Costa Rica divided over presence of `contras' and US aid to them

Sandra Campos says she knows what United States aid to Nicaraguan ``contra'' rebels means to northern Costa Rica. The presence of the contras ``changed our whole way of living'' says Ms. Campos, a former county executive of a town in a northern zone that was radically affected by the rebels in 1983-84.

Her normally tranquil town became polarized between two groups, those supporting the contras and those supporting Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas, she said. People received death threats under their doors if one side suspected cooperation with the other. Crime skyrocketed. Buildings burned. Frightened farmers along the border fled south to avoid being caught in any confrontations.

Campos, who does not support the Sandinista government, opposes US aid to the contras. But ironically, she says, most people in her town probably support US efforts despite the likely repercussions. ``They don't analyze it,'' she said.

Many Costa Ricans will be closely watching for the outcome of today's scheduled vote by the US Congress on President Reagan's proposed $100 million package for military and humanitarian aid to the contras.

Campos's statements correspond with those made by other Costa Ricans interviewed. Most Costa Ricans, particularly in the north, do not support the Sandinistas. This attitude is promoted by the Costa Rican press.

But Costa Ricans are divided over whether the US should continue funding the rebels. Some, such as educators and center-to-liberal politicians, say the $100 million won't remove the Sandinistas, but it will remove security and peace from its borders. Others, particularly the growing far-right movement, say the border problems result from Sandinista incursions into their country -- not the contras.

Costa Rican political observers also differ in their views of the broader impact of a possible renewal of US aid. The prospect of such aid tests the country's self-proclaimed policy of neutrality, which newly-elected President Oscar Arias has pledged to uphold. In fact, when he recently said he believed US aid to the contras could be used better for other purposes, it took many Costa Rican and US politicians by surprise.

Although Mr. Arias reportedly wants to adopt a more independent political stance from the US than that of his predecessor, few Costa Rican observers believe he will be able to do so, because of the country's dependence on US economic aid -- about $123 million for 1986.

The proposed contra aid would also counteract Arias's proposal to beef up border patrol, close down or clean up private airstrips, and generally improve security in the northern zone of the country, some Costa Ricans say.

``The US gives money to the contras, which requires Costa Rica to take stricter national security measures,'' said a University of Costa Rica professor. ``Then the US sends arms and training to help Costa Rica protect itself from the rebels. It doesn't make sense.''

Likewise, Arias has found that his campaign promises to build houses, generate employment, and restore the economy -- actions designed to stabilize the country -- are hampered by social problems that were generated by the rebels when they came to Costa Rica (including political tensions, crime, and the influx of some 250,000 refugees).

If the aid is approved, these tensions are likely to be exacerbated. The Costa Rican-based contras may receive more money than they did in 1985, which would result in renewed contra activity. Many of the rebels became eligible for US aid when they switched their allegiance from the Costa Rican-based Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) to a branch of the Honduran-based Nicaraguan Democratic Force operating in Costa Rica. ARDE funding stopped in 1984 because its commander, Ed'en Pastora G'omez, wouldn't cooperate with the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Renewed rebel activity will provide political ammunition and moral support to the far-right sectors of Costa Rica, which have become more vociferous in recent years, say liberal politicians. The contra presence here reinforces the anticommunist convictions among many right-wing elements among businessmen, ranchers, and politicians. Few Costa Ricans in the north look forward to the violence and social problems that accompanied the contras during their height of activity here in 1983-84.

But in San Jos'e, the issue is more political.

``Now the main threat to Costa Rica's democracy is the contra,'' said Congressman Javier Solis. ``They have arms, they buy off the rural guard, and if the US invades, we'll be used. With the $100 million, you get the Central Americanization of Costa Rica.''

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