144. Airgram A–38 From the Embassy in Costa Rica to the Department of State1

SUBJECT

  • The Vesco Connection in Costa Rican Media: Excelsior and La Nacion Battle It Out

Summary

Costa Rica’s leading opposition newspaper, La Nacion, is accusing publicly its pro-government rival, Excelsior, of being financed by U.S. fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco.

Excelsior [Page 422] has not denied the charge; instead, it has attacked La Nacion broadside for its past political and journalistic faults and for taking positions always in favor of Costa Rica’s monied classes. Excelsior’s attacks have charged the Costa Rican political atmosphere, and may tie in with rumors of Vesco’s imminent departure from Costa Rica. The attacks may also be indicative of Jose Figueres’s economic and political difficulties.

The role of U.S. fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco in Costa Rican media is once again the subject of bitterly acrimonious public debate between Costa Rica’s oldest, largest circulating, most prestigious newspaper, La Nacion, and the country’s newest (16 months old), fastest growing, pro-government (and pro-Figueres) daily, Excelsior. Many political observers consider these most recent manifestations of the ongoing controversy symptomatic of new relationships and new realities involving Vesco’s presence here, Excelsior’s economic health, and, possibly, the political fortunes of Figueres.

La Nacion Charges Vesco Finances Excelsior

Opposition, business-oriented La Nacion is restoking the Vesco fires for both political and journalistic reasons. The subject of Vesco riles the government and Jose Figueres at the time when the ex-President is attempting to make a political comeback. Vesco is also synonomous with charges of corruption in the Oduber government. On the professional side, the newspaper is busy digging up facts about Vesco activities in Costa Rica. It has recently compiled a listing of media activities in San Jose in which Vesco has either control or a major share. This list, not yet in the public domain, includes:

—Radio Stations: Radio City, S.A. — ₡ 670,000
Radio Omega — ₡ 611,000
Radio Colombia — ₡ 2,200,000
—Radio Program “A Toda Marcha” — ₡ 61,000
—Television: Channel 11 $155,000
—Publicity Firms: Publinal, S.A. ₡ 10,000
Electronic C. ₡ 552,000

The holding company for all of the above is Hondas Musicales, S.A. Carlos Manuel Vicente, PLN deputy and Figueres crony, is listed as owner. (Taken from Registro Mercantil 123155, Folio 127–147.)

Additionally, the ongoing (but still unresolved) question of a Costa Rican press law to limit investment in Costa Rican media to Costa Rican citizens is discussed by La Nacion—whenever the matter comes up—in terms of Vesco. La Nacion maintains publicly that the proposed law will not impede foreigners from controlling or exerting influence in the media, and that such control and influence already [Page 423] exist—and are growing. Guido Fernandez, La Nacion’s feisty director, spoke publicly of the Vesco role at the recent SIP meeting in Aruba, and at a meeting of the Federation of the Central American Chambers of Commerce in Panama. Fernandez named Excelsior as the example of Vesco’s most important media investment.

After his return from Aruba in mid-April, Fernandez hammered away at Vesco and Excelsior. In a particularly stinging editorial on April 30, La Nacion stated baldly:

“. . . the company (Excelsior) was born thanks to the financing of Robert L. Vesco in an amount disproportionate to the capital of the Costa Rican owners; and the truth is that it continues to depend on this assistance in a constant and growing fashion, to the point that it can be said that the newspaper, in practice, is Vesco’s. A Vesco representative, to be sure, looks after these interests in the newspaper.”

La Nacion says privately that it can back this strong language up with facts and figures; it has in its possession a copy of an internal Vesco organization memorandum in which Excelsior’s operating deficit this year is projected to be about ₡4 million (about $500,000) and in which Vesco makes the decision to parcel out ₡300,000 (about $40,000) per month to keep the newspaper afloat.

Excelsior’s Response: No Direct Denials, and a Political Barrage

Excelsior has responded to La Nacion with strong full-column editorials. The editorials include reviews of La Nacion’s past anti-popular (read: anti-PLN) positions, its right-of-center politics, the sins of its founders, alleged distortions of the news, and an alleged campaign to cut off business advertising; they have continued 8 days. On May 1, in an editorial entitled “Once and for All,” it charged that La Nacion’s objectives were to besmirch Excelsior because of Excelsior’s growing competition, to regain the virtual monopoly La Nacion had in Costa Rican press from 1948 until Excelsior appeared, and to serve the vile interests of Costa Rica’s business community. The editorial did not face up to the charge that Vesco finances Excelsior; it stated that Excelsior has many creditors, and alleges that “oligarchic groups” once told Vesco they would not combat him if he “detained” the founding of Excelsior.

