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Costa Ricans want the contras out: a land torn apart.

The social fabric of this small nation, once called "the Switzerland of Central America" and considered a democratic role model for its neighbors, is coming unraveled. The presence of anti-Sandinista forces along the border with Nicaragua has become a divisive political issue, pitting citizens who contend they violate Costa Rica's traditional neutrality against those who dislike the government in Managua and support efforts to undermine it.

Many sophisticated Costa Ricans worry that their country has become a pawn of U.S. foreign policy in the region. "Two years ago, I would never have believed things could come to such a state," an intellectual told me. He admits that he routinely carries a gun, as do most of his friends. "We do not want the Honduran situation here," he said, referring to the economic and military burden that country bears. "We are being pushed into it by U.S. regional strategy and by the contra activity here which is strongly supported by the Reagan Administration."

The foreign military presence in Costa Rica has mushroomed in recent months, generating a wave of protests. Costa Rica, which disbanded its armed forces thirty-five years ago, now finds its northern borders crowded by armed members of the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (Arde), a U.S.-backed contra organization. On September 5, Eden Pastora Gomez, the charismatic hero of the 1979 Sandinista revolution who now opposes the Nicaraguan government, reportedly mended the rift between him and Alfonso Robelo Callejas. Arde had split into two factions after Pastora opposed Robelo's ties with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (F.D.N.), the C.I.A.-supported, Honduran-based contra group composed largely of former Somocistas. Pastora's move solidified the alliance Robelo recently drew up between Arde and the F.D.N. The alliance has enhanced the capability for pincers actions against Nicaragua from Honduras and Costa Rica.

Unification of the anti-Sandinista forces had long been sought by the outspoken U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, Curtin Winsor Jr. Two months before Pastora's move, Winsor said, "I would look positively on the coming together as a process that would make for a unified democratic opposition, which would lend the F.D.N. the political legitimacy of Arde."

Many Costa Ricans oppose the use of their country as a contra base. In July, according to the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, more than 30,000 of them marched in a parade calling for continued neutrality. According to a recent opinion poll, 83 percent of the population opposes the creation of an army.

Despite the protests, the contra buildup here continues openly. Front-page stories in major publications detail their movements. In an exclusive men's club in San Jose, elegantly dressed businessmen compare strategies and boast of the financial and material aid they have given the anti-Sandinista fighters.

On September 9, in response to complaints from his constituents, Congressman Ricardo Rodriguez Solorzano, of the Legislative Assembly, took out a full-page advertisement in La Nacion, a leading Costa Rican daily, in the form of an open letter to President Luis Alberto Monge. Rodriguez provided extensive details on contra operations, bases and supplies and cited the growing popular opposition to their presence. He wrote:

It is not the political stability of the Sandinista government that concerns me, nor that it finds itself more menaced by these groups of counterrevolutionaries. The Sandinista leaders will know how to defend their government. It is Costa Rica's democratic regime that worries me. It is the one most severely endangered if mercenaries that once served the most shameful and terrible dictatorships in Latin America are allowed to group and arm themselves in our territory. At any given moment their guns could overturn our democracy, our institutions and laws, if our freedoms and respect for the sovereignty of other nations are perceived as a hindrance to their muddy objectives.

According to Rodriguez, contras are camped in the national parks along the Interamerican Highway. The government has increased the number of Civil Guard stations along the route. Storekeepers in small northern towns like La Cruz talk about the contras' shopping preferences. Groups of able-bodied young men, whom residents say are not townspeople, stand idly about in village plazas.

Costa Rican newspapers are now advertising positions at a new radio station, intended to counter Sandinista broadcasts, which are received more clearly in towns just over the border than are those originating in San Jose. This is controversial because the country's neutrality proclamation forbids "nonpublic wireless installations aimed at communicating with warring factions" from operating in Costa Rica. An unusual agreement between the United States Information Agency and a private group of Costa Rican business leaders--organized last December as the Costa Rican Association for Information and Culture (A.C.I.C.)--will permit Voice of America programs to be relayed from the new station. Voice of America agreements are generally made between the United States and foreign governments, but the Costa Rican Radio Law prohibits foreigners from broadcasting in the country. To circumvent this constraint, the agreement was signed with A.C.I.C., which will relay Voice of America broadcasts from Washington.

The pact aroused so much controversy in the legislative Assembly that its signing was postponed three times. On August 31, when it was formalized at the home of President Monge, on Costa Rican official signed. Under the contract, the U.S.I.A. agreed to pay $150,000 for Costa Rican frequency rights, in addition to annual operating costs of $168,000. Furthermore, the agency is providing as much as $2 million worth of equipment for the new station, which will operate at 50,000 watts--the greatest amount of power allowed stations in the United States.

Costa Rica has vacillated about how to handle the contras since they began setting up bases here about four years ago. Pastora, a Costa Rican landowner, has been expelled from the country several times by the Monge government because of his activities against Nicaragua. But he has always been allowed to return.

Many Costa Ricans, However, regard economic decline as a far greater threat than Nicaragua. Government studies show that Costa Rica's economic situation has deteriorated steadily since 1980. Its foreign debt is more than $4 billion; 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, almost twice as many as in 1981; 20 percent of the work force is unemployed; and child malnutrition has reached epidemic proportions.

"The economic situation is critical," says Sam Stone, who heads the Center for political and Administrative Investigation and Training (CIAPA), a respected Costa Rican think tank. "For the first time in my more than forty-five years here, homes are being broken into and nothing is taken but food."

According to Stone, who once served as Costa Rica's cultural attache to France and as a representative to Unesco:

The Soviet threat was not originally a factor here. It was brought about by lack of an overall U.S. regional policy.

In the past century, for example, the United States, France and England were interested in this area anb southern Mexico only in terms of access to an interocean canal. They saw the region as a bunch of banana republics, only important when crisis came. Then, all of a sudden, everyone in Washington rushed about. Even now, often the first thing they do is pull out a map.

U.S. regional policy has always been a hit-and-miss proposition. A roving ambassador is occasionally sent down for a few hours--sometimes never leaving the airport where he meets with a few people. As a result, U.S. policy often shows a complete lack of understanding.
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Author:de Uriatre, Mercedes Lynn
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 3, 1984
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