Memorandum by the Director of the Office of South American Affairs (Atwood) and the Deputy Director of the Office of Middle American Affairs (Neal) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Holland)1



  • Relations between Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

In general the problem is one of two strong military authoritarian governments aligned against a government now headed by a liberal, but anti-communist, internationalist with a hate for “dictators.” The Guatemalan political situation was always of secondary importance to Venezuela at least, and now that it has been resolved, the militarist Venezuelan and Nicaraguan leaders have turned their attention and energies to the alleged danger posed by Figueres and his supporters in Costa Rica. There are also strictly bilateral complexities, which are set forth below:

Venezuela-Costa Rica

There is a firm friendship between Costa Rican President Figueres and Rómulo Betancourt, leader of the Venezuelan party from which Col. Pérez Jiménez seized power in 1948. Figueres has provided a haven for Betancourt in exile, not too far from Venezuela. Figueres has not prevented Betancourt from issuing clandestine propaganda and letters to the press attacking the Venezuelan regime and defending himself from counter-attacks. (The action, apparently by the Venezuelan Government, of dropping scurrilous leaflets by plane over San José, attacking both Betancourt and Figueres exceeded any act by either Betancourt or Figueres.)

Betancourt is believed by the Venezuelan leaders to be plotting his return to power and coordinating those plans while living in Costa Rica. The chance of assassination of Pérez Jiménez at the instigation of the Venezuelan exiles appears slight. However, the continuance of the Venezuelan Government’s attempts to assassinate its own exiles abroad gives the Venezuelan officials reason to feel some concern.

Costa Rica did not attend the OAS Conference in Caracas, stating clearly its distaste for the military regime in Venezuela and criticizing [Page 375] Venezuela for holding such a large number of political prisoners. Figueres (directly or through Betancourt) actively sought the support of other American Republics (particularly Uruguay, Bolivia, and Chile) to have the conference held elsewhere than in Caracas, unless Venezuela would release a substantial number of its political prisoners.

Figueres, with his Messiah complex and volatile personality, believes himself to be the man to save the repressed peoples of Latin America and has spoken out clearly against the “dictator” governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua. Such propaganda continues, though not so intensively. He is well regarded by the liberal press and by labor in the U.S.

All of the preceding is made more dangerous by Figueres’ great unpredictability and his past record for plotting with his liberal friends in the hemisphere and the so-called Caribbean Legion to bring about the downfall of the dictators in the area.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries are not in effect at present. Venezuela withdrew its only representative on March 12, 1954, and Costa Rica has no representative present in Caracas.

While Estrada (Chief of the Venezuelan Seguridad Nacional and one of the most powerful men in Venezuela) continues to deny Venezuelan plans for attacking Costa Rica, it seems probable that Venezuela is giving moral, financial, and possibly technical support to a plot to overthrow Figueres. Estrada, arguing that Figueres is really a communist at heart, has said frankly that he would be careful not to inform us if he knew that a Costa Rican uprising were about to occur. At the same time he has spoken of reacting strongly if there were any indication that the Costa Ricans were even tolerating revolutionary plans against Venezuela; and he has alleged that with Figueres’ help, Betancourt has assembled a mercenary army and an invasion fleet to attack Venezuela. Estrada has talked of “countering” a Costa Rican attack on Venezuela by using Canberra bombers to obliterate San José and a new Venezuelan destroyer to land 2,000 troops on Costa Rican shores, and he stated that this would mean war, regardless of the consequences for the OAS.

In view of the foregoing, Venezuela reacted strongly to the token U.S. shipment of arms to Costa Rica, since it indicated that Venezuela could not successfully treat Figueres as another Arbenz.

Nicaragua-Costa Rica

Somoza believes that Figueres was intimately involved in the April plot of Nicaraguan exiles coming from Cosa Rica to overthrow his government and assassinate him.

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Nicaragua—or more properly Somoza—is concerned over the number of Nicaraguan exiles being harbored in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica recently has given indications of deporting nearly all of the exiles desired by Nicaragua.

Because of Figueres’ all too public position against dictators, and specifically against Somoza, there is naturally no love lost by Somoza for Figueres.

Moreover, Somoza regards Betancourt as a danger against his own security, but admittedly not as much as does Venezuela.


These two countries share similar views on government; they emphasize the military aspects of their national life; and stability of the present regime is considered more important than the freedom or rights of the individual.

Nicaragua, perhaps, permits more freedom of the press but not to a degree which would seriously affect the security of the regime.

