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Costa Rican Democracy & CAFTA


Why did the US tolerate Costa Rican democracy, even social democracy, a pattern so radically different from the rest of the region? It’s a question that interested me a great deal in the 1980s, in the context of the US wars in Central America, and the serious pressures on Costa Rica to adhere more closely to the model of the US terror states and to unravel its social democracy in favor of neoliberal principles.

I reviewed the declassified record, and what other sources I could find, and wrote a chapter about it (one of the appendices) in Necessary Illusions (1989). In brief, the US was willing to tolerate Costa Rican social democracy as long as the government dealt very harshly with labor and the left, and remained the best friend US investors ever had, as the US Ambassador put it. Details are there. By the 1980s, some problems were developing. One was what I just mentioned about Costa Rica within US plans for the region. Another was that Jose Figueres, who was the leading figure of Central American democracy and highly regarded in the US (once he fell into line in the 50s), was saying unacceptable things about Nicaragua. He was strongly anti-Sandinista, but was calling on the US to let Nicaraguans deal with their own problems instead of carrying out a brutal terrorist war against them. He was also one of the observers of the 1984 election, and like the others (including the professional association of Latin American scholars, a very hostile Dutch government delegation, and others) regarded them as basically fair elections. But that was all unacceptable. By doctrinal fiat, the elections didn’t take place, and the idea that Nicaraguans should run their own affairs was totally unacceptable pretty much across the spectrum. Therefore the leading voice of Central American democracy had to be frozen out of the media.
Other problems were that Costa was insufficiently supportive of Washington’s terror wars, and even took some action against them.
Totally unacceptable of course, but in the context of the times, it would have been impossible to extend the state terrorist programs to Costa Rica.

More studies and information have come out since, some of which I’ve brought up here and there. But to my knowledge nothing has come along to change the general picture.

On CAFTA, there is plenty of resistance throughout the region. Costa Rica is the only country that has something like a functioning democracy. The others are pretty much as described by the leading scholar of “democracy promotion,” particularly in Latin America, the neo-Reaganite director of the Carnegie Endowment program on law and democracy. As he points out in the standard scholarly work on the period, the US was willing to tolerate only “top-down forms of democracy” that left power in the hands of the traditional elites linked to American power in highly undemocratic societies. He’s not a critic, but a strong supporter of the policies, and is writing also from an insider’s standpoint, having been in Reagan’s State Department working on “democracy enhancement.” But he’s honest enough to describe the facts. It’s much like the famous “New Europe” of 2003, the real hope for democracy: namely, countries that rejected the will of the large majority of the population and followed orders from Crawford Texas.

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