Was the Monge Administration Neutral?

This article was originally published in Spanish in La Nación November 20, 2011.

By David Díaz Arias

On November 17, 1983, President Luis Alberto Monge proclaimed his policy of Costa Rica’s perpetual, active and unarmed neutrality. He did so at a critical moment for the country. Why did he reach that decision? In 1985, in the Colegio de México’s journal Foro Internacional, Lowell Gudmundson published an article evaluating the second year of the Monge administration and noted a change compared to 1982.

According to Gudmundson, after “open hostility toward the Sandinista regime,” Monge followed up with closer relations with the Contadora Group, a change which cooled relations with the American administration of Ronald Reagan and his Central American foreign policy. Gudmundson offered evidence of that lowering of tensions in the firing of the Monge administration’s minister of foreign affairs, Fernando Volio (clearly anti-Sandinista), and the wide publicity given to the “active neutrality” declaration. Gudmundson noted: “The government’s participation in the detention and deportation of ARDE (Alianza Revolucionaria Democrática) guerrilla fighters and other mercenaries was very important. At year’s end they rejected the U.S. offer of military ‘engineers’ to build roads along the sensitive border with Nicaragua. The implicit message to the anti-Sandinista forces supported by the U.S. was that Costa Rica was not in favor of an open confrontation.”

Gudmundson’s work has a testimonial tone: “We cannot know how long this situation will last because the (Costa Rican) government heavily depends economically on the Reagan policy. As I write these lines (1984), the Reagan administration seeks to distance Costa Rica from its neutrality and bring it closer to the confrontational policy shared by its allies in Honduras and El Salvador.”

Chronology. Based on the evidence offered by Gudmundson, one can establish a chronology of some of the events prior to and after the neutrality declaration. In March 1983, the visit of Pope John Paul II increased the anti-Sandinista sentiments in Costa Rica and also reinforced the nationalism that idealizes our country over its neighboring Central American republics. Thereafter, several events refined the Monge administration’s idea to try to confront the pressure from Washington more resourcefully: a Cessna aircraft apparently from San José (supposedly with ARDE fighters as crewmembers) bombed the Managua airport, problems in the border region of Upala (Gudmundson mentions “killings and riots”), and the “Contra” attack on the border crossing in Peñas Blancas, led Costa Rica to detain ARDE members.

According to Gudmundson, once neutrality was declared, the U.S. ambassador in San José, Curtin Winsor, tried twice to involve Monge in what were called “joint maneuvers” and “regional development,” but Monge rejected the offers. What followed was an increase in border tensions: On May 3, 1984 there was news of a Sandinista bombing in Costa Rican territory when an official source in Washington claimed that such actions could “produce an important change in the neutrality of the weak link, and push (Costa Rica) more proclaim and publically to the anti-Sandinista side.” In that context, there was a march on May 15 in support of the Monge administration and its neutrality policy. Fifteen days later, the attempted assassination of Edén Pastora produced three deaths, wounding a dozen others. This chronology is complemented by Carlos Sojo’s analysis in Costa Rica: política exterior y sandinismo, where he makes clear that the effort to proclaim neutrality was very great since various anticommunist groups were opposed; but, was it truly neutrality?

Neutrality Opposed. Several researchers have discussed the Monge administration’s neutrality based on U.S. documents, testimonies, and press accounts. In Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s, Martha Honey offered the hypothesis that the Reagan administration “reached the conclusion that Costa Rica was more useful as a defenseless and democratic ally that could be seen as needing U.S. ‘protection’ in the face of Sandinista disarmament.” Honey claims that Washington planned to utilize Costa Rica’s policy of occasionally and neutrality to gain international support against the Sandinistas. She adds that the Reagan administration tried to convince Costa Rica to update and expand its military capacity, to open its territory to the Contras, and to align the country against the Sandinistas.

When they published The Costa Rica Reader in 1989, Marc Edelman and Joanne Kenen presented several official U.S. documents that offered proof of what Honey claimed. One document mentions: “Even though occasionally the Costa Rican security forces carried out an incursion or a campaign against the anti-Sandinista groups, Monge looked the other way at most of the armed activities of the Contras, especially if this were the implicit price for the massive economic assistance that began in 1983.” Edelman and Kenen also refer to the change of ambassadors in San José in February 1985, revealing that the new emissary, Lewis Tambs, acknowledged before the Tower Commission (investigating the Iran-Contra scandal) that his principal mission in Costa Rica was to “open the Southern front” against Nicaragua. Edelman and Kenen conclude that “undercover U.S. agents, with the help of Costa Rican officials and security forces, began to build an air strip that would be used to supply arms to the Contras.”

In his evaluation of twentieth-century foreign policy, Jorge Francisco Sáenz Carbonell, points out: “[B]eginning in 1982 [Costa Rica] became one of the key pieces of American policy with respect to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, as shown by the generous U.S. aid to the Monge administration, the visit of President Ronald Reagan to San José in 1983, and the Costa Rican authorities’ tolerance of the activities of anti-Sandinista armed groups in the North of the country.”

Nearly 30 years after the Monge administration’s proclamation, historians need to reexamine this period to better understand it. Did the panorama change with the Oscar Arias administration (1986-90)? That is the topic for another article.

The author is Professor of History at the Universidad de Costa Rica.