Three jets, 8 helicopters, 12 limousines, 300 security agents and a 300 strong press corps marked the arrival of the President of the United States in Costa Rica last December. The huge White House cavalcade seemed incongruous in this tiny Central American state, which abolished its army in 1948 and has pledged itself to peace ever since.
For nineteen hours the friendly, quiet little country was transformed into an alien no-man’s land. unrecognisable even to its own citizens. Though few Ticos, as they are called, would actually see him, the President of the United States— nicknamed Ron Rico after the cheap local brand of rum —made his presence felt everywhere. The airport was shut for two days, rifle-toting guardsmen patrolled buildings and bridges, the expressway was deserted and the town centre cordoned off. Traditional Costa Rican openness and hospitality were rebuffed. Some Ticos expressed a feeling of helplessness and frustration but others smiled cynically as the dollar signs flashed in their eyes.
Caught within the stranglehold of the world banking system, the Costa Rican government will be glad of those dollars. The recession threatens the sophisticated social policies that successive liberal governments have practiced and the per capita national debt is now the highest in the world. And so the proud independence of this country of farmers is in danger of being squashed. ‘Why do we have to be aligned to anyone,’ said a confused and annoyed coffee planter, ‘why can’t we just be left alone to work out our own problems?’ A bus driver provided a resigned answer. ‘It is the only way. The last two years have been very difficult. We need the money, but I only wish we knew the price.’
That price may be rearmament and war. Yielding to the stick of US pressure and the carrot of financial aid Costa Rica’s original support for Nicaragua’s Sandinista government has changed to distrust and could degenerate further. A volunteer armed force now trains three hours every night ‘to protect democracy against terrorists’. Refugees from the fighting in El Salvador and Guatemala are being treated with a new suspicion. And there is talk of the US establishing an air base on Costa Rican soil within a year.
‘Two countries, one ideal’ was the ironic slogan for Reagan’s visit His speech to the Costa Rican Assembly compounded the irony:
‘The only real route to peace is the well chartered course of Costa Rica: commitment to democracy, rejection of extremism and the force of arms, and respect for human rights and the rule of law... The US will continue to support the new democratic institutions in Honduras and the developing democratic processes in El Salvador. Any nation destabilising its neighbours by protecting guerillas and exporting violence
should forfeit close and fruitful relations with any people if the united States and with any people who truly love peace and freedom’
How long will the wide and muddy San Juan river dividing the steamy jungle of Nicaragua from the rain forest of Costa Rica be allowed to flow silently by with only two bored guards checking the banks?