Costa Rica: See Saw Diplomacy

September 25, 2007

There was much snickering when government posters cropped up all over San Jos6 shortly be- fore Reagan's arrival last Decem- ber. Despite the worst economic crisis in Costa Rica's history, the Monge Administration paid for thousands of colorful posters of Reagan towering over the diminu- tive, rotund Monge in the White House Rose Garden. The posters were a graphic reminder of just how close relations between the two administrations have become. In the Reagan Administration's Central America policy, Costa Rica is emerging as a democratic show- case and as a potential base for destabilizing Nicaragua. Lacking a militaristic tradition, the country has long been seen as an anomaly in Central America. Through a sys- tem of parliamentary democracy, social welfare programs have been established that are without paral- lel on the isthmus.* But Costa Ri- can leaders, anxious about the fu- ture of this social democratic sys- tem, are torn between preserving peace at home and securing eco- nomic aid in return for supporting U.S. goals in the region. Costa Rica's regional role in Central America reflects the con- flicting demands of dependency "*Two subsequent articles will deal with Costa Ricans' political struggles in the face of the current economic crisis and with the recent efforts of the Costa Rican government, sup- ported by the United States and its allies, to modernize the country's security forces. Marc Edelman is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Columbia Univer- sity and was a visiting researcher at the University of Costa Rica, 1980-82. 40 on the United States and the state's historical commitment to social welfare and to a quasi-pacifist philosophy. This pacific stance-- if not infrequently violated in prac- tice-is nonetheless an important element in the country's dominant ideology. U.S. policymakers seek- ing to justify intervention in Cen- tral America often point to Costa Rica as a model for the rest of the region. But fears that nearby violence could spread to Costa Rica have led the social democratic adminis- tration of President Luis Alberto Monge to criticize U.S. war moves and to serve as mediator in talks between the Salvadorean govern- ment and the insurgent FDR-FMLN. Desperate for foreign aid, Monge's government has nevertheless been increasingly willing to serve as a loyal U.S. ally. Costa Rican support for U.S. aims in Central America has not always been so pronounced. Dur- ing the 1978-79 war in Nicaragua, dozens of planes loaded with arms destined for the Sandinistas landed in Costa Rica. These arms trans- fers enjoyed the blessing of the government led by Rodrigo Cara- zo's Christian democratic Unity Coalition, despite intense maneu- vers by the Carter Administration to squeeze the Sandinistas out of any post-victory settlement. NACLA Reportupdate * update . update . update Although the Carazo Adminis- tration played a key role in over- throwing Somoza, it shifted increas- ingly to the right after 1979. Cara- zo, a Christian democrat, was highly supportive of El Salvador's military-Christian Democratic junta which, by early 1980, had been abandoned by the progressives who briefly joined it in October 1979. In 1980, a series of minor diplomatic differences with Nica- ragua brought charges that the Sandinistas had betrayed a loyal friend and fed a growing anti-Ni- caragua campaign in the country's conservative news media. Carazo's Administration, how- ever, strongly resisted IMF pres- sure to institute an economic aus- terity program, arguing that such a move would have devastating consequences for the poor and threaten "social peace." This stance achieved little international attention, some observers main- tain, in part because Costa Rica's creditors were not eager to publi- cize a position which might serve as an example to larger debtor nations such as Brazil and Mexico. Understands U.S. Position Monge's 1982 election gave new impetus to Costa Rica's grow- ing alignment with the Reagan Administration. Faced with the prospect of four years of severe economic crisis, Monge quickly sought increased aid from the United States and arrived at a provisional agreement with the IMF which permitted rescheduling the foreign debt in return for prom- ises to cut spending on social programs. Monge's June 1982 visit to Washington occurred at a time when the United States' standing in Latin America was at an all-time low as a result of U.S. support for Nov/Dlc 1983 5 0 In the "strategic northern border zone," seals of both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. the British during the Malvinas war against Argentina. With the Reagan Administration eager for support from a Latin American leader, Monge obligingly expressed his "understanding" of the U.S. position, suggesting that the dip- lomatic crisis was little more than an "isolated circumstance." This breach of hemispheric solidarity