Costa Rica, Past & Present

Part 3: The U.S. Military Wants In

by Zola

The question of who goes along, who threatens to tell, who deals arms, and who deals drugs is as relevant in Costa Rica in 2001 as it was in the mid-1980s.

In fact, Costa Rica appears primed in many ways to repeat the mid-1980s (unless something is done), because the foreign circumstances are similar and many of the same cast of characters are involved.

For today there is another Central American conflict in development, another fight developing, another rationale for U.S. military involvement. Strangely enough, this rationale is not entirely fabricated, although it is sold via a cover story that is a lie. The U.S. military wants to come to Costa Rica. They want in bad. One of the Costa Rican political parties running in the presidential election coming in February 2002 has already cut a deal to let them in—to the extent that such a deal has meaning. (Letting foreign troops in can't happen by Presidential decree; it will require a vote of the legislature.)

And with the military will come the money bonanza, the deals, the skimming and scamming, the friend-of-the-family contracts. And there will come, too, an escalation of the drug trade, because Washington's main man in Costa Rica plays a key role in the Central American drug trade. Coming also with the American military extention into a country without an army will be venereal disease, harassment of American expatriates, drug violence, and assassinations. It will be a fine old time.

Protecting the Canal?

Why does the U.S. military want to come to Costa Rica? Well, to protect the Panama canal, of course. That is the official explanation being given in both the U.S. and in Costa Rica.

Why this sudden concern over the Panama Canal? The U.S. military hasn't exactly been trembling on pins and needles since the time Jimmy Carter agreed to give the Canal back to Panama. The actual transition date was 20 years later, on Dec. 31, 1999. Is it just the case that now, with firmer heads in control, the U.S. has seen beyond its former folly?

Curiously enough, it was Jimmy Carter's CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, who made the front page of Costa Rican papers in January 2000 when his Czech-built LET 410 crashed after taking off from the Tobias Bolanos airport in San Jose. Informed sources say Turner was in the country to scout out usable locations for the U.S. military. Elements of the latter had already established a presence north of Liberia, in the northwest corner of Costa Rica.

Scouting locations? For what purpose? For a staging area for forces to protect the Panama Canal, we were reluctantly told. We were not satisfied.

The simple truth is that the Panama Canal is no longer of strategic military importance. You should keep that in mind, because in the coming months you are likely to hear spurious public explanations of why the Canal must be "protected" at all costs.

And why the sudden urgency to protect the Canal? Well, the Chinese are taking over, they say. Really?

The Chinese Menace

Now, as recently as February of this year, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was not concerned about China's influence in the Panama Canal (Bill Gertz in the Washington Times, February 7, 2001). But clearly some were, or so they claimed. Attention was focused on Li Ka-shing, and his ties to the Chinese (PRC) military. Li Ka-shing is chairman of a Hong Kong company, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., whose subsidiary Hutchinson Port Holdings was granted a 25-year lease, with an additional 25-year option, for control of the Panama Canal's Atlantic and Pacific Ocean ports of Balboa and Cristobal.

If the Chinese (PRC) were plotting something, what, exactly, would they be plotting? As noted, the Canal is not of strategic military importance. It does have commercial importance—but even so, why would one worry about the Chinese closing it? It seems more likely they would keep it open to profit from commerce. What would be gained by closing it? Maybe Li Ka-shing simply saw it as a good investment. After all, Hutchinson Port Holdings is the largest operator of ports in the world. It's what they do, even if they make a little money off the Commies in the process.

Nevertheless, that "the Canal is commercially important" was offered as a backup to the argument that "the Canal is militarily important". But no one had any facts or figures why it was of such economic importance to require protection by the U.S. military. We still didn't buy the explanation.

Was it all a smokescreen whose real purpose was simply to justify more military spending? Was there some other purpose, perhaps related to the drug trade? We decided to look at the Chinese angle. Was there more to Chinese interest in Panama than simply that of Li Ka-shing?

Yes, it seems the Chinese are courting politicians, bankers, and commercial and technical firms. It's all just "business", they say, of course—shipping, construction, electronics, maybe even textiles. Perhaps the PRC is trying to take over the country?

But there's not much chance of that. The U.S. military is already, unofficially, in Panama, it seems, building secret airstrips for the war in Colombia. (See "Panama Time Bomb," Maybe they could take care of the Canal while they are invading Colombia?

But since Panama disbanded its military after the Americans left, one could speculate that the U.S. military is worried that the FARC guerrillas in northern Columbia might invade Panama, and ultimately even seize the Canal! But then this means the U.S. military is preparing to protect the Canal on behalf of Li Kai-shing and Hutchinson Port Holdings.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica is certainly not in any danger from the PRC. True, Costa Rica has friendly relations with Cuba. But on the Chinese end of things, Costa Rica is great friends with Taiwan, even supporting Taiwan's entry into the World Trade Organization and the U.N. And Taiwan (the Republic of China) has poured money into Costa Rica. As a simple example, Taiwan donated $22 million to build a bridge over the Tempisque River, which will greatly reduce the driving time from San Josť to the Nicoya peninsula and Nosara. (One will no longer have to take the ferry, if driving.) There are many other examples.

Cynics that we are, we entertained a number of hypotheses, even one that the Chinese may be trying to muscle in on the drug trade. And, possibly, there might be a little of that (there seems to be a Chinese drug gang that operates in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala), but that doesn't serve as a convincing explanation either. The gang don't seem to be terribly important.

So we are left with two hypotheses. The first is that Costa Rica is being groomed to be the actual staging area in the Colombian drug war, the battle with FARC. There is some merit in this argument, but I don't think it provides the major U.S. motivation, although we don't want to ignore what may develop in the near future. Motivations can change. But, at the moment, I think the major answer lies elsewhere.

I think the Chinese are interested in Central America for exactly the same reason the U.S. military is interested in Central America. And it ain't the Panama Canal. It is something vitally more important to U.S. defense than that. Which, naturally, also attracts the Chinese.

North to Honduras

To begin with, we need to go, not south to Panama, but to the north, to the mountains of Honduras.

(to be continued)