Health Minister Dragged into Arms Scandal
Legislators looking to pin blame in a highly politicized arms manufacturing scandal put Health Minister María Avila in their crosshairs during a three-hour grilling at the Legislative Assembly Tuesday.
This week’s congressional interrogation was the latest in a controversy over the possibility of weapons production in a demilitarized country – a controversy in which legislators and Executive Branch officials are playing a blame game for a clause regarding illegal weapons that found its way into a recent Public Health Ministry decree.
Avila was hit with blows from all sides, with legislators accusing her of incompetence and blaming her for submitting the controversial decree, which was later signed by President Oscar Arias and published Aug. 23 in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper.
The decree updates and simplifies existing regulations for business permits from the Public Health Ministry. An annex that categorizes commercial activities according to risk contains a section on the manufacturing of arms, including machine guns and heavy artillery, despite the fact that Costa Rica’s Arms Law prohibits the manufacture, possession, import or sale of these weapons (TT, Sept. 22)
“We want transparency. We want to know who was working on this, for how long, and when this part of the decree was included,” said Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) legislator Jorge Sánchez, who presented the motion to bring Avila before Congress for questioning.
Avila responded by saying personnel from the Health Department’s Technical Department worked on the decree. She said the ministry was required to sign the decree under a United Nations mandate, and it is not intended to allow weapon manufacturing
in Costa Rica.
“As a woman, a citizen and a government official, I support any reform to prohibit arms because I’m 100% pro-life and pro-peace,” she said. She said the Health Ministry will have to consult the United Nations and the National Institute of Statistics, which uses the categories in the annex for statistical analysis, to see if the decree can be changed to omit the clause that refers to manufacturing of arms.
National Liberation Party (PLN) Secretary General and legislator Oscar Núñez said the minister is to blame for the fiasco, which he said may cost President Arias political capital in his attempt to get Costa Rica a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
“The Health Minister made the mistake. It wouldn’t have happened if she was a minister with political experience,” he said.
He said Arias couldn’t be expected to read such a thick document, and that the President trusts the minister to not submit decrees that may contradict the law.
PAC legislator Alberto Salom said the congressional hearing merely served to take the focus away from President Arias, who signed the decree and should be held responsible for apparently overlooking the clause.
“It’s necessary to assume responsibility for this,” he said.
This week’s developments are the latest in a debate that has taken place intermittently for months. President Oscar Arias’ status as a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, recognition he received in 1987 for his leadership role in creating the Central American Peace Plan, has fueled the fire, with his opponents arguing that his acceptance of documents that list illegal arms contradicts his longstanding opposition to disarmament.
Opponents of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) have long argued that the pact will allow foreign weapons manufacturers to set up shop here, thanks to a tariff schedule that mentions weapons such as rocket launchers.
The opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC) raised the issue when Arias headed to Europe in June – in part to curry international support in favor of his Costa Rica Consensus, through which developed nations would revise their foreign aid schemes to reward countries that reduce their military spending, and an Arms Trade Treaty to restrict the trade of weapons (TT, June 16).
Last month, the Health Ministry decree gave PAC legislators and others another example of what they say is an oversight that could let illegal weapons into the country.
Two legislators, PAC’s Salom and Oscar López of the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE), spoke out separately on the assembly floor about what they claimed were two arms manufacturers planning operations, or already operating, in the country. It appears these claims were at least partly false, however.
López pointed to the fact that a company called Raytheon, S.A. had purchased land in the Pacific province of Puntarenas.
The legislator alleged that U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Company had plans to begin operations on the territory.
However, Raytheon, S.A. is apparently a Costa Rican company that shares nothing more than its name with the U.S.-based firm. Raytheon Company told The Tico Times it had nothing to do with the land purchase.
Raytheon Company did, however, register its brands for a variety of information technology and defense-related products with the National Industrial Property Registry late last year through the law firm Pacheco & Coto. The Tico Times asked Raytheon Company for more information on why the company reserved these rights,
but did not receive a response by press time.
A few days after López’s allegations, Salom said a Raytheon Company supplier, Remecinc S.R.L., had been operating in Costa Rica for years. However, company manager Randall Vega told The Tico Times the company makes amplifiers and filters for cell phones, and that the products are not, and could not, be used for weapons systems.
Remecinc began operations in Costa Rica in 1999 after buying the low-cost cellular amplifier manufacturer Q-bit, which had been operating since 1996,Vega said. At that time, Remecinc belonged to the Wireless Systems Divisions division of U.S.- based Remec Inc.
Though Remec Inc. was also an arms manufacturer, as Salom claimed, Vega said the wireless division had nothing to do with the Defense and Space Division.
In 2005, Remec Inc. was dissolved and its divisions sold. The U.S.-based company is a subsidiary of U.S.-based cellular technologies Powerwave Inc., Remecinc’s current owner.
When a reporter from the daily La Nación asked Salom if he had investigated his allegations before speaking out, he said, “We haven’t reached that point.”