San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica foreign minster sparks army debate

In a candid interview with Dutch radio station Radio Nederland Wereldomroep in the Netherlands on Thursday, Foreign Minister René Castro said that he thinks the time has come for Costa Rica to reconsider its non-military status.

“We are going to have to do a thorough analysis to decide about being an unarmed and peaceful nation, and the new reality of this multilateral world,” he said. “Being a pacifist is in the Costa Rican soul, but external forces are causing us to consider our historic stance.”

Rene Castro

Castro also added that he felt that “Costa Rica is obliged to make a thorough revision to prepare for the future” and that the nation should consider creating a border defense unit, rather than an army.

“There is a considerable difference between an army and a police force,” he said. “The army has an offensive capability to attack. Here we are basically talking about creating mobile teams. We don’t want heavy artillery for defensive police…Our capacity for defense is very limited. We don’t have the necessary equipment for communication, aerial vigilance, or to defend maritime boundaries 10 times the size of our territory.”

Castro’s comments came after the conclusion of a 3-day case between Costa Rican and Nicaragua at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, the Netherlands. Throughout the case, Castro seemed to become increasingly frustrated with the Nicaraguan claim that Costa Rica had provoked an “international scandal” by stating that Nicaragua “invaded” the Isla Calero. Nicaragua also frustrated the Costa Rican contingent by claiming the border between the nations established in the 1858 Jeréz-Cañas Treaty was subject to interpretation due to the Río San Juan’s change in course over the last 150 years.

“(Nicaragua) again made an unfounded statement, manifesting that the incursion, occupation and use of Costa Rican territory has given Costa Rica motive to initiate an international scandal,” said Edgar Ugaldo, the Costa Rican agent to the world court. “Nicaragua has made us believe that they have prerogatives to penetrate into the territories of neighbor states, cause damages, disrespect resolutions of international organizations, and even then, remain unable to take any international responsibility.”  

Echoing President Laura Chinchilla’s words earlier in the week, Castro said that he feels Costa Rica needs to consider making “serious investments” into national defense forces. On Tuesday, Chinchilla said that it was “very probable” that the upcoming fiscal reform would include a national defense tax.

“We did a study of the investments of Latin American countries and found that they invert 2-4 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) into defense funds,” Castro said. “That is a large amount of money. Our country invests that into public universities. We will have to consider investing similar amounts of money into our forces to have modern defense force.”

Castro also cited defense and special police units in Panama, Colombia and Chile as examples of forces Costa Rica could consider emulating. He said approximately three years of training would be necessary to prepare sufficient resources and create a viable defense force.

Beefing Up the Other Side of the River

While Costa Rica mulls the option of amplifying police forces, Nicaraguan military presence on the Isla Calero is growing exponentially, a source in the area told The Tico Times.

“The amount of troops on the Nicaraguan side [of the Río San Juan] has gotten heavier, much heavier,” said the source that chose to remain anonymous. “In the last few weeks troops have at least doubled, if not more than that.”

The source said that, in addition to more checkpoints for travelers along the Río San Juan, dozens of troops have been deployed to the grass airstrip in the area of San Juan del Nicaragua known as Old Greytown. Construction materials arrived in Old Greytown in recent weeks to begin construction on a new airstrip, a project that has been delayed for years.

“The airport in Greytown has already been approved for construction and should be completed by the beginning of 2011,” Lucy Valenti, president of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (Canatur), told The Tico Times in November. “The runway will be top quality and will allow for small planes to fly in and out of that region of the country. Currently, it is very difficult to get to San Juan del Nicaragua and the airstrip will provide much more access to the area.”

With the arrival of the construction materials to the region, more Nicaraguan troops were deployed to protect the area and widen and lengthen the landing strip. Currently, troops are stationed in camps and tents on the long, narrow plot of grass.  

“(The troops) are most likely there to protect the materials at the airstrip, but they’re probably also there to provide back up along the border,” the source said. “Should there be some kind of threat or disturbance on the border, the airstrip is only half a kilometer away. They could be there in about 10 minutes.”

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