Stephen Harper arrived in Costa Rica bearing gifts for Canada's biggest trading partner in Central America even as he brokered deals to deepen market access for Canadian firms in this country of 5 million people.
The Prime Minister, eager to diversify Canada's trade away from the ailing U.S. economy, is on a four-country Latin American tour to open doors for Canadian businesses.
He announced Ottawa will offer security aid to help Costa Rica cope with an influx of international organized crime and drug gangs.
At the same time, Mr. Harper announced he's reopening Canada's free trade agreement with Costa Rica to deepen market access for Canadian firms.
Canada and Costa Rica are beginning talks to upgrade the 2002 deal to eliminate tariffs for farm and industrial goods and cover trade in the burgeoning services market, including financial services such as banking and insurance.
"More than 10,000 of my fellow countrymen, drawn by Costa Rica's stability and high standard of living – and perhaps your weather – have made their homes here," Mr. Harper said during a visit to the Costa Rican capital of San José.
"Costa Rica is an important partner for Canada in Central America, one of the most like-minded, in fact, with similar views on human rights, security and free trade."
He said Costa Rica would now be eligible for assistance from a $15-million annual fund dedicated to countries in the Americas to help them fight crime.
Under this assistance, Canada would train up to 250 Costa Rican national police offers annually through a three-year program run by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This will teach them investigative techniques including surveillance, intelligence-gathering and case management.
Canada will also provide communications and navigation equipment for Costa Rica's new police academy and provide security training for protecting tourists.
Mr. Harper said he and Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla discussed the crime threats faced by her country, "especially from transnational criminal organizations."
He said Costa Rica's police academy helps "the fight against a plague that affects us all," referring to the drug trade that ultimately feeds addicts in places such Canada.
Costa Rica and Canada also on Thursday signed an air transport deal that should help liberalize air travel between the two countries. It gives air carriers more flexibility in routes, frequency and pricing, which should also cut costs for travelers.
The Canadian government, which is trying to eliminate its deficit within four years, also cut a deal with Costa Rica that should help it find tax cheats who are skirting their taxpaying obligations. The tax information exchange agreement will allow Costa Rica and Canada to exchange necessary tax files and combat tax evasion.
Mr. Harper said negotiations on broadening the Canada-Costa Rica free trade deal would begin this fall. The aim is to extend it to new sectors including government purchasing contracts.
"The existing agreement has not kept up with the expansion of business," the prime minister said.
"It does not, for instance, cover cross-border trade in services or government procurement," he said.
"Nor does it reflect current thinking about how labour and environmental cooperation are dealt with in free trade agreements," Mr. Harper said.
"It is time to freshen it up."
Later on Thursday, the prime minister was scheduled to meet a Canadian-Costa Rica hockey team led by Canadians.