreign Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at ‘B+’ and assigned a stable outlook. Fitch reported that Jamaica’s ‘B+’ rating was supported by, among other things, a favorable business climate and moderate inflation and commodity dependence. The Ratings Agency explained that the strengths were balanced by the country’s susceptibility to exogenous shocks and high public debt and the exposure of the foreign debt to exchange rate movements. Fitch said Jamaica’s stable outlook was supported “by our expectation that the public debt level will return to a firm downward path post-pandemic, which is underpinned by political consensus to maintain a high primary surplus, the resilience of external finances, and stronger economic policy institutions.”

Jamaica received USD665 million in FDI in 2019 (latest available data), a USD110 million drop over the previous year. Despite the decline, data from the 2020 UNCTAD World Investment Report, showed that Jamaica was the highest FDI destination in the English-Speaking Caribbean and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). China and Spain were the major drivers of FDI in 2019, contributing about 60 percent of the total. Up to the onset of COVID-19 tourism, mining and energy led investment inflows into the island. Though hard hit by the global pandemic, tourism and mining continued to drive foreign investment. There is a significant host government commitment for mining, tourism and airport development, which could resume when economic conditions improve. Business process outsourcing (BPO), including customer service and back office support, continued to attract local and overseas investment. Investments in improved air, sea, and land transportation have reduced time and costs for transporting goods and have created opportunities in logistics.

Companies have reported that Jamaica’s high crime rate, corruption, and comparatively high taxes inhibit its investment prospects. The country’s corruption perception ranking, by Transparency International, improved marginally from 74 (2019) to 69 (2020) out of 180 countries. Despite laws that prescribe criminal penalties for corrupt acts by officials, there were still reports of government corruption in 2020, with a minister and another public official facing several criminal charges. Measures implemented to address crime continued into 2020, including the continuation of States of Emergency and Zones of Special Operations in several high crime areas of the island. While these efforts resulted in lowering serious crimes, the measures did not significantly impact the murder rate, and Jamaica continues to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

With energy prices a major component of the cost of doing business, the government has instituted a number of policies to address the structural impediment. In early 2020, the government published its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), outlining the country’s electricity roadmap for the next two decades. The document has projected 1,164 MW of new generation capacity at a cost of USD7.3 billion, including fuel cost and the replacement of retired plants. Renewable sources are projected to generate 50 percent of electricity by 2037, with Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), introduced in 2016, providing the lion’s share of the other 50 percent. The increased investment in new generation is expected to increase efficiency and reduce the price of electricity to consumers.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 69 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 71 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 72 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 USD 145 https://www.bea.gov/data/economic-accounts/international
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 5,320 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Government of Jamaica (GOJ) is open to foreign investment in all sectors of the economy. The GOJ made significant structural changes to its economy, under International Monetary Fund (IMF) guidance during the six year period to 2019, resulting in an improved investment environment. Since 2013, Jamaica’s Parliament passed numerous pieces of legislation to improve the business environment and support economic growth through a simplified tax system and broadened tax base. The establishment of credit bureaus and a Collateral Registry under the Secured Interest in Personal Property (SIPP) legislation are improving access to credit. Jamaica made starting a business easier by consolidating forms and made electricity less expensive by reducing the cost of external connection works. The GOJ implemented an electronic platform for the payment of taxes and has established a 90-day window for development approvals.

The GOJ’s public procurement regime was amended, with effect from April 2019, to include provisions for domestic margins of preference, affording preferential treatment to Jamaican suppliers in public contracts in some circumstances, and setting aside a portion of the government’s procurement budget for local micro, small, and medium enterprises. Notwithstanding, U.S. businesses are encouraged to participate in GOJ open procurements, many of which are published in media and via the government’s electronic procurement website: https://www.gojep.gov.jm/ .

Jamaica’s commitment to regulatory reform is an intentional effort to become a more attractive destination for foreign investment. According to the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2020” report, Jamaica ranked 71 out of 190 economies, above average compared to Latin American and Caribbean countries. The country improved or held firm on all metrics assessed in the 2020 report, moving most significantly in the area registering property. The GoJ replaced the Ad Valorem Stamp Duty rate payable on the registration of collateral, such as property used to secure loan instruments, with a flat rate duty. Additionally, the transfer tax, payable on the change of ownership from one person to another, was also reduced during the year from five to two percent. Jamaica is ranked 80 out of 140 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Index. Some report that bureaucracy remains a major impediment, with the country continuing to underperform in the areas of trading across borders, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts.

Jamaica’s trade and investment promotion agency, Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO), is the GOJ agency responsible for promoting business opportunities to local and foreign investors. While JAMPRO does not institute general criteria for FDI, the institution targets specific sectors for investment and promotes Jamaican exports (see  http://www.jamaicatradeandinvest.org/ ).

JAMPRO and the Jamaica Business Development Corporation assist micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSME) primarily through business facilitation and capacity building. MSMEs tend to consist of less than 10 employees. Such fee-based services would be made available to foreign-owned MSMEs (see  https://www.jbdc.net/ ).

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

All private entities, foreign and domestic, are entitled to establish and own business enterprises, as well as to engage in all forms of remunerative activity subject to, inter alia, labor, registration, and environmental requirements. Jamaica does not impose limits on foreign ownership or control and local laws do not distinguish between local and foreign investors. There are no sector-specific restrictions that impede market access. A 2017 amendment to the Companies Act requires companies to disclose beneficial owners to the Companies Office of Jamaica (ORC).  The law mandates that the company retains records of legal and beneficial owners for seven years. The GOJ has proposed new legislation on the incorporation and operation of International Business Companies (IBC), which is designed to attract and facilitate a wide variety of international business activities to include: (1) holding companies providing asset protection for intellectual property rights, real property, and the shares of other companies; (2) serving as vehicles for licensing and franchising; (3) conducting international trade, and investment activities; (4) acting as special purpose vehicles in international financial transactions; and, (5) serving as the international headquarters for global companies.

The U.S. government is not aware of any discrimination against foreign investors at the time of initial investment or after the investment is made. However, under the Companies Act, investors are required to either establish a local company or register a branch office of a foreign-owned enterprise. Branches of companies incorporated abroad must register with the Registrar of Companies if they intend to operate in Jamaica. There are no laws or regulations requiring firms to adopt articles of incorporation or association that limit or prohibit foreign investment, participation, or control. Incentives are available to local and foreign investors alike, including various levels of tax relief.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Jamaica concluded a third-party trade policy review through the WTO in September 2017. The WTO Secretariat’s recommendations are listed here: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp459_e.htm 

Jamaica has not undertaken any investment policy reviews within the last three years in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The GOJ’s previous WTO review took place in 2011 and an OECD review took place in 2004.

Business Facilitation

Businesses can register using the “Super Form,” a single Business Registration Form for New Companies and Business Names. The ORC acts as a “one-stop-shop,” effectively reducing the registration time to between one and three days. Foreign companies can register using these forms, with or without the assistance of an attorney or notary. The “Super Form” can be accessed under Forms at the ORC’s website ( https://www.orcjamaica.com ).

Outward Investment

While the GOJ does not actively promote an outward investment program, it does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Jamaica’s regulatory systems are transparent and consistent with international norms. Proposed legislation is available for public review at japarliament.gov.jm , and submissions are generally invited from members of the public when there is a distinct policy shift or for sensitive changes. There is no law that requires the rulemaking body to solicit comments on proposed regulation and no timeframe for the length of a consultation period when it happens. Furthermore, the law does not require reporting on public consultations but the government presents the consultations directly to interested stakeholders in one unified report. Laws in effect are available at japarliament.gov.jm  or moj.gov.jm . Companies interested in doing business in a particular sector should seek guidance from the relevant regulator(s), including the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) for utilities, the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) for deposit taking institutions (DTIs) and the Financial Services Commission (FSC) for non-DTIs.

Jamaica is compliant with established benchmarks for public disclosure of its budget, the establishment and functioning of an independent and supreme audit body, and the award of contracts for natural resource extraction. Additionally, Jamaica’s Public Debt Management Act (PDMA) of 2012 has codified a gradual reduction in its contingent liability or Government Guaranteed Loans (GGL). The PDMA targets a three percent GGL-to-GDP ratio by 2027.

International Regulatory Considerations

The GOJ tends to adopt Commonwealth standards for its regulatory system, especially from Canada and the United Kingdom. In 2001, CARICOM member states established the Regional Organization for Standards and Quality (CROSQ) under Article 67 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. CROSQ is intended to harmonize regional standards to facilitate the smooth movement of goods in the common market. Jamaica is also a full member of the WTO and is required to notify all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee of Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Jamaica has a common law legal system and court decisions are generally based on past judicial declarations. The Jamaican Constitution provides for an independent judiciary with a three-tier court structure. A party seeking to enforce ownership or contractual rights can file a claim in the Resident Magistrate or Supreme Court. Appeals on decisions made in these courts can be taken before the Court of Appeal and then to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), in its original jurisdiction, is the court of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), but Jamaica has not signed on to its appellate jurisdiction.Jamaica does not have a single written commercial or contractual law and case law is therefore supplemented by the following pieces of legislation: (1) Arbitration (Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Awards) Act; (2) Companies Act; (3) Consumer Protection Act; (4) Fair Competition Act; (5) Investment Disputes Awards (Enforcement) Act; (6) Judgment (Foreign) (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act; (7) Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Act; (8) Loans (Equity Investment Bonds) Act; (9) Partnership (Limited) Act; (10) Registration of Business Names Act; (11) Sale of Goods Act; (12) Standards Act; and, (13) Trade Act. The commercial and civil divisions of the Supreme Court have jurisdiction to hear intellectual property claims.

Jamaica enforces the judgments of foreign courts through: (1) The Judgment and Awards (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act; (2) The Judgment (Foreign) (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act; and, (3) The Maintenance Orders (Facilities for Enforcement) Act. Under these acts, judgments of foreign courts are accepted where there is a reciprocal enforcement of judgment treaty with the relevant foreign state. International arbitration is also accepted as a means for settling investment disputes between private parties.

The Jamaican judicial system has a long tradition of being fair, but court cases can take years or even decades to resolve. A new Chief Justice appointed in 2018 has set aggressive benchmarks to streamline the delivery of judgments, bring greater levels of efficiency to court administration, and target throughput rates in line with international best practice. Efforts are currently underway to provide hearing date certainty and disposition of cases within 24 months, barring exceptional circumstances. The deployment of new courtrooms and the appointment of additional Appeal Court Judges are indicators of Jamaica’s commitment to justice reform.

Challenges with dispute resolution usually reflect broader problems within the court system, including long delays and resource constraints. Subsequent enforcement of court decisions or arbitration awards is usually adequate, and the local court will recognize the enforcement of an international arbitration award.

A specialized Commercial Court was established in 2001 to expedite the resolution of commercial cases. The rules do not make it mandatory for commercial cases to be filed in the Commercial Court and the Court is largely underutilized by litigants.

Jamaica ranked 119 in the 2019 World Bank Doing Business Report on the metric of enforcement of contracts, scoring 64.8 in the length of time taken for enforcement, 43.6 for costs associated with litigation and 52.8 on the quality of judicial processes.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

There are no specific laws or regulations specifically related to foreign investment. Since foreign companies are treated similar to Jamaican companies when investing, the relevant sections of the applicable laws are applied equally.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The Fair Trading Commission (FTC), an agency of the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, administers the Fair Competition Act (FCA). The major objective of the FCA is to foster competitive behavior and provide consumer protection. The Act proscribes the following anti-competitive practices: resale price maintenance; tied selling; price fixing; collusion and cartels; and bid rigging. The Act does not specifically prohibit mergers or acquisitions that could lead to the creation of a monopoly. The FTC is empowered to investigate breaches of the Act and businesses or individuals in breach can be taken to court if they fail to implement corrective measures outlined by the FTC.

Expropriation and Compensation

Expropriation is generally not an issue in Jamaica, although land may be expropriated for national development under the Land Acquisition Act, which provides for compensation on the basis of market value. The U.S. government is not aware of any current expropriation-related litigation between the Jamaican government and any private individual or company. However, the U.S. government assisted investors who had property expropriated during the 1970’s socialist regime, with a payment in one such case received in 2010.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Jamaica became a signatory to the International Center for Settlement of Disputes (ICSID) in 1965. The country is a signatory to the New York Convention (the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards), which governs the recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitration awards. The Jamaican Arbitration (Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Awards) Act enables foreign arbitral awards under the New York Convention to be enforced in Jamaica.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

International arbitration is also accepted as a means for settling investment disputes between private parties. Jamaica enforces the judgments of foreign courts through: (1) The Judgment and Awards (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act; (2) The Judgment (Foreign) (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act; and, (3) The Maintenance Orders (Facilities for Enforcement) Act. Under these acts, judgments of foreign courts are accepted where there is a reciprocal enforcement of judgment treaty with the relevant foreign state. Jamaica does not have a history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Jamaica accepts international arbitration of investment disputes between foreign investors, the Jamaican government, and private parties. Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards. The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) serves as the region’s international tribunal for disputes within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Single Market and Economy. The Dispute Resolution Foundation and the Caribbean Branch of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators both facilitate arbitration and rules of the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). Other foreign investors are given national treatment and civil procedures apply. Disputes between enterprises are handled in the local courts but foreign investors can refer cases to ICSID. There were cases of trademark infringements in which U.S. firms took action and were granted restitution in the local courts. While restitution is slow, it tends to be fair and transparent. The U.S. government is not aware of any cases in which State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have been involved in investment disputes.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Jamaica enacted new insolvency legislation in 2014 that replaced the Bankruptcy Act of 1880 and seeks to make the insolvency process more efficient. The Act prescribes the circumstances under which bankruptcy is committed; the procedure for filing a bankruptcy petition; and the procedures to be followed in the administration of the estates of bankrupts. The reform addresses bankruptcy; insolvency, receiverships; provisional supervision; and winding up proceedings. The law addresses corporate and individual insolvency and facilitates the rehabilitation of insolvent debtors, while removing the stigma formerly associated with either form of insolvency. Both insolvents and “looming insolvents” (persons who will become insolvent within twelve months of the filing of the proposal if corrective or preventative action is not taken) are addressed in the reforms.

The Act contains a provision for debtors to make a proposal to their creditors for the restructuring of debts, subject to acceptance by the creditor. Creditors can also invoke bankruptcy proceedings against the debtor if the amount owed is not less than the prescribed threshold or if the debtor has committed an act of bankruptcy. The filing of a proposal or notice of intention to file a proposal creates a temporary stay of proceedings. During this period, the creditor is precluded from enforcing claims against the debtor. The stay does not apply to secured creditors who take possession of secured assets before the proposal is filed; gives notice of intention to enforce against a security at least 10 days before the notice of intention or actual proposal is filed; or, rejects the proposal. The 2014 legislation makes it a criminal offence if a bankrupt entity defaults on certain obligations set out in the legislation.Jamaica ranked 34 on Resolving Insolvency in the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Bankruptcy proceedings take about a year to resolve, costing 18 percent of the estate value with an average recovery rate of 65 percent.The text of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act can be found at: http://www.japarliament.gov.jm/attachments/341_The%20Insolvency%20Act%202014%20No.14%20rotated.pdf

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The Fiscal Incentives (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 2013 repeals most of the legacy incentive legislation and provides flexibility for new tax incentives only to be granted in relation to the bauxite sector, special economic zone activities, the relocation of corporate headquarters, and Junior Stock Exchange listings. The Act also outlines the arrangement for transitioning to the new regime. Continuing beneficiaries may elect to keep old incentives such as relief from income tax and customs duty as well as zero-rated General Consumption Tax (GCT) status for imports.

Below are short descriptions of notable, recently enacted investment incentives.

Omnibus legislation – Provides tax relief on customs duties, additional stamp duties, and corporate income tax. These benefits are granted under the following four areas: (1) The Fiscal Incentives Act: Targets small and medium size businesses and reduces the effective corporate income tax rate by applying: (a) an Employment Tax Credit (ETC) at a maximum value of 30 percent; and (b) a capital allowance applicable to a broadened definition of industrial buildings.

(1) The Fiscal Incentives Act: Targets small and medium size businesses and reduces the effective corporate income tax rate by applying: (a) an Employment Tax Credit (ETC) at a maximum value of 30 percent; and (b) a capital allowance applicable to a broadened definition of industrial buildings. (2) The Income Tax Relief (Large-Scale Projects and Pioneer Industries) Act: Targets large-scale projects and/or pioneering projects and provides for an improved and more attractive rate for the ETC. Projects will be designated either as large-scale or pioneer based on a decision by Parliament and subject to an Economic Impact Assessment.

(2) The Income Tax Relief (Large-Scale Projects and Pioneer Industries) Act: Targets large-scale projects and/or pioneering projects and provides for an improved and more attractive rate for the ETC. Projects will be designated either as large-scale or pioneer based on a decision by Parliament and subject to an Economic Impact Assessment. (3) Revised Customs Tariff: Provides for the duty-free importation of capital equipment and raw material for the productive sectors.

(3) Revised Customs Tariff: Provides for the duty-free importation of capital equipment and raw material for the productive sectors. (4) Revised Stamp Duty Act: Provides exemption from additional stamp duty on raw materials and non-consumer goods for the manufacturing sector.

(4) Revised Stamp Duty Act: Provides exemption from additional stamp duty on raw materials and non-consumer goods for the manufacturing sector.

Urban Renewal Act: Companies that undertake development within Special Development Areas can benefit from Urban Renewal Bonds, a 33.3 percent investment tax credit, tax-free rental income, and the exemption from transfer tax and stamp duties on the ‘improved’ value of the property.

Bauxite and Alumina Act: Under this Act, bauxite/alumina producers are allowed to import all productive inputs free of duties, Value Added Tax (VAT), and other port related taxes and charges.

The Foreign Sales Corporation Act: This Act exempts income tax for five years for qualified income arising from foreign trade. U.S. law through the Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA) reinforces this incentive.

Jamaica’s EX-IM Bank provides concessionary interest rate loans for trade financing, while the Development Bank of Jamaica offers reduced lending rates to the productive sectors. Special tax incentives exist for companies that register on the Junior Stock Exchange.

Income Tax Act (Junior Stock Exchange): As of January 1, 2014, companies listed on the Junior Stock Exchange are not required to pay income tax during the first five years and 50 percent for the next five years.

Special Economic Zone Act: In 2015, Jamaica passed legislation establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The SEZ Act repeals the Jamaica Free Zone Act, making way for: (1) the designation; promotion; development; operation; and, management of Special Economic Zones; (2) the establishment of a SEZ Authority; and, (3) the granting of benefits and other measures in order to attract domestic and foreign investments.

Productive inputs relief (PIR): There is relief from customs duty and additional stamp duty on the importation of certain ‘productive inputs’ that are directly used in the ‘production of primary products’ or the ‘manufacture of goods’. In addition to the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, relief is also granted on certain products imported for use in the tourism, creative arts, and healthcare industries.

Research and Development

Foreign firms are allowed to participate in GOJ-financed or subsidized research and development, however, few opportunities exist for such programs.

Government Guarantee and Private-Public Partnership

The GOJ, through the PDMA of 2012, reduced the tendency of government to provide sovereign guarantees on loans, which often had to be converted into public debt. The debt reduction imperatives built into successive IMF programs further stymied this propensity.

The GOJ, however, continues to actively encourage FDI utilizing the Public-Private Partnership (PPP or P3) model, to attract private financing. Jamaica has successfully implemented a number of PPP projects to include the divestiture of the Kingston Freeport Terminal, the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, and Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. Jamaica seeks to expedite the divestment of government assets through PPPs and public listings in order to drive private capital to otherwise stagnant government assets.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

As at March 2020 there were 183 entities operating in Jamaica’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ),occupying over 26.6 million square feet. Operations in Jamaica’s SEZs include business process outsourcing (BPO); warehousing and distribution; manufacturing; and assembly and production facilities. The Jamaica Special Economic Zone Authority ( www.jseza.com ) regulates, supervises, and promotes SEZs. .

SEZ operators benefit from a 12.5 percent corporate income tax rate (effective rate may be as low as 7.5 percent with the approval of additional tax credits); customs duty relief, General Consumption Tax (GCT) relief; employment tax credit; promotional tax credit on research and development; capital allowance; and a stamp duty payable of 50 percent. Developers receive these benefits plus relief from income tax on rental income and relief from transfer tax. There is a non-refundable one-time registration fee and renewable annual fee to enter the regime. Duty-free zones are primarily found in airports, hotels, and tourist centers and, as with special economic zone activities, do not discriminate on the basis of nationality.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Private entities, whether foreign or domestic, generally have the right to freely establish, own, acquire, and dispose of business enterprises and may engage in all forms of remunerative activity.

Real Property

Property rights are guaranteed by the Jamaican Constitution. The Registration of Titles Act recognizes and provides for the enforcement of secured interests in property by way of mortgage. It also facilitates and protects the acquisition and disposition of all property rights, though some report that working through Jamaica’s bureaucracy can result in significant delays. With less than half of land in Jamaica registered, it can take a long time for landowners to secure titles.

Squatting is also a major challenge in Jamaica, with nearly 20 percent of the population living as squatters. Three-quarters of these squatters reside on government lands. Under the Registration of Titles Act, a squatter can claim a property by adverse possession (without compensating the owner for the land) if a person can demonstrate that he or she has lived on government land for more than 60 years, or on private property for more than 12 years undisturbed (including without any payment to the landowner). There are no specific regulations regarding land lease or acquisition by foreign and/or non-resident investors.

The country’s World Bank Doing Business Report ranking for ease of “registering property” was 85 in 2020, improving significantly due to the reduction in cost associated with transferring and registering collateral using property. Jamaica continued to outperform other Latin America and Caribbean countries in the time required to close a property transaction.

Registration of Titles Act: http://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Registration%20of%20Titles.pdf

Intellectual Property Rights

Jamaica has one of the stronger intellectual property (IP) protection regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the International Property Rights Index, although legislative and enforcement gaps still exist. Jamaica is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and is a signatory of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Jamaica and the United States have an Intellectual Property Rights Agreement and a Bilateral Investment Treaty, which provide assurances to protect intellectual property. It is relatively easy to register IP, and the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) assists parties interested in registering IP and supports investors’ efforts to enforce their rights. Overall, protections across all types of IP are improving.

