San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ex-presidents clash over war past

A public spat between two former Costa Rican presidents and leading elder statesmen of the ruling National Liberation Party, has reawakened ghosts of the 1980s when Costa Rica very nearly found itself dragged into the civil war of northern neighbor Nicaragua.

Two-time Costa Rican President Oscar Arias wrote for the daily La Nación that his predecessor, former Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge, had a secret agreement with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to assist Nicaraguan Contra rebels in Costa Rica seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in violation of his own avowed neutrality policy.

In an angry response from Monge, also in La Nación, the 85-year-old former president hotly denied that any such agreement existed and accused Arias of making the story up in an exercise of self-aggrandizement.

Arias, 71, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 after leading negotiations that resulted in an agreement to disarm Nicaraguan Contra rebels as a prelude to free elections, in which the ruling Sandinista party was deposed by newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro.

In the article published Oct. 11, which purported to provide a public explanation for the notorious political rift between himself and Monge, Arias said that after his election, but before his swearing-in, Monge invited him to a meeting in his Pozos de Santa Ana home, where Arias and his brother Rodrigo were met by Monge and then-U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs.

“With surprise and shock, my brother and I were informed of an agreement existing between the governments of don Luis Alberto and that of Ronald Reagan, through which the use of national territory was facilitated to permit the ‘Contra’ to operate from Costa Rica,” said Arias.

Under the agreement, said Arias, Costa Rica allowed the U.S. to operate a clandestine airstrip in Guanacaste province near the Nicaraguan border, to set up radar to peer into Nicaragua and allow the Contras to be resupplied with food, medicine and arms from Costa Rica “behind the back of Costa Ricans and the international community.”

Arias said he told Monge and Tambs that once he took office on May 8, 1986, “The use of not even one square inch of Costa Rica by the ‘Contra’ would be tolerated, and nor would the presence of U.S. military in the country be permitted.”

The political jousting by the two ex-presidents occurs in rough proximity to the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the National Liberation Party, the party that brought both Monge and Arias to power and whose list of candidates for the February 2014 elections includes Arias’ younger brother Rodrigo, 65, and Monge’s nephew, San José Mayor Johnny Araya.

In his Oct. 16 response, Monge, one of the party’s founders, accused Arias of reducing the party to “a project of family ambition” and of having taken the party away from its social-democratic, reformist roots to a “conservative, plutocratic and authoritarian thesis.”

 Monge accused the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of rewriting history with the end of inflating his peacemaking record.

“Now [Arias] goes after me, writing a political novel that, before making public, he has been for many years slyly distributing to foreign journalists, universities and in private,” said Monge.

 Monge, who was president from 1982 to 1986, said that Reagan never asked him to make such an agreement.

“The Reagan-Monge pact or any species of agreement between the president of the United States and the president of Costa Rica is absolutely false,” said Monge. “You have to have altered state of mind to invent a tall tale of such magnitude.”

Monge said that the U.S. military, in the person of the head of the U.S. Southern Command, did offer “every kind of military assistance” if Costa Rica were to be invaded by the Sandinista army.

Monge said he declined the offer and instead looked to then-Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins and then-Colombian President Belisario Betancur, who offered their assistance and warned Nicaragua against invading Costa Rica.

According to Monge, the communist bloc intended to spread warfare throughout Central America, including plans to invade Costa Rica, and for that purpose sent a top-ranking Cuban officer, Oswaldo Ochoa, to Nicaragua.

“The thesis of communism was that the only way to escalate a regional conflict was to provoke a border conflict with Costa Rica to justify the entrance of the Sandinista army into national territory,” Monge said.

He said that on two occasions the Sandinistas had amassed troops along the border with Costa Rica as a prelude to invasion.

On the danger of Costa Rica getting dragged into an armed conflict, the two former presidents seem to be in agreement. But for Arias, the presence of the Contras and other military maneuverings in Costa Rica only exacerbated the danger.

