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Costa Rica and Mexico: The avocado dispute is becoming more serious

The first case against Costa Rica at the World Trade Organization (WTO) has taken new momentum with the creation of a special investigative group that will scrutinize the restrictions that Costa Rica imposed on Mexican avocado imports. Mexico had requested the study on another occasion, but Costa Rica has remained unmoved throughout the talks held to avoid litigation.

Mexico rejects Costa Rica's phytosanitary reasons to support the restrictions and in November it gave up on finding a bilateral solution. The last talks to find an agreement began in March 2017, almost two years after the measure was adopted, in 2015.

At that time, Mexico protested immediately. Costa Rica assured that the import of Hass avocados could open the doors to sunblotch plague. Mexico refuted these explanation and accused Costa Rica of erecting a non-tariff barrier to protect domestic production.

Costa Rica is a founding member of the WTO and it had never faced a formal complaint in its 22 years of existence. On this first occasion, the stakes are great. Alexander Mora, the Minister of Foreign Trade during the administration of Luis Guillermo Solis, calculated that the defense at the WTO would cost $600,000. These would be a low amount when compared with how damaged Costa Rica's national reputation would be, if Mexico's reasons prevail. Fundamentally, Costa Rica would be responsible for using a subterfuge to tip international trade in its favor disregarding the international standards on which it depends to defend its most important exports.

As soon as the State Phytosanitary Service (SFE) banned the entry of Hass avocados, on May 5, 2015, Mexico stated that the disease only affected the plants, not its fruits, and that it was concentrated in very few areas of its territory. In addition, Mexico is the world's leading exporter of avocados, supplying very demanding markets, such as the United States, and was the largest supplier in Costa Rica for decades without contagion.

The Ministry of Foreign Trade (Comex) did not conceal its disagreement with the measure and in a veiled debate with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, on which the SFE depends, admitted non-observance of the procedures and complained about the almost total isolation between the two offices affected by the decision and its consequences.

Moreover, the new Minister of Agriculture, Renato Alvarado, inaugurated his administration with the symbolic planting of an avocado tree and promises of greater protectionism for agriculture, which has only helped fuel the suspicion that the government has illicit protectionist intentions. The theatricality of the moment recalls the festive attitude of the previous government, when the Minister of Communication posed smiling with a bag of avocados to minimize the importance of closing borders on Mexican fruit.

Now, the case is way more serious. A festive attitude and theatricality won't be helpful in the WTO. Costa Rica still has time to, once again, carefully examine the problem as well as the reasons they have given to ban the fruit and the science that backs its allegations. Continuing this process is only justified if the State is absolutely certain about what so many people question. Otherwise, there are no words to describe how irresponsible this measure has been, not only for  international trade, but also for the local consumers, who have been forced to pay more for lower quality products.


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