Law enforcement efforts to combat counterfeit and pirated goods are improving on the ground but border enforcement remains a challenge. IP violations tend to be more in relation to physical goods, while electronic IP theft is less common.

The country’s trademark and copyright regimes satisfy the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). In January 2020, the country passed its long-awaited TRIPS compliant Patent and Designs Bill and has been removed from the USTR Special 301 Watchlist. The Geographical Indications Act (GI) of 2004 is now fully in force and TRIPS compliant, protecting products whose particular quality or reputation is attributable to its geographical origin. General law provides protection for trade secrets and protection against unfair competition is guaranteed under the Fair Competition Act.

In the area of copyright protection, amendments to the Copyright Act passed in June 2015 fulfilled Jamaica’s obligations under the WIPO Internet Treaties and extended copyright protection term from 50 to 95 years. The Copyright Act complies with the TRIPS Agreement and adheres to the principles of the Berne Convention, and it covers works ranging from books and music to computer programs. Amendments in June 1999 explicitly provided copyright protection on compilations of works such as databases and make it an offense for a person to manufacture or trade in decoders of encrypted transmissions. It also gives persons in encrypted transmissions or in broadcasting or cable program services a right of action against persons who infringe upon their rights.

Enforcement

The Jamaica Constabulary Force established a specialized intellectual property unit within its counter terrorism and organized crime branch (C-TOC) in 2015 to boost IP enforcement. The unit continued to work with the Contraband Enforcement Team of the Jamaica Customs Agency to seize and destroy counterfeit goods, while pursing criminal proceedings where possible. In 2020, CTOC destroyed USD1.3 million in counterfeit goods. The amount was lower than previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of storage space. The most commonly counterfeited goods include shoes, alcohol, cigarettes, clothing, handbags, and pharmaceuticals. Jamaica’s border enforcement efforts are hampered by customs officers not having ex officio authority to seize and destroy counterfeit goods. Rights holders must first be provided with visual samples of suspect merchandise to verify the item as counterfeit, submit a declaration indicating the differences between the fake and actual brands, and provide an authorization to seize the merchandise.  Rights holders are responsible for paying the costs associated with storage and destruction of counterfeit goods, and in recent cases the cost started at USD250,000. Presently the Commissioner of Customs may grant up to 10 days for a rights holder to produce the required evidence and commitments before releasing suspected counterfeit goods that are in transit.

Jamaica is not included in the U.S. Trade Representative’s 2021 Special 301 Report or its 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Credit is available at market terms, and foreigners are allowed to borrow freely on the local market at market-determined rates of interest. A relatively effective regulatory system was established to encourage and facilitate portfolio investment. Jamaica has had its own stock exchange, the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE), since 1969. The JSE was the top performing capital market indices in 2018 and was among the top five performers in 2019. The Financial Services Commission (FSC) and the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ), the central bank, regulate these activities. Jamaica adheres to IMF Article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.

Money and Banking System

At the end of 2019 there were 11 deposit-taking institutions (DTIs) consisting of eight commercial banks, one merchant bank (Licensed under the Financial Institutions Act) and two building societies. The number of credit unions shrank from 47 at the end of 2009 to 25 at the end of 2019. Commercial banks held assets of approximately USD13 billion and liabilities of USD11.3 billion at the end of 2020. Non-performing loans (NPL) of USD185 million at end December 2020, were 2.9 percent of total loans. Five of the country’s eight commercial banks are foreign-owned. After a financial sector crisis in the mid-1990s led to consolidations, the sector has remained largely stable.

In October 2018, the GOJ took legislative steps to modernize and make the central bank operationally independent through the tabling of amendments to the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) Act. The modernization program includes, inter alia, the institutionalization of the central bank independence, improved governance, and the transitioning of monetary policy towards inflation targeting. The modernization efforts continued in 2020 with the passage of the Bank of Jamaica Amendment Act to allow for, among other things: (1) full-fledged inflation targeting; (2) improved capitalization, governance, transparency, and accountability; (3) monetary policy decisions to be devolved to a monetary policy committee; and (4) the central bank Governor to account to Parliament. The Act will therefore remove the power of the government to give monetary policy direction to the central bank. These changes will move Jamaica’s financial governance framework closer in line with international standards.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no restrictions on holding funds or on converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment. In 2017, the BOJ implemented a new system called the BOJ Foreign Exchange Intervention & Trading Tool (B-FXITT) for the sale and purchase of foreign exchange (FX) to market players. The new system is a more efficient and transparent way of intervening in the FX market to smooth out demand and supply conditions.

Investment-related funds are freely convertible to regularly traded currencies, particularly into United States, Canadian dollars and United Kingdom pounds. However, foreign exchange transactions must be conducted through authorized foreign exchange dealers, “cambios,” and bureau de change. Foreign exchange is generally available and investors are free to remit their investment returns.

Remittance Policies

The country’s financial system is fully liberalized and subject to market conditions. There is no required waiting period for the remittance of investment returns. Any person or company can purchase instruments denominated in foreign currency. There are no restrictions or limitations on the inflow or outflow of funds for the remittance of profits or revenue. The country does not possess the financial muscle to engage in currency manipulation.

Jamaica was listed among the Major Money Laundering Jurisdictions in the U.S. Department of State’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), while noting that the GoJ has enacted legislation to address corruption.

In February 2020, Jamaica was grey listed by the Financial Action Task Force, for failing to address some of the deficiencies identified in the 2017 Caribbean Financial Action Task Force Mutual Evaluation Report (MER) on anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures ( https://www.cfatf-gafic.org/index.php/documents/4th-round-meval-reports ).

Having entered an Observation Period following the 2017 publication of the MER, Jamaica’s progression towards remedying partially and non-compliant areas was slow. GoJ has developed a FAFT action plan which includes developing a broader understanding of its money laundering/terrorist financing risk and including all financial institutions and designated non-financial businesses and professions in the AML/CFT regime, and ensuring adequate risk-based supervision in all sectors.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Jamaica does not have a sovereign wealth fund or an asset management bureau.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Jamaican SOEs are most active in the agriculture, mining, energy, and transport sectors of the economy. Of 148 public bodies, 55 are self-financing and are therefore considered SOEs as either limited liability entities established under the Companies Act of Jamaica or statutory bodies created by individual enabling legislation. SOEs generally do not receive preferential access to government contracts. SOEs must adhere to the provisions of the GOJ (Revised) Handbook of Public Sector Procurement Procedures and are expected to participate in a bidding process to provide goods and services to the government. SOEs also provide services to private sector firms. SOEs must report quarterly on all contracts above a prescribed limit to the Integrity Commission. Since 2002, SOEs have been subject to the same tax requirements as private enterprises and are required to purchase government-owned land and raw material and execute these transactions on similar terms as private entities.

Jamaica’s Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act (PBMA) requires SOEs to prepare annual corporate plans and budgets, which must be debated and approved by Parliament. As part of the GOJ’s economic reform agenda, SOE performance is monitored against agreed targets and goals, with oversight provided by stakeholders including representatives of civil society. The GOJ prioritized divestment of SOEs, particularly the most inefficient, as part of its IMF reform commitments. Private firms compete with SOEs on fair terms and SOEs generally lack the same profitability motives as private enterprises, leading to the GOJ’s absorbing the debt of loss-making public sector enterprises.

Jamaica’s public bodies report to their respective Board of Directors appointed by the responsible portfolio minister and while no general rules guide the allocation of SOE board positions, some entities allocate seats to specific stakeholders. In 2012, the GOJ approved a Corporate Governance Framework (CGF) under which persons appointed to boards should possess the skills and competencies required for the effective functioning of the entity. With some board members being selected on the basis of their political affiliation, the government is in the process of developing new board policy guidelines. The Jamaican court system, while slow, is respected for being fair and balanced and in many cases has ruled against the GOJ and its agents.

Privatization Program

As part of its economic reform program, the GOJ identified a number of public assets to be privatized from various sectors. Jamaica actively courts foreign investors as part of its divestment strategy. In certain instances, the government encourages local participation. Restrictions may be placed on certain assets due to national security considerations. Privatization can occur through sale, lease, or concession. Transactions are generally executed through public tenders but the GOJ reserves the right to accept unsolicited proposals for projects deemed to be strategic. The Development Bank of Jamaica, which oversees the privatization program, is mandated to ensure that the process is fair and transparent. When some entities are being privatized, advertisements are placed locally and through international publications, such as the Financial Times, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, to attract foreign investors. Foreign investors won most of the privatization bids in the last decade.

While the time taken to divest assets depends on state of readiness and complexity, on average transactions take between 18 and 24 months. The process involves pre-feasibility and due diligence assessments; feasibility studies; pre-qualification of bidders; and a public tender. In 2019 the GOJ divested two of its major assets through initial public offerings (IPOs): a 62-megawatt wind farm, which raised almost USD40 million, and a toll highway, which raised almost USD90 million. In 2018, the GOJ signed a 25-year concession for the management and development of the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. Other large privatizations include the 2003 privatization of Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay and the 2015 privatization of the Kingston Container Terminal port facility.

List of current privatization transactions can be found at http://dbankjm.com/current-transactions/ 

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) among many Jamaican companies is a developing practice, with more established companies further along the scale. In 2013, the government provided additional financial incentives for corporations to support charity work through the Charities Act, under which corporations and individuals can claim a tax deduction on contributions made to registered charitable organizations. Some large publicly listed companies and multinational corporations in Jamaica maintain their own foundations that carry out social and community projects to support education, youth employment, and entrepreneurship.

In 2018, the GOJ became party to the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Multilateral Convention, which updates the network of bilateral tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises. GOJ also became signatory to the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, effective March 1, 2019, having deposited instruments of ratification in November 2018.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Jamaican law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, however, there is at least circumstantial evidence that some officials engage in corrupt practice. There were also reports of government corruption in 2020 and it remained a significant cause of public concern. Media and civil society organizations continued to criticize the government for being slow and at times reluctant to tackle corruption.

Under the Corruption Prevention Act, public servants can be imprisoned for up to 10 years and fined as much as USD 100,000 if found guilty of engaging in acts of bribery, including bribes to foreign public officials.

In 2017, Jamaica passed an Integrity Commission Act that consolidated three agencies with anti-corruption mandates into a single entity, the Integrity Commission, which now has limited prosecutorial powers.  The three agencies are the precursor Integrity Commission, which received and monitored statutory declarations from parliamentarians; the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), which monitored government contracts; and the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, which received the financial filings of specified public servants. A key area of concern for corruption is in government procurement. However, successful prosecutions – particularly for high-level corruption – are rare.

Two Ministers of government demitted office between 2018 and March 2019, in the wake of corruption allegations.

Corruption, and its apparent linkages with organized crime, appear to be one of the root causes of Jamaica’s high crime rate and economic stagnation.  In 2020, Transparency International gave Jamaica a score of 44 out of a possible 100 on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI).

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery

Jamaica ratified major international corruption instruments, including the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Jamaica is not party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

Resources to Report Corruption

Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA)
24hr Hotline: 1-800-CORRUPT (1-800-267-7878)
Email: info@moca.gov.jm 

National Integrity Action
2 Holborn Road
Kingston 10, Jamaica
Phone: 1 876 906 4371/ Fax: 876-754-7951
Email: info@niajamaica.org 

10. Political and Security Environment

Crime poses a greater threat to foreign investment in Jamaica than political violence, as the country has not experienced any major political violence since the early 1980s. Violent crime, rooted in poverty, unemployment, and transnational criminal organizations, is a serious problem in Jamaica. Sporadic gang violence and shootings are concentrated in specific inner-city neighborhoods, but can occur elsewhere. There were 1,301 murders in Jamaica in 2020, giving the island a homicide rate of 46.5 per 100,000, marginally lower than 2019’s rate of 47.4. Jamaica had the highest homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2020. Jamaica also faces a significant problem with extortion in certain urban commercial areas and on large construction project sites. The security challenges increase the cost of doing business as companies spend on additional security measures.

The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory (at February 2021) assesses Jamaica at Level 3, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution. U.S. companies with personnel assigned to Jamaica are strongly advised to conduct security and cultural awareness training.

Please refer to the Jamaica 2019 Crime and Safety Report from the Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) for additional information ( https://www.osac.gov/Country/Jamaica/Detail ).

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Jamaica had an estimated labor force of 1.3 million as of October 2020 with an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent. Women make up 45.7 percent of the labor force and have an unemployment rate of 13 percent. Unemployment is highest within the 14-19 age cohort. Most Jamaicans are employed in services including the retail and tourism sectors, followed by construction, transportation, and communications. Since 1999, more Jamaicans have become trained in information technology and the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry currently employs more than 40,000 people.

No law requires hiring locals, but foreign investors are expected to hire locals, especially for unskilled and lower skilled jobs. Under the Work Permit Act, a foreign national who wishes to work in Jamaica must first apply for a permit issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. The law, which seeks to give first preference to Jamaicans, requires organizations planning to employ foreign nationals to prove that attempts were made to employ a Jamaican national.

The security guard industry adopted the practice of employing workers on extended contracts to avoid some of the cost, including severance, associated with direct employment. Jamaica does not have a history of waiving labor laws to retain or attract investment and these laws tend to be uniform across the economy.

There are no restrictions on employers adjusting employment to respond to market conditions, but there are severance payment requirements if a position is made redundant. Under the law, there is a distinction between a layoff and a redundancy. A layoff allows a temporary period without employment for up to four months. The Employment (Termination and Redundancy Payments) Act provides redundancy pay to employees who are let go with at least two years of continuous employment. There are no unemployment benefits in Jamaica but low-income Jamaicans have the option of applying for social benefits under a conditional cash transfer program referred to as the Program for Advancement though Health and Education (PATH).

The law provides for the rights of workers to form or join unions, to bargain collectively, and the freedom to strike. Trade union membership accounts for about 20 percent of the labor force, although the movement has weakened in recent years. The law prohibits anti-union discrimination, although it is not uncommon for private sector employers to lay off union workers and rehire them as contractors. Labor law entitles protections to all persons categorized as workers, although it denies contract workers coverage under certain statutory provisions, such as redundancy benefits. The law denies collective bargaining if no single union represents at least 40 percent of the workers in the unit. Unionization is limited in Jamaica’s free zones.

Jamaica has an Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) to which the Minister of Labor and Social Security may refer disputes unsettled at the local level.

Jamaica ratified most International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions and international labor rights are recognized within domestic law. Jamaica has ratified all key international conventions concerning child labor and established laws and regulations related to child labor, including in its worst forms. However, gaps still exist in Jamaica’s legal framework to adequately protect children from child labor. The GOJ is under-resourced for investigations on worker abuse as well as on occupational safety and health checks.

Jamaica’s workplace policy incorporates all of the recommended practices of the ILO code of practice on HIV/AIDS but the legislation to regulate enforcement is yet to be ratified. In conjunction with the ILO and local stakeholders, the GOJ passed legislation guiding flexible working arrangements. 12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment  Insurance and Development Finance Programs

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment  Insurance and Development Finance Programs  

The U.S. International Development Corporation (DFC) created by the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act of 2018, consolidates the activities of OPIC and the Development Credit Authority. The new institution has been better capitalized (USD 60 billion) to help U.S. businesses invest in, especially infrastructure projects in developing countries. OPIC had financed many projects in Jamaica and recently provided financing and political risk insurance for two large renewable energy projects, as well as a grid upgrade project for the monopoly power utility. Jamaica is a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA). 13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

 

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019* USD15.23B 2019 USD16.46B www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2017 N/A 2017 USD167 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A N/A N/A BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2018 25.7% UNCTAD data available at

https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/World%20Investment%20Report/Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx  

* Source for Host Country Data: Statistical Institute of Jamaica https://statinja.gov.jm/NationalAccounting/Annual/NewAnnualGDP.aspx 

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward Amount 100% Total Outward Amount 100%
USA 39.5 5.9 N/A
Spain 182.0.0 27.4
China   220.0  33.1
Canada   30.0   4.5
Other 191.4 -29.1

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

Investors should be extremely cautious about investing in Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government. Almost three years have passed since the 2018 political-economic crisis left over 300 peaceful protesters killed, 2,000 protestors injured, and over 100,000 Nicaraguans displaced and seeking asylum outside of Nicaragua. The Ortega regime continues to suspend constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, detain political prisoners, and disregard the rule of law, creating an unpredictable investment climate rife with reputational risk and arbitrary regulation. Presidential elections are scheduled for November 2021. Failure to restore civil liberties and guarantee free and fair elections could spark renewed unrest and lead to the further isolation of the Ortega regime.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Nicaragua’s economy contracted 3.8 percent in 2018, 5.8 percent in 2019, and an estimated 3.5 percent in 2020. The World Bank expects the economy to grow 0.9 percent in 2021 as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, less than the 2.5-3.5 percent forecast by the Nicaraguan Central Bank.

In 2020, the Ortega–controlled National Assembly approved six additional repressive laws that should alarm investors. Some of the most concerning laws include a “gag” law that criminalizes political speech; a “foreign agents law” that requires organizations and individuals to report foreign assistance and prevents any person receiving foreign funding from running for office; and a “consumer protection law” that could prevent financial institutions from making independent decisions on whether to service financial clients, including sanctioned entities. Tax authorities have seized properties following reportedly arbitrary tax bills and jailed individuals without due process until taxes were negotiated and paid. Furthermore, arbitrary fines and customs inspections prejudice foreign companies that import products.

The COVID-19 global pandemic impacted Nicaragua’s economy, upsetting tourism and investment. The government’s attempts to conceal the scope of the pandemic, including the number of new cases and deaths, may have hurt consumer and investor confidence. Inflation increased another 3 percent after rising 6.1 percent in 2019, and the number of Nicaraguans insured through social security, a measure of the robustness of the formal economy, fell 19 percent since March 2018. These conditions pose significant challenges for doing business in Nicaragua. Credit largely disappeared in early 2019 before starting to return later in the year and in 2020. The government’s 2019 tax reforms continue to hurt business profit margins and raise consumer prices. Most international organizations ended their assistance to the government due to human rights concerns, with the exception of some humanitarian assistance related to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricanes Eta and Iota.

Nicaragua’s economy still has significant potential for growth if institutional and rule of law challenges can be overcome and investor confidence can be restored. Its assets include: ample natural resources; a well-developed agricultural sector; a highly organized and sophisticated private sector committed to a free economy; ready access to major shipping lanes; and a young, low-cost labor force that supports a vibrant manufacturing sector. The United States is Nicaragua’s largest trading partner—it is the source of roughly one quarter of Nicaragua’s imports, and the destination of approximately two-thirds of Nicaragua’s exports.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 159 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 142 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/data/
exploreeconomies/nicaragua
Global Innovation Index N/A N/A https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) N/A N/A https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita N/A N/A http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

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.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

Nicaragua has signed and ratified bilateral investment treaties with Argentina, Belgium, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the Russian Federation, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Nicaragua also has treaties with investment provisions with Chile, Mexico, Panama, Taiwan, South Korea, and CAFTA-DR member states as part of free trade agreements.

Nicaragua does not have a bilateral income tax treaty with the United States or any other country. Tax authorities increased audits of foreign investors in 2017. During the political crisis, these audits became more aggressive and threatening, including reports of seven different government entities conducting audits on the same day, increased scope of audits (e.g., requesting seven years of documents instead of the usual practice of two years), and increased fines. Companies that participated in work stoppages organized by opposition leaders reported audits immediately following the work stoppages.

These audits nearly always result in findings that additional taxes are owed. The new tax bills are often accompanied by fines equal to the amount of taxes purportedly owed. These fines appear to lack a legal basis. The government has seized private property and jailed individuals for failure to pay these tax bills and fines, often while legal proceedings are still ongoing. These tax issues have impacted U.S. companies or companies owned by U.S. citizens.

The government’s tax reforms passed on February 27, 2019, continues to prejudice importers and U.S. businesses. The tax reforms tripled the alternative minimum tax rate from 1 to 3 percent for companies earning more than five million dollars in gross annual revenue, and it doubled (to 2 percent) the tax for businesses with incomes between $1.9 and five million dollars in gross revenue. The law also increased the selective consumption tax for many items. The selective consumption tax disadvantages importers because customs authorities charge the tax on imported goods at the border based on erroneous valuations that can triple the declared value of the goods. Domestic producers only pay the selective consumption tax at the actual point of sale. The government promised revisions to the reform after an observation period of 90 days, but as of April 2021—more than two years after the reform was implement—still has not proposed revisions. The reforms, combined with increases in employer contributions to social security, have narrowed profit margins and increased consumer prices.

Several large companies, including some U.S. companies and franchises, are involved in tax disputes with the government. The government is assessing income taxes based on gross revenue rather than net profit as provided by law. This new tax calculation imposed by the government could force the closure of these companies.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The government does not have transparent policies to establish clear “rules of the game.” Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems exist but implementation is opaque. The government does not foster competition on a non-discriminatory basis. In fact, the Ortega regime maintains direct control over various sectors of the economy to enrich its inner circle. Ortega also controls the judicial system and there is no expectation of fair and objective rulings. Investors regularly complain that regulatory authorities are arbitrary, negligent, or slow to apply existing laws, at times in an apparent effort to favor one competitor over another.

The executive branch retains ultimate rule-making and regulatory authority. In practice, the relevant government agency is empowered to levy fines directly. In some instances, the prosecutor’s office may also bring enforcement actions. These actions are widely perceived to be controlled by the executive branch and are neither objective nor transparent.

NGOs and private sector associations do not manage informal regulatory processes. There have not been recent regulatory or enforcement reforms.

There is no accountancy law in Nicaragua. International accounting standards are not a focus for most of the economy, but major businesses typically use IFRS standards or U.S. GAAP. The national banking authority officially requires loans to be submitted using IFRS standards.

Draft legislation is ostensibly made available for public comment through meetings with associations that will be affected by the proposed regulations. Drafts are commonly not published on official websites or available to the public. The legislature is not required by law to give notice. The executive branch proposes most investment legislation; the Sandinista party has a supermajority in the National Assembly and seldom modifies such legislation.

