Goaliath Staggered: The Story of SOAW in Costa Rica & the Wikileak Revelations

By Carol Marujo, Ed.D., Rita Calvert & Isabel Macdonald
(All members of the Friends Peace center in Costa Rica)

“Imagine the response of the U.S. Embassy and the military when they heard of the Arias promise.WHINSEC brass must have shouted in anger about the public reaction if word got out. For a moment, Goliath staggered. As WikiLeaks draws away the curtain of secrecy, this truth is precious to remember…”
-­Nicole Sault, Ph.D., Member of Friends Peace Center and SOA Watch

In 2006 Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, and Lisa Sullivan, SOA Watch Director for Latin America, set off on a journey that took them to many countries to ask heads of state to do what the U.S Congress has refused to do – cut their ties to the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. With twenty-­four years of protests to try to persuade Congress to shut down the SOA, the vote had become closer each time. But the school stayed open after the Pentagon promised to teach respect for human rights and changed the name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

So SOA Watch decided to meet directly with the Latin American leaders to remind them of the atrocities committed by SOA graduates and ask them to stop sending their military to the school. The itinerary did not initially include Costa Rica, because it had abolished its army in 1948.

Rita Calvert, living in Costa Rica, had met Father Bourgeois many years earlier when she was the Director of the Dallas Peace Center. She had participated in vigils at the gates of Fort Benning, and had even been arrested for crossing the line, the act of nonviolent, civil disobedience aimed at revealing the true nature of the “School of the Dictators.” Rita discovered that Costa Rica had been sending its police to SOA/WHINSEC for decades. She invited Father Roy and Lisa to go to Costa Rica in hopes of convincing the government to stop using SOA/WHINSEC for police training. With support from the Friends (Quaker) Peace Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she coordinated their visit.

Father Roy and Lisa came to Costa Rica for four days in May 2007. They traveled throughout the central part of the country and spoke passionately to many groups of Costa Ricans and foreign residents in schools, churches, universities and other venues. Most of the listeners did not know about the U.S. Army school that trained Latin American military to torture and kill civilians, nor did they know that over 2,600 Costa Rican police have been trained there over the years. At a meeting in the rural town of Atenas, Father Roy addressed a group of high school students and adults. After the talk, he was surrounded by students eager to talk with him. One tall young woman said to him in an earnest voice, “Your words have motivated me to serve the poor. Look at me and remember my face.”

On the last full day of their visit, then-­President Oscar Arias and Minister of Security, Fernando Berrocal, met with Father Roy and Lisa Sullivan together with Rita Calvert and Isabel Macdonald of the Friends Peace Center. Information that has more recently come to light (through the classified cables released by WikiLeaks) suggests that Arias most likely entered the meeting with the intention of denying the request to stop sending Costa Rican police to WHINSEC. However, as the group presented their case, Arias appeared to be moved. His Minister of Security appeared to become extremely uncomfortable.

Arias asked, “What can we do?”
Lisa urged, “You can stop sending them.”
Arias said, “It is done.”

Recalling the event, Lisa later wrote, “I will always remember how Arias’ eyes watered when I spontaneously jumped up to hug him – breaking protocol – upon hearing his consent to our proposal to withdraw from the SOA. I thanked him in the name of the tens of thousands who had lost their lives because of this school. It was clear that this was a decision that touched the fibers of his commitment to peace”.

She further recalled, “Both Roy and I really appealed to his heart and reminded him who the victims of this school were, the very same people he defended in the 80s and for whom he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

We really appealed to that part of him, made it clear he would be a hero to many if he made that decision. It was clear that he had a lot of respect for Roy. I think that he surprised himself and Berrocal when he gave us a clear ‘yes’.”

What a success for peace and human rights! Although Costa Rica is small, it is well-­ known and respected as a peace-loving country with a president who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

Heavy Hearts at Fort Benning

Six months later, as several members of the Friends Peace Center prepared to go to Fort Benning to join the annual vigil, local newspapers announced disturbing news. Minister Berrocal had just returned from a trip there with U.S. Ambassador Langdale and others.

