Don Huberty, 78, and James Seta, 84, have a few things in common. Not only are they both U.S. citizens, retirees, Costa Rican residents and veterans of two wars, but they have also both spent a good portion of their time in this country waging a new battle: this one, against their own embassy.
The two men claim they were mistreated by U.S. Embassy staff in two separate incidents, and they want apologies. Huberty, a former Air Force pilot who lives in Rohrmoser in western San José, says embassy security personnel attacked him and threw him out of the embassy in 2005 while he waited to use the embassy’s reference materials, dislocating his right shoulder and knocking out teeth. Seta, from San Ramón, northwest of the capital, says he was denied his right to fly on military aircraft after personnel at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport accused him of being drunk – which he denies – on a flight to Panama in 1990.
Both say the embassy has denied them their right to due process.
“They really misuse people, and they cover it up, and the officials are on top of it,” Seta told The Tico Times. “You can’t get in to that inner sanctum. You can’t get in to those offices. You can’t get in to talk to nobody… You walk outta there angrier and angrier.”
Huberty, who says he was in the lobby criticizing the embassy’s security measures when he was thrown out, told The Tico Times he’ll “do what I have to do to make the United States a better country.”
“I’m not in line to be a quarterback for the NFL, so I’ll live without the teeth that they knocked out, and live with my shoulder…(but) I’m really ashamed to see that kind of behavior under the flag that I hold dear,” he said. “I am not the enemy of the United States. I’m defending it now in a way that’s more difficult than I did 50-some years ago in Korea.”
Asked about the cases, embassy spokeswoman Elaine Samson told The Tico Times the embassy cannot provide information or comment on Huberty’s and Seta’s specific circumstances, but that the embassy reserves the right to remove people from its premises.
“Any U.S. government building has security procedures, and any person who enters that kind of a building has to comply with those…procedures,” she said. “If they’re not willing to do it, they are not going to be allowed to remain inside the building.”
During a visit to the U.S. Consular section earlier this year, The Tico Times saw a notice posted on the wall with Huberty’s name and photograph, instructing embassy staff that his access to embassy grounds is restricted. Samson said last month that she is not sure whether this is still the case, but said even someone with restricted status at the embassy is free to use the Consular Services section.
“They have a right to come in and get the various consular services the embassy provides,” such as passports, she said. “It’s a public service.”
Huberty first told his story in a letter to The Tico Times Feb. 17, which caught Seta’s eye. Seta contacted the newspaper to express his sympathy for Huberty’s cause and his own complaints against the embassy, while Huberty continued to pursue further media coverage of his case as he filed suits before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the Costa Rican Prosecutor’s Office in Pavas, in western San José, where the embassy is located.
Huberty has also written letters to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, approximately 50 members of Congress, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, among others.
Seta, meanwhile, has contacted two senators, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and military personnel.
His suspension from military flights was lifted after six months, but he wants an apology and the dismissal of one of the people he says harassed him on the flight – the other “has passed away, God rest his soul.”
At press time, none of these efforts had borne fruit.
Samson said that people with complaints about embassy staff or services should write a letter to the embassy, attention of the Deputy Chief of Mission. Depending on the topic, the letter will be referred to the appropriate office, she said.
If people aren’t happy with the response they receive, is there a higher authority to whom they can appeal?
“Not that I know of,” she said.
Huberty, for one, is not new to uphill legal battles. When, in 2002, he lost a large quantity of his stock holdings because financial-services conglomerate Conseco Inc. went bankrupt, the former builder sued Charles Schwab – not the company whose brokers had advised Huberty on his portfolio, but Charles Schwab himself. A 2005 article about his case in the California paper The Bohemian said Schwab’s attorneys “quickly made mincemeat of Huberty’s claims,” since his Schwab contract included a clause promising to settle differences with the company through arbitration, not litigation.
Abuse of Power?
Huberty, who moved to Costa Rica in 2000, visited the embassy Nov. 30, 2005, to consult reference materials in the embassy’s library, something he says he’d done several times before. (Samson said the InformationResourceCenter, which contains business and telephone directories and other materials, is no longer accessible to the public because of increased security after the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.) After passing through the security checkpoint, a staff member in the lobby told Huberty that the woman in charge of reference materials was on break and that he should wait.
According to Huberty, he sat down and struck up a conversation with the other three people waiting in the lobby.
“Our conversation regarded the excessive embassy security precautions given the location of the building and its very large grounds,” he explains in his U.S. District Court suit. At that point, Huberty says six security officers approached him.
One officer reportedly told Huberty the embassy does not have a library and asked him what information he wanted; Huberty told him “it was none of his business” and was then asked to leave.
“I declined, saying I that I was a valued citizen of the United States and the embassy’s public facilities were for the use of citizens and not to be denied without good reason,” he writes in the suit. That’s when the officer “grabbed me by the head while twisting my right arm until I though it would break.” The officials threw Huberty out of the embassy, causing him to lose consciousness and knocking out two of his teeth, as well as breaking off three others, according to the veteran.
“I’m not getting my teeth fixed until I get in front of a jury,” he said, adding that his shoulder still bothers him.
More than 15 years earlier, on Oct. 5, 1990, Seta, then a 10-year resident of Costa Rica, boarded a military aircraft bound for Panama so he could receive treatment at the U.S. military hospital there. His military flight privileges were then suspended for six months.
What happened in between is under debate. Seta says two security personnel at the airport, hired by the embassy, harassed him for no apparent reason. He said racism may have been an issue; Seta is black.
“The United States had two armies, black and white. I was in the black outfit. We had sessions about bigots and the language that they used,” he said, adding he admits he has no proof the alleged harassment was legally motivated. “That wasn’t the first flight I made. I’d made that flight 10, 12 times without a damn bit of trouble.”
He said in his attempt to follow up after the incident, he was treated in a disrespectful manner by embassy staff.
“Many time I was talked down to and insulted by members of the U.S. Ambassador’s staff, refusing to give their name,” he wrote in one of his letters to The Tico Times.
Both men say they would like to meet with U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale to discuss their concerns, though Samson said Huberty had ample access to Langdale at the embassy’s Fourth of July picnic this year.
(Huberty said the two had a “nice conversation.”) Asked how long he plans to stay in Costa Rica, Huberty said, “Oh, another 20 or 30 years… it’ll take me that long to clean up the country I’m so fond of. I’m cleaning it up from Costa Rica.”