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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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

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

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