The year 1983 was the year Pope John Paul II visited Costa Rica as part of his historic eight-day odyssey to Central America and Haiti.
The first-ever visit by a pope to Costa Rica was marked by a visit to the National Children’s Hospital, a call on President Luis Alberto Monge, a meeting with 40,000 delirious young people in the National Stadium, a meeting with justices of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and an open-air mass in La Sabana Park, with the participation of around one million people.
Costa Rica was also the Pope’s hub, where he returned after visits to other Central American countries immersed in civil war. In Nicaragua, the pontiff was greeted by a reception line including Minister of Culture Francisco Cardenal, a Catholic priest whose position in the church was in question because of his participation in the left-wing government.
When the Pope approached Cardenal, the priest fell to one knee as the Pope shook his finger at him, demanding that he put his position with the church in order. During an open air mass in Managua, the Pope was heckled by a group of pro-Sandinista demonstrators who demanded he express concern for Nicaraguans killed by anti-Sandinista “Contra” rebels.
When the Pope made a return trip to San José, Ticos surrounded the Papal Nuncio residence where the pontiff was staying to show their indignation. Meanwhile, anti-Sandinista rebel leader Edén Pastora stood nearby, calling for a “holy war” against the Sandinistas.
The next day the Pope traveled to El Salvador, where he visited the grave of martyred Archbishop Arnulfo Romero, who had been gunned down by a rightwing assassin after speaking out against Salvadorean army death squads.
The Pope’s visit was also marred by news that the regime of then-Guatemalan strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, defying a papal plea for clemency, had executed six suspected guerrillas just four days before John Paul was due to arrive in Guatemala.
Costa Ricans reluctantly bid their visitor farewell with a final display of love: as the Pope’s flight took off in the morning sunshine, the Central Valley sparkled with flashes of sunlight reflected off thousands of mirrors in a Tico-style “hasta luego.”
A Visit from Reagan
In December 1983, with Costa Rica facing one of the most difficult economic crises in its history, U.S. President Ronald Reagan came to visit on a tour of Latin America. With the United States beginning a campaign against communism in Central America and the Sandinista government firmly entrenched in neighboring Nicaragua, Reagan’s visit had particular significance.
The U.S. Secret Service virtually shut down San José for the event, which was carefully orchestrated, leaving nothing to chance. The main event was a ceremony at San José’s National Theater, in which Reagan and Monge were to sign an extradition treaty.
The ceremony provided the only occasion for spontaneity, when Communist Party congressman Eric Ardón stood up in the gallery to deliver an address denouncing U.S. policy toward Central America.
Reagan looked baffled for a moment, before reaching for an earpiece for a translation. When he was apparently unable to get a satisfactory answer from the earpiece, an aide scuttled out from the wings of the stage and whispered something in his ear, while a forlorn President Monge sat ashen nearby.
As Ardón continued his diatribe, the audience began stamping their feet to drown him out. Secret Service and Civil Guards closed in on the congressman, but Ardón’s fellow congressmen insisted he should be allowed to finish.
Reagan then made his way to the podium, where he said, “Of course, I couldn’t understand what he was saying without an interpreter. But I’m told he was expressing the communist viewpoint. It’s a tribute to democracy that he is allowed to do so in a democracy.We wouldn’t be allowed to do so in a communist country.”
The audience broke into cheers and gave Reagan a standing ovation, scoring a clear victory for the U.S. chief.
Sanguinetti Lauds Ticos
In October 1989, 16 heads of state from all over the hemisphere gathered in Costa Rica in a celebration of freedom and democracy, at the invitation of President Oscar Arias. Among other things, the event was notable for the face-off between then-President Bush and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
But for Ticos, the highlight of the summit had to be the dinner held in the National Theater Oct. 28, when Uruguayan President Julio María Sanguinetti made an extemporaneous speech lauding the democratic progress made in the Americas, and which included a line that could be found on billboards around Costa Rica for months thereafter: “And I say today that where there is a Costa Rican, wherever he may be, there is freedom.”
Earth to Chang
On Jan. 15, 1986, Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge held extra-terrestrial talks with Costa Rica’s astronaut Franklin Chang, the first Latin ever to orbit earth. Chang, who chatted with the President from the cabin of the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia, also appeared twice in two days on Costa Rica TV from this heavenly loft.
Costa Rica’s economy hit the skids in 1981 with the collapse of the colón. The national currency was officially devalued in December 1981 from ¢8.60 to the dollar to ¢20 to the dollar, a drop of 130 percent.
But the true collapse was more like 400 percent, as the dollar soared to ¢40 in street trading. As a result of the greater than expected decline, many local enterprises which had restructured their operations on an estimation of a devaluation to ¢20 found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy as they faced payment of their dollar debts at the doubled rate.
