San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Free Trade, Drug Busts Make U.S. Envoy Proud

Pass free-trade agreement with the United States. Check.

Seize 60 metric tons of cocaine. Check. Mark Langdale – who is wrapping up a 27-month stint as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica – cites his role in these two Costa Rican projects as feathers in his hat.

Langdale made an apparently pivotal move in pushing Costa Rica toward the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), and he promoted cooperation between the two countries on spectacular drug busts.

Alternatively vilified and lauded by Costa Ricans, Langdale will leave behind a country with closer ties to the United States when he moves north this month to head the George W. Bush presidential library.

A friend, donor and former neighbor to Bush, Langdale was perhaps most known here for pushing CAFTA, approved by referendum in October.

“You may have noticed I figured out a way to talk about CAFTA today,” Langdale said during a speech in the Caribbean port city of Limón last February.“My wife thinks I can slip it into any conversation.”

In a complaint before the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), union members accused Langdale of meddling in internal affairs. Elections officials said they were not authorized to judge the case.

“It’s one thing to represent the interests of the United States. It’s another thing to tell Costa Ricans how to vote,” said Albino Vargas, who filed the complaint as general secretary of the National Association of Public and Private Employees.“He played dirty.”

In the days before the referendum, when CAFTA was losing by 12 points in the polls, Langdale looked to the Bush administration for help.

At Langdale’s request, the White House issued a statement that the United States would not renegotiate CAFTA should voters reject it. The statement also suggested the United States might not renew unilateral trade benefits for goods like tuna and textiles, set to expire in September.

The next day, CAFTA squeaked by with 51.6% of the vote. Lynda Solar, director of the Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce, said the Bush administration’s statement was an important – perhaps decisive – influence.

The treaty’s critics lambasted Langdale and the White House for what they called last-minute meddling.

“It’s been a very difficult job for him,” Solar said.“Part of his job is to foster the good relations between the United States and Costa Rica, but this is all coming about at a time when there is a lot of anti-U.S. sentiment.”

A tall man with a baby face and a loud, head-back laugh, Langdale brushes off the criticism.

“All you have to do is listen to Lou Dobbs” to know that free-trade is an emotional issue, he said.

Fighting Drugs Army-Free

Langdale is less well-known for his work on security issues.When he became ambassador in November 2005, he said, Costa Rica was “unplugged” from U.S. security efforts in the region. Langdale helped Public Security Ministry Director Fernando Berrocal reconnect with top officials at the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for all U.S. military activities in South and Central America, according to both men.

U.S. and Costa Rican authorities stepped up joint efforts between the two countries’ coast guards. Together, they seized more than 60 tons of cocaine in the first 20 months of President Oscar Arias’ administration.

By comparison, drug seizures did not amount to even a ton in 2003.

“(Langdale) is Bush’s personal friend and has influence in Washington,” Berrocal said.

“That has really helped us start a dialogue” with U.S. police and military authorities.

Langdale also accompanied Berrocal on a visit in November to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), a controversial military training school in the U.S. State of Georgia.With Langdale’s encouragement, Berrocal decided to send Costa Rican police officers to train there in  narcotrafficking, narco-terrorism and law enforcement.

Criticized by peace advocates, Berrocal said the officers urgently need training to help reduce soaring crime rates, and that they would take only nonmilitary courses.

Always a Scout

Langdale escaped from the gloom of drugs and the hot rhetoric of CAFTA to visit U.S. Peace Corps volunteers here – one of his favorite activities, he said. A one-time Boy Scout in the Texas, Langdale visited volunteers who worked with children.

He sang, did arts and crafts and danced with them – “a hokey kids dance” – said Erin Mone, deputy director of the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, who went with Langdale on some of the trips.

“He is very down-to-earth,” she added.

A businessman and lawyer by trade, Langdale will leave Costa Rica in the hands of a more seasoned diplomat, Peter Brennan, who has been in the Foreign Service for more than two decades. Brennan will serve as acting ambassador until a new one is appointed – most likely in 2009, after a new U.S. president gets settled.

In his new post, Langdale will oversee construction of the Bush library, museum and public policy center in Texas, where Langdale still owns a ranch.

Reflecting on his time in Costa Rica, Langdale said his efforts – on free trade, security and other initiatives – were meant to help Costa Rica keep pace with its reputation.

The country is seen as a stable, progressive democracy and an environmental paradise.

“Costa Rica has historically been a role model for the whole region, but when you’re a role model, you sort of have to keep it up,” he said.


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