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Troubled Times in Costa Rica: Dinner with the Dictator

 By Jack Ewing

El Pelotón

El Pelotón

The late 1970s and through the 1980s were times of turmoil in Central America. Costa Rica had been a stable democracy since 1948, had no army, and was the only nation in the isthmus that was not involved in some sort of internal conflict. Nevertheless, some of the violence from neighboring countries was bound to spill over. When I think back on those years, it seems strange that life could have once been so different in this small, peaceful nation where we live today.

For many years, Nicaragua had been a dictatorship ruled by the Somoza dynasty. The beginnings of internal resistance began to appear in the early 1970s. Then, in 1974, a major earthquake destroyed much of Managua and killed over 10,000 people. Financial aid poured into the country from all over the world. The Somozas are said to have kept most of the money for themselves rather than rebuilding the capital city. That was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. It triggered the Nicaraguan Revolution, which ended with the ousting of Somoza in 1979.

Hacienda Baru

Twelve different resistance groups had participated in the revolution, and each was given a seat in the new ruling junta, which was informally called the “Group of Twelve.” It soon became apparent, however, that only one of the twelve, the Sandinista Party, controlled all of the guns and thus all of the power. Daniel Ortega, as head of the party, and his brother Humberto, as head of the military, ran the country as they pleased with little regard for the wishes of the “Group of Twelve.” The junta members soon began resigning in protest, and within a year all pretense of government by consensus dissolved. Most of the former junta members eventually fled the country, some of them ending up in Costa Rica.

Up until 1981, Costa Rica had not experienced any violent fallout from the Nicaraguan conflict, but that was about to change. A bomb exploded in front of the Honduran airline offices in San Jose, blowing out the windows, but not causing major damage or harming anyone. Costa Rican authorities suspected the involvement of the Nicaraguan Embassy. A few weeks later another bomb exploded in the hallway of an apartment building in Escazu directly outside the door of a Nicaraguan expatriot. The Nicaraguan wasn’t home at the time, but the explosion also blew out the door of the apartment across the hall, seriously injuring the Canadian lady who lived there. Again Nicaraguan embassy involvement was suspected. There were other incidents, but one in particular got everyone’s attention. A powerful bomb exploded in a downtown San Jose parking lot, killing two people, the two Nicaraguans who had been carrying the bomb in a suitcase. It was later determined that the device was intended to kill Alfonso Robelo, a former Nicaraguan junta member who had moved to Costa Rica, and whose office was located in the building right across the street from the parking lot. Costa Ricans were beginning to get a little nervous. Being neutral wasn’t keeping the country safe. Then an interesting thing happened. In 1982, the “Contras” initiated their counter revolution against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and all the bombings in Costa Rica stopped. The Sandinistas were too busy fighting for survival at home to worry about exporting their revolution to the rest of Central America. However, a new problem evolved. The counter revolution began spilling across the border into northern Costa Rica.

In 1983, a worried Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge began a program called the Organización Para Emergencias Nacionales (OPEN,) which called for the training of private citizens who, in the case of an invasion from Nicaragua or elsewhere, would become a civil defense force. The people in charge of OPEN for the southern zone soon contacted me and asked if I had any military experience. I explained that I had never served in the military, and the only thing I had ever done that was even remotely related to the military was six months in the Recruit Officer Training Corps (ROTC) while attending Colorado State University, twenty years previous. “Wonderful!” they said. Before I knew it I was a Lieutenant in OPEN with a platoon of a dozen men under my command. My badge was number 100. At that time the slang word for a 100 colon bill (roughly $2.50 in 1983) was a “teja,” and my nickname became “Comandante Teja.” Men eagerly joined my platoon, and our training began. This consisted of target practice, nocturnal jungle patrols and rappelling off cliffs. When I think back on those days with OPEN, it seems like we were just a bunch of kids having loads of fun. At the time, of course, we all took it dead seriously.

In February of 1985 our company of OPEN invited the Panamanian Armed Forces in David, Panama to visit the livestock exposition in San Isidro and bring along their skydivers to do a demonstration. The invitation was innocent enough, and we didn’t really expect them to come, but, to our surprise, they did accept almost immediately. A day later we got another phone call from Panama. General Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman, was coming with them. Panama had a president, but Noriega controlled the military, another example of: “He who has the guns rules.” The reason for the visit, we were told, was that the General wanted to see the orchid exposition.

