2. Despatch From the Ambassador in Costa Rica (Woodward) to the Department of State1

No. 607


  • Study on Possibilities and Requirements for U.S. Assistance to Costa Rica in Dealing with Communist Subversion

I. State of Development of Threat of Subversion

Communism does not pose a present threat to the stability of the Costa Rican government due to the general opprobrium with which it is regarded by the people; the small number of party militants; lack of funds to operate; and the fact that the Constitution outlaws the Communist Party.

However, communism presents a potential danger because of its concentration on the laboring class and because there is an ever-present hard core of militants. Labor leaders are being sent to the Soviet Union and satellite countries for training. … some communists intend to organize guerrilla warfare in case of a general war.

… has recently supplied the following strength data for the “front” organization, Partido Vanguardia Popular and its satellite organizations:

National Committee of Partisans of Peace—8 members
General Confederation of Costa Rican Workers
Probable—approximately 2,000
Alliance of Costa Rican Women—claimed 506

Despite the relative modesty of the membership figures listed above, three members of the Confederation of Workers took labor training courses in Hungary in 1954, and two members of the PVP Political Commission made trips to Moscow. Two additional labor leaders recently departed for the labor school, and the PVP’s President, Manuel Mora Valverde, is now believed to be in Moscow.

Reliable … sources reveal that PVP and its affiliated organizations are extremely short of funds and have been consistently [Page 4] reduced to disposing of assets left to the Party from its prosperous days during the Calderon Guardia and Picado governments.2

II. Adequacy of Indigenous Countermeasures

(a) Recognition of Threat and Will-to-Act on the Part of the Local Government

While the government of José Figueres Ferrer is controversial, the bulk of its followers are believed to be genuinely anti-communist. Figueres consistently preaches against communism and points to his 1948 revolution which dislodged the commies from their powerful position in President Picado’s government. This anti-communist line is favored by most of the population, which suffered under communist rule for a short time before the 1948 revolt.

Figueres professes to be very pro-United States and his government generally supports us in the United Nations, OAS and other international bodies.

Figueres made himself suspect when he continued to support the Arbenz3 regime in Guatemala long after it was dominated by communists. It took considerable pressure to induce Figueres to turn against Arbenz and support the U.S. move to hold the Rio de Janeiro conference of Foreign Ministers to discuss the Guatemalan situation. Figueres supported the U.S. when we had trouble finding countries which would sponsor the proposed meeting, but this also was at a time when he was deep in difficulties with Nicaragua and desperately needed U.S. arms to bolster his defenses. There is little evidence Figueres thinks much of Castillo Armas4 and the feeling is reciprocated, although the relations between the governments seem to have improved lately as evidenced by a desire to sign a trade agreement.

On the other hand, Costa Rica’s conduct in the case of two notorious Guatemalans whose extradition was sought by the Castillo Armas government merits mention. Aníbal Mejia Morales, chauffeur for Col. Francisco Arana, assassinated in 1949 at Arbenz’ orders, was permitted to enter Costa Rica from El Salvador under an assumed name. Costa Rican officials claimed to be unable to locate this individual, who was later aided in obtaining a Salvadoran passport by Col. Marcial Aguiluz, one of Figueres’ closest advisers. By means of this passport he left the country under an assumed name.

The other case is that of Major Alfonso Martínez, head of the Arbenz agrarian reform program and the man who is generally [Page 5] believed to have arranged for delivery of the shipload of arms from behind the Iron Curtain to Guatemala. Martínez arrived incognito from San Salvador, where the Guatemalan government permitted him to go on safe conduct, when it was learned Guatemala planned to seek his extradition from there. He was met by Bernardo Montes de Oca, a Foreign Office official, and was registered by him in a San José hotel under an assumed name. When Guatemala filed notice that it planned to begin extradition proceedings in Costa Rica against Martínez (as well as Mejía), Martínez took asylum in the Ecuadoran Legation. He was finally permitted to depart for Quito under a very elastic interpretation of international agreements on asylum.

Recently, local newspapers stated that Col. Francisco Cosenza Gálvez, implicated in the January, 1955, plot against the Castillo Armas regime, was given “temporary permission” to remain in Costa Rica.

On the other side of the coin, there is evidence Castillo Armas provided aid to the revolutionaries who attempted to overthrow Figueres last January.

Renato Delcore, new Costa Rican Ambassador to Guatemala, issued an encouraging statement before his departure on April 25 for Guatemala. “I leave with the best intentions of bettering the good relations which exist between the peoples and governments of Guatemala and Costa Rica,” he said, adding that he was instructed to conclude the trade agreement and cooperate in preparations for the Odeca meeting in Guatemala, which is scheduled for July.

