LIMON — Teddy bears and medical supplies replaced ammunition and weapons as the USS Iwo Jima pulled into Costa Rica’s Caribbean port city of Limón on Friday.
Aboard the immense U.S. Navy carrier, doctors arrived alongside aid workers and engineers for a 10-day visit to bring health services to over 2,000 people, renovate two schools and collaborate with local police in disaster relief training.
Despite the visit´s humanitarian mission and the local mayor´s “open-arms welcome,” the reception wasn’t all the ship’s crew might have hoped for. Twenty people protesting the arrival of a warship in armyless Costa Rica made it clear that not everyone was cheering the ship’s arrival in Limon.
The demonstration was the latest event in what has been an ongoing public relations headache for the U.S. Embassy in San José. What the Embassy and the Costa Rican government saw as a routine procedure in the Legislative Assembly in July to renew permission for U.S. Navy ships to dock in Costa Rica quickly ballooned into a high-profile controversy in Costa Rica, complete with exaggerated headlines in the local press and Internet sites such as “46 Warships to invade Costa Rica” or “7000 marines headed to Costa Rica.”
Since then, peace activists and left-wing organizations have been vocal about the presence of the U.S. military in Costa Rican waters, hoping to make it clear that the U.S. Marines and Navy aren´t wanted here.
The legitimacy of Costa Rica´s 10-year joint maritime agreement with the United States to fight drug trafficking is also under question, as the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has been asked to review the legality of the agreement. A decision is expect in the coming weeks.
In the sweaty customs house of the Limón port on Saturday, Costa Rica’s Vice Minister of Security Mauricio Boraschi emphasized that the visit of the USS Iwo Jima was unrelated to the agreement.
“This visit is unrelated to the joint maritime agreement,” he said. “This is a very different mission. It is a humanitarian mission.”
The visit was requested by former President Oscar Arias in 2008 in order to give residents of Costa Rica’s impoverished Caribbean region a boost of aid and medical services.
The ship´s presence is part of an ongoing goodwill and aid mission called Continuing Promise 2010, which also includes visits to Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Suriname and Guyana. It received special permission to dock from the Legislative Assembly while the existing maritime agreement is being reviewed by judges.
At least 2,500 crew members, including 1,000 sailors, 500 marines, 200 medical providers and 30 to 40 volunteers from various nongovernmental organizations make up the mission. All are bunking aboard the 800-foot, 55-year-old warship.
During Iwo Jima´s first day in port, Amparo Morales, 43, stood outside a school-turned-medical building hoping to get an operation for a hernia that´s been bothering her for three years.
“Though I am not in pain, it does bother me,” she said. “I am very happy that it could go away after this week.”
Commander Cyrus Rad, a doctor of optometry and the site´s medical leader,said he expects many visitors will be arriving to seek second or third opinions. Like Colombia (where the ship docked last), he said Costa Rica has one of the stronger health care options in the region.
“We are aiming to do surgical procedures that are not too complicated, but not too easy either, in order to help the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time,” he said.
After a screening onshore, patients requiring surgery will spend a night or two on board the Iwo Jima, where they will undergo an operation. While the ship´s medical detail sees to patients, engineers and volunteers will visit the Westfalia and Hone Creek schools south of Limón to undertake a few improvements.
Although the U.s. Embassy is inviting members of the public to view the ship, they will not be permitted to board for security reasons.