was tempered only by some little- publicized remarks in which Monge maintained continued support for Argentine sovereignty in the dis- puted islands. Reagan's trip to Costa Rica took place in a climate of growing des- peration over the economic situa- tion. Costa Rican officials made little pretense of hiding their hope that the visit would bring new aid. Every effort was made to exagger- ate the "threat" allegedly posed by Nicaragua and by ultra-Left groups linked to isolated acts of violence during the previous two years. In conversations with Rea- gan, Monge emphasized the needs of the strategic northern border zone, an impoverished and poten- tially unstable area with a large number of Nicaraguan residents. If developed, it could serve as a buffer against the southward spread of revolution. Within a few days of Reagan's trip, $64.5 million in credits were provided for local businesses to purchase raw materials, machin- ery and replacement parts in the United States. Washington also committed itself to seeking rapid action in the IMF on the final ac- cord sought by the Monge Ad- ministration. In April, Reagan an- nounced that U.S. economic aid to Costa Rica for fiscal year 1983 would be increased from the planned $90 million to $110 mil- lion, making Costa Rica the hemi- sphere's second largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance, and the second largest per capita in the world.* Club of Client States In addition, in a move indicative of the country's importance to U.S. strategy, $70 million was allocated to Costa Rica under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). This amount, although minuscule in relation to the country's needs, was second only to that provided El Salvador, *The $110 million represents $55 million for assistance with the balance of payments, $28 million in food aid and $27 million for a variety of development projects. 41update * update update * update IMF-imposed austerity measures could "have devastating consequences for the poor and threaten 'social peace.'" the main target of CBI funds and the one non-Caribbean nation to benefit under the misnamed plan. In February 1982, the Carazo Administration had played host to the foreign ministers of El Salvador and Honduras at the founding of the Central American Democratic Community, the first of a series of groupings ostensibly aimed at' finding peaceful democratic solu- tions to the crises of the region. Excluding Nicaragua, the organi- zation was widely perceived as a club of U.S. client states. The international snub accorded the Democratic Community led the Monge Administration to hold a similar meeting in October 1982, the Forum for Peace and Democ- racy, attended by El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Jamaica, the Dominican Repub- lic, Belize, Costa Rica and the United States. Once again Nica- ragua was not invited. Thomas Enders, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, set the tone of the meeting by ac- cusing Nicaragua of exporting rev- olution and supplying arms to the Salvadorean guerrillas. 42 Echoing the U.S. position at the time, the forum called for regional-- not bilateral-talks among the par- ties in conflict. The governments of Mexico and Venezuela, a sig- nificant sector of Monge's own party and several of the more im- portant parties in the Socialist In- ternational also declined to sup- port the forum, criticizing Costa Rica for allying itself so closely with the United States. The charge, Monge told La Naci6n in June, was put forth by "leftist totalitarian forces which are developing a costly, worldwide campaign to mar the image of Costa Rica and discredit our democracy." These unsuccessful, U.S.-pro- moted regional meetings were seemingly aimed at isolating Nica- ragua and using Costa Rica's in- ternational prestige to legitimize the repressive Salvadorean and Honduran governments. In con- trast, the efforts of the Contadora Group-the foreign ministers of Panama, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia-to find political solu- tions to the conflicts in Central America achieved immediate in- ternational recognition. The Costa Rican government, following the U.S. lead, was cool to the Conta- dora Group's April declaration. Mexico, it was later revealed, had blocked Costa Rica from joining the Contadora Group, since it was too closely allied with Washington. Monge and Foreign Minister Fernando Volio were quick to point out supposed similarities between the group's proposals and those of the Forum for Peace and Democ- racy. Major differences, however, were that the Contadora meeting took place without the United States and called for a series of bilateral talks between the parties in conflict, including the United States and Cuba. Monge as Communicator The formation of the Contadora Group coincided with stepped up attacks by Nicaraguan contras based in northern Costa Rica. Concerned that fighting in the border