Berrocal was publicly calling for Costa Rica to continue using SOA/WHINSEC to train its police. He extolled the benefits of the training and the importance of that training for Costa Rica. The peace activists wondered, “How could a cabinet-­level minister be so open in opposing a decision of his president? Had Arias changed his mind? And why?” At the rally, Rita addressed the crowd of thousands from the stage and delivered the disappointing news that Arias may have reversed his decision and might continue to send police to WHINSEC. Still, there was no word from Arias himself, no definite decision.

During the months that followed, the Friends Peace Center reached out to the Arias government to try to get clarity and to urge the president to keep his promise. Some met with Minister Berrocal in early 2008. He talked about the need for Costa Rican police to be trained to address the serious threat posed by drug traffickers. When asked whether Costa Rica would continue to send police to WHINSEC, his reply was extremely vague, but he did not deny that they would. And they have, into 2011.

U.S. Embassy Cables Released by WikiLeaks

March 6, 2011 the major Costa Rican newspaper, La Nación, broke a story based on Wikileaks-­released cables from the U.S. Embassy and an interview with former Minister Berrocal showing how stunned Berrocal and the U.S. government were when they heard of Arias’ surprise decision to stop sending police. The cables also provided details on the intense six-month campaign by the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, the Pentagon’s Southcom and WHINSEC to pressure Arias to change his mind. The U.S. military clearly did not want to lose the prestige of Costa Rica’s continued involvement with the notorious school.

The cables revealed that Costa Rica stood to lose $1.2 million in various types of assistance from the U.S. if it pulled out of WHINSEC. When Arias yielded to the pressure, Berrocal was tasked with handling it in a way that would not tarnish Arias’ reputation as a peacemaker. In November, with the involvement of the U.S. Embassy, they agreed that Berrocal would announce the decision to continue using WHINSEC, and Arias would say nothing on the subject. The following excerpts from the Embassy cables detailed the effectiveness of that tactic:

“Berrocal’s WHINSEC trip and the initial accompanying media coverage went better than expected….On December 13…Berrocal wrote President Oscar Arias a letter recommending that Costa Rican law enforcement personnel ‘could maintain a training scheme’ at WHINSEC to receive counternarcotics, counterterrorism and other ‘strictly police’ training.”

“Following the plan that Berrocal outlined to us after his November visit to Fort Benning, President Arias will not respond to this letter, and his silence will be treated as acquiescence. Berrocal will then be authorized to resume unrestricted, non-­military training for Costa Rican law enforcement personnel at WHINSEC.”

“Berrocal’s letter ended the controversy, which began in May when Arias told School of the Americas Watch (SOA) representatives that the GOCR would no longer send students to WHINSEC.”

Significance for Peace Work

The WikiLeaks releases of the U.S. Embassy cables provide proof of what was happening behind the scenes and show how the US government has operated in buying and coercing acquiescence to their wishes.

A new president, Laura Chinchilla, took office in Costa Rica in May 2010. The Friends Peace Center has pursued contact with the new Minister of Public Security and has a meeting scheduled with him for mid-April to discuss the many issues and concerns regarding the training of Costa Rican police.

The peace activists of the Friends Peace Center believe that Costa Rica, a country that made a historic decision in 1948 to disband its military, has the moral authority to decide with autonomy, where its police will be trained. Numerous alternatives for training exist. Furthermore, the Friends Peace Center will continue to speak out against the increasing militarization of Latin America by the U.S. government and the threats to Costa Rica’s constitutional mandate for neutrality in international relations and prohibition of a standing army.

The struggle for justice and peace will continue, inspired by this message from Lisa Sullivan, “When we join together as small grassroots groups from around the Americas to resist militarization and promote a culture of peace, we are, quite simply, very powerful. So much so, that the world’s largest military giant not only takes notice, but sometimes has to scramble to keep up as we take the lead.”

“…for in the future we will continue to work on faith, not knowing how each of our actions ripples out. So hold onto this moment of truth and remember it when you feel helpless, unnoticed, overwhelmed, or unappreciated: Remember how Goliath staggered because of you.”
-­ Nicole Sault, Ph.D.