Costa Rica is the oldest continuous democracy in Latin America and the newest member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with an established government institutional framework, stable society, and a diversified upper-middle-income economy. The country’s well-educated labor force, relatively low levels of corruption, geographic location, living conditions, dynamic investment promotion board, and attractive free trade zone incentives all appeal to investors. Foreign direct investment inflow in 2020 was USD 1.76 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP, with the United States accounting for USD 1.2 billion. Costa Rica recorded 7.6 percent GDP growth in 2021 (the highest level since 2008) as it recovered from a 4.5 percent contraction in 2020 largely due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
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 continued to expand during the pandemic. The value of exports increased by 24 percent in 2021, representing the highest growth in 15 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 Covid-19 world recession damaged the Costa Rican tourism industry, although it is recovering. 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 continue compliance under the current 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 and respond to demands for improved government-provided infrastructure and services.
Honduras contains all the ingredients for a thriving, prosperous economy: strategic location next to U.S. markets with a deep-water port, a rich endowment of natural resources, breathtaking tourist destinations, and hard-working people, including a significant cadre of skilled labor. Despite these advantages, per capita income in Honduras is the third lowest in all Latin America. Investors cite corruption, crime, and poor infrastructure and weak or nonexistent rule of law as the primary reasons that Honduras does not attract more of the private investment it needs to stimulate inclusive economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), real Honduran GDP grew by 12.5 percent in 2021, a rebound from the devastating effects in 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic and twin hurricanes Eta and Iota. The IMF predicts the economy will grow by 3.8 percent in 2022.
The 2022 inauguration of Honduras first woman president, Xiomara Castro, marked the beginning of a new era in the country’s political economy. The participation of U.S. Vice President Harris at President Castro’s inauguration exemplified the strong U.S. commitment to Honduras. The two countries have committed to work jointly to address the root causes of migration, including by combating corruption and expanding economic opportunity. Since taking office, the Castro administration has launched initiatives to reduce corruption, improve education and public health, and create jobs.
These laudable efforts have been frustrated by fiscal challenges, including budget planning and debt management. Although the United States and international organizations including the IMF assess Honduras as low risk for debt distress, public messaging from the administration announcing a fiscal crisis roiled international bond markets, driving up the risk premium on Honduran debt. To address these budget shortfalls, the government announced it will utilize its foreign reserves to finance operations, which could put additional inflationary pressure on the economy. To help Honduras implement its social agenda without increasing its debt burden, the United States has begun a debt management technical assistance program with the Ministry of Finance.
In both public and private, the Castro administration emphasizes the need for job creation and private investment in Honduras. The government approved a new law in 2022 to facilitate the development and formalization of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). The government’s Results-Based Governance system and other anti-corruption efforts are excellent examples of efforts to improve the investment climate. From the perspective of the private sector, however, these efforts have been overshadowed by policy decisions that have dramatically increased the uncertainty of investment returns. Chief among these was the May 2022 approval of a new energy law that threatens power generators with forced sale at a “just price” if they do not reduce their tariffs to the government’s satisfaction. The law provides no guarantee of future payment, stipulates that new energy investment must be majority state-owned, and all but eliminates private trade in energy. As a result of the new law, several private energy companies have discontinued planned projects in Honduras and are exploring investment opportunities in other countries in the region.
The Castro administration also eliminated the special economic zones known as “ZEDEs” by their initials in Spanish. The ZEDEs were broadly unpopular, including with much of the private sector, and viewed as a vector for corruption. Rather than pursuing reforms or seeking dialogue with the ZEDE investors, by eliminating the frameworks without any regard for the protections afforded the investors under the U.S.-Honduras Bilateral Investor Treaty (BIT) or the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), the government has exposed itself to potentially significant liability and fueled concerns about the government’s commitment to commercial rule of law.
Another government policy contributing to uncertainty in the investment climate has been the elimination of the legal framework used by most businesses to employ per-hour workers. The law’s repeal fulfilled a Castro campaign promise, responding to criticism by labor unions that temporary work allowed companies to evade their social security obligations and exploit workers. Business representatives note, however, that many industries, including retail, tourism, and food service rely heavily on hourly labor and will be constrained by the new framework. Civil society representatives also point out that the change adversely affects women and students, who relied on hourly work to manage households and school schedules, although union leaders counter that the previous framework allowed employers to target women and young people for economic exploitation, given that their personal circumstances often do not allow them to take on full-time employment.
Many foreign investors in Honduras operate thriving enterprises. At the same time, all investors 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 an increasingly severe problem in Honduras and anti-squatting laws are poorly enforced. Continued low-level protests and strikes are additional concerns for private investors.
Despite these setbacks, over 200 American companies operate businesses in Honduras. Honduras enjoys preferential market access to the United States under CAFTA-DR, which has allowed for the development of intra-industry trade in textiles and electrical machinery, among other sectors. The proximity to the United States and established supply chain linkages means that opportunities exist to increase nearshoring sourcing to meet U.S. demand for a variety of goods. The White House “Call to Action to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle” is designed to coordinate increased U.S. investment in the region, including Honduras. This program, along with others, aims to support sustained and inclusive economic development in Honduras and surrounding countries.