Nicaragua publishes regulatory actions in La Gaceta, the official journal of government actions, including official summaries and the full text of all legislation. La Gaceta is available online. There are no effective oversight or enforcement mechanisms to ensure the government follows administrative processes.

Public finances and debt obligations are not transparent. The Central Bank has increasingly refused to publish key economic data starting in 2018, including public finances and debt obligations. The Central Bank published limited data in 2020 as a condition of funding from the International Monetary Fund. There is no accountability or oversight.

International Regulatory Considerations

All CAFTA-DR provisions are fully incorporated into Nicaragua’s national regulatory system. However, authorities willingly flout the national regulatory system, and investors claim that some customs practices violate CAFTA-DR provisions.

Nicaragua is a signatory to the Trade Facilitation Agreement and reported in July 2018 that it had implemented 81 percent of its commitments to date; however, Nicaragua’s trade facilitation progress remains beset with bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and lack of transparency. Nicaragua is a member of the WTO and notifies the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade of draft technical regulations.

In 2020 the government passed amendments to the “Consumer Protection Law” to treat financial services as a basic good and forbid commercial banks operating in Nicaragua from refusing financial services without a reason recognized in Nicaraguan law. If implemented, this provision could threaten commercial banks’ capacity to enforce international anti-money laundering compliance measure, avoid criminal or suspicious transactions, or meet their contractual or other legal obligations to implement international sanctions laws.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Nicaragua is a civil law country in which legislation is the primary source of law. The legislative process is found in Articles 140 to 143 of the Constitution. However, implementation and enforcement of these laws is neither objective nor transparent. Contracts are ostensibly legally enforced through the judicial system, but extrajudicial factors are more likely to influence rulings than the facts at issue. The legal system is weak and cumbersome. Nicaragua has a Commercial Code, but it is outdated and rarely used. There are no specialized courts.

Members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, are widely believed to be corrupt and subject to significant political pressure, especially from the executive branch. The judicial process is neither competent, fair, nor reliable. Regulations and enforcement actions are technically subject to judicial review, but appeals procedures are neither transparent nor objective.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Nicaragua has laws that relate to foreign investment but implementation, enforcement, and interpretation are subject to corruption and political pressure. The CAFTA-DR Investment Chapter ostensibly establishes a secure, predictable legal framework for U.S. investors in Central America and the Dominican Republic. The agreement provides six basic protections: (1) nondiscriminatory treatment relative to domestic investors and investors from third countries; (2) limits on performance requirements; (3) the free transfer of funds related to an investment; (4) protection from expropriation other than in conformity with customary international law; (5) a minimum standard of treatment in conformity with customary international law; and (6) the ability to hire key managerial personnel without regard to nationality. The full text of CAFTA-DR is available at http://www.ustr.gov/trade-agreements/free-trade-agreements/cafta-dr-dominican-republic-central-america-fta/final-text .

Nicaragua’s Foreign Investment Law (2000/344) defines the legal framework for foreign investment. It permits 100 percent foreign ownership in most industries. (See Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment for exceptions.) It also establishes national treatment for investors, guarantees foreign exchange conversion and profit repatriation, clarifies foreigners’ access to local financing, and reaffirms respect for private property.

MIFIC maintains an information portal regarding applicable laws and regulations for trade and investment at http://www.tramitesnicaragua.gob.ni , which includes detailed information on administrative procedures for investment and income generating operations such as the number of steps, contact information for relevant entities, required documents costs, processing time, and applicable laws. The site is available only in Spanish.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

The Institute for the Promotion of Competition (Procompetencia) investigates and disciplines businesses engaged in anticompetitive business practices but has no effective power. The Ortega regime controls decisions regarding competition.

Expropriation and Compensation

There is a long history of expropriations in Nicaragua and existing cases of the government expropriating property regardless of legal basis. As a result, considerable uncertainty remains in securing property rights (see Protection of Property Rights).

During the ongoing crisis, multiple landowners reported land invasions by government-affiliated actors. Landowners were sometimes able to resolve these invasions through government connections or bribes. In instances where the government actually claimed legal right to the land, offers of compensation—if any—are calculated on cadastral value, which vastly underestimates the actual value of the land. Ortega declared on numerous occasions that the government would not act to evict those who had illegally taken possession of private property.

There is generally no credible due process for land expropriations. Conflicting land title claims are abundant and judicial appeal in these cases is very challenging. Since 2018, the government has used proxies and its control over the judicial and executive branches to use land seizures to punish opposition actors and enrich government insiders. In 2020, the government increased seizures of property based on coercive tax bills.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Nicaragua is a member of the Convention of the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID). It signed the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral awards in 2003. There is no specific domestic legislation providing for enforcement under the ICSID Convention or 1958 New York Convention.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

CAFTA-DR establishes an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. An investor who believes the government has breached a substantive obligation under CAFTA-DR or that the government has breached an investment agreement may request binding international arbitration in a forum defined by the Investment Chapter in the Agreement. There have only been two official claims or disputes by U.S. investors under CAFTA-DR, the most recent in April 2021. Both cases are still pending before the ICSID. Many U.S. investors reported customs and other procedures that they allege are not compliant with Nicaragua’s obligations under CAFTA-DR. Businesses operating in Nicaragua say the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism does not represent a viable means of due process to enforce CAFTA-DR obligations due to the high expense and likelihood of becoming a political target. Many companies facing Nicaragua’s noncompliance with CAFTA-DR simply pay the fines or increased taxes.

Embassy Managua is unaware of any instances of local courts recognizing and enforcing arbitral awards issued against the government. Given the judiciary’s lack of independence and vulnerability to political pressure, it is unlikely the courts would recognize such a judgment.

Investors should be aware that the government can take adverse action against them at any given time with limited basis or recourse. However, it does not appear that foreign investors have been targeted due to nationality.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is not common, and many Nicaraguans companies are unfamiliar with the practice. The Mediation and Arbitration Law (2005/540) is based on the UNCITRAL model law and established the legal framework for ADR. The Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce and Services (CCSN) founded Nicaragua’s Mediation and Arbitration Center. CCSN conducts trainings and other events to promote the value of ADR and encourage its use. Arbitration clauses are included in some business contracts, but their enforceability has not been tested in Nicaraguan courts.

The Embassy is unaware of any local courts that have enforced foreign arbitral awards. In general, enforcement of court orders is frequently subject to non-judicial considerations. The Embassy is unaware of any recent domestic decisions involving investment disputes with state-owned entities (SOE).

Bankruptcy Regulations

Bankruptcy provisions are included in the Civil and Commercial Codes, but there is no tradition or culture of bankruptcy in Nicaragua. Companies simply close their operations and set up a new entity without going through a formal bankruptcy procedure, effectively leaving creditors unprotected. Creditors typically attempt to collect as much as they can directly from the debtor to avoid an uncertain judicial process or give up on any potential claims. Nicaragua’s rules on bankruptcy focus on the liquidation of business entities rather than on reorganization and do not provide equitable treatment of creditors.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The Social Housing Construction Law (2009/ 677) provides incentives for the construction of housing units 36–60m2 in size with construction costs less than $30,000 per unit. Developers are exempt from paying local taxes on the construction, purchase of materials, equipment, or tools.

The Hydroelectric Promotion Law (amended 2005/531) and the Law to Promote Renewable Resource Electricity Generation (2005/532) provide incentives to invest in electricity generation, including duty free imports of capital goods and income and property tax exemptions. Regulatory concerns limit investment despite these incentives (see Transparency of the Regulatory System). The National Assembly is required for all projects larger than 30 megawatts.

The Tourism Incentive Law (amended 2005/575) includes the following incentives for investments of $30,000 or more outside Managua and $100,000 or more within Managua: income tax exemption of 80 to 90 percent for up to 10 years; property tax exemption for up to 10 years; exoneration from import duties on vehicles; and value added tax exemption on the purchase of equipment and construction materials.

The Fishing and Fish Farming Law (2004/489) exempts gasoline used in fishing and fish farming from taxes. The Forestry Sector Law (2003/462) provides income, property, and municipal tax incentives for plantation investments and tax exemptions on importing wood processing machinery and equipment. The Special Law on Mining, Prospecting and Exploitation (2001/387) exempts mining concessionaires from import duties on capital inputs (see Transparency of the Regulatory System for additional information on the mining sector).

The government has at times issued sweeping tax incentives to promote one-time large investments, including a large foreign-owned power plant in 2020.

Nicaragua does not have a practice of issuing guarantees for foreign direct investment. It has jointly financed some infrastructure projects in the past. Nicaragua mandates joint ventures with government agencies in the energy sector.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Nicaragua’s Free Trade Zone (FTZ) has historically been a key driver of the Nicaraguan economy. Reduced demand in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused FTZ exports to fall 15 percent in 2020 and companies to suspend workers. However, by the beginning of 2021 employment had returned almost to 2019 levels (123,000 employees). The FTZ formerly enjoyed a good relationship with the government. During the crisis, however, investors report fewer interactions with the FTZ Commission, which regulates the FTZ. Due to political uncertainty, many FTZ investors delayed capital investments, while some have moved production lines and operations to other countries.

The Free Zones Incentive Law (Decree 46-91 and amendments) and Law 917 – Free Zone Export Law passed in 2015 (including Decree 12-2016) grants FTZ companies: a permanent exemption from all import duties and taxes for raw materials, equipment, and other materials necessary to operate the business, provided all products are exported; 100 percent income tax exemption for the first 10 years of operation, and 60 percent income tax exemption thereafter; and exemptions from all export, value added, consumption, municipal, transportation, and property transfer taxes. FTZ companies must pay a deposit to guarantee final salaries and other expenses if a company goes out of business. FTZ salaries are negotiated separately from other wage negotiations and are set for five-year periods. FTZ companies may employ foreign employees with the permission of the FTZ Commission. The majority of FTZ companies are foreign investors.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Article 14 of the Nicaraguan Labor Code states that 90 percent of any company’s employees must be Nicaraguan. The Ministry of Labor may make exceptions when justified for technical reasons. The Nicaraguan Labor Code does not explicitly mention mandated local employment for senior management and boards of directors.

Visas and work permit procedures are not excessively onerous for foreign investors and their employees, but Nicaraguan authorities have denied entry to or expelled foreigners, including U.S. government officials, NGO workers, academics, journalists, and others for reasons not clearly defined. The Embassy has received reports of government officials reviewing social media posts to justify refusing entry. Residency permit applications can take 18 months or longer to receive final approval. In 2020 some foreign nationals reported the government refused to renew their residency permits.

The government does not impose performance requirements, conditions on permission to invest, or force foreign investors to use domestic content in goods or technology. Nicaraguan tax and customs incentives apply equally to foreign and domestic investors.

In 2020, the government passed the “Special Cybercrime” law, which requires telecom providers to retain one year’s worth of data for all users, and to provide that data to the government when asked. Nicaragua does not impose measures that prevent or unduly impede freely transmitting customer or other business-related data outside the country.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights and enforcement are notoriously unreliable in Nicaragua. The government regularly fails to enforce court decisions with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. Legal claims are subject to non-judicial considerations and members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, are widely believed to be corrupt or subject to political pressure. During the upheaval starting on April 18, 2018, members of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party illegally took over privately owned lands, with implicit and explicit support by municipal and national government officials. Some land seizures were politically targeted and directed against individuals considered independent or against the ruling party. Under Ortega’s first government in the 1980s, the expropriation of 28,000 properties in Nicaragua from both Nicaraguans and foreign investors resulted in a large number of claims and counter claims involving real estate. Property registries suffer from years of poor recordkeeping, making it difficult to establish a title history, and in 2019 the Supreme Court modified the property registry rules to prohibit most from accessing these records. Mortgages and liens exist, but the recording system is not reliable.

Investors should conduct extensive due diligence and extreme caution before investing in real property. Unscrupulous individuals have engaged in protracted confrontations with U.S. investors to wrest control of prime properties, in particular in tourist areas. Judges and municipal authorities are known to collude with such individuals, and a cottage industry supplies false titles and other documents to those who scheme to steal land. In the Autonomous Caribbean Region, communal land cannot be legally purchased, although individuals sell communal land and lawyers and notaries will knowingly extend the apparent correct paperwork, only to have property buyers be stripped of their property by communal authorities.

Those interested in purchasing property in Nicaragua should seek experienced legal counsel early in the process. The Capital Markets Law (2006/587) provides a legal framework for securitization of movable and real property. There are no specific restrictions regarding foreign or non-resident investors aside from certain border and other properties considered important to national security.

Given the state of the public records registry, it is not possible to determine what percentage of land does not have clear title. There is no defined government effort to resolve this. Squatters can obtain ownership of unoccupied property, particularly if they are government-backed.

Intellectual Property Rights

Nicaragua established standards for the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR) through CAFTA-DR implementing legislation consistent with U.S. and international intellectual property standards. While the written legal regime for protection of IPR in Nicaragua is adequate, enforcement has been limited. Piracy of optical media and trademark violations are common. The United States also has concerns about the implementation of Nicaragua’s patent obligations under CAFTA-DR, including: the mechanism through which patent owners receive notice of submissions from third parties; how the public can access lists of protected patents; and the treatment of undisclosed test data.

On March 24, 2020, the National Assembly approved two reforms to Law 1024 on the intellectual property registry and Patent Law. Members of the National Assembly’s Economic Commission emphasized updates to the fees for registering copyrights and patents, leading observers to assume the reforms are focused on continuing to raise funds to run the government amidst the ongoing political crisis.

Nicaragua does not publicly report on seizures of counterfeit goods and is not listed in the U.S. Trade Representative’s 2021 Special 301 Report or its 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Piracy and Counterfeiting.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see the World Intellectual Property Organization’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

There are no restrictions on foreign portfolio investment. Nicaragua does not have its own equities market and there is no regulatory structure to facilitate publicly held companies. There is a small bond market that traffics primarily in government bonds but also sells some corporate debt to institutional investors. In 2019 and 2020 this market has traded less than only 10 percent of the volume from before the political-economic crisis. The Superintendent of Banks and Other Financial Institutions (SIBOIF) supervises this fledgling market.

New policies threaten the free flow of financial resources into the product and factor markets, as well as foreign currency convertibility. Banks must now request foreign currency purchases in writing, 48 hours in advance, and the BCN reserves the right to arbitrarily deny these requests.

To shore up liquidity, banks have sharply restricted lending, increased interest rates, and implemented stricter collateral standards. The overall size and depth of Nicaragua’s financial markets and portfolio positions are very limited.

Money and Banking System

While the banking system has grown and developed in the past two decades, Nicaragua remains underbanked relative to other countries in the region. Only 19 percent of Nicaraguans aged 15 or older have bank accounts, and only 8 percent have any savings in such accounts, approximately half the rate of other countries in the region according to World Bank data. One-third of Nicaraguans continue to save their money in their home or other location while 49 percent have no savings. Nicaragua also has one of the lowest mobile banking rates in Central America.

After the sociopolitical crisis sharply slashed the National Financial System in 2018, the banking sector recovered slightly in 2019 and 2020. Liquidity ratios dipped 6 percent year-on-year to 41 percent (six percent less than 2019 levels) suggesting a credit portfolio recovery. However, the overall credit portfolio continued to contract, registering a $271 million reduction compared to 2019. The ratio of non-performing loans to banking sector assets reached 17 percent, five percent higher than 2019. The banking sector remains fragile and vulnerable to sociopolitical uncertainty.

The banking industry remains conservative and highly concentrated, with four banks (BANPRO, LAFISE Bancentro, BAC, and FICOHSA) constituting 77 percent of the country’s market share. The crisis sparked large withdrawals of deposits from the banking system. Those withdrawals have stabilized but total assets still lag pre-crisis levels—as of December 2020, the financial system had total assets worth $4.3 billion, a 10 percent increase over 2019 ($3.9 billion) but 22 percent lower than in March 2018 ($5.5 billion).

On April 17, 2019, the Department of Treasury designated BANCORP—a subsidiary of ALBA de Nicaragua (ALBANISA), a joint venture between the State-owned oil companies of Nicaragua (49%) and Venezuela (51%)—for money laundering and corruption. On April 22, BANCORP presented its dissolution to SIBOIF. BANCORP’s closure was secretive and outside the legal framework that governs financial institutions in Nicaragua.

The Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN) was established in 1961 as the regulator of the monetary system with the sole right to issue the national currency, the Córdoba. Foreign banks can open branches in Nicaragua. The number of correspondent banking relationships with the United States shrank during the crisis as Wells Fargo Bank withdrew altogether and Bank of America withdrew correspondent services from a local bank. Recent amendments to the “Consumer Protection Law,” could force local banks to service suspicious account holders—including persons designated under international sanctions regimes—jeopardizing correspondent banking relationships.

Foreigners can open bank accounts if they are legal residents in the country. The Foreign Investment Law allows foreign investors residing in the country to access local credit and local banks have no restrictions accepting property located abroad as collateral.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Nicaragua is a highly dollarized economy. The Foreign Investment Law (2000/344) and the Banking, Nonbank Intermediary, and Financial Conglomerate Law (2005/561) allow investors to convert freely and transfer funds associated with an investment. CAFTA-DR ensures the free transfer of funds related to a covered investment. However, as international sanctions target the Ortega regime’s corruption and money-laundering activities, investors should be aware that transactions with the Nicaraguan government may lead banks to reject related transactions. Transfers of funds over $10,000 requires additional paperwork and due diligence.

Local financial institutions freely exchange U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies, although there are reports that SIBOIF has taken steps to ensure more Nicaraguan Córdobas are in circulation to shore up the local currency. In October 2018, the BCN notified banks that in place of an on-line automated clearing house for foreign currency purchases, banks must now request such purchases in writing, 48 hours in advance, and provide the BCN with the names of savers who want to withdraw their foreign currency deposits, as well as the amount each individual requests.

The BCN adjusts the official exchange rate daily according to a crawling peg that devalues the Córdoba against the U.S. dollar at an annual rate. The devaluation rate remained stable at 5 percent from 2004 until October 28, 2019, when the BCN announced it would devalue the Córdoba by only three percent against the U.S. Dollar. On November 25, 2020, the BCN announced yet another downward adjustment in the official exchange rate, devaluing the Córdoba by another two percent. The official exchange rate as of December 31, 2020, was 34.82 Córdobas to one U.S. dollar. The daily exchange rate can be found on the BCN’s website. 

Remittance Policies

There are no limitations on the inflow or outflow of funds for remittances or access to foreign exchange for remittances. However, some U.S. and local banks refuse to process any transfers abroad by government officials, agencies, or State-owned entities (SOE) due to the high risk of corruption and laundering.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Nicaragua does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

It is virtually impossible to identify the number of companies that the Nicaraguan government owns or controls, as they are not subject to any regular audit or accounting measures and are not fully captured by the national budget or other public documents. The Nicaraguan government uses a vast network of front men to control companies. Even the SOEs that the government officially owns are not transparent nor subject to oversight. Many of Nicaragua’s SOEs and quasi-SOEs were established using the now-OFAC-sanctioned ALBANISA. The Ortega family used ALBANISA funds to purchase television and radio stations, hotels, cattle ranches, electricity generation plants, and pharmaceutical laboratories. ALBANISA’s large presence in the Nicaraguan economy and its ties to the government put companies trying to compete in industries dominated by ALBANISA or government-managed entities at a disadvantage. On December 21, 2020, the government nationalized Nicaragua’s main electricity distributor Disnorte-Dissur, which was previously owned by ALBANISA (although this ownership was obscured through a presumed Spanish strawman company).

On January 28, 2019, OFAC designated PDVSA and as a result all assets and subsidiary companies of PDVSA operating in Nicaragua are subject to the same restrictions as those in Venezuela. This designation includes ALBANISA and its subsidiaries. For years, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo have engaged in corrupt deals via PDVSA that have pilfered the public resources of Nicaragua for private gain. U.S. persons should be cautious about doing business with Nicaraguan companies, which may be owned or controlled by OFAC-blocked entities such as ALBANISA.

The government owns and operates the National Sewer and Water Company (ENACAL), National Port Authority (EPN), National Lottery, and National Electricity Transmission Company (ENATREL). Private sector investment is not permitted in these sectors. In sectors where competition is allowed, the government owns and operates the Nicaraguan Insurance Institute (INISER), Nicaraguan Electricity Company (ENEL), Las Mercedes Industrial Park, Nicaraguan Food Staple Company (ENABAS), the Nicaraguan Post Office, the International Airport Authority (EAAI), the Nicaraguan Mining Company (ENIMINAS) and Nicaraguan Petroleum Company (Petronic). In February 2020, in the aftermath of the OFAC designation of state-owned petroleum distributor Distribuidor Nicaraguense de Petroleo (DNP), the government created overnight four new entities: the Nicaraguan Gas Company (ENIGAS); the Nicaraguan Company to Store and Distribute Hydrocarbons (ENIPLANH); the Nicaraguan Company for Hydrocarbon Exploration (ENIH); and the Nicaraguan Company to Import, Transport, and Commercialize Hydrocarbons (ENICOM).

Through the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), the government owns a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, and other companies and real estate holdings. The Military Institute of Social Security (IPSM), a state pension fund for the Nicaraguan military, controls companies in the construction, manufacturing, and services sectors. Other companies have unclear ownership structures that likely include at least a minority ownership by the Nicaraguan government or its officials. There are few mechanisms to ensure the transparency and accountability of state business decisions. There is no comprehensive published list of SOEs.

State-controlled companies receive non-market-based advantages, including tax exemption benefits not granted to private actors. In some instances, these companies are given monopolies through implementing legislation. In other instances, the government uses formal and informal levers to advantage its businesses.

Privatization Program

Nicaragua does not have an active privatization program; on the contrary, the government attempts to dominate as many sectors as possible to enrich the Ortega family and its inner circle.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Many large businesses have active Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) programs that include improvements to the workplace environment, business ethics, and community development initiatives. Prominent business groups such as CCSN and the Nicaraguan Union for Corporate Social Responsibility (UniRSE) are working to create more awareness for corporate social responsibility. The Foreign Agents Law has forced many businesses to curtail their corporate social responsibility operations to avoid the burdensome and intrusive registration process.

