Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ decision to open a peace base in Costa Rica has perplexed government officials here.
Out of all countries to launch a peace campaign, they ask, why was a country that spends $1.1 billion annually on its military preaching peace to Costa Rica, which hasn’t had an army for more than 60 years?
Not only is it an interference in Costa Rica’s affairs, they said, but it’s distorting a message that has long been preached by this little Central American country.
“Costa Rica has a legacy of peace that didn’t just begin at the time we eliminated our army, but it extends back to (the Spanish settlement), ” said Francisco Cordero, board member of San José’s Center for Peace.
He added that this legacy has long set Costa Rica apart as a unique country.
Today, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias uses peace as a favorite talking point. Whenever he has a moment in the international spotlight with a microphone in his hand, he pitches demilitarization and disarmament to his more-militarized counterparts.
Though burgeoning crime and illegal drug use and sales have disrupted the tranquility of the Costa Rican people, the message of world peace in this country has not been reduced to a beauty pageant answer, as it has in some other countries. It still maintains a tangible meaning, which is partly why the Arias administration went on the defense in responding to Venezuela’s peace base initiative.
“I have asked the Foreign Ministry to look into it,” Arias told reporters on Wednesday. “…The name – Costa Rican Base of Peace – is comical. It’s comical or cynical. There’s no country in the world more peaceful than Costa Rica.”
In an earlier statement, Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo Arias said, “I think there should be no intervention on the part of any ambassador or foreign country in Costa Rican affairs. And I think this project – from what we know of it today – rubs poorly with the Vienna Convention, which governs diplomatic ties among states.”
A Mask for War
Peace activist Francisco Cordero said he worries that Venezuela is using its peace bases in Latin America as an affront to the United States. He said the bases aren’t about peace, but about countering what Chávez sees as an imperialistic power.
“Taking a worldwide analysis, this is just an invasion to get in the backyard of the U.S.,” he said. “It’s a chess game. It’s putting a pawn where there wasn’t one before.”
While Chávez’ peace base is no more than a room in the Venezuelan Embassy in Rohrmoser, west of San José, he has announced plans to open similar bases all over Latin America “to encourage reflection and interchange of ideas,” said the Venezuelan ambassador to Costa Rica, Néstor Pineda.
But the effort has become a sticking point with Costa Rica, which during the present administration has distanced itself from Chávez’ rhetoric and maintained the country’s traditional close relations with the U.S.
For Arias, who has kept his distance from the leftist trend that many countries in the region are following, the peace base represents an attack, not only to his political position, but to his own peace campaign, said Vladimir De la Cruz, Costa Rican ambassador to Venezuela.
“The politics of peace and anti-militarism of the Arias administration denounces all governments that buy and sell arms … that divert economic resources which should be used to solve housing, education and health problems. It is obvious President Chávez and President Arias have opposing views about military spending, so it seems absurd to have a peace base in Costa Rica.”
Arias’ own peace campaign began in the 1980s, when he helped settle conflicts among feuding parties inCentral America. With the Nobel Peace Prize money, which he received during his first term as president, he established the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress to fight for disarmament and democratization through a variety of social programs.
Fighting for Peace on Home Front
While Arias is busy pushing peace on the international front, another factor is corroding Costa Rica’s peaceful reputation – at home. In the past seven years, worry over security has spiked. Four years ago, only 2 percent of the population cited security as their top concern.
A recently released study by polling company Unimer showed that 25 percent of Costa Ricans now believe the number one issue facing the country is security.
There’s reason behind their concern. The rate of violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants went up 8 percent in a one-year period, between 2006 and 2007. Drug-related cases from 1997 to 2007 multiplied eight-fold. Since 2004, the murder rate has increased by 24 percent. And, despite an increase in the number of judges from 460 to 817, conviction rates dropped from one in five to one in 40.
Though Costa Rica has an army of peacemakers – from the Quakers who immigrated in the 1950s, to the United Nations University of Peace founded in 1980, to the Rasur Foundation, which was created for educational purposes in 1997 – crime and illegal drug use and trafficking still found its way in.
“It caught Costa Rica unaware,” said Rita Marie Johnson, director and founder of the Rasur Foundation and Academy for Peace. “It seeped in from outside influences, but it’s also a natural part of growth.”
For Costa Ricans, who have found an identity in peace, the shift is disconcerting, she said.
“Peace runs like blood in the veins of Costa Ricans,” said Johnson, who sponsors educational programs in public schools and for groups. “Most are embarrassed and terrified about the crime that’s leaked in. They are frantically looking for ways to keep Costa Rica’s peace identity.”
Presidential frontrunner Laura Chinchilla, of the National Liberation Party, has made a return to security central to her campaign, naming it her number one issue. She told The Tico Times in May, “I would like Costa Rica to be a country in which we all feel safe walking on the streets, gathering outside …enjoying the parks. This is the Costa Rica we all dream about and this is why we propose, above anything else … that safety concerns need to be addressed … to change the future of this country for the better.”
To address security issues, the Arias administration has allied itself with the U.S. to improve its police force and stem drug trafficking under the Merida Plan. Funding for the Public Security Ministry has been doubled, to $180 million annually, and police training has been lengthened from two to six months.
But a peace infrastructure is also needed, Johnson said.
“Peace needs to be taught from the inside out, from the top down and from the bottom up,” she said.
What Is the Peace Base?
Venezuelan Ambassador to Costa Rica Néstor Pineda opened his country’s peace base in its embassy in Rohrmoser on Sept. 29. No more than a meeting room, the space is designed to encourage conversation and collaboration, according to Venezuelan officials.
“The peace base is an open forum for dialogue, for conversation, for an interchange of ideas, all with the motive of creating a new world,” Pineda told The Tico Times. “America needs a profound period of reflection to allow us to envision new societies in the context of the America we are and of the America we want to be.”
Bases already are open in Nicaragua, Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has said he hopes to open such bases all overLatin America.