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Pacifism's twilight in Costa Rica

By Lawrence A. Clayton / September 13, 1985



COSTA Rica is rapidly, and sadly, rejoining the rest of the world. Since 1949 when it abolished its Army, it has followed the path of peace and pacifism. It eschewed militarism in a region -- Latin America -- notorious for militarism. It has regularly budgeted a high percentage of its budget for education, not arms. And in 1983, Costa Rica even tried to commit itself to perpetual neutrality. President Luis Alberto Monge promulgated such a declaration, but it never got beyond a lovely, touching ceremony in the National Theater. It was never ratified by the congress, and it never made it into the Constitution.

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Since the Sandinista Revolution of 1979 overturned the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and imposed its own dictatorship, Costa Rica has been pulled inexorably into the quagmire of international politics. The civil war now raging in Nicaragua between Sandinistas and ``contras'' has spilled over the border into Costa Rica, along with tens of thousands of refugees, fueling the debate over the Sandinista Revolution and its meaning for Costa Ricans and the rest of Central America.

This year a presidential campaign is under way, and a theme on the hidden agenda emerging more and more as a central issue is whether to rearm in the face of an increasingly hostile and heavily armed Nicaragua.

The principal presidential candidates, Oscar Arias and Rafael Angel Calder'on, represent the major parties, National Liberation and United Social Christian. These two parties have alternated in power for the last three decades. The candidates are both young, aggressive, popular, and centrist in their political formation, and the campaign is in full swing. The main issue emerging is how to face up to the Marxist regime in Managua.

Two recent incidents kindled even greater urgency in the debate. In one, two Costa Rican civil guards were killed in a border skirmish at Las Crucitas May 31. The Costa Ricans hold the Sandinista Army wholly responsible. But the Sandinistas charge it was the contras, or, at the very least, a totally justifiable defense of Nicaraguan sovereignty from attacks launched by the contras from Costa Rican soil. The Sandinista message is clear: If Costa Rica can't control the contras within their own borde rs, then they must face the consequences.

In the second instance, Costa Rica was faced with equally unpleasant news from Panama, where the Contadora group met once again the third week in June. Contadora, made up of Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela, with representatives from the Central American nations as well, broke up when Nicaragua insisted on amending the agenda to include an investigation into the US support of contra activity against the Sandinistas. With the exception of Mexico, the Nicaraguan insistence was met frigidly by the r est of the group. Contadora then adjourned, and the consensus is that there is little hope for success from this corner in the near future.

Costa Rica had put great stock in Contadora to help Central America reach a peaceful resolution to the nearly incessant warfare and aggression tormenting the isthmus in the past four or five years. Now, international mediation appears to have withered as a viable alternative.

The United States role may be critical in tipping the scales toward rearmament and an end to the noble but perhaps unrealistic goal of neutrality and pacifism.

Costa Rica is being prodded into accepting the Reagan administration's vision of Sandinismo: a totalitarian, Cuban- and Soviet-backed threat to democracy and stability in Central America. The evidence is manifest. There are now about 20 US military advisers in the country, while assistance has increased tremendously across a wide spectrum of activities. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being channeled in to support and stabilize the Costa Rican currency, while programs administered by diverse US agen cies such as Aid for International Development and the United States Information Agency are awash in millions more voted by Congress in response to the Kissinger Commission report of 1984.

In these efforts, the US is being considerably assisted by a resurgence of Costa Rican nationalism, and by the coming elections, which always tend to heighten and dramatize great national issues. The leading newspaper, La Naci'on, is strident in its editorials against the Sandinistas, labeling them megalomaniacs and Cuban puppets. Nonetheless, Costa Ricans are in the main not quite ready to march arm in arm into Managua with the editors of La Naci'on and the troopers of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Yet there is an escalating fear of and anger with the Sandinista Revolution. It is perceived as threatening Costa Rican democracy and undermining the social order and goodwill which Costa Ricans cherish as the basis of their pacific vocation.

As the US and Nicaragua square off, it becomes academic whether Costa Rica can preserve its unique commitment -- at least in the Western Hemisphere -- to neutrality without an army. There are some difficult decisions most Costa Ricans would rather not make, or at the least, postpone. The great challenge of the next president, Mr. Arias or Mr. Calder'on, will be to preserve Costa Rica's democracy, sovereignty, and pacific vocation in the face of an increasingly partisan environment.

Lawrence A. Clayton is director of the Latin American studies program at the University of Alabama.