The government does not factor RBC policies or practices into its procurement decisions nor explicitly encourage RBC principles. The government does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. There are no domestic transparency measures requiring the disclosure of payments made to governments. Nicaragua is not a signatory to the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies or a participant in the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers’ Association.

Additional Resources 

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Nicaragua has a developed legislative framework criminalizing acts of corruption, but the rampant corruption in Nicaragua begins at the top and pervades every element of government, including the national police, judiciary, customs authorities, and tax authorities. There is no expectation that the framework be enforced other than token cases to pretend compliance. A general state of permissiveness, lack of strong institutions, ineffective system of checks and balances, and the FSLN’s complete control of government institutions create conditions for corruption to thrive. The judicial system remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and political influence. Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common.

The government does not require private companies to establish internal controls. However, Nicaraguan banks have robust compliance and monitoring programs that detect corruption and attempt to pierce the façade of front men seeking to process transactions for OFAC-sanctioned and other actors. Multiple government officials and government-controlled entities have been sanctioned for corruption.

Nicaragua ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2006 and the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption in 1999. It is not party to the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

Businesses reported that corruption is an obstacle to FDI, particularly in government procurement, licensing, and customs and taxation.

Resources to Report Corruption

Nicaragua’s supreme audit institution is the Contraloria General de la República de Nicaragua (CGR). The CGR can be reached at +505 2265-2072 and more information is available at its website www.cgr.gob.ni .

10. Political and Security Environment

President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo dominate Nicaragua’s highly centralized, authoritarian political system. Ortega is serving in his third consecutive term as president after the Ortega-controlled Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional ban on the re-election of a sitting president was unenforceable. Ortega’s rule has been marked by increasing human rights abuses, consolidation of executive control, and consolidation of strategic business sectors that enrich him and his inner circle.

These abuses of power came to a head in April 2018 when Ortega’s security forces killed over 300 peaceful protesters. Government tactics included the use of live ammunition, snipers, fire as a weapon, and armed vigilante forces. Protesters built makeshift roadblocks and confronted the national police (NNP) and parapolice with rocks and homemade mortars. The ensuing conflict left over 325 dead, thousands injured, and more than 100,000 exiled in neighboring countries. Hundreds were illegally detained and tortured. Beginning in August 2018, the Ortega government instituted a policy of “exile, jail, or death” for anyone perceived as regime opponents. It amended terrorism laws to include prodemocracy activities and used the legislature and justice system to characterize civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup-mongers. Political risk has increased dramatically as a result, and the future of the country’s political institutions remains very uncertain.

The NNP presence is ubiquitous throughout Nicaragua, including with randomized checkpoints. Excessive use of force, false imprisonment, and other harassment against opposition leaders—including many private sector leaders—is common. On March 5, 2020, the United States sanctioned the NNP for its human rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua.

Widespread dissatisfaction with Ortega’s authoritarian rule continues. Elections are scheduled for November 2021, and Ortega plans to compete for a fourth consecutive presidential term, raising doubts whether the Ortega regime will permit elections that are free and fair. The Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs advises that travelers reconsider travel to Nicaragua due to limited healthcare availability and arbitrary enforcement of laws.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Despite the absence of reliable government data, think tank FUNIDES estimates unemployment rose from 5.5 percent in 2019 to 6.2 percent in 2020 according to the government’s definition, which considers any individual who worked at least one hour in a month, regardless of remuneration, to be employed. FUNIDES’ estimate exceeds government estimates of 5.4 percent unemployment, virtually unchanged from 2019 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. These numbers are difficult to ascertain with three-quarters of all employment in the informal economy. According to INSS, as of December 2020 the number of enrolled employees had fallen by 19 percent (173,000 employees) from March 2018 for a total of 723,000 enrolled employees. FUNIDES estimates that 30 percent (2 million people) of the population lived below the poverty line in 2020.

Nicaragua lacks skilled and technical labor. Employers often import administrative or managerial employees from outside of the country, as permitted by law. However, there has also been a recent trend of multinational companies promoting Nicaraguan employees to regional positions, and success by tech-focused out-sourcing companies. The minimum wage is low and was historically revised every six months through a dialogue process between the private sector, labor unions, and the government. However, since the onset of the crisis, the government has not invited the private sector to participate in these discussions.

Nicaraguan labor law requires employers to pay at year-end an equivalent of an extra month’s salary. Upon termination of an employee, the employer must pay a month’s salary for each year worked, up to five months’ salary. There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws, including in the free trade zones. The CAFTA-DR Labor Chapter establishes commitments to ensure effective labor law enforcement within the country and comply with commitments made to the International Labor Organization.

Nicaraguan law provides for the right of public and private sector workers, except for the military and police, to form and join independent unions of their choice without authorization and to bargain collectively. Workers can exercise this right in practice, though unofficial roadblocks exist for unions not affiliated with the Sandinista party. A collective bargaining agreement cannot exceed two years and is automatically renewed if neither party requests revision. Before the socio-political crisis, strikes were legal but rare due to the government’s control over unions. In the months following the beginning of the political crisis April 2018, the private sector organized four work stoppages in protest of human rights abuses.

Businesses reported government harassment and increased audits following participation in pro-democracy work stoppages, and a few participating businesses saw their operating licenses revoked.

For more information regarding labor conditions in Nicaragua, please see the annual Human Rights Report and the Department of Labor Child Labor report at https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/index.htm.

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance and Development Finance Programs

The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) does not currently support projects in Nicaragua.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2020 $12,621 2018 $13,120 www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2017 $187 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2016 $7 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2020 3.8% N/A N/A UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/
handbook/EconomicTrends/Fdi.html

* Source for Host Country Data: https://www.bcn.gob.ni/publicaciones/periodicidad/anual/informe_anual/index.php

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Data not available.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

Panama

Executive Summary

Given its dollarized economy, a stable democratic government, the Panama Canal, the world’s second largest free trade zone, a network of free trade agreements, and a strategic geographical location, Panama attracts high levels of foreign direct investment from around the world and has solid potential as a foreign direct investment (FDI) magnet and regional hub for a number of sectors. Panama attracts more U.S. FDI than any other country in Central America, closing 2019 with $5.27 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Over the last decade, Panama had been one of the Western Hemisphere’s fastest growing economies. However, 2020 was a difficult year for Panama, which saw a GDP contraction of 17.9 percent, 18.5 percent unemployment, government revenues down by a third, and downgrades in its investment grade sovereign bond rating. Analysts forecast 4-5 percent GDP gains for 2022-2025. The global crisis hit many of Panama’s key industries, including tourism, construction, real estate, aviation, and services ancillary to trade. However, key industries such as banking, mining, the maritime sector, and Canal operations have remained stable throughout the crisis.

Panama faces structural challenges even beyond those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including corruption, an inefficient judicial system, an under-educated workforce, and an inflexible labor code, which often discourage additional foreign investments or complicate existing ones. With a population of just over four million, Panama’s small market size is not worth the perceived risk of investment for many companies. The World Bank classified Panama in July 2018 as a “high-income” jurisdiction in its annual country classifications, after its Gross National Income per capita moved past the threshold for high-income classification. Nevertheless, Panama is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the 17th highest Gini Coefficient and a national poverty rate of 18 percent, with pockets of 90 percent poverty in indigenous regions.

The Cortizo administration has addressed investment challenges by prioritizing key economic reforms required to improve the investment climate and passing a new investment incentives measure for the manufacturing industry. It also created a new Minister Counselor for Investment position that reports directly to the President, with the aim of attracting new investors and dislodging barriers that confront current ones. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused the government to pivot to crisis management and basic economic recovery, although efforts to attract investment continue. Panama also remains on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list for systemic deficiencies that impede progress in combatting money laundering and terrorist financing.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 111 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 86 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 73 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 $5,272 million https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 $14,950 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

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.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

In 2012, Panama modified its securities law to regulate brokers, fund managers, and matters related to the securities industry. The Superintendency of the Securities Market is generally considered a transparent, competent, and effective regulator. Panama is a full signatory to the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO).

Panama has five regulatory agencies, four that supervise the activities of financial entities (banking, securities, insurance, and “designated non-financial businesses and professions (DNFBPs)” and a fifth that oversees credit unions. Each of the regulators regularly publishes on their websites detailed policies, laws, and sector reports, as well as information regarding fines and sanctions. Panama’s banking regulator began publishing fines and sanctions in late 2016. The securities and insurance regulators have published fines and sanctions since 2010. Law 23 of 2015 created the regulator for DNFBPs, which began publishing fines and sanctions in 2018. In January 2020, the regulator for DNFBPs was granted independence and superintendency status similar to that of the banking regulator. Post is not aware of any informal regulatory processes managed by nongovernmental organizations or private sector associations.

Relevant ministries or regulators oversee and enforce administrative and regulatory processes. Any administrative errors or omissions committed by public servants can be challenged and taken to the Supreme Court for a final ruling. Regulatory bodies can impose sanctions and fines which are made public and can be appealed.

Laws are developed in the National Assembly. A proposed bill is discussed in three rounds, edited as needed, and approved or rejected. The President then has 30 days to approve or veto a bill the Assembly has passed. If the President vetoes the bill, it can be returned to the National Assembly for changes or sent to the Supreme Court to rule on its constitutionality. If the bill was vetoed for reasons of unconstitutionality, and the Supreme Court finds it constitutional, the President must sign the bill. Regulations are created by agencies and other governmental bodies but they can be modified or overridden by higher authorities.

In general, draft bills, including those for laws and regulations on investment, are made available on the National Assembly’s website and can be introduced for discussion at the bill’s first hearing. All bills and approved legislation are published in the Official Gazette in full and summary form and can also be found on the National Assembly’s website: https://www.asamblea.gob.pa/buscador-de-gacetas.

Accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures in Panama are based on standards set by the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation, including financial reporting standards for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Panama is a member of UNCTAD’s international network of transparent investment procedures. Foreign and national investors can find detailed information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income generating operations, including the number of steps, the names and contact details of the entities and persons in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing times, and legal bases justifying the procedures.

Information on public finances and debt is published on the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s website under the directorate of public finance, but it is not consistently updated: https://fpublico.mef.gob.pa/en.

International Regulatory Considerations

Panama is part of the Central American Customs Union (CACU), the regional economic block for Central American countries. Panama has adopted many of the Central American Technical Regulations (RTCA) for intra-regional trade in goods. Panama applies the RTCA to goods imported from any CACU member and updates Panama’s regulations to be consistent with RTCA. However, Panama has not yet adopted some important RTCA regulations, such as for processed food labeling.

The United States and Panama signed an agreement regarding “Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures and Technical Standards Affecting Trade in Agricultural Products,” which entered into force on December 20, 2006. The application of this agreement supersedes the RTCA for U.S. food and feed products imported into Panama.

A 2006 law established the Panamanian Food Safety Authority (AUPSA) to issue science-based sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) import policies for food and feed products entering Panama. Since 2019, AUPSA and other government entities have implemented or proposed measures that restrict market access. These measures have also increased AUPSA’s ability to limit the import of certain agricultural goods. The Panamanian Government, for example, has issued regulations on onions and withheld approval of genetically-modified foods, limiting market access and resulting in the loss of millions in potential investment. In March 2021, President Cortizo signed a new bill that eliminated AUPSA and replaced it with the Panamanian Food Agency (APA). The APA intends to improve efficiency for agro-exports and industrial food processes, as well as increase market access.

Historically, Panama has referenced or incorporated international norms and standards into its regulatory system, including the Agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Codex Alimentarius, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the International Plant Protection Convention, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Customs Organization, and others. Also, Panama has incorporated into its national regulations many U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, such as the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance.

Panama, as a member of the WTO, notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). However, in the last four years it has ignored comments on its regulations offered by other WTO members, including but not limited to the United States.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

When ruling on cases, judges rely on the Constitution and direct sources of law such as codes, regulations, and statutes. In 2016, Panama transitioned from an inquisitorial to an accusatory justice system, with the goal of simplifying and expediting criminal cases. Fundamental procedural rights in civil cases are broadly similar to those available in U.S. civil courts, although some notice and discovery rights, particularly in administrative matters, may be less extensive than in the United States. Judicial pleadings are not always a matter of public record, nor are processes always transparent.

Panama has a legal framework governing commercial and contractual issues and has specialized commercial courts. Contractual disputes are normally handled in civil court or through arbitration, unless criminal activity is involved. Some U.S. firms have reported inconsistent, unfair, and/or biased treatment from Panamanian courts. The judicial system’s capacity to resolve contractual and property disputes is often weak, hampered by a lack of technological tools and susceptibility to corruption. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report rated Panama’s judicial independence at 129 of 137 countries.

The Panamanian judicial system suffers from significant budget shortfalls that continue to affect all areas of the system. The transition to the accusatory system faces challenges in funding for personnel, infrastructure, and operational requirements, while addressing a significant backlog of cases initiated under the previous inquisitorial system. The judiciary still struggles with lack of independence, a legacy of an often-politicized system for appointing judges, prosecutors, and other officials. Under Panamanian law, only the National Assembly may initiate corruption investigations against Supreme Court judges, and only the Supreme Court may initiate investigations against members of the National Assembly, which has led to charges of a de facto “non-aggression pact” between the two branches.

Regulations and enforcement actions can be appealed through the legal system from Municipal Judges, to Circuit Judges, to Superior Judges, and ultimately to the Supreme Court.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Panama has different laws governing investment incentives, depending on the activity, including its newest law intended to draw manufacturing investment, the 2020 Multinational Manufacturing Services Law (EMMA). In addition, it has a Multinational Headquarters Law (SEM), a Tourism Law, an Investment Stability Law, and miscellaneous laws associated with particular sectors, including the film industry, call centers, certain industrial activities, and agricultural exports. In addition, laws may differ in special economic zones, including the Colon Free Zone, the Panama Pacifico Special Economic Area, and the City of Knowledge.

Government policy and law treat Panamanian and foreign investors equally with respect to access to credit. Panamanian interest rates closely follow international rates (i.e., the U.S. federal funds rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate, etc.), plus a country-risk premium.

The Ministries of Tourism, Public Works, and Commerce and Industry, as well as the Minister Counselor for Investment, promote foreign investment. However, some U.S. companies have reported difficulty navigating the Panamanian business environment, especially in the tourism, branding, imports, and infrastructure development sectors. Although individual ministers have been responsive to U.S. companies, fundamental problems such as judicial uncertainty are more difficult to address. U.S. companies have complained about several ministries’ failure to make timely payments for services rendered, without official explanation for the delays. U.S. Embassy Panama is aware of tens of millions of dollars in overdue payments that the Panamanian government owes to U.S. companies.

Some private companies, including multinational corporations, have issued bonds in the local securities market. Companies rarely issue stock on the local market and, when they do, often issue shares without voting rights. Investor demand is generally limited because of the small pool of qualified investors. While some Panamanians may hold overlapping interests in various businesses, there is no established practice of cross-shareholding or stable shareholder arrangements designed to restrict foreign investment through mergers and acquisitions.

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s website lists information about laws, transparency, legal frameworks, and regulatory bodies.

https://www.mici.gob.pa/direccion-general-de-servicios-al-inversionista/marco-legal-direccion-general-de-servicios-al-inversionista

Competition and Antitrust Laws

Panama’s Consumer Protection and Anti-Trust Agency, established by Law 45 on October 31, 2007, and modified by Law 29 of June 2008, reviews transactions for competition-related concerns and serves as a consumer protection agency.

Expropriation and Compensation

Panamanian law recognizes the concept of eminent domain, but it is exercised only occasionally, for example, to build infrastructure projects such as highways and the metro commuter train. In general, compensation for affected parties is fair. However, in at least one instance a U.S. company has expressed concern about not being compensated at fair market value after the government revoked a concession. There have been no cases of claimants citing a lack of due process regarding eminent domain.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Panama is a party to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention and the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards).

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Panama is a signatory to several agreements and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) in which binding international arbitration of investment disputes is recognized. Panama has a total of 11 Free Trade Agreements (FTA), including with Singapore, Peru, Central America, Mexico, South Korea, and Israel, as well as the Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) with the United States. Panama also has more than 20 BITs with different countries around the world, such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, among others. Panama also has a BIT with the United States. There have been four claims by U.S. investors under these agreements under the ICSID.

Resolving commercial and investment disputes in Panama can be a lengthy and complex process. Despite protections built into the U.S.-Panamanian trade agreement, investors have struggled to resolve investment issues in court and have often reverted to arbitration. There are frequent claims of bias and favoritism in the judicial system and complaints about inadequate titling, inconsistent regulations, and a lack of trained officials outside the capital.

There have been allegations that politically connected businesses have received preferential treatment in court decisions and that judges have “slow-rolled” dockets for years without taking action. Panamanian law firms often suggest writing binding arbitration clauses into all commercial contracts. Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitration awards issued against the government. Post is not aware of any extrajudicial actions against foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

The Panamanian government accepts binding international arbitration of disputes with foreign investors. Private entities are increasingly reaching out for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in Panama, primarily due to a lack of confidence in the national judicial system and the attractiveness of a quick turnaround for the settlement of disputes. Two organizations handle most arbitration cases in Panama: the Chamber of Commerce of Panama and the International Chamber of Commerce, via their affiliations with the Panamanian Center for Conflict Resolution and Arbitration (Centro de Conciliación y Arbitraje de Panamá (CeCAP)).

Panama is a party to the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, as well as to the similar 1975 Panama OAS Convention. Panama became a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in 1996. Panama adopted the UNCITRAL model arbitration law as amended in 2006. Law 131 of 2013 regulates national and international commercial arbitrations in Panama.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The World Bank 2020 Doing Business Indicator currently ranks Panama 113 out of 190 jurisdictions for resolving insolvency because of a slow court system and the complexity of the bankruptcy process. Panama adopted a new insolvency law (similar to a bankruptcy law) in 2016, but the Doing Business Indicator ranking has not identified material improvement for this metric. The Panamanian Government has proposed a bill that would significantly improve bankruptcy proceedings. As of the writing of this report the bill was awaiting the President’s signature.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Panama provides Industrial Promotion Certificates (IPCs) to incentivize industrial development in high-value-added sectors. Targeted sectors include research and development, management and quality assurance systems, environmental management, utilities, and human resources. Approved IPC’s provide up to 35 percent in tax reimbursements and preferential import tariffs of 3 percent. Panama does not have a practice of issuing guarantees or jointly financing FDI projects.

Law 1 (2017) modified Law 28 (1995) by exempting exports from income tax, and exempting from import duty machinery for companies that export 100 percent of their products. Producers that sell any portion of their products in the domestic market pay only a three percent import tariff on machinery and supplies.

Law 41, the Special Regime for the Establishment and Operation of Multinational Company Headquarters (SEM), was enacted in 2007 to encourage multinational investment in Panama.  The law focuses on administrative back office operations, such as payroll, accounting, and other functions. Any company that is licensed under SEM will automatically qualify for MSM.

The GoP enacted Law 159 on Manufacturing Services for Multinational Companies (EMMA) in 2020 as a special incentive law to attract Foreign Direct Investment in manufacturing, remanufacturing, maintenance and product repair, assembly, logistics services, and refurbishing. The EMMA law is a complement to the SEM law and offers tax and employee incentives, reducing import duties and fees for equipment and supplies used in the manufacturing process, to companies that qualify.

In 2012, Panama introduced a tourism incentive law to promote foreign investment in tourism and the hospitality industry. The incentives are available outside the district of Panama to companies registered through the National Tourism Registry of the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) and provide tax incentives and exemptions on real estate, imported good, construction materials, appliances, furniture, and equipment. Panama further modified the law in 2019 to provide additional tax credits for new projects and extensions on existing projects. These tax credits must be used within ten years from the start of a project.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Panama is home to the Colon Free Trade Zone, the Panama Pacifico Special Economic Zone, and 18 other “free zones,” 12 active and six in development. The Colon Free Trade Zone has more than 2,500 businesses, the Panama Pacifico Special Economic Zone has more than 345 businesses, and the remaining free zones host 126 companies in total. These zones provide special tax and other incentives for manufacturers, back office operations, and call centers. Additionally, the Colon Free Zone offers companies preferential tax and duty rates that are levied in exchange for basic user fees and a five percent dividend tax (or two percent of net profits if there are no dividends). Banks and individuals in Panama pay no tax on interest or other income earned outside Panama. No taxes are withheld on savings or fixed time deposits in Panama. Individual depositors do not pay taxes on time deposits. Free zones offer tax-free status, special immigration privileges, and license and customs exemptions to manufacturers who locate within them. Investment incentives offered by the Panamanian government apply equally to Panamanian and foreign investors.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

There are no legal performance requirements such as minimum export percentages, significant requirements of local equity interest, or mandatory technology transfers. There are no requirements that host country nationals be chosen to serve in roles of senior management or on boards of directors. There are no established general requirements that foreign investors invest in local companies, purchase goods or services from local vendors, or invest in research and development (R&D) or other facilities. Depending on the sector, companies may be required to have 85-90 percent Panamanian employees. There are exceptions to this policy, but the government must approve these on a case-by-case basis. Fields dominated by strong unions, such as construction, have opposed issuing work permits to foreign laborers and some investors have struggled to fully staff large projects. Visas are available and the procedures to obtain work permits are generally not considered onerous.

As part of its effort to become a hub for finance, logistics, and communications, Panama has endeavored to become a data storage center. According to the Panamanian Authority for Government Innovation (AIG, http://www.innovacion.gob.pa/noticia/2834), most of these firms offer services to banking and telephone companies in Central America and the Caribbean. Panama boasts exceptional international connectivity, with seven undersea fiber optic cables and an eighth currently under construction.

