With the death of former President Luis Alberto Monge on Nov. 29, it was necessary to take a look back at our historical record and living anecdotes. We had to refresh our information about the legacy of the president most similar to the average Costa Rican citizen – at least since the 1949 Constitution he helped write.
When it comes to Monge, it’s very easy to remember his embrace of International Monetary Fund prescriptions for leaving behind the economic crisis of the early 1980s, and the proclamation of neutrality that he issued on Nov. 17, 1983 – an act very much in keeping with average Costa Rican behavior, in that it merely kept up appearances.
Searching among old published news items, I came across a long article by the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, published in El País on June 11, 1984, halfway through Monge’s administration, entitled “Costa Rica Under Fire.” He sums up the dilemmas of a supposedly neutral Costa Rica and the enormous weight of its pacifist traditions.
“Perpetual neutrality, ma non troppo (but not too much),” Benedetti wrote, before citing 1983 articles from The New York Times and ABC about Costa Rican officials who had been bribed by the CIA in exchange for their overt or undercover support for the Nicaraguan Contras. He also mentioned that on May 10 of that same year, the Washington Post had published a secret State Department document confirming that the presence of counter-revolutionaries on the Nicaraguan border would cause the deterioration of relations between that country and Costa Rica. The secret report concluded thus: “The story should be Nicaragua against Costa Rica, not Nicaragua against armed opposition.”
Benedetti’s article recalls the enormous pressure Costa Rica was experiencing. It was “under fire,” forced to choose one position or another. Monge, so very Tico, found that the best way forward was to declare himself neutral on paper, while Costa Rica’s Northern Zone served as a Contra catapult.
The declaration of neutrality was a fallacious one; we know that now. It was a “card pulled out of a sleeve,” Francisco Morales, Monge’s Minister of Agriculture, recalled later with a laugh when reflecting on the dishonest proclamation of “perpetual neutrality, active and unarmed,” that Monge declared and hurried off to present before European governments.
Of course, it wasn’t easy to have Reagan pressuring Costa Rica to enter the Nicaraguan war and, at the same time, know that Washington could throw Costa Rica a lifesaver during its economic crisis. Monge couldn’t stand up to the United States as, at the time, Oscar Arias was suggesting, but Costa Rica’s pacifist tradition – based on its lack of an army – wouldn’t allow it to take action, either.
Three decades later, perhaps we can understand the political chess of the moment. What’s hard to understand is the decision of national legislators in 2014 to turn that artificial neutrality into Costa Rican law: Law 9288. They wanted to pay homage to Monge even though they knew the neutrality he proclaimed was just that: a fake, a political dodge during a moment of intense pressure. Legislators from various parties elevated to the letter of the law, 30 years later, a pose that fortunately does not affect us today, but leaves very clear our inability to separate the wheat from the chaff of our recent history.
We all know that in many countries, Costa Rica included, it is a sin to criticize the recently departed, but the best homage we can give Monge is a fair assessment of his decisions. And among those, none is more controversial than that supposed distance from conflict.
They called it neutrality, ma non troppo.
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Álvaro Murillo is an experienced journalist who specializes in political coverage and has written for La Nación, Semanario Universidad and El País. In “No Sugar, Please,” his twice-monthly column, he explores politics in its broadest terms, from the halls of government to community life. Connect with him on Twitter.