Costa Rica President Says Nation Won't 'Compromise Our Dignity' for COVID Vaccines

Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado made it clear he would not accept COVID-19 vaccinations with political strings attached, the Associated Press reported.

"We're talking about saving lives, but that doesn't mean in receiving a donation we will compromise our dignity as a nation," Alvarado said at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Costa Rica has close ties with the U.S., with 40% of Costa Rica's exports going there and 70% of foreign direct investments coming from the U.S. Costa Rica is also a hot tourist destination for many American students.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Antony Blinken and President Alvarado Conference
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado bump elbows after a news conference on June 1, 2021, in San Jose, Costa Rica. Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado has said he will not accept COVID-19 vaccinations with political strings attached. Evelyn Hockstein/Associated Press

Blinken is trying to entice Central American nations to tackle the corruption and poverty that have helped drive a surge of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border and presented an early challenge for the President Joe Biden's administration.

In his first visit to Central America since taking office, America's top diplomat has met with foreign ministers and leaders from the region and Mexico. On the two-day trip ending Wednesday, Blinken has avoided publicly criticizing any particular government, focusing instead on Biden administration plans to distribute COVID-19 vaccines and other assistance, such as a proposed $4 billion aid package.

"We think that's the best way to ensure greater stability and improve the lives of people across the region, which ultimately is in the United States' interest as well," Blinken said at the joint news conference with Alvarado

The approach is a departure from the Trump administration, which reacted to an increase in migrants by expelling asylum-seekers to Mexico or Central America and stepping up efforts to build a wall along the American Southwest border, among other measures.

After a decline at the start of the pandemic, the number of apprehensions at that border began rising under Trump and swelled in the early months of the Biden administration. The Border Patrol had more than 170,000 encounters, including 50,000 people traveling with families, its highest total since March 2001.

It was a major theme of the private talks Blinken had late Tuesday with the foreign ministers.

The U.S. hopes Mexican and Central American officials can do more to impede the trafficking of migrants, especially children. The Biden administration has been expelling single adults who cross the border and most families but it allows unaccompanied minors to enter the United States and pursue asylum or other legal claims for residency. U.S. authorities encountered more than 17,000 children traveling alone along the border in April, compared with a record 18,960 a month earlier.

There are limits, however, to what Mexico and Central America can do amid the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders made it clear they hope for some of the 81 million vaccines that Biden has said he will distribute around the world. Details of the distribution plan are expected this month.

On Wednesday, Blinken was meeting in private with his Mexican counterpart, Marcelo Ebrard, and planned to visit a nongovernmental organization that provides children and families with recreational and educational activities. It's the kind of organization that would get a piece of the $4 billion in the proposed aid package that the Biden administration does not want to give directly to government entities in the region.

"It's no accident that we're here, and we're here first," Blinken said. "We have a remarkably strong partnership that is based on a foundation of shared values and shared perspective."

Highlighting that relationship and those values enabled Blinken to contrast the situation with countries such as Honduras, whose president has been linked by American prosecutors to drug trafficking, and Nicaragua, where the authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega is under U.S. sanctions.

Blinken avoided any direct remarks about El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, a popularly elected leader who has an increasingly tense relationship with the U.S. because of his moves to consolidate power and weaken El Salvador's other democratic institutions.

Still, it was clearly on Blinken's agenda when he said, "We meet at a moment when democracy and human rights are being undermined in many parts of the region." He noted the "erosion of judicial independence" and crackdown on independent media, in an apparent reference to Bukele, and the "quashing of anticorruption efforts," which likely refers to Honduras and elsewhere.

"We understand how fragile democracy is. We've experienced setbacks in our own country in recent years," he said. "But that experience has underscored for us just how important it is to shore up the institutions and the norms that safeguard our democracy."

The issue of corruption is certain to loom over Vice President Kamala Harris' trip to Guatemala and Mexico next week, when she plans to meet with the presidents of both nations to discuss joint efforts to address the root causes of migration. Harris' chief spokesperson emphasized that the vice president's efforts to secure economic investments and humanitarian aid when outlining her plans for the trip.

The goal is "to deepen our strategic partnership and bilateral relationship" with both countries and "advance a comprehensive strategy to tackle the causes of migration," spokesperson Symone Sanders said. "We will also engage community leaders, workers, young innovators and entrepreneurs and others about ways to provide economic security, address the core factors of migration, and to give people the hope for a better life at home."

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Costa Rican President at Press Conference 2020
Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado speaks during a press conference at the Presidential House in San Jose, Costa Rica, on March 4, 2020. Ezequiel Becerra/Getty Images