Fear, Suspicion as US Military En Route to Costa Rica

Tensions are high in Costa Rica following the announcement of the impending arrival of US military vessels. In the past year alone, a sudden expansion of United States military presence around Latin America has alarmed many in the region. Now it is spreading to the one nation which had previously been known for the absence of any standing permanent army, foreign or national.

Tensions are high in Costa Rica following the announcement of the impending arrival of US military vessels. In the past year alone, a sudden expansion of United States military presence around Latin America has alarmed many in the region. Now it is spreading to the one nation which had previously been known for the absence of any standing permanent army, foreign or national.

After receiving a diplomatic request from the US Embassy, on July 1 the Costa Rican legislative assembly approved a measure to grant unprecedented access to a U.S. military fleet in Costa Rica’s waters. The vessels will arrive for at least six months to assist counter-narcotics operations by Costa Rican authorities. Costa Rica has long been used a stopping point of entry for drugs coming from Colombia and Panama on their way further north.

This type of partnership between the U.S. and Costa Rica is not new. Since 1999, a maritime agreement titled the “Joint Patrol” between the United States and Costa Rica has allowed the U.S. Coast Guard to operate in the waters of Costa Rica for similar purposes. However, this particular agreement goes far beyond previously established boundaries. The Joint Patrol agreement limited U.S. personnel to Coast Guard only, allowing for Costa Rican law enforcement to ride on U.S. ships if they have reason to suspect suspicious activity, and vice versa.

Under the new agreement the ships, which can occupy up to 7,000 Navy personnel and 200 helicopters, will join the Coast Guard and according to the Embassy letter, will “enjoy freedom of movement and the right to carry out activities they consider necessary for the fulfillment of their mission, which includes wearing their uniforms while exercising official functions.”

In other words, immunity from any actions they deem appropriate in the name of policing the waters.

The contract has drawn confusion about the intent of the ships more than anything else, stemming from a general distrust of US action in the region, likely based on recent events like the tacitly-approved military coup in Honduras (and news emerging last week of new plans for another military base there), as well as last year’s controversial accord to establish seven new military bases in Colombia.

The announcement has already provoked a fierce response in Costa Rica. The measure, which can be also renewed after December 31, has drawn sharp criticism from both lawmakers and civilians. Critics say that a massive foreign military landing at their shores not only directly violates that constitution as it stands today, but tears at the moral fabric of a nation which constitutionally abolished its own army in 1949.

In an impassioned address to the assembly during the vote, Parliamentary leader José María Villalta, of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party, argued that apart from legal ramifications, the measure inherently goes against Costa Rican ideals.

“We cannot remain silent,” Villalta said. “The fundamental values of the Costa Rican State are stake, the core values that have distinguished this country- a country of peace, which rejects militarism, where we have a declaration of perpetual neutrality regarding conflicts of war in other countries and now we want to become complicit in a strategy of militarization is taking place in Latin America.”

In an interview with Upside Down World, Francisco Cordero-Gené, who served as former head advisor to the Costa Rican legislative assembly during the past two administrations (prior to that of current President Laura Chinchilla, who has voiced support for the measure) outlined the main legal contentions of those opposed.

“Aside from the dark procedure by which the permit was approved, it clearly provides unlimited access to ports for troops of the Navy Department of Defense, not just law enforcement authorities of the Coast Guard. Therefore, we argue that the reason given for giving the permit has been invalidated. It exceeds the responsibilities of Congress- no basis to authorize this invasion is theirs alone,” said Cordero-Gené.

Indeed, Article 12 of the 1949 Constitution reads: “Military forces may only be organized under a continental agreement or for the national defense; in either case, they shall always be subordinate to the civil power: they may not deliberate or make statements or representations individually or collectively.”

Because of this clause, there have been five legal recourse briefs (recursos de amparo) submitted so far in opposition to the Congressional decision, intended to declare the approval unconstitutional on these grounds.

Organizations such as the Quaker Friends Peace Center, of which Cordero-Gené belongs to, question the motives of the ships which will be dispersed to Costa Rica individually. At a time when there’s been violent labor disputes in Panama recently (due to banana workers protesting new policies that would weaken the position of labor unions, allowing companies to fire or replace striking workers) Cordero-Gené says he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a connection.

“The lack of a debate in Congress makes one suspect that they will be operating militarily and not necessarily confined to the drug trafficking operations,” said Cordero-Gené. Is it a coincidence that ships arrive as a new port management is being put into practice, eliminating the authority of the state agency JAPDEVA (Port Management Board of the Atlantic Coast Development) and its group of unionized dock workers…and preventing any possibility of strikes, work stoppages and incidents in Limón, such as those in Panama? ”

So far there are no clear answers to these and many other questions, such as why the funds being used for this operation not instead being directed to help train and equip the Costa Rican Coast Guard.

Even the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), widely regarded as the highest non-governmental domestic authority on all U.S. affairs in the area, seems to be left scratching its head.

“Once again, the government has not released a single public statement on this- no one is talking about it,” says Adam Isacson, a senior associate on WOLA’s Regional Security Policy program. “There is certainly a drug problem in the area, but we don’t know whether the 7,000 number (of Marines) being discussed is any bigger than what’s allowed in the 1999 agreement. The increase could be justified, but we simply don’t know at this point.”

Cordero-Gené agrees that drug security is popular issue in Costa Rica, but says that it’s a problem of perception rather than statistical increase in crime.

“The drug problem is not essentially the problem of security; because the assaults and crimes committed are due more to poverty in an increasingly violent culture…It’s obvious that this displacement is a response to the arms race and alliances to neutralize the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA),” he added. “This front is undoubtedly linked to the accusations from both presidents of Colombia (current President Alvaro Uribe and incoming President Juan Manuel Santos) that Hugo Chavez supports the narco-guerrillas.”

Cordero-Gené is not alone in this line of geo-political thinking- these are just a few of the many explanations being floated around opposition circles since the announcement in Costa Rica. For now they remain only theories, but in the context of last year’s US agreements to new military bases and logistical training in countries like Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, many see them as unsurprising and plausible.

Public outrage against the measure is building in Costa Rica. Anti-militarization rallies have already been held in San José. In only a few days since the announcement, a Facebook group titled “¡No a la presencia militar en Costa Rica!” (No military presence in Costa Rica!) has gained over 20,000 supporters. A large demonstration amongst the public sectors is being planned for July 26, when the first of the ships is due to arrive.

Regardless of its stated intent, with so much uncertainty around the vague conditions of the agreement, a foreign military suddenly entering a nation with a proud tradition of peaceful conflict resolution, neutrality and disarmament is leading to far more questions than answers.

Joseph Shansky can be reached at fallow3(at)gmail.com.