Anyone who thought Costa Rica’s surprise overture toward Cuba in March 2009 would ruffle the feathers of the Central American country’s close ally, the United States, was likely to be wrong.
Not only did Washington have advance information that the administration of former President Oscar Arias would seek rapprochement with the Communist island, the United States invisibly encouraged the making of amends, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables published in La Nación newspaper.
Yes, WikiLeaks reared its whistle-blowing head in Latin America again this month after a slight lull in the region. This time the pro-transparency group has tapped La Nación, a San Jose-based daily paper revered for investigative journalism, to act as the fortuitous bearer of “Cablegate” in Costa Rica. The paper dedicated a crack investigative team to do what several top publications have done before it—digest, redact, reprocess, and then dump secrets of the U.S. diplomatic corps into cyberspace, accompanied by analysis pieces. The leaks have outed some fascinating spiders from Costa Rica and America’s closets.
Among the latest leaks are cables by former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale, dating from 2006, that detail Langdale’s nudging of a top Tico diplomat to help set off a regional charm offensive on the Castro regime. Costa Rica had broken off ties with Cuba in 1961. The rapprochement would use Costa Rica’s “moral stature,” according to one cable, to guide a process “in support of a democratic transition in Cuba.”
Then-Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno had reservations as regards Costa Rica’s actual ability to flex moral authority when Cuba viewed this social-democratic U.S. ally as “an enemy,” Langdale quoted Stagno as saying in the cable. Stagno asked why not lift the embargo if Washington wants a real catalyst, to which Langdale explained “much would have to change on the island before the president would consider approaching Congress about the embargo.”
Langdale also said the U.S. would have liked Chile and Mexico to join the “contact group” meant to lead a peaceful charge toward Havana’s gates. As history would have it, in June 2009 El Salvador elected its first left-leaning president, Mauricio Funes, who promptly swore he would re-establish relations with Cuba, frozen since 1959. Several cables on Costa Rica’s detent with Cuba make for interesting reading on recent politics around the slowly transitioning island.
Other prickly issues have unfolded since La Nación reporter Giannina Segnini met WikiLeaks’ Kristinn Hrafnsson in London on February 15. They range from the CAFTA-DR free-trade treaty to Costa Rica’s dealings with China—two topics in particular where cables illustrate opposing strengths and weaknesses, respectively, on the part of Washington to effectively weigh in on the country’s foreign policies, commercial and political.
On CAFTA-DR, readers learned of how the U.S. had trained Costa Rica’s riot police to maintain demonstrations in the lead-up to the contentious referendum in 2007, that Costa Rican leaders might have been privy to a favorable court ruling prior to its announcement and about some of the extent to which United States worked to see a positive outcome toward Costa Rica joining the regional free-trade accord.
On China, the cables convey a somewhat predictable lament by U.S. diplomats that Costa Rica seemed to have compromised its prized human rights record for money and gifts in trading Taipei for Beijing ties and eventually striving for a free-trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
So far the series of leakage has not been earth-shattering for anybody but more leaks are to come, and lawmakers have only begun to debate the relevance these cables might have in implicating previous administrations.
*Alex Leff is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org based in San José, Costa Rica, and is a local correspondent for Reuters and GlobalPost.