region could spill over into Costa Rica, Monge's government became increasingly involved in the Contadora process, request- ing that neutral observers be sent to the Nicaraguan border and for NACLA Reportupdate * update update. update the first time supporting bilateral talks. Although Monge had repeated- ly expressed hostility to the Sal- vadorean guerrillas, as early as March he offered to mediate the conflict, and in May made it known that he had served as a "commu- nication channel" between the Salvadorean government and the FDR-FMLN. In July the FDR-FMLN reportedly requested that Monge sit in on planned San Jose talks with Reagan envoy Richard Stone. Finally in late August, Monge pre- sided at the first meeting between an FDR-FMLN delegation and members of the Salvadorean gov- ernment's Peace Commission. Monge's participation in these negotiations allows him to curry favor with the Reagan Administra- tion and enhances Costa Rica's international prestige, both of which generate domestic support for his administration among na- tionalists and those thirsting for economic aid. Ironically, Costa Rica's indispensable role as a democratic showcase in U.S. re- gional strategy has permitted mem- bers of the Monge Administration to voice occasional criticism of Reagan's policies. In July, for example, Monge re- fused a U.S. invitation to observe naval maneuvers in Central Ameri- can waters, declaring that the ex- ercises were "inopportune" and "contribute nothing toward creat- ing an atmosphere of dialogue." Foreign Minister Volio, however, a hard-liner within the administration, welcomed the "tranquilizing" pre- sence of U.S. war ships off Nica- ragua's coasts. Petty White House Politics There are recent indications that the United States may be planning a more active role for Nov/Dec 1983 Costa Rica in its efforts to turn back the tide of revolution on the isthmus. One unnoticed side ef- fect of the May State Department purge of Central American policy- makers was the replacement of U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, Francis McNeil, a Carter appointee whom Thomas Enders had pushed for the special envoy position that went to Stone. Shortly before his ouster, McNeil was quoted in the Dallas Times Herald as saying that "petty politics" were interfering with U.S. interests in Central Ameri- ca and that White House officials Costa Rica for sale to the highest bidder. "need to be hit over the head with a two-by-four." His job went to a career State Department officer, Curtin Winsor, who is also presi- dent of a West Virginia coal com- pany. Winsor, who speaks only broken Spanish, is known to be a hard-liner sympathetic to the most conservative figures in the Reagan Administration. Several other events are also indicative of growing U.S. pressure on Monge. In July, Costa Rica joined Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and the United States in formulating an OAS resolution pin- ning Central America's problems solely on Nicaragua. Once again, amidst proclamations that the Con- tadora process had reached a dead end, a regional meeting was held in August with the familiar sounding title of Encounter for Peace, Democracy and Social Justice. It attracted a variety of conservative social democrats, Christian democrats and observ- ers from the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties, as well as representatives of Salvadorean and Honduran business groups and such dubious peace advo- cates as former Salvadorean junta leader Jos6 Napole6n Duarte. In October, Monge addressed the AFL-CIO convention in Flori- da, and plans to visit the Inter- American Press Association in November. The September arrest in San Jose of a Basque national- ist tied to an alleged Nicaraguan- sponsored destabilization cam- paign led the government to re- quest heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles from the United States for the airport and oil refinery, weak- ening the neutralist stance of key moderates, such as Security Min- ister Angel Solano. Monge also expressed enthusiasm about be- ginning construction of a road net- work along the Nicaraguan border to be financed by the U.S. military. It is difficult to tell how long the Costa Rican government will be able to balance the contradictory demands of its pacifist ideology with support for U.S. goals in Cen- tral America. At this point, the United States seems committed to paying the relatively low price re- quired to maintain Costa Rica's economy and political institutions more or less intact in the face of the severe crises sweeping the region. After all, Costa Rica is the one credible Western-style democracy among its client states in Central America. Whether such a policy is compatible with the re- gionalized war which Reagan ap- pears to be seeking remains to be seen.

Tags: Costa Rica, US foreign policy, Luis Alberto Monge, austerity

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