Panama’s data protection law (Law 81, March 26, 2019) established the principles, rights, obligations, and procedures that regulate the protection of personal data. The National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information oversees the law’s enforcement, which began in March 2021. The National Authority for Government Innovation is working closely with large private sector companies to draft specific data protection regulations. The personal privacy of communications and documents is provided for in the Panamanian Constitution as a fundamental right (Political Constitution, article 29). The Constitution also provides for a right to keep personal data confidential (article 44). The Criminal Code imposes an obligation on businesses to maintain the confidentiality of information stored in databases or elsewhere and establishes several crimes for the misuse of such information (Criminal Code, articles 164, 283, 284, 285, 286). Panama’s electronic commerce legislation also states that providers of electronic document storage must guarantee the protection, reliability, and proper use of information and data stored on behalf of their customers (Law 51, July 22, 2008, article 55).

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Mortgages and liens are widely used in both rural and urban areas and the recording system is reliable. There are no specific regulations regarding land leasing or acquisition by foreign and/or non-resident investors.

A large portion of land in Panama, especially outside of Panama City, is not titled. A system of rights of possession exists, but there are multiple instances where such rights have been successfully challenged. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report (http://www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/panama) notes that Panama is ranked 87 out of 190 countries on the Registering Property indicator and ranks 141st in enforcing contracts. Panama enacted Law 80 (2009) to address the lack of titled land in certain parts of the country; however, the law does not address deficiencies in government administration or the judicial system. In 2010, the National Assembly approved the creation of the National Land Management Authority (ANATI) to administer land titling; however, investors have complained about ANATI’s capabilities and lengthy adjudication timelines. ANATI has attempted to clean up some titling issues and sought international assistance to modernize.

The judicial system’s capacity to resolve contractual and property disputes is generally considered weak and susceptible to corruption, as illustrated by the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2019 (http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_TheGlobalCompetitivenessReport2019.pdf), which ranks Panama’s judicial independence as 129 out of 141 countries. Americans should exercise greater due diligence in purchasing Panamanian real estate than they would in purchasing real estate in the United States. Engaging a reputable attorney and a licensed real estate broker is strongly recommended.

If legally purchased property is unoccupied, property ownership can revert to other owners (squatters) after 15 years of living on or working the land, although the parties must go to court to resolve ownership.

Intellectual Property Rights

Panama has an adequate and effective domestic legal framework to protect and enforce intellectual property rights (IPR). The legal structure is strong, enforcement is generally good, and infringement on rights and theft is uncommon. There were no new laws or regulations proposed or enacted in the past year, although Customs is in the process of modifying its contraband legislation. The U.S.-Panama TPA improved standards for the protection and enforcement of a broad range of IPR, including patents; trademarks; undisclosed tests and data required to obtain marketing approval for pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical products; and digital copyright products such as software, music, books, and videos. To implement the requirements of the TPA, Panama passed Law 62 of 2012  on industrial property and Law 64 of 2012  on copyrights. Law 64 also extended copyright protection to the life of the author plus 70 years, mandates the use of legal software in government agencies, and protects against the theft of encrypted satellite signals and the manufacturing or sale of tools to steal signals.

Panama is a member of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. Panama’s Industrial Property Law (Law 35 of 1996) provides 20 years of patent protection from the date of filing, or 15 years from the filing of pharmaceutical patents. Panama has expressed interest in participating in the Patent Protection Highway with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Law 35, amended by Law 61 of 2012, also provides trademark protection, simplified the registration of trademarks, and allows for renewals for 10-year periods. The law grants ex-officio authority to government agencies to conduct investigations and seize suspected counterfeit materials. Decree 123 of 1996 and Decree 79 of 1997 specify the procedures that National Customs Authority (ANA) and Colon Free Zone officials must follow to investigate and confiscate merchandise. In 1997, ANA created a special office for IPR enforcement; in 1998, the Colon Free Zone followed suit.

The Government of Panama is making efforts to strengthen the enforcement of IPR. A Committee for Intellectual Property (CIPI), comprising representatives from five government agencies (the Colon Free Zone, the Offices of Industrial Property and Copyright under the

Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI), the Customs Administration (ANA), and the Attorney General), under the leadership of the MICI, is responsible for the development of intellectual property policy. Since 1997, two district courts and one superior tribunal have exclusive jurisdiction of antitrust, patent, trademark, and copyright cases. Since January 2003, a specific prosecutor with national authority over IPR cases has consolidated and simplified the prosecution of such cases. Law 1 of 2004 added crimes against IPR as a predicate offense for money laundering, and Law 14 establishes a 5 to 12-year prison term.

Various Panamanian entities track and report on seizures of counterfeit goods, but there is no single repository or website that consolidates this information. Panama’s Public Ministry has a Specialized Prosecutors Office dedicated to IPR violations, but there have so far been no criminal prosecutions for IPR violations. Panama executes search warrants on businesses that trade in counterfeit goods, but such items are usually seized administratively without criminal prosecutions.

Panama is not included in the United States Trade Representative (USTR) 2021 Special 301 Report. According to USTR’s 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy, a hosting provider reportedly operating from Panama supports sites offering IPR-infringing content.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.

Resources for Rights Holders

Embassy point of contact:

Colombia Primola
Economic Specialist
PrimolaCE@state.gov

Local lawyers list: https://pa.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/attorneys/

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Panama has a stock market with an effective regulatory system developed to support foreign investment. Article 44 of the constitution guarantees the protection of private ownership of real property and private investments. Some private companies, including multinational corporations, have issued bonds in the local securities market. Companies rarely issue stock on the local market and, when they do, often issue shares without voting rights. Investor demand is generally limited because of the small pool of qualified investors. While some Panamanians may hold overlapping interests in various businesses, there is no established practice of cross-shareholding or stable shareholder arrangements designed to restrict foreign investment through mergers and acquisitions. Panama has agreed to IMF Article VIII and pledged not to impose restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.

In 2012, Panama modified its securities law to regulate brokers, fund managers, and matters related to the securities industry. The Commission structure was modified to follow the successful Banking Law model and now consists of a superintendent and a board of directors. The Superintendency of the Securities Market is generally considered a competent and effective regulator. Panama is a full signatory to the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO).

Government policy and law with respect to access to credit treat Panamanian and foreign investors equally. Panamanian interest rates closely follow international rates (i.e., the U.S. federal funds rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate, etc.), plus a country-risk premium.

Money and Banking System

Panama’s banking sector is developed and highly regulated and there are no restrictions on a foreigner’s ability to establish a bank account. Foreigners are required to present a passport and taxpayer identification number and an affidavit indicating that the inflow and outflow of money meets the tax obligations of the beneficiary’s tax residence. The adoption of financial technology in Panama is nascent, but there are several initiatives underway to modernize processes.

Some U.S. citizens and entities have had difficulty meeting the high documentary threshold for establishing the legitimacy of their activities both inside and outside Panama. Banking officials counter such complaints by citing the need to comply with international financial transparency standards. Several of Panama’s largest banks have gone so far as to refuse to establish banking relationships with whole sectors of the economy, such as casinos and e-commerce, in order to avoid all possible associated risks. Regulatory issues have made it difficult for some private U.S. citizens to open bank accounts in Panama, leaving some legitimate businesses without access to banking services in Panama. Panama has no central bank.

The banking sector is highly dependent on the operating environment in Panama, but it is generally well-positioned to withstand shocks. The banking sector could be impacted if Panama’s sovereign debt rating continues to fall. In early 2021, Fitch downgraded four private banks and one state-owned bank, based primarily on concerns about Panama’s pandemic-related weakening of public finances. As of this writing, three banks have been downgraded to non-investment grade. Approximately 4.7 percent of total banking sector assets are estimated to be non-performing. The four largest banks have total assets of $54.5 billion, which represents 47.07 percent of the National Banking System.

Panama’s 2008 Banking Law regulates the country’s financial sector. The law concentrates regulatory authority in the hands of a well-financed Banking Superintendent (https://www.superbancos.gob.pa/).

Traditional bank lending from the well-developed banking sector is relatively efficient and is the most common source of financing for both domestic and foreign investors, offering the private sector a variety of credit instruments. The free flow of capital is actively supported by the government and is viewed as essential to Panama’s 68 banks (2 official banks, 39 domestic banks, 17 international banks, and 10 bank representational offices).

Foreign banks can operate in Panama and are subject to the same regulatory regime as domestic banks. Panama has not lost any correspondent banking relationships in the last three years.

There are no restrictions on, nor practical measures to prevent, hostile foreign investor takeovers, nor are there regulatory provisions authorizing limitations on foreign participation or control, or other practices that restrict foreign participation. There are no government or private sector rules that prevent foreign participation in industry standards-setting consortia. Financing for consumers is relatively open for mortgages, credit cards, and personal loans, even to those earning modest incomes.

Panama’s strategic geographic location, dollarized economy, status as a regional financial, trade, and logistics hub, and favorable corporate and tax laws make it an attractive destination for money launderers. Money laundered in Panama is believed to come in large part from the proceeds of drug trafficking. Tax evasion, bank fraud, and corruption are also believed to be major sources of illicit funds in Panama. Criminals have been accused of laundering money through shell companies and via bulk cash smuggling and trade at airports and seaports, and in active free trade zones.

In 2015, Panama strengthened its legal framework, amended its criminal code, harmonized legislation with international standards, and passed a law on anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT). Panama also approved Law 18 (2015), which severely restricts the use of bearer shares; companies still using them must appoint a custodian and maintain strict controls over their use. In addition, Panama passed Law 70 (2019), which criminalizes tax evasion and defines it as a money laundering predicate offense.

In June 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) added Panama to its grey list of jurisdictions subject to ongoing monitoring due to strategic AML/CFT deficiencies. FATF cited Panama’s lack of “positive, tangible progress” in measures of effectiveness. Panama agreed to an Action Plan in four major areas: 1) risk, policy, and coordination; 2) supervision; 3) legal persons and arrangements; and 4) money laundering investigation and prosecution. The Action Plan outlined concrete measures that were to be completed in stages by May and September 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FATF granted Panama two extensions, pushing the deadline to January 2021. At its plenary in February 2021, FATF left Panama on the grey list and noted its progress so far, but also pointed to Action Plan items that still need to be addressed.

Panama is only beginning to accurately track criminal prosecutions and convictions related to money laundering and tax evasion. Law enforcement needs more tools and training to conduct long-term, complex financial investigations, including undercover operations. The criminal justice system remains at risk for corruption. However, Panama has made progress in assessing high-risk sectors, improving inter-ministerial cooperation, and passing (though not yet implementing) a law on beneficial ownership. Additionally, the GoP and the United States recently signed an MOU to provide training to combat money laundering and corruption, through judicial investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Panama’s official currency is the U.S. Dollar.

Remittance Policies

Panama has customer due diligence, bulk cash, and suspicious transaction reporting requirements for money service providers (MSB), including 18 remittance companies. Post is not aware of any time limits or waiting periods for remittances. In 2017, the Bank Superintendent assumed oversight of AML/CFT compliance for MSBs. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) grants operating licenses for remittance companies under Law 48 (2003). There have not been any changes to the remittance policies in 2020.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Panama started a sovereign wealth fund, called the Panama Savings Fund (FAP), in 2012 with an initial capitalization of $1.3 billion. The fund follows the Santiago Principles and is a member of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds. The law mandates that from 2015 onward contributions to the National Treasury from the Panama Canal Authority in excess of 3.5 percent of GDP must be deposited into the Fund. In October 2018, the rule for accumulation of the savings was modified to require  that when contributions from the Canal exceed 2.5 percent of GDP, half the surplus must go to national savings. At the end of 2020 the fund had $1.38 billion in equity, compared to $1.39 billion at the end of 2019, with less than 3 percent invested domestically. Panama withdrew $105 million from the FAP in 2020 for pandemic relief.  The fund had a gross income of $96 million in 2020.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Panama has 16 non-financial State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) and 8 financial SOEs that are included in the budget and broken down by enterprise. Each SOE has a Board of Directors with Ministerial participation. SOEs are required to send a report to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Comptroller General’s Office, and the Budget Committee of the National Assembly within the first ten days of each month showing their budget implementation. The reports detail income, expenses, investments, public debt, cash flow, administrative management, management indicators, programmatic achievements, and workload. SOEs are also required to submit quarterly financial statements. SOEs are audited by the Comptroller General’s Office.

The National Electricity Transmission Company (ETESA) is an example of an SOE in the energy sector, and Tocumen Airport and the National Highway Company (ENA) are SOEs in the transportation sector. Financial allocations and earnings from SOEs are publicly available at the Official Digital Gazette (http://www.gacetaoficial.gob.pa/). There is a website under construction that will consolidate information on SOEs: https://panamagov.org/organo-ejecutivo/empresas-publicas/#.

Privatization Program

Panama’s privatization framework law does not distinguish between foreign and domestic investor participation in prospective privatizations. The law calls for pre-screening of potential investors or bidders in certain cases to establish technical capability, but nationality and Panamanian participation are not criteria. The Government of Panama undertook a series of privatizations in the mid-1990s, including most of the country’s electricity generation and distribution, its ports, and its telecommunications sector. There are presently no privatization plans for any major state-owned enterprise.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Panama maintains strict domestic laws relating to labor and employment rights and environmental protection. While enforcement of these laws is not always stringent, major construction projects are required to complete environmental assessments, guarantee worker protections, and comply with government standards for environmental stewardship.

The ILO program “Responsible Business Conduct in Latin America and the Caribbean” is active in Panama and has partnered with the National Council of Private Enterprise (CoNEP) to host events on gender equality. Panama does not yet have a State National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

In February 2012, Panama adopted ISO 26000 to guide businesses in the development of corporate social responsibility (CSR) platforms. In addition, business groups, including the Association of Panamanian Business Executives (APEDE) and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), are active in encouraging and rewarding good CSR practices. Since 2009, the AmCham has given an annual award to recognize member companies for their positive impact on their local communities and environment.

Panama has two goods on the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor”: melons and coffee. DOL removed sugarcane from the list in 2019. Child labor is also prevalent among street vendors and other informal occupations.

There have been several disputes over the resettlement of indigenous populations to make room for hydroelectric projects, such as at Barro Blanco and currently in Bocas del Toro. The government mediates in such cases to ensure that private companies are complying with the terms of resettlement agreements. An indigenous population in Bocas del Toro province is currently dissatisfied with the terms of a resettlement agreement and occasionally holds protests that close down the access road to a hydroelectric dam.

Despite human resource constraints, Panama enforces its labor and environmental laws effectively relative to the region and conducts inspections in a methodical and equitable manner. Panama encourages adherence to the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas and supports the Kimberley Process. Panama is not a government sponsor of either the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.

The National Council of Organized Workers (CONATO) and the National Confederation of Trade Union Unity (CONUSI) are the most active labor organizations advocating for worker rights in the private sector. They enjoy access to and dialogue with key decisionmakers. CONATO is currently participating in a nationwide dialogue to defend the sustainability of the workers retirement fund. CONUSI is focused on labor rights in the construction sector.

Panama is a signatory of the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies. Panama follows the standards set by the International Standards Organization (ISO) and certifies security companies in quality management and security principles consistent with ISO standards.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Corruption is among Panama’s most significant challenges. Panama ranked 111 out of 180 countries in the 2020 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), with its CPI Index score falling from 39 in 2015 to 35 in 2020. High-profile alleged procurement irregularities in 2020, including several related to pandemic response, contributed to public skepticism of government transparency. U.S. investors allege that corruption is present in the private sector and at all levels of the Panamanian government. Purchase managers and import/export businesses have been known to overbill or skim percentages off purchase orders, while judges, mayors, members of the National Assembly, and local representatives have reportedly accepted payments for facilitating land titling and favorable court rulings. The Foreign Corrupt Practice Act (FCPA) precludes U.S. companies from engaging in bribery or other similar activities, and U.S. companies look carefully at levels of corruption before investing or bidding on government contracts.

The process to apply for permits and titles can be opaque, and civil servants have been known to ask for payments at each step of the approval process. The land titling process has been troublesome for many U.S. companies, some of which have waited decades for cases to be resolved. U.S. investors in Panama also complain about a lack of transparency in government procurement. The parameters of government tenders often change during the bidding process, creating confusion and the perception that the government tailors tenders to specific companies. Panama passed legislation in 2019 to modernize its procurement system and address some of these concerns.

Panama’s government lacks strong systemic checks and balances that incentivize accountability. All citizens are bound by anti-corruption laws; however, under Panamanian law, only the National Assembly may initiate corruption investigations against Supreme Court judges, and only the Supreme Court may initiate investigations against members of the National Assembly, which has led to charges of a de facto “non-aggression pact” between the branches. Another key component of the judicial sector, the Public Ministry (Department of Justice), has struggled with a historical susceptibility to political influence.

In late 2016, Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht admitted to paying $59 million in bribes to win Panamanian contracts worth at least $175 million between 2010 and 2014. Odebrecht’s admission was confined to bribes paid during the Martinelli administration; however, former President Juan Carlos Varela (2014-2019) is also under investigation on charges of corruption related to Odebrecht. The scandal’s full reach  is still undetermined, and Odebrecht’s activities in Panama continue, including construction on a second metro line and an expansion of Tocumen airport.

Panama has anti-corruption mechanisms in place, including whistleblower and witness protection programs and conflict-of-interest rules. However, public perception is that anti-corruption laws are weak and not applied rigorously, and that government enforcement bodies and the courts are not effective in pursuing and prosecuting those accused of corruption. The lack of a strong professionalized career civil service in Panama’s public sector has also hindered systemic change. The fight against corruption is hampered by the government’s refusal to dismantle Panama’s dictatorship-era libel and contempt laws, which can be used to punish whistleblowers. Acts of corruption are seldom prosecuted and perpetrators are almost never jailed.

Under President Cortizo, Panama has taken some measures to improve the business climate and encourage transparency. These include a new public-private partnership (APP) law that covers construction, maintenance, and operations projects valued at more than $10 million. The law is designed to implement checks and balances and eliminate discretion in contracting, a positive

step that will increase transparency and create a level playing field for investors. In addition, the public procurement law that was approved in May 2020 is aimed at improving bidding processes so that no tenders can be “made to order”.

Panama ratified the UN’s Anti-Corruption Convention in 2005 and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Convention Against Corruption in 1998. However, there is a perception that Panama should more effectively implement both conventions.

Resources to Report Corruption

ELSA FERNÁNDEZ AGUILAR
National Director
Autoridad Nacional de Transparencia y Acceso a la Informacion (ANTAI)
Ave. del Prado, Edificio 713, Balboa, Ancon, Panama, República de Panama
(507) 527-9270
efernandez@antai.gob.pa
www.antai.gob.pa

Olga de Obaldia
Executive Director
Fundacion Para el Desarrollo y Libertad Ciudadana (Panama’s TI Chapter)
Urbanización Nuevo Paitilla. Calle 59E. Dúplex Nº 25. Ciudad de Panamá. PANAMÁ
(507) 2234120
odeobaldia@libertadciudadana.org

10. Political and Security Environment

Panama is a peaceful and stable democracy. On rare occasions, large-scale protests can turn violent and disrupt commercial activity in affected areas. Mining and energy projects have been sensitive issues, especially those that involve development in designated indigenous areas called Comarcas. One U.S. company has reported not only protests  and obstruction of access to one of its facilities, but expensive acts of vandalism against its property. The unrest is related to disagreements over compensation for affected community members. The GoP has attempted to settle the dispute, but without complete success..

In May 2019, Panama held national elections that international observers agreed were free and fair. The transition to the new government was smooth. Panama’s Constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, and the government respects this right. No authorization is needed for outdoor assembly, although prior notification for administrative purposes is required. Unions, student groups, employee associations, elected officials, and unaffiliated groups frequently attempt to impede traffic and disrupt commerce in order to force the government or private businesses to agree to their demands.

Strife between rival gangs and turf battles in the narcotraffic trade led to a rising homicide rate through the first seven months of 2020, although early indications suggest the wave of gang homicides is receding. The 2020 homicide rate of 11.62 per 100,000 people is still among the lowest in Central America. Crimes other than homicides and cattle rustling were significantly lower in 2020, most likely due to pandemic-related movement restrictions and increased police presence to enforce the restrictions.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

According to official surveys carried out in October 2020, Panama’s unemployment rate was 18.5 percent, a significant increase from 7 percent in 2019 and an obvious consequence of the 2020 COVID-19 economic crisis. Panama’s non-agricultural labor force is nearly 1.6 million people, and around 53 percent of workers are employed in the informal sector (an increase from 45 percent in 2019). The rate of informal labor is higher in indigenous communities, including the Comarcas of Kuna Yala, Embera, and Ngabe Bugle, where 83 percent of jobs are informal.

There is a shortage of skilled workers in accounting, information technology, and specialized construction, and also a dearth of English-speaking workers. Panama spends approximately 13 percent of its budget, or 3 percent of GDP, on education. While Panama has one of the highest minimum wages in the hemisphere, the 2018-2019 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report ranked Panama 89 out of 141 countries for the skillsets of university graduates.

The government’s labor code remains highly restrictive. The Panamanian Labor Code, Chapter 1, Article 17, establishes that foreign workers can constitute only 10 percent of a company’s workforce, or up to 15 percent if those employees have a specialized skill. By law, businesses can only exceed these caps for a defined period and with prior approval from the Ministry of Labor.

Several sectors, including the Panama Canal Authority, the Colon Free Zone, and export processing zones/call centers, are covered by their own labor regimes. Employers outside these zones, such as those in the tourism sector, have called for greater flexibility, easier termination of workers, and the elimination of many constraints on productivity-based pay. The Panamanian government has issued waivers to regulations on an ad hoc basis to address employers’ demands, but there is no consistent standard for obtaining such waivers.

While most public-sector employees can strike and organize professional associations, they cannot organize unions. Private sector unions are required to register with the Ministry of Labor. If the Ministry does not respond to a private-sector union registration application within 15 calendar days, the union automatically gains legal recognition, provided the request was submitted directly, with all the documentation required by law. There are unions in many sectors, but less than 15 percent of the workforce is organized. The most politically active and influential union is in the construction industry.

The Ministry of Labor’s Board of Appeals and Conciliation has authority to resolve certain labor disagreements, such as internal union disputes, enforcement of the minimum wage, and some dismissal issues. The law allows arbitration by mutual consent, at the request of the employee or the ministry, and in the case of a collective dispute in a privately held public utility. It allows either party to appeal if arbitration is mandated during a collective dispute in a public-service company. The Board of Appeals and Conciliation has exclusive competency for disputes related to domestic employees, some dismissal issues, and claims of less than $1,500.