The collapse of the currency, plus an inflation officially rated at 64 percent and more realistically estimated at almost 100 percent, posed enormous problems for the new government of Luis Alberto Monge, who faced a negative dollar reserve estimated as high – or low – as $300 million, internation-al credit cut off, negotiations stalled on refunding a foreign debt of more than $2.5 billion and inflation running at more than 50 percent annually.
Trouble began to stir in Panama in September 1985, when the tortured, decapitated body of guerrilla leader and former Panamanian Defense Minister Hugo Spadafora was found floating in a river on the Costa Rican side of the border with Panama.
Reports that Spadafora, who had joined Nicaraguan rebels in the effort to unseat the Sandinista government, was on his way back to Panama to denounce drug trafficking by U.S.-backed Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, led to the widely held belief that the strongman was behind the murder.
The crime galvanized opposition to Noriega, which increased when the United States indicted him for drug trafficking in 1989.
In the same year, reports began to filter in from western Panama that guerrilla groups were gathering to launch a bid to unseat Noriega.
Noriega responded to the growing dissent over his authoritarian rule and reports that he had been linked to drug trafficking by annulling elections and suspending his country’s constitution to remain in power.
In October, military officers staged a coup attempt that was thwarted. After months of demonstrations against the strongman that resulted in tense street battles between demonstrators and Panamanian Defense Forces, the United States stepped in with the invasion of Panama.
The strongman finally turned himself in, to be extradited back to the United States for trial.
To this day, he continues to languish in federal prison in Florida.
Accused Nazi Digs In
In 1985, the protracted effort to expel accused Nazi war criminal Bohdan Koziy began. The alleged Nazi past of the former Ukranian policeman finally caught up with him when he was tracked down by Nazihunters at the Jeruselem-based Simon Weisenthal Center.
Koziy was accused of killing eight people, including four-year-old Jewish girl, while working for a Ukranian police unit linked to the Nazi SS in Poland.
He eluded capture by hiding out until his laywers could intercede. Eventually, the Soviet Union sought Koziy’s extradition, but the only attempt to detain him was thwarted when Koziy put a gun to his head on his front porch and refused be taken alive.
The Ukrainian claimed he was a victim of mistaken identity and enjoyed the controversial support of former San José Archbishop Román Arrieta during his years here.
Poland sought Koziy’s extradition in 2003, only to see him die in the hospital just days before he would have been arrested.
Life on the Lam
In the early 1980s Costa Rica became a magnet for fugitives escaping U.S. justice. Costa Rica had an antiquated and porous extradition treaty with the United States, which brought those on the lam to the county in droves.
In August 1982, 11 fugitives wanted on drug-trafficking charges were arrested. The same month, The Tico Times broke a bizarre story of a U.S. fugitive and con-man, an evangelical preacher named Randolph Rudd who had set up shop in a mansion in the San José suburb of Santa Ana. Rudd was wanted for having bilked dozens of sick, elderly people who had sought a miracle cure at Murrietta hot springs in California .
In the Santa Ana mansion Rudd, in the company of another U.S. fugitive named Vincent Carrano, entertained U.S. citizens who were attracted to Costa Rica by a combination of Rudd’s promises of salvation and the prospect of investing in a gold-mining operation in Puntarenas.
Investors were impressed by a table-size map of the world, which purported to show political events leading the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world. Rudd bragged of his friendship with former Costa Rican President José (Pepe) Figueres, who even posed for photos with two prospective investors.
For his part, Carrano managed to interest Figueres in a set of bonds issued by the German Weimar Republic in the 1920s. Figueres contended that Costa Rica could negotiate the bonds, at a discounted rate, with the then-government of West Germany.
Things came to a head in November when Rudd was finally arrested and became the first fugitive extradited from Costa Rica to the United States. Carrano had fled before he could be nabbed.
After Rudd’s extradition, the floodgates opened and Costa Rican authorities began extraditing dozens of fugitives to the U.S, something made easier in 1983, when then-President Luis Alberto Monge signed an extradition treaty with visiting U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Foreigners Lost and Found
1989 was the year of foreigners lost. . . and found.
The headlines in April were dominated by searches for three hikers lost in the jungle near Barva Volcano in the Central Valley, a U.S. tourist who vanished on a hike through the dense forest on Cocos Island, and a Canadian visitor who disappeared in Cahuita National Park. A happier ending was in store for Bill and Simone Butler, a Miami couple rescued by the Costa Rican Coast Guard in August, 65 days after their 38-foot sailboat was sunk by killer whales in the Pacific Ocean. Simone, 52, and Bill, 60, credited Costa Rica’s Patron Saint, the Virgin of Los Angeles, with their dramatic rescue, after picking up news of the annual pilgrimage to honor the beloved Black Virgin on the radio in their five-foot rubber life raft, and praying to her.
Though both had lost 50 pounds and were suffering from dehydration and sores, the grateful couple went directly from the Golfito Hospital to the Basílica in Cartago on their own pilgrimage of thanksgiving to “La Negrita,” accompanied by hundreds of Tico well-wishers.