The day of General Noriega’s visit, Costa Rican President Monge came to San Isidro to greet him. Noriega, accompanied by a dozen body guards, arrived at the meeting in three late model SUVs. Monge was chatting with our group of OPEN officers at the time. The two national leaders greeted each other cordially and conversed briefly in private. When Monge left in an older model car, the President drove, and his chauffeur rode in the passenger seat. Noriega’s personal guard found this incredible. “Where are his body guards?” asked one of them.

“The chauffeur probably has a pistol in his back pocket,” joked one of my fellow OPEN officers.

Diane y el Dictador

Diane y el Dictador

Next came lunch with the General at a luxurious private rural home.  The guests included important people from around San Isidro, a high ranking official from the Social Christian Political party, half a dozen OPEN officers from the southern zone, and about 20 of the General’s followers, including his personal guard and press corps. Everything was very informal. At one point, a skydiver parachuted into the back yard, quickly released his parachute, ran up and smartly saluted the General.

That evening we dined at the Hotel del Sur. The mood was only slightly more formal than lunch, and everything was very cordial. During the course of the evening Manuel Noriega invited both my wife Diane and my daughter Natalie to dance. Something I noticed in particular was that he rarely spoke. I don’t think I heard him utter a complete sentence in the presence of other people, certainly nothing that could be quoted. But when my turn came to speak with General Noriega in private, he was like a talking machine that couldn’t be shut off. The following is a close approximation of what he told me:

“You probably know that I was in Managua two weeks ago visiting Danny Ortega. That guy’s a mad man. If he happens to wake up in a bad mood some morning, he’s just crazy enough to invade Costa Rica. He has over 50 Soviet tanks. I saw them. And he’s itching to use them. Those tanks can drive to San Jose in six hours. He can take over the country without firing a shot. If that happens the US won’t come to Costa Rica’s aid. It will take the gringos a month to make up their minds. In fact Costa Rica has only one ally who can get here fast, and that ally is Panama. We can’t make it in time to save San Jose, but we can save the south. I want you to be assured that Panama is Costa Rica’s friend and, if Ortega invades, we will stop him at the Cerro de la Muerte.”

In my opinion, this really meant: “Daniel Ortega and I made a deal. We’re going to split up Costa Rica. He gets the north, and I get the south.”

The next day when Diane and I returned to Hacienda Barú, we learned that one of the General’s helicopters had flown all over the property and even landed in a pasture near our house. They probably planned on making a base there at some point in the future. Fortunately, that never happened.

About a year later the armed forces of the United States invaded Panama, arrested Noriega and took him to back to the US to stand trial on drug trafficking charges. He completed his 20 year prison term in 2009 and was extradited to France to stand trial on money laundering charges. He was convicted of money laundering in France and served two years of an eight year sentence. On December 11, 2011 France extradited Manuel Noriega to Panama. He is now awaliting trial for a multitude of crimes. Shortly after the invasion and removal of Noriega, a democratic government was elected in Panama.

A couple of years later, elections were held in Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas were voted out of power by an overwhelming majority. Daniel Ortega stayed in Nicaragua, remained as head of the Sandinista Party and ran for president every election. Eighteen years later he was finally elected President of Nicaragua in free elections. In 2010, on the orders of Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua finally did invade Costa Rican territory, a peninsula in the San Juan river called “Isla Calero.” The case is now being decided by the International Court of Justice in La Hague. Relations have been tense between the two countries since the invasion. In 2011, Ortega was reelected in elections that were considered to be fradulent by many international observers.

Today, thinking back on the troubled times of the 1980s, it seems like all of this happened in another lifetime. In a way, I guess it did.


One Response to “Troubled Times in Costa Rica: Dinner with the Dictator”

  1. Maricela said:

    Mr. Ewing,
    The Panama invasion happened in Dec 20th 1989. I remembered it like it was yesterday. You are off by three years in your story – which by the way, is very interesting.


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