The Ministry of the Presidency’s Conciliation Board hears and resolves complaints by public-sector workers. The Board refers complaints that it fails to resolve to an arbitration panel, which consists of representatives from the employer, the professional association, and a third member chosen by the first two. If the dispute cannot be resolved, it is referred to a tribunal under the Board. Observers, however, have noted that the Ministry of the Presidency has not yet designated the tribunal judges. The alternative to the Board is the civil court system.

Severance payments to workers upon termination are significant in Panama. These take the place of unemployment insurance, which does not exist in Panama. During the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have been permitted to furlough workers for longer than normally permitted, without paying severance. Law 201 of February 2021 requires companies that have been permitted to re-open to begin reinstating employees’ contracts in phases over a period of eight months; according to the law, no extensions will be granted beyond November 2021. If an employer opts to terminate a contract instead, it can extend severance payments over a period of eight months. The law also requires businesses to pay maternity leave to workers on suspended contracts. These are temporary measures for 2021, after which time furloughs are expected to return to a maximum period of four months.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

 Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $43,061 2020 $54,843 www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment 2018       $58,023                      million USG or international statistical source https://www.inec.gob.pa/publicaciones/Default3.aspx?ID_PUBLICACION=973&ID_CATEGORIA=4&ID_SUBCATEGORIA=25

 

U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $5,272 BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $2,965 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2019 7.2% UNCTAD data available at

https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/EconomicTrends/Fdi.html   

* Source for Host Country Data: https://www.contraloria.gob.pa/assets/informe-del-contralor-2019.pdf
https://www.inec.gob.pa/archivos/P053342420201202152627Cuadro%2001.pdf

Panama reports its GDP numbers as compared to a benchmark of $21.296 million from 2007. The 2019 figures from the table are measured from this benchmark and correspond to a 3 percent increase from 2018.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Outward Direct Investment data is not available. No countries designated as tax havens are sources of inward FDI.

Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 34,124 100% Total Outward N/A 100%
Colombia 9,609 28% Country #1 N/A X%
United States 9,132 27% Country #2 N/A X%
Canada 8,681 25% Country #3 N/A X%
Switzerland 3,695 11% Country #4 N/A X%
United Kingdom 3,007 9% Country #5 N/A X%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

 

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

The data is from June 2020.

Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries 13,553 100% All Countries 929 100% All Countries 12,624 100%
United States 10,013 74% United States 545 59% United States 9,467 75%
Colombia 686 5% Ireland 85 9% Colombia 683 5%
Guatemala 335 2% Cayman Islands 78 8% Guatemala 335 3%
Costa Rica 274 2% Luxembourg 71 8% Costa Rica 273 2%
Chile 233 2% El Salvador 19 2% Chile 231 2%

 

Suriname

Executive Summary

The government of Suriname (GOS) officially supports and encourages business development through local and foreign investment. The overall investment climate favors U.S. investors with experience working in developing countries. To attract FDI, authorities have planned to update institutional and legal frameworks to protect investors and eliminate restrictions regarding investment income transfers and control related FDI flows. However, the World Trade Organization’s 2019 Trade Policy Review concluded that Suriname’s investment regime has not changed since its last review in 2013.  The report states that the overall regime, particularly the approval of FDI, may be discretionary rather than rules-based.

The extractives sector has historically attracted significant foreign direct investment, but numerous factors negatively impact the investment climate as a whole. These factors include an unclear process for awarding concessions and public tenders, corruption, institutional capacity constraints, and a lack of overall transparency. In January 2020, Apache and Total announced a “significant oil discovery” off the coast of Suriname, followed by similar discoveries in April 2020, July 2020, and January 2021. In December 2020, Malaysian national oil company Petronas and ExxonMobil announced a discovery of hydrocarbons in Suriname’s Block 52. Experts estimate that it will take 5-10 years to begin offshore oil production, assuming world oil prices support it. In 2020, the CEO of state-owned oil company Staatsolie estimated that the government of Suriname could earn $10-$15 billion over the course of 20 years if production reaches similar levels as in neighboring Guyana. U.S.-based Newmont Corporation and Canada-based IAMGOLD – the two major multinational gold companies in Suriname – continue to be the key players in Suriname’s gold mining sector, generating significant revenues for the government.

Public debt has increased. The government’s debt burden reached 75% of GDP in 2019, up from 43% in 2015. In November 2019, the National Assembly raised the country’s debt ceiling from 60% of GDP to 95% of GDP. In December 2019, Suriname completed a $125 million sovereign bond offering that allowed the government to take ownership of the Afobaka Hydroelectric Dam. In February 2020, the government admitted that it had taken $197 million from the Central Bank for imports, debt payments, and other unspecified purposes. This led to a steady decrease in the value of the Surinamese dollar, a reduction in foreign currency reserves, and a rise in the price of consumer goods. These developments prompted a series of downgrades from international credit rating agencies. In January 2020, Fitch downgraded Suriname’s Long-Term Foreign Currency Issuer Default Rating from B- to CCC. In April 2020, Standard & Poor lowered Suriname’s long-term sovereign credit rating from B+ to CCC+, while Moody’s changed its outlook on Suriname from stable to negative. The COVID-19 pandemic also damaged Suriname’s economy as health restrictions dampened economic activity, and a near total halt of international travel undermined a key source of foreign currency.

In May 2020, national elections brought a new political coalition to power. Assuming office in July 2020, the government of President Chandrikapersad Santokhi has sought to reverse the economic policies of his predecessor, with a particular focus on addressing the debt burden and diversifying the economy. His government opened negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to arrange a financial assistance package, while also starting talks with international bondholders to restructure Suriname’s repayment schedule. Since taking office, the Santokhi administration has depreciated the Surinamese dollar, raised taxes on fuel and high income-earners, passed a new law on foreign currency matters, amended the State Debt Act to allow the government to take on loans to address COVID-19, and begun reforms of Suriname’s large civil service sector, which constitutes one of the government’s top expenditures. Policy measures that have been announced but not yet enacted include the institution of a value-added tax and a reduction in Suriname’s generous electricity subsidies.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 94 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 162 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 x of XX https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 N/A https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 5,420 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Government of Suriname (GOS) officially supports and encourages business development through foreign and local investment. The overall investment climate favors U.S. investors with experience working in developing countries. Investment opportunities exist in mining, agriculture, the oil and gas sector, timber, fishing, financial technology and tourism.

With the exception of petroleum, Suriname has no sector-specific laws or practices that discriminate against foreign investors, including U.S. investors, by prohibiting, limiting or conditioning foreign investment. In the oil sector, the state oil company, Staatsolie, maintains sole ownership of all oil-related activities. Foreign investment is possible through exploration and product sharing contracts (PSCs) with Staatsolie. Five U.S. companies participate in PSCs as operators and/or as contract partners. A full list of PSCs can be found on Staatsolie’s website: https://www.staatsolie.com/en/staatsolie-hydrocarbon-institute/active-production-sharing-contracts/ 

In February 2021, the Government of Suriname announced that it will terminate its two existing investment entities, namely the Institute for Promoting Investments in Suriname (InvestSur) and the Investment and Development Corporation of Suriname (IDCS) in order to establish a new investment company. In March 2021, the National Assembly launched debate on a draft law to establish a State-owned investment company to be named the Suriname Investment Enterprise NV. The government also created an International Business Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to act as a first point of entry for foreign investors.

Suriname does not have a formal business roundtable or ombudsman aimed at investment retention or maintaining an ongoing dialogue with investors.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign and domestic private entities can establish and own business enterprises and engage in all forms of remunerative activity.

There are no general limits on foreign ownership or control – statutory, de facto, or otherwise. No law requires that domestic nationals own a minimum percentage of domestic companies or that foreign nationals hold seats on the board. No law caps or reduces the percentage of foreign ownership of any private business enterprise.

Except for petroleum, there are no sector-specific restrictions applied to foreign ownership and control. Within the petroleum sector, the law limits ownership to Staatsolie, the state-owned oil company, which maintains sole ownership of all petroleum-related activities. Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) countries do enjoy favored status over other sources of foreign investment, but in practice international firms from beyond the CSME are not denied investment opportunities. An Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union aims to provide European companies better access to Suriname. Suriname has not yet ratified the EPA.

Government ministries screen inbound foreign investments intended for the sector of the economy that they oversee. Special commissions screen all necessary legal and financial documents. Screening criteria vary, but are intended to determine a proposed investment’s compliance with local law. The screening process is neither public nor transparent, and therefore could be considered a barrier to investment. The Department of International Business at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requests that prospective investors fill out an intake form. The intake form will enable its appraisal committee to conduct a quick scan and conclude whether the FDI in question fits the development goals of the government.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The World Trade Organization (WTO) conducted an investment policy review of Suriname in 2019: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp491_e.htm 

The Inter-American Development Bank published a report called Framework for Private Development in Suriname in 2013.The World Bank Group published Suriname Sector Competitiveness Analysis, focusing on the agribusiness and extractive sectors in 2017.

Business Facilitation

The Santokhi administration has emphasized its desire to diversify Suriname’s economy and deepen business ties with the United States, Europe, and others. In 2020, Suriname’s new government began publishing public tenders on the website of the Ministry of Public Works. The government created a Presidential Commission on the Surinamese Diaspora in an effort to explore possibilities for raising capital and increasing business ties with the Surinamese community in the Netherlands. In March 2021, the National Assembly launched debate on a draft law to establish a State-owned investment company to be named the Suriname Investment Enterprise NV. The government also created an International Business Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to act as a first point of entry for foreign investors.

There is no online registration system. Companies must register with the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which provides guidance on registration procedures. At the time of registration, the company needs a local notary’s assent to ratify the company bylaws. For non-residents, the notary also sends a request to the Foreign Exchange Commission for approval. Applicants must obtain a tax number at the registration office of the tax department. Applications then go to the Ministry of Justice and Police and finally to the President for approval. The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism launched the Suriname Electronic Single Window (SESW) in September 2019. Online submission and processing of documents required for import, transit of goods, and export is now possible. The World Bank’s Doing Business report indicates starting a business requires 66 days. The local Chamber of Commerce and Industry states it can take as little as 30 days.

Outward Investment

The Government does not promote or incentivize outward investment. Suriname’s outward investment is minimal.

The Government does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad, but there are no specific mechanisms in place to promote the practice. Due to the small size of the local market, some domestic companies have expanded to CARICOM member states, such as Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Suriname does not use transparent policies and effective laws to foster competition. The previous National Assembly (2015-2020) indicated that it would vote on a draft competition law, but did not do so. The Competitiveness Unit of Suriname coordinates and monitors national competitiveness and is working towards establishing policies and suggesting legislation to foster competition. Current legislation on topics such as taxes, the environment, health, safety, and other matters are not purposely used to impede investment, but may still form obstacles. Employment protection legislation is among the most stringent in the world. Labor laws, for instance, prohibit employers from firing an employee without the permission of the Ministry of Labor once the employee has fulfilled his or her probationary period, which by law is limited to two months. Tax laws are criticized for overburdening the formal business sector, while a large informal sector goes untaxed. Public sector contracts and concessions are not always awarded in a clear and transparent manner. The current administration has announced its commitment to greater transparency in the public tendering process, and the Ministry of Public Works is publishing procurement notices on its website on a regular basis.

There are no informal regulatory processes managed by non-governmental organizations or private sector associations.

Rule-making and regulatory authority exist within relevant ministries at the national level. It is this level of regulation that is most relevant for foreign businesses. The government may consult with relevant stakeholders on regulations, but there is no required public process. The government presents draft laws and regulations to the Council of Minsters for discussion and approval. Once approved, the President’s advisory body, the State Council, considers the draft. If approved, the government presents a draft to the National Assembly for discussion, amendment, and approval, and then to the President for signature. Legislation only goes into effect with the signature of the President and after publication in the National Gazette.

Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are often outdated and therefore not transparent nor consistent with international norms. The National Assembly passed the Act on Annual Accounts in 2017 to create more fiscal transparency by requiring all companies, including state owned enterprises, to publish annual accounts based on the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). The law went into effect in 2020 for large companies, while it went into effect for small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in 2021. Small companies can use the IFRS for SMEs.

Suriname passed new legislation in October 2018 to professionalize and institute better standards in the accountancy profession. The legislation created the Suriname Chartered Accountants Institute (SCAI) and makes membership mandatory for accountants in Suriname. The board of the SCAI has the responsibility to monitor the quality of the profession and apply disciplinary measures.

Draft bills or regulations are discussed in view of the public, and relevant stakeholders may be consulted. The National Assembly has established the email address feedbackwetgeving@dna.sr  as a place where individuals can give their opinion on draft legislation.

There is no centralized online location similar to the Federal Register in the United States where key regulatory actions are published. However, the National Assembly publishes the actual text of adopted laws on its website.

It is unclear what the regulatory enforcement mechanisms that ensure the government follows administrative processes might be, as the processes have not been made accountable to the public. There is no public administration law. The Auditor General’s office is an independent body in charge of supervising the financial management of government funds. The Supreme Audit Institution reports to the National Assembly. The Central Accountant Service exercises control on administrative processes at the ministries and reports to the Ministry of Finance. There is no centralized online location where key regulatory actions or their summaries are published, similar to the Federal Register in the United States.

The minimum wage law was revised by State Decree on July 18, 2019. The government will determine the minimum wage biennially. Regulatory reform efforts announced in prior years have largely not been fully implemented. In January 2021, the government announced its intent to implement a value-added tax (VAT) by January 1, 2022.

Reforms such as the revised minimum wages had at most a modest impact due to inflation.

It is unclear what the regulatory enforcement mechanisms are, as the process has not been made public. Regulations are developed by ministries that have jurisdiction over the relevant area, in consultation with involved stakeholders.

The government’s executive budget proposal and enacted budget are easily accessible to the public. The previous government, led by President Desire Delano Bouterse, submitted an executive budget proposal for 2020, but the budget was not passed. The current administration, led by President Chandrikapersad Santokhi, submitted a draft amended budget for 2020, which the National Assembly passed in November 2020. Actual revenues and expenditures regularly deviate from the enacted budget, and the origin and level of accuracy of some information in the budget were not reliable. A full end-of-year report is not publicly available. The Supreme Audit Institution publishes a limited audit based on self-reporting by the ministries. The State Debt Management Office (SDMO) is responsible for the operational management of the public debt of the government. Data regarding public debt is published every three months in the Government Gazette of Suriname and on the SDMO website.

International Regulatory Considerations

As a member of CARICOM, Suriname has committed to regionally-coordinated regulatory systems.

Suriname uses national and international standards. Standards developed by other (international/regional) standardization bodies that Suriname utilizes include: ISO, Codex Alimentarius, International Electro Technical Commission, CROSQ, ASTM International, COPANT, SMIIC (Standards and Metrology Institute for Islamic Countries), NEN (Nederland Normalisatie Instituut), ETSI, GLOBAL GAP, etc..

Suriname is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) lists only one notification from Suriname in 2015.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Suriname’s legal system is based on the Dutch civil system. Judges uphold the sanctity of contracts and enforce them in accordance with their terms. When an individual or company disputes a signed contract, they have the right to take the case to court. The judiciary consistently upholds local law, applies it, and enforces it for local and international businesses.

Laws are defined in criminal, civil, and commercial codes and verdicts are based on the judge’s interpretation of those codes. There is no specialized commercial court. The commercial codes contain commercial legislation.

Historically, the judicial system has been considered to be independent of the executive branch. Most observers consider the judicial system to be procedurally competent, fair, reliable, and free of overt government interference. Due to a shortage of judges and administrative staff, processing of civil cases can be delayed. Last year, the Court of Justice appointed seven new judges to ease the delay in court cases. The number of judges is now 30.

Draft regulations may be reviewed by involved stakeholders and they may be given the opportunity to comment. Since October 2019, individuals have also had the option to comment on draft legislation via email at feedbackwetgeving@dna.sr. There is no formal, required public consultation process. Suriname has no general administrative law, so there are no special administrative tribunals. Judges of the regular courts also hear cases of administrative law.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The overall regime, and more particularly the approval of foreign direct investment (FDI), may be discretionary rather than rules-based, leading to heightened unpredictability and uncertainty, and associated risks of favoritism and corruption.

In March 2020, the previous National Assembly passed the Foreign Exchange Act, which placed constraints on the use of foreign currency in cash transactions and established a strict exchange rate for the Surinamese dollar. It also granted the government broad authorities to enforce the law, as well as the power to halt the import of “non-essential” goods. In May 2020, a judge suspended the law over questions concerning its constitutionality. In March 2021, the Santokhi govenrment revoked the law and submitted an amended version to the National Assembly for debate.

In April 2020, the previous National Assembly passed the COVID-19 State of Emergency Law, which granted the government broad powers to enforce COVID-19-related precautionary measures. It also created a $53 million fund to assist struggling businesses, and it allowed the government to take loans and advances from local institutions and consolidate them into a single mega-loan. The new National Assembly extended the law in August 2020 and extended it once again in February 2021.

In September 2020, the new National Assembly amended the State Debt Act and the COVID-19 State of Emergency Law. The changes in these laws allow the government to take out local and international loans in order to respond to the global pandemic. In November 2019, the previous National Assembly amended the State Debt Act in order to raise the government’s debt ceiling from 60% of GDP to 95% of GDP.

In February 2021, the Foreign Exchange Commission announced three new measures regarding exchange rate policy. First, exporters will be required to repatriate all their earned export revenues to Suriname, which also means that the buyer abroad will have to pay for the purchased goods through a Surinamese commercial bank. Second, exporters and foreign exchange offices will be required to exchange 30% of their income in foreign currency to the local currency, the Surinamese Dollar (SRD). Third, importers are required to pay for their imports via Surinamese commercial banks. The stated intention of this measure is to foreclose the possibility that exporters act as illegal “cambios” to finance imports and thus make illegal profits. It is also designed to combat trade-based money laundering.

Several criminal investigations of former government officials began in 2020. In February 2020, former Central Bank Governor Robert van Trikt was arrested on fraud charges. In August 2020, the new National Assembly officially indicted ex-Minister of Finance Gillmore Hoefdraad, which allowed the Attorney General to launch an investigation into alleged financial mismanagement conducted by Hoefdraad in collaboration with the ex-Governor of the Central Bank of Suriname, Robert van Trikt. In December 2020, the new National Assembly voted to indict former Vice President (and current National Assembly member) Ashwin Adhin, which allowed the Attorney General to pursue a criminal investigation for embezzlement, fraud, and destruction of government property. The cases remain ongoing.

There is no primary one-stop-shop website for investments that provide relevant laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements for investors.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

There are no domestic agencies currently reviewing transactions for competition-related concerns. The previous National Assembly (2015-2020) considered draft laws on competition and consumer protection, but did not ultimately vote on them. According to the authorities, no date for enactment is foreseen. Both draft laws also cover state-owned enterprises. The CARICOM Competition Commission is based in Suriname, and it monitors potential anti-competitive practices for enterprises operating within the CARICOM Single Market and Economy.

Expropriation and Compensation

According to Article 34 of Suriname’s constitution, expropriation will take place “only for reasons of public utility” and with prior compensation. In practice, the government has no history of expropriations. However, Article 42 of Suriname’s constitution specifically refers to all natural resources as property of the nation, and states that the nation has inalienable rights to take possession of all natural resources to utilize them for the economic, social, and cultural development of Suriname.

There is no history of expropriation.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Suriname is not a party to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of other States (ICSID). Suriname has been a member of the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards since 1964, when the country was still a colony of the Netherlands. Upon becoming independent in 1975, Suriname automatically continued its membership in international conventions and treaties.

There is no specific domestic legislation providing enforcement of awards under the 1958 New York Convention or under the ICSID convention.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

The government is a member state of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA).

Suriname has no BIT or FTA with an investment chapter with the United States.

There have been no publicly known investment disputes in the past 10 years involving a U.S person or other foreign investor. Every effort is made to settle investment disputes outside the court system or via arbitration.

Judgments of foreign arbitral awards are enforced by the local courts only if Suriname has a legal treaty of jurisprudence with the foreign country involved. If not, the foreign judgment can be brought before the Surinamese court for consideration as long as the court determines it has jurisdiction and doing so does not otherwise violate any Surinamese laws. With Suriname’s participation and membership in the Caribbean Court of Justice, judgments from this court are also binding for local courts. Cases have been successfully filed against Suriname before the Inter-American Court of Justice and the Organization of American States. Judgments from these courts have been upheld by the Surinamese legal system.

There is no known history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Suriname’s civil law includes options for arbitration. The government reactivated the Suriname Arbitration Institute (SAI) in August 2014 to offer arbitration and mediation services. The SAI collaborates with the Dutch Arbitration Institute.

The Mediation Council, pursuant to the Labor Mediation Act of 1946, promotes the peaceful settlement of disputes concerning labor issues and the prevention of such disputes in Suriname.

Local courts only recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards if doing so is stipulated in the contract or agreement and it does not contradict local law. Foreign arbitration is an accepted means of settling disputes between private parties, but only if local alternatives are exhausted.

There have been no publicly known investment disputes in which state-owned enterprises are involved. Court processes are, in general, considered transparent and non-discriminatory.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Suriname has bankruptcy legislation. Creditors, equity shareholders, and holders of other financial contracts, including foreign contract holders, have the right to file for liquidation of debts due to insolvency. In a case where there is a loan from a commercial bank, repayment of the bank loan takes precedence. Bankruptcy, in principle, is not criminalized. However, in cases where a board of directors encouraged a company to pursue bankruptcy to avoid creditors, courts have viewed this behavior as a criminal offense. In the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, Suriname stands at 139 in the ranking of 190 economies on the ease of resolving insolvency.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Under current regulations, foreign investors can benefit from both tax and non-tax based incentives. Tax-based incentives include a nine-year tax holiday that can be extended by one year if the investment is at least $13 million; accelerated depreciation of assets; and tax consolidation. Under the Raw Minerals Act, the government grants an exemption of duties for the import of raw materials from CARICOM member countries. Exemptions are also granted in the food industry, the soft drink industry, and the fruit juice industry. In 2011, the government eliminated import duties on computers and related items. The law accords special consideration on investments exceeding $50 million and investments in the exploration and exploitation of bauxite, hydrocarbons, gold, and radioactive minerals. Large investments in the mining sector are subject to extensive negotiations between the government and investors. The government maintains the ability to grant incentives that depart from the provisions in the 2001 Investment Law, for example, incentives related to the provisions of infrastructure. The government does not have a practice of issuing guarantees or jointly financing foreign direct investment projects.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Suriname does not have a free trade zone ore duty free zone.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

There are no policies that mandate hiring local employment; however, the Work Permits Act prohibits employers from employing foreigners without a work permit granted by the Ministry of Labor. Some large multinationals have specific agreements with the government mandating the hiring of local employees.