Since May 1, Excelsior’s editorials are strident, shrill, highly political, and alarmist. On May 4, Excelsior speculated in its editorial that because La Nacion’s anti-government, anti-PLN, anti-Figueres stance was losing the paper readership, favor with the general public, and influence and power with the traditional political opposition in Costa Rica, La Nacion might resort to violence. Excelsior said: “Simply as an example, it might occur to them (the La Nacion people) to finance a group to physically eliminate President Oduber, or to draw up, say, a list of 150 people who have to be eliminated simultaneously ‘to clean up the [Page 424] country once and for all’. . .” Excelsior continued: “. . . the candidates for elimination might have their list . . . we can imagine these lists: it would not be rare if some were headed by the President, others by the owners of La Nacion. All of this is speculation of course. But in speculation, everything is possible.”

Rumors about Vesco Departure from Costa Rica

Concurrent with the public flap between La Nacion and Excelsior, San José is rife with rumors that Vesco is preparing to depart Costa Rica, either temporarily or permanently, due to:

—fear of a new U.S. extradition attempt as a result of the January, 1976 indictments.

—fear that his safe haven status in Costa Rica is not as sure as it has been over the past few years.

—concern that Vesco’s presence in Costa Rica during an election period will be counterproductive to the activities of Vesco’s political friends, and will focus the corruption issue on Vesco.

According to one opposition thesis, if Vesco leaves Costa Rica, the possibility exists that his support for Excelsior will halt. Thus, it is surmised, Excelsior is fighting for its survival—as much to prove its worth to Vesco as to defend itself convincingly from attacks that it is Vesco’s.

The Figueres Political Component

If Excelsior is as dependent on Vesco money in 1976 as it was when the paper was founded in 1974 (the proof is strong that it is), there are probably others in Costa Rica in a similar situation.

The strongest possibility is Jose Figueres, who, reports from the most reliable sources have it, is broke. (On May 8, La Nacion and La Republica reported that the Bahamas Commonwealth Bank, now in receivership, is calling a $1 million loan made in 1972—when Vesco controlled it—to Figueres’s company, San Cristobal. Nothing of the principal or interest of this loan has ever been paid.)

Because Figueres is broke, sources speculate, he is politically dangerous. Accordingly, Figueres’s coup rumors are being heard again (see separate reporting); they are tied to the Figueres effort to change the Constitution to permit the re-election of ex-Presidents—and a Figueres candidacy—in 1978. Excelsior’s rantings about terrorism and political assassination are reminiscent of past scenarios that some Figueristas have concocted in which Figueres might be expected to step in and act decisively if the situation warrants. (One of Excelsior’s recent editorials entitled, “Who Will Save Them?” asks rhetorically, in the case of an extreme leftist threat and the necessity for one-man to come to the country’s rescue, if that man (Figueres) will pull the chestnuts of the likes of La Nacion people out of the fire.)

[Page 425]

Comment

Excelsior’s editorials have contributed in an important way to the ugly political atmosphere that is building in Costa Rica. Old and bitter political rivalries between PLN and anti-PLN and pro- and anti-Figueres forces are being dusted off; the basest in recent Costa Rican political history is being catered to. Excelsior’s vehemence and in some instances hysteria against its traditional rivals at La Nacion points to the need that Figueres supporters have always felt to have their own media voice; some are even able to convince themselves that the Vesco role in Excelsior can be overlooked if that objective is achieved. At the same time, however, and most importantly, the strong Excelsior offensive is really the only defense the paper has against La Nacion’s charges, which (as Excelsior has already hinted it knows), are based on La Nacion’s possession of incriminating documents about who owns and controls Excelsior.

Todman
  1. Summary: The Embassy reported on Vesco’s alleged control over some Costa Rican media outlets, noting that “rantings about terrorism and political assassination” in one reputedly Vesco-linked newspaper might have been intended to create a propitious environment for a Figueres-led coup.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P760072–0149. Confidential. Repeated to Guatemala City, Managua, Panama City, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa. Drafted by Political Officer John Maisto on May 10 and approved by Lane. In telegram 2417 from San José, May 14, the Embassy commented on the unsettled state of Costa Rican politics, noting the renewed circulation of rumors that Figueres might attempt a coup. (Ibid., D760187–1035)