Since coming into power in November, 1953, the government has not taken any serious steps to combat communism, perhaps because the commies have presented no grave problem. The Communist Party is outlawed by the Costa Rican Constitution but President Figueres may feel that to harass the commies now would drive them deeper underground, whereas at present they have their heads just under the surface, where their general movements can be observed.

A bill to outlaw communists from holding posts in the labor unions was introduced in 1954 by the Figuerista President of the National Assembly, Gonzalo Facio, but it has not come up as yet for debate.

In summary it can be said that the government appears to have some recognition of the communist threat, but has made no move to stamp out the movement completely.

In event the communist-dominated unions in the Pacific banana zone ever threaten a general strike, we will be able to judge better what is the Figueres regime’s will-to-act against the commies. It is in this zone that the communists have their greatest strength and where they are concentrating their Budapest-trained labor leaders.

[Page 6]

(b) Capabilities of Indigenous Forces

For Police-Type, Preventive Activities, including:
The Detection of Communist Agents, Fellow-Travelers, Front Organizations and Other Components of the Communist Apparatus:

The Costa Rican government, under the Ministry of Public Security, has extremely limited and inadequate forces for combatting communist activities. The Office of Investigation Coordination (Oficina de Coordinación de Investigaciones, the G–2 Section of the General Staff), and the Directorate General of Detectives (Dirección General de Detectives), are headed by fairly capable officers with natural ability as investigators but they have only a handful of men working under them and are handicapped also by limited funds. The directors, while enthusiastic, lack training and their sources of information are casual; no adequate filing system is maintained, and they have no penetrations of the communist apparatus.

The Detention of Communist Personalities or Groups:

The police forces of Costa Rica are handicapped in arresting communists because of the protection afforded the individual in the Costa Rican Constitution. While the Communist Party is outlawed, its members cannot be arrested unless caught in delicto flagrante. Since the government possesses only a limited force of intelligence agents and detectives, it is rarely possible to catch communists redhanded. The communists have the same recourse to the habeas corpus as any other citizen.

The Execution of Judicial Measures Against These Persons or Groups:

Because of the nature of local laws and the Constitution it is extremely hard to find an occasion when judicial action has been taken against a communist, or even to uphold the authorities in the exceptional cases in which they have confiscated communist propaganda. Even if judicial action is taken against the offenders, penalties are so light that little good is done.

However, it should not be too difficult to suppress communist publications, which speak for an outlawed party. Here again, the government probably figures that the hue and cry of the comrades against suppression of freedom of expression outweighs the advantage of confiscating publications with limited circulation. The opposition is quick to accuse the government of limiting freedom of expression if it even complains about lies and canards that would be considered as “license” or even libelous in other countries.

The Application of Limited Force:

The application of limited force against the communists would be well within the capabilities of the government if this could be based on correct intelligence (at present beyond their [Page 7] capabilities), legal authority (non-existent except in cases of civic disturbances), and if the public were convinced that communism constituted a present menace. The bulk of the Costa Rican people are unsympathetic to the use of force by the authorities, and unless conditioned to it by a strong propaganda campaign would react vigorously against it.

For Military-Type Action:

The present Costa Rican Guardia Civil, Resguardo Fiscal and Reserve of Volunteers is adequate to cope with internal insurrection but would be valueless against external aggression. It seems unlikely that internal insurrection on the part of the communists will take place in the foreseeable future because of the Party’s lack of numbers. Any uprising by the communists would change an apathetic public opinion overnight into one of vigorous opposition to them. The communists realize that their sorry performance from 1940–48 makes them suspect and therefore will probably attempt no uprisings except in the remote event of a major world holocaust.

(c) Support of Countermeasures by Local Population

The Costa Rican people are without doubt anti-communist. It is probable that they would support any activities which would increase the government’s potential in the fields of anti-communist intelligence activities, the detention of communists, and the execution of judicial measures against communists. It is doubted however that they would support the application of force against the communists unless previously conditioned. In every case, steps would have to be taken to insure that the rights of the ordinary citizens are protected. The question of increasing the armed power of the existing forces or of increasing the strength of these forces would be far more controversial. The United States has already been subjected to considerable criticism by the constitutional opposition for selling arms to the government. Any additional action taken in this regard would arouse another storm of criticism by the opposition, who fear that the government may use its armed power to carry out fraudulent elections in 1958.

However, a strengthening of the Costa Rican armed forces in a manner that might elicit only a minimum of criticism has been suggested in Embassy’s Despatch 562 of April 12, 1955,5 and which will be described below.

III. Analysis of Local U.S. Programs of Assistance Which Support, or Could be Adjusted to Support, Indigenous Countermeasures Outlined in II, Above.