There are no policies requiring that senior management and board of directors should be Surinamese nationals.

There are no excessively onerous visa, residence, or work permit requirements inhibiting foreign investors’ mobility. Foreigners with short-term business in Suriname can apply online for an e-visa at: https://suriname.vfsevisa.com/ . Business visas require a letter of introduction from the business the applicant will be working with in Suriname. Foreigners who want to work in Suriname first need to apply for a residency permit at the Ministry of Justice and Police, after which they can apply for a work permit at the Ministry of Labor. The free movement of artists, university graduates, media workers, musicians, and athletes of CARICOM origin is arranged through CSME regulations. CSME regulations also provide for the free movement for those seeking to establish or conduct business within the community.

There are no government/authority-imposed conditions on permission to invest. In practice, large foreign investments, especially in the extractives sector, require approval from the relevant Ministry.

The government does not impose forced localization policies on foreign investors.

There are no enforcement procedures for performance requirements on investors.

The 2001 Investment Law authorizes the Minister of Finance to grant both tax and non-tax incentives for new investments and for the expansion of existing investments. Incentives for new investments are on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the Ministry of Finance. Incentives are available for both domestic and foreign investors, but investors must apply for these incentives before the initial investment is made.

Foreign IT providers are not required to turn over source code and/or provide access to encryption.

There are no measures that prevent or unduly impede companies from freely transmitting customer or other business-related data outside the country’s territory.

There are no mechanisms used to enforce any rules on local data storage within the country.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Interest in property is enforced. Mortgages and liens are common. Mortgages are registered with the Mortgage Office. However, no effective registration system exists for other types of liens.

Non-residents can request to lease land from the government if they have established a company under Surinamese law. However, the process from application to approval is lengthy.

The percentage of land in Suriname that lacks a clear land title remains unknown. There is no sustained effort by the government to identify property owners and register land titles. Article 1-1 of the L-1 decree, Principles of Land Policy, states that “all land, to which others have not proven their right to ownership, is domain of the State.” Furthermore, Article 41 of the Surinamese constitution states that wealth and resources are property of the nation and shall be used to promote economic, social, and cultural development. There is no effective demarcation of substantial land claims by indigenous people in the interior.

Unoccupied, legally-purchased property cannot be reverted to other owners, such as squatters.

Intellectual Property Rights

Suriname is a member of the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization; however, it has not ratified the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. Even though Suriname is party to multiple agreements, intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement is weak. The current legal framework mentions protection of copyright, trademarks, and patents; however, that legislation dates back to 1912 (amended in 2001). Although the National Assembly passed amendments to the Music Copyright Law of 1913 in March 2015, there is no enforcement. Infringement on rights and theft are not uncommon due to the absence of enforcement capacity. There is also no protection provided for industrial designs, utility models, geographical indications, layout designs of integrated circuits or undisclosed information.

No IPR-related laws or regulations have been enacted in the past year. A draft IPR bill had been pending under the previous National Assembly (2015-2020), but it did not receive a vote. Currently, patents and copyrights must be registered abroad due to a lack of local legislation.

In 2012, the Suriname Port Unit was established to improve port security and prevent the illegal use of sea containers in drug trafficking and transnational organized criminal activities, such as trafficking in chemicals used in the manufacture of drugs (precursors), smuggling of goods (including counterfeit goods), tax evasion, and possible terrorist acts.

Suriname is not mentioned in the United States Trade Representative’s 2021 Special 301 Report , nor is it named in its 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The government does not promote portfolio investment.

There is a small self-regulating stock market with eleven companies registered. It meets twice a month but does not have an electronic exchange. There is no effective regulatory system to encourage and facilitate portfolio investment. At present, Suriname is facing liquidity shortfalls. Sufficient policies do exist to facilitate the free flow of financial resources.

As an IMF Article VIII member, Suriname has agreed to refrain from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.

Credit is allocated on market terms and at market rates. Foreign investors that establish businesses in Suriname are able to get credit on the local market, usually with a payment guarantee from the parent company. The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments. Larger companies can obtain customized credit products. There is, however, a Central Bank regulation that limits a commercial bank’s credit exposure to a single client.

Money and Banking System

The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments. Larger companies can obtain customized credit products

According to the IMF Article IV Consultation in 2019, the banking system faces pressing vulnerabilities.

Based on the latest (July 2019) data, the capital adequacy ratio for the banking system stood at 10.5 percent (above the 10 percent minimum requirement), but non-performing loans in the banking system remained high (12.5 percent of gross loans), and profitability was low (0.7 percent return on assets). Deposit and loan dollarization remain high.

Total estimated assets of Suriname’s largest banks:

DSB Bank (annual report, 2018): $1,007 million. DSB annual report 2019 is delayed due to COVID-19 and time needed to implement IFRS.

Hakrin Bank (annual report 28, 2019): $671.2 million

Republic Bank Limited (2020 annual report, Suriname-based assets): $396.5 million. (The Republic Bank Limited of Trinidad and Tobago acquired Royal Bank of Canada’s Suriname holdings in 2015.)

Finabank (annual report, 2019): $322.8 million

Suriname has a central bank system.

Foreign banks or branches are allowed to establish operations in Suriname. They are subject to the same measures and regulations as local banks. According to an IMF assessment in 2016, banks in Suriname are among those in the region that have lost their correspondent relationships. The IMF notes that though the loss of correspondent banking relationships has not reached systemic proportions, a critical risk still exists. According to the IMF’s Article IV Consultation report in 2019, there is a possibility of losing corresponding banking relationships given recent overseas investigations of potential money laundering via Suriname’s financial sector. The reputational risk to both local and foreign banks acting as their correspondents is substantial. In March 2021, Suriname announced that it had completed a National Risk Assessment to identify and assess its vulnerability to money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

There are no restrictions for foreigners to open a bank account. Banks require U.S. citizens to provide the information necessary to comply with the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no restrictions or limitations placed on foreign investors in converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment, such as remittances of investment capital, earnings, loan or lease payments, or royalties. There can be shortages in the availability of U.S. cash dollars at local banks, which can affect businesses.

Funds associated with any form of investment can be freely converted into a usable currency at legal market clearing rates with the permission of the Foreign Exchange Commission. However, the criteria for obtaining permissions are opaque.

In September 2020, the Central Bank of Suriname (CBvS) announced the depreciation of the Surinamese Dollar (SRD). The previous official exchange rate was SRD7.52 to $1 dollar. The new sale rate was adjusted to SRD14.29 to $1 dollar. In March 2021, the CBvS announced that it had come to an agreement with the government to establish a minimum and maximum exchange rate for the U.S. dollar, namely that the rate must stay between SRD14.29 and SRD16.30 to $1. In addition to the official exchange rate, different rates are available unofficially in parallel exchange markets. Media reports indicate that exchange rate policy is a key component of Suriname’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund – negotiations which began in 2020.

Remittance Policies

There are no recent changes or plans to change investment remittance policies.

The waiting period on remittances can be relatively short for dividends; return on investments, interest, and principal on private foreign debt; lease payments; royalties; and management fees. The time needed to process the requests depends on the sector and the amount transferred. Transfers through the banking system can range from same day to one week waiting times, contingent upon approval by the Foreign Exchange Commission.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

On May 4, 2017, the National Assembly passed legislation establishing a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). In August 2020, President Santokhi announced that the government would operationalize Suriname’s SWF, as the previous government had not instituted the necessary state decrees to do so. In December 2020, the government held talks with experts from Norway to learn more from the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund.

Suriname does not participate in the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

State owned enterprises (SOEs) operate in the oil, agribusiness, mining, communications, travel, energy, and financial sectors. SOEs provide little information regarding their operations. Only a few produce annual reports accessible to the public. Staatsolie, Suriname’s state-owned oil company, has publicly available audited accounts. As of 2020, all state-owned enterprises will be required to publish annual accounts. Several have been accused of fraud or corrupt practices. In August 2020, President Santokhi installed a Presidential Committee on the Improper Use of Public Goods. The task of the committee is to conduct an inventory of goods purchased on behalf of the government, as well as semi-governmental entities and SOEs.

There is no public list of SOEs.

SOEs receive advantages when competing in the domestic market. These include access to government guarantees and government loans otherwise unavailable to private enterprises. Additionally, SOEs have access to land and raw materials inaccessible to private entities.

The government does not yet adhere to the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance for SOEs.

Privatization Program

The GoS did announce a privatization program largely in the agricultural sector, but the only privatization was the state-owned banana company in 2014. The official governing accord of the ruling coalition states that privatization of SOEs will be considered where appropriate, while President Santokhi has indicated that some SOEs will need to be privatized. However, no such privatizations have taken place under the new government.

Foreign investors can participate in privatization programs. In 2014, the Belgium multinational, UNIVEG, acquired a 90 percent stake in the state-owned banana company through a public, international bidding process. The European Commission assisted with the bidding process. UNIVEG later pulled out of Suriname. The Government took over the remaining 90 percent shares and $15 million debt of UNIVEG and is now the only share holder. As this is the only example of privatization within Suriname, no standard privatization or public bidding processes have been established by the government.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is a growing awareness of expectations of standards for responsible business conduct (RBC) among consumers and producers. Historically, Alcoa’s subsidiary, Suralco, took the lead on RBC in Suriname, and large multinationals such as Newmont continue to be the largest proponents of RBC. Some larger, state-owned and local companies also model RBC, including Staatsolie, Surinam Airways, Telesur, and the Fernandes Group of Companies, which holds the distribution rights for Coca-Cola, and the McDonalds franchise rights. In March 2020, a number of prominent local companies and business leaders established the SU4SU COVID-19 support fund, which has raised money and donated medical equipment and PPE to local health authorities to assist their efforts in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government has not taken systematic measures to encourage or promote RBC. Companies are allowed to develop their own policies and standards. The government does incorporate RBC in some of its partnerships and agreements with multinational firms. For example, recent agreements between Staatsolie and foreign companies for offshore drilling include stipulations regarding RBC. The government has no national point of contact or ombudsman for stakeholders to acquire information or raise concerns about RBC. The GOS has not conducted a National Action Plan on RBC and/or Business and Human Rights. It is not known if RBC policies are part of the government’s procurement decisions.

There are no alleged/reported human or labor rights concern related to RBC.

There have been no recent high profile controversial instances of private sector impact on human rights, though indigenous land rights in the interior is an ongoing issue.

The Labor Inspection Department from the Ministry of Labor supervises and enforces the observance of legal regulations regarding the conditions of employment and the protection of employees performing duties. Laws were enforced only in the formal sectors. Labor inspectors did not make regular occupational safety and health inspections. The government is drafting consumer and environmental protection laws. In March 2020, the National Assembly passed an Environment Framework Law.

Currently there is no legislation for corporate governance and executive compensation standards to protect shareholders. The Act on Annual Accounts will require companies to publish annual accounts based on the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) starting in 2020.

The Suriname Trade and Business Association has taken the lead in promoting RBC. The Suriname Conservation Foundation initiated a Green Partnership Program in 2020 signed by 14 enterprises, 13 of which are local, to stimulate awareness about a green economy and nature preservation. So far, no incidents have been reported indicating that those monitoring and or advocating around RBC cannot work freely.

The host government has not encouraged adherence to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chain of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. In March 2019, the government adopted legislation to join the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme in order to become a member of the World Diamond Council Association.

The host government has not encouraged adherence to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chain of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. Suriname became a member of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative in 2017. There are no domestic transparency measures requiring the disclosure of payments made to governments and/or other RBC/BHR policies or practices.

Suriname is not a signatory of The Montreux Document on Private Military and Security companies, nor a supporter of the International Code of Conduct or Private Security Providers nor a participant in the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers Association (ICoCA).

Additional Resources 

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Suriname’s legal code penalizes corruption, but there is virtually no enforcement. Government officials are occasionally removed from assignments, but convictions are rare. On September 1, 2017, parliament passed anti-corruption legislation nearly 15 years after the initial draft bill was introduced to the National Assembly. An anti-corruption commission, which is mandated by the legislation, has not yet been installed. In August 2020, President Santokhi installed a Presidential committee to conduct an inventory of executive orders and determine what mechanisms need to be put in place to install an anti-corruption commission. Suriname ranks on 94 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Index of Transparency International.

Existing laws that deal with corruption do not extend to family members of officials, or to political parties.

There are currently no laws or regulations to counter conflicts of interest in awarding contracts or government procurement. The Ministry of Public Works announced that it will soon adopt stricter, but also flexible measures for transparency in tenders. Legal requirements for tenders will be examined. Non-legal requirements will be adjusted and introduced shortly. Civil servants and politicians will be prohibited from taking part in tenders.

The government does not encourage or require private companies to establish internal codes of conduct prohibiting bribery of public officials.

Local private companies do not use internal control, ethics, and compliance programs to detect and prevent bribery of government officials.

Suriname has signed and ratified the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Suriname has not yet signed and ratified the UN Convention against Corruption. Suriname is not a party to the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery.

There are no NGOs that focus exclusively on investigating corruption.

U.S. firms have identified corruption as an obstacle to FDI. Corruption is believed to be most pervasive in government procurement, the awarding of licenses and concessions, customs, and taxation.

Resources to Report Corruption

Fraud Department
Suriname Police Force( Korps Politie Suriname)
Havenlaan, Paramaribo, Suriname
(597) 404-943

10. Political and Security Environment

Since the conclusion of the interior war in 1992, Suriname has not seen politically motivated violence or civil disturbance.

In July 2019, illegal goldminers damaged property at the Rosebel goldmine after the company’s security personnel fatally shot an illegal goldminer. The mine was subsequently closed for one month, and then reopened.

Although there is political polarization in Suriname, past elections were considered to be free and fair by international observers, including national elections on May 25, 2020, which brought then-opposition parties into power.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

In general, both skilled and unskilled labor is available in the local market. Foreign workers are mainly active in the extractive industries and agricultural sector. Not only Haitians, but also an influx of Cubans have entered the workforce and are active in several sectors for lower wages. Documented foreign workers are protected by labor laws. According to the Statistical Bureau, the unemployment rate in 2019 was 11 percent. An estimated 15 percent of the working-age population worked in the informal economy.

Heavy equipment operators, welders, and other skilled workers in the extractive industries are in high demand. In recent years, Suriname recruited physicians and ER nurses from the Philippines to work in hospital emergency rooms. Because of the economic downturn in 2015-2016, the majority of these workers have left the country, resulting in a shortage of nurses and medical staff. Since 2005, Suriname has welcomed Cuban medical professionals on a rolling basis. In March 2020, Cuba sent 20 doctors and 30 nurses to Suriname to assist with the government’s COVID-19 response. In January 2021, the Minister of Public Health announced that approximately 40 of the almost 100 Cuban medical workers in Suriname had voluntarily agreed to return to Cuba.

There are no policies that require the hiring of nationals; however, the Work Permits Act prohibits employers from employing foreigners without a work permit granted by the Ministry of Labor.

Legislation makes it difficult for employers to respond to fluctuating market conditions. The Dismissal Permits Act prohibits employers from dismissing employees without permission from the Ministry of Labor. Collective redundancy for organizational or economic reasons is permitted in cases such as the closure or decline of a business. Generally, when an employee is laid off, unions negotiate with the employer regarding a package and duration of social benefits. Labor organizations sometimes object to work based on contracts as opposed to full time, ongoing employment.

Labor laws are not waived to attract or retain investment. As Suriname has no special economic zones, foreign trade zones, or free ports with alternative labor policies, all entities are subject to existing legislation.

Collective bargaining agreements are widespread in both the private and public sector. Data regarding the percentage of the economy covered by collective bargaining agreements is unavailable. Employees of most large multi-national firms are unionized.

Labor dispute mechanisms are in place and freely used for mediation and arbitration.

Strikes that pose an investment risk are rare.

Suriname is a member of the International Labor Organization and recognizes international labor law in its domestic legislation. In 2018, Suriname made a moderate advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The government ratified International Labor Organization Convention 138 concerning the minimum age for admission to employment, acceded to the Protocol to the Forced Labor Convention, and amended the Law on Labor for Children and Young People, raising the minimum age of work to 16 years.

In June 2019, the National Assembly adopted the family protection law regarding maternity and paternity leave. In July 2019, the National Assembly approved an update of the Minimum Wage Act which set the minimum wage at SRD 8.40 per hour, effective July 10. Every two years, starting 2020, a National Wage Board will advise on a new minimum wage to the Minister of Labor. Pending draft bills in 2020 under the previous National Assembly (2015-2020) included the Draft Working Conditions Act of 2019, the Draft Equal Treatment Act, a draft law on violence and sexual harassment, and a draft law on working hours regulation.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International
Source of Data: BEA; IMF;
Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $3,731 2019 $3,697 www.worldbank.org/en/country  www.cbvs.sr
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international
Source of data: BEA; IMF;
Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 20xx N/A 20xx N/A BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 20xx N/A 20xx N/A BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/
international/direct-investment-
and-multinational-enterprises-
comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 20xx N/A 20xx N/A UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/
handbook/Economic
Trends/Fdi.html

* Source for Host Country Data: Central Bank of Suriname

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Data not available.

Note: Suriname does not release foreign direct investment data publicly. The IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (CDIS) has no information on Suriname. There are no tax haven sources of inward FDI.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

Data not available.

Note: Portfolio investment data are not available in Suriname on the IMF’s Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey. The host government does not publish portfolio investment data.

Trinidad and Tobago

Executive Summary

Trinidad and Tobago (TT) is a high-income developing country with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $17,397 and an annual GDP of $24.3 billion (2019). It has the largest economy in the English-speaking Caribbean and is the third most populous country in the region with 1.4 million inhabitants. The International Monetary Fund predicts GDP for 2021 will increase by 2.6 percent as the economy rebounds following the economic impact of coronavirus mitigation. TT’s investment climate is generally open and most investment barriers have been eliminated, but stifling bureaucracy and opaque procedures remain.

Energy exploration and production drive TT’s economy. This sector has historically attracted the most foreign direct investment. The energy sector usually accounts for approximately half of GDP and 80 percent of export earnings. Petrochemicals and steel are other sectors accounting for significant foreign investment. Since the economy is tethered to the energy sector, it is particularly vulnerable to fluctuating prices for hydrocarbons and petrochemicals.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 86 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 105 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 98 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 $6,200 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 $17,010 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The government of Trinidad and Tobago seeks foreign direct investment and has traditionally welcomed U.S. investors.

The U.S. Mission is not aware of laws or practices that discriminate against foreign investors but some have seen the decision-making process for tenders and the subsequent awarding of contracts turn opaque without warning, especially when their interests compete with those of well-connected local firms.

InvesTT is the country’s investment promotion agency that assists investors through the process of setting up a non-energy business and provides aftercare services once established. Specifically, it provides market information; offers advice on accessing investment incentives; and assists with regulatory and registry issues; property and location services; creation of business linkages; problem solving; and advocacy to the government. The Trinidad and Tobago International Financial Center is another investment promotion agency whose mission is to attract and facilitate foreign direct investment in the financial services sector.

While Trinidad and Tobago prioritizes investment retention, the U.S. Mission is not aware of a formal, ongoing dialogue with investors, either through an Ombudsman or formal business roundtable.

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.

There are no limits on foreign ownership. Under the Foreign Investment Act of 1990, a foreign investor is permitted to own 100 percent of the share capital in a private company. A license is required to own more than a 30 percent of a public company.

The U.S. Mission is not aware of any sector-specific restrictions or limitations applied to U.S. investors.

Trinidad and Tobago maintains an investment screening mechanism for foreign investment related to specific projects that have been submitted for the purpose of accessing sector-specific incentives, such as for those offered in the tourism industry.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The World Trade Organization conducted a trade policy review for Trinidad and Tobago in 2019: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp488_e.htm 

Business Facilitation

The government’s business facilitation efforts focus primarily on investor services (helping deal with rules and procedures) through its investment promotion agency and trying to make the rules more transparent and predictable overall. However, more work needs to be done to achieve efficient administrative procedures and dispute resolution. Trinidad and Tobago ranks 158th of 190 countries for registering property, 174th for enforcing contracts, and 160th for payment of taxes in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report, representing a deterioration of indicators that reflect a difficulty of doing business.

The business registration website is: www.ttbizlink.gov.tt . The Global Enterprise Registration Network (GER) gives the TT business registration website a below-average score of 3 out of 10 for its single electronic window, and 4.5 out of 10 for providing information on how to register a business (TTconnect.gov.tt). While the process is clear, the inability to make online payments, and submit certificates online requests are the two main reasons for the low score. A feedback mechanism allowing users to communicate with authorities is a strength of the TT business registration website. Foreign companies can use the website and business registration requires completion of seven procedures over a period of 10 days. The agencies with which a company must typically register include:

  • Companies Registry, Ministry of Legal Affairs
  • Board of Inland Revenue
  • National Insurance Board; and
  • Value Added Tax (VAT Office, Board of Inland Revenue)

Outward Investment

The host government does not promote or incentivize outward investment.

The host government does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Through the Trinidad and Tobago Fair Trading Commission, the government develops transparent policies and effective laws to foster market-based competition on a non-discriminatory basis and establishes “clear rules of the game.” Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are generally transparent and consistent with international norms

There are no informal regulatory processes managed by non-governmental organizations or private sector associations.

