Connect to share and comment

Costa Rica: US warships cause unease

Costa Rica is wary of plans to allow US Naval ships to dock on its shores.

USS Iwo Jima
U.S. Navy sailors walk past the USS Iwo Jima, docked on the Hudson River during on May 22, 2009 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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.