Nicaragua is proud of and attempts to exploit its firm friendship with the U.S. It attempts to be more anti-communist than anyone, and many of its enemies are labeled communist for convenience, a practice Venezuela also follows. Venezuela is basically friendly toward the U.S. but is quick to show its independence, being aware of its strategic importance to us and conscious of its growing strength as a military and economic power in the Caribbean.

Both are of the rightist group of governments in the hemisphere—Dominican Republic, Cuba, Argentina, Peru.

Remedies—Action taken by the U.S. and further action required.

(a) With Costa Rica—

We have urged Costa Rica to get rid of the exiles in the country whom Venezuela and Nicaragua consider a menace to its security.

We have informed Costa Rica that it is not eligible for a military grant aid agreement. We approved the purchase of arms by Costa Rica. Doing that, we also told Costa Rica we felt it appropriate to encourage it to take action on its own to bring political stability to the area.

We have asked Costa Rica not to publicize further the purchase of the arms, thus to contribute to the easing of tensions in the area.

Costa Rica has indicated its willingness to deport most of the exiles considered dangerous by Nicaragua. Rómulo Betancourt may leave Costa Rica soon on his own volition and would presumably be followed by other AD exiles.

Figueres faces substantial domestic political trouble because of his international political escapades. He needs a relatively long period of stability at home to recoup his own political fortunes.

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If Betancourt and the other principal AD leaders do not leave within a short period, we should continue to encourage the departure of these people and of any important Nicaraguan exiles who remain.

(b) With Nicaragua—

We have quite frankly told Nicaragua that we do not want it to contribute in any way to political instability in Central America. Somoza has indicated his concern over Nicaraguan exiles in Costa Rica, and once they have been deported by Costa Rica, he probably will desist from further menacing actions.

We have explained the reason for the arms shipment to Costa Rica and the fact that Costa Rica paid for all shipments.

We should observe closely Nicaragua’s future actions to be certain that it continues to do its share in maintaining peaceful relations with Costa Rica.

(c) With Venezuela—

We have made our position regarding Costa Rica clear to Ambassador González and he appears to understand the problems but is not able to convince the President.

We have also conveyed this information to the Foreign Minister, but he seems to carry relatively little weight with the President today and merely reflects the President’s annoyance with us.

We have made repeated efforts to put our position across to Estrada, as the man who carries most weight with the President, but he is intent on his own objectives and refuses to be convinced by our line of reasoning.

We should make further efforts to put the following points across clearly to Estrada and to the President:

–Real explanation of the agreement between the United Fruit Company and Costa Rica is (a) Figueres had a very generous proposition to accept or reject; (b) Figueres was worried about possible foreign attack or internal revolution and wanted a quick settlement of United Fruit Company problem; (c) the U.S. did not take any part in these negotiations.
Figueres is now badly worried about internal revolution. He scarcely has arms to handle this, to say nothing of attack against another country. Costa Rica has no offensive weapons (which Venezuela does have) and no trained men to speak of. Figueres knows from experience that he could not mount an attack against another country, since he would have neither the armed forces nor the support of his people for such an attack. (The Venezuelan Government’s alleged fear of Betancourt’s ability to overthrow it must be appraised in the light of repeated evaluations by our own Embassy as well as by Pérez Jiménez and Estrada themselves of their own strength and stability.)
–In the event of an armed attack by any State on Costa Rica, the U.S. would be obligated, as would all parties to the Rio Treaty, to go immediately to the assistance of Costa Rica (Article 3 of the Rio Treaty). In the event of an external challenge to Costa Rica’s security, [Page 378] not an armed attack by another State, we would co-operate in the OAS action required to prevent or remove the causes of any breach of the peace. We would, likewise, live up to our obligations if Venezuela were attacked in similar manner and it requested help.
–For each country to maintain its own economy in the strongest possible condition requires the maintenance of peace in the Western Hemisphere. (Peace and stability are essential to the flow of capital needed for continuance of Venezuela’s public works program and its economic development.)
–The necessity for solidarity of non-communist nations, even of widely diverse views, makes peace and a strong inter-American system essential in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela, as well as the U.S., has much to lose by weakening the OAS. Our mutual interests lie in conciliating inter-American difficulties rather than aggravating them.

  1. Drafted by Mr. Ohmans, and by Bainbridge C. Davis of the Office of South American Affairs. Addressed also to Deputy Assistant Secretary Woodward.