Rule-making and regulatory authority exist within the ministries and regulatory agencies at the national level. The government consults frequently, but not always, with international agencies and business associations in developing regulations. The government submits draft regulations to parliament for approval. The process is the same for each ministry.

Accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures are transparent and consistent with international norms. International financial reporting standards are required for domestic public companies.

Proposed laws and regulations are often published in draft form electronically for public review at http://www.ttparliament.org/, though there is no legal obligation to do so. The government often solicits private sector and business community comments on proposed legislation, though there is no timeframe for the length of a consultation period when it happens, nor is reporting on the consultations mandatory.

All draft bills and regulations are printed in the official gazette and other websites: www.news.gov.tt/content/e-gazette# 

  • ;

The U.S. Mission is not aware of an oversight or enforcement mechanism that ensures that the government follows administrative processes.

There has not been any announcement regarding reforms to the regulatory system, including enforcement, since the last ICS report. Regulatory reform efforts announced in prior years, such as the mechanism to calculate and collect property tax and the establishment of the revenue authority, have not been fully implemented.

Establishment of the revenue authority is intended to increase collections and streamline the system for paying taxes.

At present, regulatory enforcement mechanisms are usually a combination of moral suasion and the use of applicable administrative, civil, or criminal sanctions. The enforcement process is not legally reviewable.

Regulation is usually reviewed based on scientific or data-driven assessments. Scientific studies or quantitative analyses are not made publicly available. Public comments received by regulators are generally not made public.

Public finances and debt obligations are transparent and publicly available on the central bank website: https://www.central-bank.org.tt

International Regulatory Considerations

Trinidad and Tobago is not a part of a regional economic block, though it is part of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a regional trading bloc that gives duty-free access to member goods, free movement to some members and establishes common treatment of non-members on specific issues. The Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) is an initiative currently being explored by CARICOM that would eventually integrate its member-states into a single economic unit. When fully completed, the CSME would succeed CARICOM.

Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are generally consistent with United Kingdom standards.

The government has not consistently notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) of draft technical regulations.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

TT’s legal system is based on English common law. Contracts are legally enforced through the court system.

The country has a written commercial law. There are few specialized courts, making the resolution of legal claims time consuming. An industrial court exclusively handles cases relating to labor practices but also suffers from severe backlogs and is widely seen to favor claimants.

Civil cases of less than $2,250 are heard by the Magistrate’s Court. Matters exceeding that amount are heard in the High Court of Justice, which can grant equitable relief. There is no court or division of a court dedicated solely to hearing commercial cases.

TT’s judicial system is independent of the executive, and the judicial process is competent, procedurally and substantively fair, and reliable, although very slow. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report, Trinidad and Tobago ranks 174 of 190 in ease of enforcing contracts, and its court system requires 1,340 days to resolve a contract claim, nearly double the Latin American and Caribbean regional average.

Decisions may be appealed to the Court of Appeal in the first instance. The United Kingdom Privy Council Judicial Committee is the final court of appeal.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

TT’s judicial system respects the sanctity of contracts and generally provides a level playing field for foreign investors involved in court matters. Due to the backlog of cases, however, there can be major delays in the process. It is imperative that foreign investors seek competent local legal counsel. Some U.S. companies are hesitant to pursue legal remedies, preferring to attempt good faith negotiations in order to avoid an acrimonious relationship that could harm their interests in the country’s small, tight-knit business community.

There is no “one-stop-shop” website for investment providing relevant laws, rules, and procedures. Useful websites to help navigate foreign investment laws, rules, and procedures include: http://www.legalaffairs.gov.tt 

Competition and Antitrust Laws

The Trinidad and Tobago Fair Trading Commission is an independent statutory agency responsible for promoting and maintaining fair competition in the domestic market. It is tasked with investigating the various forms of anti-competitive business conduct set out in the Fair-Trading Act. Legislation operationalizing this agency in 2006 was not proclaimed by the president until February 2020, and in that time no cases that involve foreign investment have arisen.

Expropriation and Compensation

The government can legally expropriate property based on the needs of the country and only after due process including adequate compensation, generally based on market value. Various pieces of legislation make provisions for compulsory licensing in the interest of public health or intellectual property rights.

The U.S. Mission is not aware of any direct or indirect expropriation actions since the 1980s. All prior expropriations were compensated to the satisfaction of the parties involved. Energy sector contacts occasionally describe the tax regime as confiscatory, pointing to after-the-fact withdrawal or weakening of tax incentives offered to entice investment once investment occurs.

Claimants did not allege a lack of due process in prior expropriation cases.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

TT is a party to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention) and the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York convention).

Local courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards according to chapter 20 of the Arbitration (Foreign Arbitral Awards) Act 1996.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

The bilateral investment treaty between the United States and TT recognizes binding arbitration of investment disputes.

The U.S. Mission is not aware of any claims by U.S. investors under the bilateral investment treaty with the United States.

The U.S. Mission is unaware of any disputes involving U.S. or other foreign investors over the past 10 years. There is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Some of the available types of alternative dispute resolution include mediation and arbitration. The Civil Proceedings Rules encourage parties to make reasonable attempts to resolve their disputes amicably with litigation as a last resort.  Mediation and arbitration are most commonly used.

There is a domestic dispute resolution center that offers arbitration services. Domestic legislation, the Arbitration Act of 1939, is based on early English arbitration legislation and is not modeled on internationally accepted regulations.

The U.S. Mission has no records of any investment disputes involving an state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Bankruptcy Regulations

Creditors have the right to be notified within 10 days of the appointment of a receiver and to receive a final report, a statement of accounts, and an assessment of claim. Claims of secured creditors are prioritized under the Bankruptcy Act. No distinction is made between foreign and domestic creditors or contract holders. Bankruptcy is not criminalized.

The World Bank ranked TT 83rd out of 190 countries in resolving insolvency in its Doing Business 2020 report. This reflects TT’s recovery rate (cents on the dollar), which is worse than the regional average, and cost as a percentage of estate.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Investment incentives include the following: exemption from import duties and customs duties; tax credits and deferrals; cash refunds; carry-over of losses; and access to loans. These are available equally to foreign and domestic investors, but delays in cash refund payments are a frequent complaint of those due them. Additional information is available on the following websites: https://www.finance.gov.tt/mof-investment-incentives-in-trinidad-and-tobago/ 

The government sometimes jointly finances foreign direct investment projects, but it is not common.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The Free Zones Act of 1988 (last amended in 1997) established the TT Free Zones Company (TTFZ) to promote export development and encourage both foreign and local investment projects in a relatively bureaucracy-free, duty-free, and tax-free environment. Foreign owned firms have the same investment opportunities as Trinidad and Tobago entities. There are currently 15 approved enterprises located in 12 free zones. Just three are located within a multiple-user site in north-central Trinidad. The minister of trade and industry can designate any suitable area in TT as a free zone.

Free zone enterprises are exempt from customs duties on capital goods, parts, and raw materials for use in the construction and equipping of premises and in connection with the approved activity; import and export licensing requirements; land and building taxes; work permit fees; foreign currency and property ownership restrictions; capital gains taxes; withholding taxes on distribution of profits and corporation taxes or levies on sales or profits; VAT on goods supplied to a free zone; and duty on vehicles for use only within the free zone.

A corporation tax exemption for entities that qualify for free zone status is also in force. Application to carry out an approved activity in an existing free zone area is made on specified forms to the TTFZ.

Free zone activities that qualify for approval include manufacturing for export, international trading in products, services for export, and development and management of free zones. Activities that may be carried on in a free zone but do not qualify as approved activities include exploration and production activities involving petroleum, natural gas, or petrochemicals. For more information, please review the following website: http://ttfzco.com/ 

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

The government does not mandate – although it strongly encourages through negotiable incentives – projects that generate employment and foreign exchange; provide training and/or technology transfer; boost exports or reduce imports; have local content; and generally contribute to the welfare of the country.

The government does not mandate that locals be recruited to senior management and boards of directors.

Several foreign firms have encountered inconsistencies leading to long delays in the issuance of long-term work permits, but there are no explicit, onerous requirements.

There are no government/authority-imposed conditions on permission to invest.

There are no forced localization requirements.

There are no performance requirements, and thus no enforcement procedures. There is no indication of an intention to implement across-the-board performance requirements.

Investment incentives are uniform for domestic and foreign investors but offered on a case-by-case, vice across-the-board, basis.

There are no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code and/or provide access to encryption.

There are no measures that prevent or restrict companies from freely transmitting customer or other business-related data outside the country.

There are no rules on local data storage within Trinidad and Tobago.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights and interests are enforced in court. Mortgages and liens exist. TT has a dual system of land titles, the old common law system and the registered land title system governed by the Real Property Act of 1946. Nearly 80 percent of land in TT remains under the more complicated common law system, which is not reliable for recording secured interests.

The Foreign Investment Act of 1990 governs the acquisition of any interest in land by foreign investors. It states that foreign investors wishing to acquire land larger than five acres must obtain a license from the Ministry of Finance. Licenses are generally granted in practice per the criteria provided here: https://www.finance.gov.tt/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/51.pdf .

It is not clear what proportion of land does not have clear title. The government does not make a defined effort to identify property owners and register land titles.

In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report, Trinidad and Tobago ranked 158 out of 190 countries in ease of registering property. Reasons for the poor score include the number of procedures required (more than the regional average), the length of time required (more than the regional average) and the cost of registering property as a percentage of the property value.

Property ownership can revert to squatters if they can prove exclusive possession of another’s land, without permission, for at least 16 years in the case of private lands and 30 years on State lands.

Intellectual Property Rights

The process of protecting intellectual property involves applying for and registering patents, trademarks, or designs. Trinidad and Tobago’s intellectual property rights (IPR) legal structure is strong, but enforcement is generally weak. Infringement on rights and theft is common.

Trinidad and Tobago is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In 2020, Trinidad and Tobago acceded to the Madrid Protocol on Trademarks. Implementing regulations remain in drafting for the 2000 Patent Law Treaty and the Hague Agreement on Industrial Designs.

Trinidad and Tobago does not track seizures of counterfeit goods. At its May 2019 WTO Trade Policy Review, it reported one seizure in 2018. The country has prosecuted IPR violations in the past, but such prosecutions are uncommon.

TT is listed in the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) Special 301 Report Watch List for 2021. Challenges concern widespread copyright infringement and the country’s lack of institutional commitment to enforce IPR.

Trinidad and Tobago is not included in USTR’s 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at: http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ 

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The government welcomes foreign portfolio investment.

TT has its own stock market and has an established regulatory framework to encourage and facilitate portfolio investment. There is enough liquidity in the markets to enter and exit sizeable positions.

Existing policies facilitate the free flow of financial resources into the product and factor markets.

The government and central bank respect IMF article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payment and transfers for current international transactions. Shortages of foreign exchange, exacerbated by the government’s maintenance of the local currency at values higher than those which the market would bear, however, cause considerable delays in payments and transfers for international transactions.

A full range of credit instruments is available to the private sector. There are no restrictions on borrowing by foreign investors, who are able to access credit. Credit is allocated on market terms, but interest rates tend to be higher for foreign borrowers.

Money and Banking System

Banking services are widespread throughout urban areas, but penetration is significantly lower in rural areas.

Although the banking sector is healthy and well-capitalized, the IMF in its 2020 Financial Stability Assessment Program noted Trinidad and Tobago’s banks are exposed to sovereign risk and potential liquidity risks stemming from non-bank financial entities in the group. The financial system as a whole faces risks of increasing household debt, a lack of supervisory independence and out-of-date regulatory frameworks, the sovereign-bank nexus and the absence of a macro-prudential toolkit, and contagion risks between investment funds and banks. The report further states that the financial sector legislation and regulation have not kept pace with international best practice. The supervisors operate with guidelines in key areas instead of binding powers, which limits their authority

In 2019, the estimated total assets of Trinidad and Tobago’s largest banks was $21.9 billion.

TT has a central bank system. Foreign banks may establish operations in TT provided they obtain a license from the central bank. Trinidad and Tobago has lost correspondent banking relationships in the past three years. The U.S. Mission is not aware of any current correspondent banking relationships that are in jeopardy.

There are no restrictions on a foreigner’s ability to establish a bank account.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no restrictions or limitations placed on foreign investors in converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment.

Shortages of foreign exchange, exacerbated by the government’s maintenance of the local currency at values higher than those which the market would bear, cause considerable delays in conversion into world currencies. Businesses continue to report a cumbersome bureaucratic process and a minimum three-month delay in such conversions.

The central bank intervenes to maintain an unofficial peg to the U.S. dollar, using a managed float in which the exchange rate fluctuates mildly day-to-day, and limits the availability of foreign currency.

Remittance Policies

While there are no recent changes or plans to change investment remittance policies to tighten or relax access to foreign exchange for investment remittances, commercial banks have enacted policies that limit access to foreign exchange due to national shortages, on guidance from the Ministry of Finance and the central bank.

Although there are no official time limitations on remittances, timeliness of remittances depends on availability of foreign currency.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The value of TT’s Heritage and Stabilization Fund the fund as of September 2020 is approximately $5.7 billion. The fund invests in U.S. short duration fixed income, U.S. core domestic fixed income, U.S. core domestic equities, and non-U.S. core international equities.

The sovereign wealth fund (SWF) follows the voluntary code of good practices known as the Santiago Principles. TT participates in the IMF-hosted International Working Group on Sovereign Wealth Funds.

None of the SWF is invested domestically. There are no potentially negative ramifications for U.S. investors in the local market.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

TT has 57 SOEs comprised of 44 wholly owned companies, eight majority-owned, and five in which the government has a minority share. SOEs are in the energy, manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, financial services, transportation, and communication sectors. Information on the total assets of SOEs, total net income of SOEs and number of people employed by SOEs is not available. The Investments Division of the Ministry of Finance appoints directors to the boards of state enterprises, reportedly at the direction of the minister of finance. SOEs are often informally or explicitly obligated to consult with government officials before making major business decisions. According to TT’s constitution, the government is entitled to: exercise control directly or indirectly over the affairs of the enterprise

  • exercise control directly or indirectly over the affairs of the enterprise
  • appoint a majority of directors of the board of directors of the enterprise; and
  • hold at least 50 per cent of the ordinary share capital of the enterprise

A published list of SOEs for 2021 can be found here: https://www.finance.gov.tt/2020/10/05/state-enterprise-investment-programme-2021/ 

In sectors that are open to both the private sector and foreign competition, SOEs are sometimes favored for government contracts, which might negatively impact U.S. investors in the market.

The country has not adhered to the OECD corporate governance guidelines for SOEs.

Privatization Program

TT does not have a privatization program in place, but the government has issued initial public offerings of various state-owned companies to obtain revenue, primarily in the finance and energy sectors.

Foreign investors can participate in the initial public offerings of SOEs.

The purchase of initial public offering shares on past occasions was open to the public, easy to understand, non-discriminatory, and transparent. For example: https://ngc.co.tt/media/news/ngl-initial-public-offering-brokerage-details/ 

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is general awareness of expectations of, and standards for, responsible business conduct (RBC), including obligations to proactively conduct due diligence to ensure businesses are doing no harm, including with regards to environmental, social, and governance issues.

The government has not put forward a clear definition of responsible business conduct, nor does it have specific policies to promote and encourage it. The government has not conducted a national action plan on RBC, nor does it currently factor it into procurement decisions.

There have not been any high-profile, controversial instances of private sector impact on human rights.

TT has laws to ensure protection of human rights, labor rights, consumers, and the environment. Enforcement, however, is lacking due to staffing shortages, capacity issues, and a bureaucratic judiciary.

Government, in collaboration with civil society, created the TT Corporate Governance Code, which incorporates governance, accounting, and executive compensation standards to protect shareholders. The code, however, is not mandatory.

The Caribbean Corporate Governance Institute is a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Trinidad and Tobago that freely advocates for responsible business conduct and improved corporate governance practices in the Caribbean.

The government does not encourage adherence to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. There are no domestic measures requiring supply chain due diligence for companies sourcing minerals originating from conflict-affected areas.

As a member of the EITI, the government publicly declares annually all revenues received from companies engaged in the extractive industries. The companies, in turn, publicly declare payments to the government.

Trinidad and Tobago is not a signatory of the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Various pieces of legislation address corruption of public officials:

  • The Integrity in Public Life Act requires public officials to disclose assets upon taking office and at the end of tenure.
  • The Freedom of Information Act gives members of the public a general right (with specified exceptions) of access to official documents of public authorities. The intention of the act was to address the public’s concerns of corruption and to promote a system of open and good governance. In compliance with the act, designated officers in each ministry and statutory authority process applications for information.
  • The Police Complaints Authority Act establishes a mechanism for complaints against police officers in relation to, among other things, police misconduct and police corruption.
  • The Prevention of Corruption Act provides for certain offences and punishment of corruption in public office.

The laws are non-discriminatory in their infrequent application. Effectiveness of these measures has been limited by a lack of thorough enforcement.

The laws do not extend to family members of officials or to political parties.

TT does not have laws or regulations to counter conflicts of interest in awarding contracts or government procurement.

The government has been a party to the development of corporate governance standards (non-binding) to encourage private companies to establish internal codes of conduct that, among other things, prohibit bribery of public officials.

Some private companies, particularly the larger ones, use internal controls and compliance programs to detect and prevent bribery of government officials, though this is not a government requirement.

Trinidad and Tobago adheres to the UN Anticorruption Convention.

There are no protections for NGOs involved in investigating corruption, but investigations are not feared since corrupt actors are rarely punished.

U.S. firms often say corruption is an obstacle to FDI, particularly in government procurement, since TT’s procurement processes are not transparent.

Resources to Report Corruption

Mr. Justice Melville Baird
Chairman
The Integrity Commission
P.O. Box 1253, Port of Spain

The Integrity Commission of Trinidad and Tobago
Level 14, Tower D, International Waterfront Centre,
1A Wrightson Road, Port of Spain
868-623-8305
registrar@inegritycommission.org.tt 

Mr. Dion Abdool
Chairman
Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute
(local chapter of Transparency International)
Unit 4-12, Building 7, Fernandes Industrial Centre, Laventille
868-626-5756
admin@transparency.org.tt 

10. Political and Security Environment

While non-violent demonstrations occur on occasion, widespread civil disorder is not typical. There have been no serious incidents of political violence since a coup attempt in 1990.

Subsequent to the closure of state oil firm Petrotrin in November 2018, which resulted in the lay-off of nearly 6,000 workers, there were reports of damage to installations.

Certain areas of TT are increasingly insecure due to a critical level of violent crime. 11. Labor Policies and Practices

11. Labor Policies and Practices

The labor market includes many skilled and experienced workers, and the educational level of the population is among the top 10 in North America, according to the Human Development Index, though there is a gap between official literacy statistics and functional literacy. In 2020, the modeled International Labor Organization estimate of unemployment was 6.7 percent, while youth unemployment rate (15-24 years of age) was estimated at 9.1 percent in 2019.

Agricultural employment accounts for 3.6 percent of total employment while employment in services accounts for over 60 percent. The estimated non-agricultural workforce in the informal economy is 10 percent of the overall labor force. Trinidad and Tobago’s workforce includes not only TT nationals but also citizens of 11 other CARICOM countries as part of the free movement of labor without the need to obtain a work permit. In 2019, Trinidad and Tobago granted 16,523 “Venezuelan migrants” the right to work in the country for a period of one year under a temporary protective status. In 2021, the government allowed registered Venezuelan refugees a one-year extension of status.

Trinidad and Tobago is a net importer of expatriate labor, including doctors, nurses, construction workers, and extractive industry specialists. There are surpluses of accountants and attorneys and shortages of unskilled workers for the hospitality, retail, and agriculture sectors. The government subsidizes tertiary-level education for citizens whose income falls within a minimum range. The Multi-Sector Skills Training Program provides training in construction and hospitality and tourism for eligible citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The government also encourages continuing learning opportunities for the disadvantaged via the Skills Training Program, which develops skills that can aid in the creation of home-based production of goods and services and employment generation.

There is no government policy requiring hiring of nationals, though it is encouraged, particularly in the energy sector.

There are no restrictions on employers adjusting employment to respond to fluctuating market conditions via severance. Labor laws differentiate between layoffs and firing. The Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act provides guidance on who is entitled to receive what based on specific circumstances. Severance pay is usually only paid to retirees and workers who have been made redundant. An employer is not required to pay severance to workers if everyone is severed, since the business is being closed. If, however, only a portion of the workforce is rendered redundant, the employer must pay severance. Unemployment insurance does not exist for workers who have been laid off for economic reasons, but programs designed to help job seekers get employed as quickly as possible are available. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government instituted a 3-6-month unemployment benefit program for those laid off.

Labor laws are not waived in order to attract or retain investment. There are no separate labor law provisions for special economic zones, trade zones, or free ports.

Collective bargaining is common, with approximately 15 percent of the population covered by collective bargaining agreements. Government workers, including civil servants, police officers, firefighters, military personnel, and staff in several state-owned enterprises, are covered by collective bargaining agreements. Unions are also quite active in the energy, steel, and telecommunications industries. Collective bargaining takes place between the firm and the recognized majority union rather than on an industry-wide basis. The government as an employer also bargains collectively. The process of collective bargaining is regulated by the Industrial Relations Act. There are close to 30 active, independent labor unions in TT.

The Industrial Relations Act (IRA) provides for dispute resolution through an industrial court in instances where the issue cannot be resolved by collective bargaining or through conciliation efforts by the Ministry of Labor.

There was no strike in the past year that posed an investment risk.

The International Labor Organization has not identified any compliance gaps in law or practice regarding international labor standards that may pose a reputational risk to investors. The government does not have a labor inspectorate system to identify and remediate labor violations, but the industrial court investigates and prosecutes unfair labor practices, such as harassment and/or improper dismissal of union members.

There were no new labor related laws or regulations enacted or in draft over the last year. 12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), and Other Investment Insurance or Development Finance Programs

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

 

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $2,310 2019 $2,430 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $6,249 BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2019 $69 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2019 1% UNCTAD data available at https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/EconomicTrends/Fdi.html 

* Source for Host Country Data: Trinidad and Tobago Central Bank:  Homepage | Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago (central-bank.org.tt)

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Data not available.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.