“Costa Ricans will never know how close Costa Rica was to being involved in the war,” Arias said.

Arias said before his inauguration on May 8, 1986, that he met with visiting U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush and told him of his opposition to the Contra operations in Costa Rica. After the ceremony, Arias said he instructed his minister of public security, Hernán Garrón, to tell the Contras they were no longer welcome in Costa Rica and also to immediately close the airstrip on the Santa Elena Peninsula.

Records that came to light as a result of the investigation into the Reagan administration’s using proceeds of the sale of weapons to Iran to arm the Nicaragua Contra show that Arias personally told then-C.I.A. station chief in Costa Rica Joseph Fernández to close down the airstrip.

But the Iran-Contra record also shows that the U.S. ignored Arias’ decision to close the airstrip, forcing the Costa Rican president to order the airstrip occupied by Tico Civil Guards in late August 1986. The existence of the two-kilometer-long dirt airstrip in a secluded cove known as Potrero Grande was brought to light after a group of journalists, including Tico Times reporters, overflew the strip in September 1986 (TT, Sept. 26, 1986).

At the time, Arias administration officials insisted that the airstrip had never been used, but admitted privately that they had chosen to downplay its existence out of consideration for Monge (TT, Oct. 3, 1986).

In early 1987, Monge admitted to The Tico Times that he had approved the reconditioning of the airstrip after “officials with maps arrived from Washington,” and in a secret meeting with him, warned of the danger of a Sandinista invasion and the need for an additional airstrip in the area (TT, Jan. 16, 1987). The former president later told Iran-Contra investigators that he didn’t recall giving permission for the airstrip – part of a supposed “tourist project” located on property owned by a Panama-based company later linked to the CIA (TT, Oct. 10, 1986).

 In his La Nación article, Monge said the airstrip was “strictly private,” and that it was never used while he was president. However, residents of the area at the time reported frequent takeoffs and landings of mysterious aircraft, including a camouflaged Hercules cargo plane (TT, Sept. 26, 1986). 

The Iran-Contra record also shows that Monge’s minister of public security, Benjamín Piza, was, in the words of then-U.S. National Security Advisor Adm. John Poindexter, “highly instrumental in helping to organize the southern front of opposition to the Sandinistas.” In a memo to Reagan dated March 17, 1986, Poindexter recommended a brief Oval Office meeting between the U.S. president and Piza, and his wife, to thank Piza for his assistance to the Contra cause, writing, “He has intervened with President Monge on numerous occasions and has personally assisted in the development of the logistics support base for the United Nicaraguan Opposition forces deployed north of Costa Rica.”

Arias said that his refusal to allow any action by the Contras against the Nicaraguan government put an end to “painful” acts such as the death of Civil Guards near the Northern Zone hamlet of Las Crucitas, when the guards apparently got caught in crossfire in a Sandinista-Contra confrontation. Another “painful act” referred to by Arias was the May 30, 1984, bombing of a Nicaraguan rebel press conference at the rebel outpost of La Penca by a Sandinista spy posing as a Danish photojournalist, which killed three reporters and four rebels.

Monge took exception to Arias’ mention of the La Penca bombing, saying that the authorship of the bombing has been proven to be Sandinista. “That is the truth, and to involve my government is an infamy,” Monge said.

Monge also criticized Arias for seeking a second term in office after the country’s Supreme Court threw out the law prohibiting second terms for ex-presidents. “He can’t live without power,” said Monge. “Desperate, to the point that he overcame the spirit of the Constitutional Chamber to achieve a second de facto administration.”

Monge also accused Arias of trying to hog all the glory of the Nobel Peace Prize for himself by dismissing Monge’s Declaration of Perpetual Neutrality and ignoring the efforts of other Costa Ricans, including Arias’ own foreign minister, the late Rodrigo Madrigal. 

“Don Oscar, with his well-known egocentrism, adjudicates to himself in an exclusive form this great honor,” Monge said.

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