Costa Rica’s response to border conflict losing cohesion; causing confusion
An air of uncertainty has blown into the Costa Rican political landscape in recent days.
As government leaders cross their fingers that the International Court of Justice will rule in favor of Costa Rica in the case against Nicaragua’s alleged border invasion, political talking heads have voiced contrasting opinions on the merits of a so-called national defense plan.
The first mention of a need for a change in the government’s national defense policy came from Foreign Minister René Castro. In an interview in the Netherlands last week with Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, Castro said he thinks the time has come for Costa Rica to reconsider its non-military status (TT, Jan. 14).
“We are going to have to do a thorough analysis to decide about being an unarmed and peaceful nation, and the new reality of this multilateral world,” he said. “Being a pacifist is in the Costa Rican soul, but external forces are causing us to consider our historic stance.”
Castro also added that he felt that “Costa Rica is obliged to make a thorough revision to prepare for the future” and that the nation should consider creating a border defense unit, rather than an army.
“There is a considerable difference between an army and a police force,” he said. “The army has an offensive capability to attack. Here we are basically talking about creating mobile teams. We don’t want heavy artillery for defensive police… Our capacity for defense is very limited. We don’t have the necessary equipment for communication, aerial vigilance, or to defend maritime boundaries 10 times the size of our territory.”
Castro’s comments came only days after Costa Rican Security Minister María José Tijerino announced that heliports and fences would be constructed at three points along the Río San Juan, which serves at the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Tijerino said the government would set up heliports where the Colorado, Saripiquí and San Carlos rivers join the Río San Juan, and will be used to facilitate government air traffic and to monitor security along the border.
In response to Castro’s comments and the reports of increased defense measures, members of the Costa Rican community began to weigh in on the matter. In a lengthy letter, former ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada wrote: “All of us should lend ourselves to a day of service for our nation so that we don’t forget what we’ve learned, and so that citizens control their country’s defense. There isn’t a need for an army, because the people are the army.”
As the nation stirred in response to the murmurs of amplified defense and a potential revisiting of its 60-year standing without an army, the Foreign Ministry issued a new statement that attempted to provide more clarity.
“The [proposed border] police should embody the principles of legality and subordination to civilian authority, such as has been the case in Costa Rica since [former President] José Figueres abolished the army, which is when [Costa Rica] became an unarmed democracy and an example to the world,” Castro said in a statement.
More police are expected to arrive in March in border towns and river deltas along the Río San Juan. Meanwhile, both Costa Rica and Nicaragua await a ruling from the world court, where Costa Rican delegates claimed Nicaragua’s occupation of Isla Calero and its dredging of Río San Juan is illegal.
A National Defense Tax?
Last week, Chinchilla told members of the press that it was “very probable” that a national fiscal reform plan presented Monday (see related story, Page 1) would include a national defense tax to fund new border security measures. Days later, Castro issued a similar statement.
“We did a study of the investments of Latin American countries and found that they invest 2 to 4 percent of their gross domestic product in defense funds,” Castro said. “Our country invests that in public universities. We’ll have to consider investing similar funds to have a modern defense force.”
Castro also cited defense and special police units in Panama, Colombia and Chile as examples Costa Rica might consider emulating. It would take three years to prepare them, he said.
However, second Vice President Luis Liberman acknowledged that the fiscal reform plan presented this week does not include a new defense tax, and any use of funds on stepped up security measures would come from the general budget.
“It seems that all of this is going to result in a larger discussion very soon,” said Sergio Moya, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica.
“The situation with Nicaragua shows [Costa Rica’s] negligence. At the beginning of this, there was a Costa Rican presence on Isla Calero and we put our flag down. A few days later, police left and that’s when Nicaraguan soldiers entered. The entire situation has been handled in a very naïve, inexpert way,” he said. “We’ve never had a border policy that has been very clear.”
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