SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — A U.S. warship capable of deploying more than 1,000 military personnel and dozens of helicopters is headed this way — right for Costa Rica’s peaceful Caribbean coast.
USS Iwo Jima comes in peace, according to a U.S. embassy statement, as part the Southern Command’s “Continuing Promise 2010” mission, a humanitarian operation that aims to bring free health care, engineering projects, veterinary attention, donations and even baseball games to locals.
A charm offensive like this — a friendly naval ship armed with aid for one of the country’s poorest regions — might be just what the United States needs to calm the waters around its longtime friend Costa Rica.
In July, the legislative assembly here approved a U.S. request for permission to dock 46 warships and 7,000 military personnel, mostly for narcotics missions on Costa Rican territory, sparking outrage among skeptics of the global war on drugs. The critics include outspoken politicians, pacifists, student groups and everyday Ticos, who are proud of their country’s six decades without a military.
Leftist lawmaker José María Villalta said these vessels are looking for a fight. Legislator Luis Fishman said congress was uninformed when it voted and claimed the arrival of the boats would be an assault on Costa Rica’s sovereignty. They filed complaints with the country’s high court, which has suspended the agreement while it mulls over the case.
The blogosphere began to boil over with posts titled, “U.S. invades Costa Rica,” and conspiracy theorists seethed about alleged Washington plots against neighboring Nicaragua.
In short, it’s been an outright public relations disaster.
“We are not sure why there is this uproar,” U.S. Ambassador Anne Slaughter Andrew told Costa Rica’s English-language newspaper The Tico Times.
To be sure, the legislature’s controversial sign-off was actually a renewal of an accord with the United States known as the “Joint Patrol” agreement, first inked in 1998 and turned into law the following year, according to a U.S. embassy fact sheet.
(When lawmakers realized that among the vessels approved was the gift-bearing Iwo Jima, they called a new vote earlier this month to approve the humanitarian mission’s arrival.)
The dispute has been a test of mettle for new President Laura Chinchilla – a former vice president and security chief – on an issue that’s been among her most fiery rally cries: the need for a coordinated, collaborative clampdown on the illegal drug trade. Mauricio Boraschi, the country’s drug czar, a new post set up by the Chinchilla administration, said the government also intended to be transparent in its fight against drugs.
“Under no circumstance could it be misinterpreted, as this permission request has been in the legislative assembly, as an attempt to militarize the fight against narcotics, nor does it represent any danger to Costa Rican sovereignty or of us turning into some kind of military base,” Boraschi said at a recent press conference.
Seeking to assuage fears of journalists, he added that in previous years only about 20 percent of the total agreed upon number of ships actually came anyway, and when they did, it was normally to refuel.
Behind the story lies a painful paradox for this Central American country of about 4.5 million. Costa Rica’s flagship talking point abroad is to urge nations to reduce, if not eliminate, their armies and military budgets. Spend less on defense, more on schools and hospitals for your poor, former President Oscar Arias used to tell rooms full of leaders before the United Nations.
Yet, Costa Rican leaders know the country needs backup to face today’s dangers. While Costa Rica sinks into an uneasy role as a storage, shipping and financial base for some of the deadliest cartels, police complain they’re outnumbered and outgunned by organized criminals.
The Joint Patrol deal hits that point square on the head. Its text speaks directly to Costa Rica’s unpreparedness “to assume an active and crucial role in the fight against international narco activity.”
“It’s a very difficult dilemma because there clearly is a real serious problem that (Costa Rica) may not be fully equipped to deal with,” Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, said.
A running joke about Costa Rica is that it lacks an army – and doesn’t need one with the pals it has up in Washington.
What happened to Costa Rica’s own army? President José “don Pepe” Figueres abolished the military in 1948, following a civil war that claimed an estimated 2,000 and is widely considered to be the country’s bloodiest event of the 20th century.
Don Pepe, founder of Chinchilla’s centrist National Liberation Party, could not have predicted the bloodshed to come. Central America saw more than 33 homicides per 100,000 people in 2008, the world’s highest rate of non-political killings, according to the United Nations Development Program. Costa Rica, low on the region’s murder tally, saw it’s homicide rate nearly double from six per 100,000 in 2000 to 11 in 2008. Security analysts say the drug trade fuels the problem.
Deepening the paradox, antinarcotics officials and drug-war opponents here agree on one thing: hard-fought military crackdowns in other Latin American countries have forced cartels to bringing the ruckus here.
Peace activists say it’s unwise to treat the drug problem with guns. Violence engenders more violence, they say.
“Military action has been tried in Mexico and Colombia and hasn’t given results. So the solution is of a social nature. We need employment,” said Gerardo Brenes, a School of the Americas-trained Costa Rican policeman turned pacifist. “Don’t bring us weapons, don’t bring us death and desolation. Costa Rica is accustomed to living in peace and liberty, not war.”
The Navy’s Iwo Jima might not help unemployed civilians find jobs, but its army files are stacked with relief. According to a Navy news release, the Iwo Jima is carrying a mixture of international military staff and nongovernmental organizations on a four-month tour of Central America and the Caribbean.
After reaching earthquake-torn Haiti’s Port-au-Prince late last month, Iwo Jima will likely be welcomed in Costa Rican, one of South America’s most socially developed nations.
However, it’s the other amphibious assault ships the Ticos are worried about.