None at present, except in the sense that the entire FOA [Page 8] program is designed to improve Costa Rican living standards and undermine residual susceptibility to alien ideologies.
Experts could be brought in under FOA auspices to train local intelligence-type agencies. Members of these organizations could be sent to the United States for training.
U.S. Military Mission
Presently charged with the training of the Guardia Civil.

Training of a MDAP unit following signing of a Military Assistance Agreement with Costa Rica. The Embassy in its Despatch 562 had advanced the idea of a reinforced engineering battalion, utilizing partly present Guardia Civil personnel and about 400 additional personnel. This would be a highly mobile unit using few weapons not now in possession of the government. It would be available for valuable peacetime duties, such as building roads, bridges, airports, irrigation projects, and at the same time for protecting the country from invasion; guarding important defense installations; protecting and maintaining the Inter-American Highway, and as the nucleus of a force to maintain internal peace in time of war.

This program would presumably require the addition of personnel to the Mission and an increase in the number of Costa Rican military personnel sent to the U.S. Army Caribbean Command School at Fort Gulick, Canal Zone, and other armed forces installations.

Is presently doing an excellent job of presenting anti-communist material to the Costa Rican public.

In event it were necessary to mobilize Costa Rican public opinion against communism, the USIA program should be increased. However, the general lack of sympathy for communism in Costa Rica is such that an expanded program is not necessary at this time.

. . . . . . .

Coordinates all phases of anti-communist activity through the Ambassador, including exchange of information with the Costa Rican government under Resolution 93 of the Caracas Conference.
Through its daily contacts with government officials and Costa Ricans in general, the Embassy could discreetly urge a revision of the Constitution to restrict communist travel, increase penalties [Page 9] against subversive activity as well as enactment of the legislation in Congress eliminating communists from holding office in unions.

V. Recommendations

Communist subversion of the Costa Rican government is not likely at this time. The government attitude toward the communist menace is reasonably firm and there is no indication at this time that there is any connection between the government and the communists. The public in general is anti-communist but not militantly so. In event of a communist attempt to take over in Costa Rica, or even to participate openly in politics, a strong and effective countermovement could be encouraged by a stepped up publicity campaign . …

For the time being, the following recommendations are made:

. . . . . . .

The government should be urged to maintain closer surveillance over communists and prosecute them more vigorously. This would be made more possible by implementing Recommendation(a).
The government should be influenced to amend the Constitution to limit the travel of communists, increase penalties for subversive activities and enact proposed legislation eliminating communists from union leadership.
Maintenance of the present … USIA programs to condition the public to the communist menace. A gradual stepping up of this program could be undertaken in the future, placing emphasis on the necessity of increased security measures. The recent cooperation of the Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the commie-supported Sixth Congress of Teachers in Montevideo is an example of the current approach (see Embassy’s Despatch 552 of April 1, 1955 and Despatch 570 of April 15, 19556).
Eventual signing of a Military Assistance Agreement with Costa Rica and supplying of MDAP aid for a reinforced engineering battalion. Discussion of an agreement and of formation of a hemispheric defense unit should not be inaugurated until tension among Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Venezuela and other strong-man governments is eased somewhat further and the subject thoroughly explored with other American Embassies in affected countries.

An engineering unit seems the most practical as it would require little armament not now in the hands of the Costa Rican government. Putting these weapons in the hands of a unit pledged solely for hemispheric defense or against invasion should calm the internal opponents of the regime, as well as neighbors. An engineering unit, available for quick repairs of the Inter-American Highway in event of bombing or sabotage due to large scale world hostilities should be welcomed by Central American countries as long as President Figueres [Page 10] or his successors demonstrate that they will not engage in any further adventures which disturb the peace in the Caribbean area.7

The Department’s comments on these recommendations would be appreciated.

Robert F. Woodward
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 718.5/4–2655. Top Secret; Limit Distribution.
  2. Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, President of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944. Teodoro Picado, President of Costa Rica May 1944–May 1948.
  3. Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, President of Guatemala March 1951–June 1954.
  4. Carlos Castillo Armas, President of a military junta which governed Guatemala after July 1954; he was President of Guatemala September 1954–July 1957.
  5. Not printed. (Department of State, Central Files, 718.5/4–1255)
  6. Not printed. (Ibid., 718.5/4–1555)
  7. In despatch 357 from San José, December 20, Woodward informed the Department of State of some changes in the text of despatch 607, which brought it up to date. In presenting these alterations, the Ambassador wrote: “Since it is understood that the OCB may soon consider the views expressed by this Embassy and related agencies in Embassy Despatch 607 of April 26, 1955, the Embassy wishes to state that the opinions set forth are still valid and can be updated to the present. However, recommendation (e) on page 8 [on military assistance] should be held in abeyance for the present.” (Ibid., 718.5/12–2055)