US armed forces in Costa Rica
Humanitarian aid fronts for modern conquistadors
Andrea Bauer
volume 38
issue 3
June 2017

When “relief” comes via the U.S. military, commercial ventures aren’t far behind. Photo credit: Master Sgt. Kerri Spero. Inset: Locals protest exploiters of Salitre, the Bribrí homeland in eastern Costa Rica.

Uncle Sam’s military has a long, bloody history of protecting U.S. interests in Latin America. This is true from the theft of a third of Mexico in the 19th century to the Honduran oligarchy’s coup against President Manuel Zelaya in the 21st, led by a general trained at the U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas.

Today, the Southern Command role in Costa Rica is stirring fears of more to come.

Establishing a beachhead. Nine unified commands bring together all the branches of the U.S. armed services around the globe. The Southern Command, or Southcom, operates in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

This was the force that executed the several-week-long invasion of Panama that began in late 1989 and overthrew dictator Manuel Noriega, former paid CIA informant and supporter of U.S. counterrevolution in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Between 2,500 and 3,500 people were killed, and the vast majority of Panamanians who died were civilians.

There is always a benign rationale for Pentagon intervention, regardless of real motivations such as propping up despised regimes against popular rebellion or installing governments more friendly to Washington. The justifications in Latin America today are likely to be to stop drug trafficking, defend against possible terrorism, or provide humanitarian aid.

Costa Rica has not had an army since the 1940s, although governmental and police bodies like the Coast Guard and Special Forces take on some of its usual functions, such as participating in multi-country security exercises and conferences. Lacking its own military, Costa Rica is increasingly hosting Washington’s.

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Southcom has built bridges, offered free medical care, and assisted after natural disasters like Hurricane Otto in 2016. Much of this activity takes place in remote areas of the Talamanca mountain range, whose people are mainly indigenous.

Conveniently, this kind of humanitarian assistance goes hand in hand with lots of military-friendly equipment and infrastructure: drones, surveillance tools, territory mapping, a huge new Coast Guard facility on the Pacific Coast, heliports, and airstrips.

Whose land? Many of these Southcom projects also handily set the stage for resource exploration and exploitation, and that is what native groups like the matriarchal Bribrí in Talamanca fear. With good reason. Indigenous land in Costa Rica has been targeted for takeover since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the original conquistador, in 1502.

In 1977, the government carved out reservations for the native population. The stated intent was to preserve indigenous areas from encroachment by non-natives. It has not. People from Bribrí and Teribe communities have been violently ejected from their territory, their homes have been burned down, and one of their leaders has been the object of an apparent assassination attempt.

But the current threat from Southcom, a possible corporate advance guard, is another order of magnitude.

Reasons to resist. In a Truthout report, Bribrí tribe member Rafaela Torres had this to say about Southern Command activity in Talamanca: “Humanitarian aid is just a pretense. They’ve already constructed a heliport. And local villagers have found tools used by miners. They’re carrying stones from our lands.”

Thanks in large part to studies by U.S. businesses like Alcoa, Talamanca is believed to be rich in minerals such as copper and gold.

It is also an extremely rich and sensitive area ecologically, with tropical rain forests, beaches, mangroves, coral reefs, and a diversity of wildlife including endangered sea turtles. In the early 2000s, a grass-roots effort by indigenous tribes and environmentalists foiled the government’s plan to grant oil concessions to U.S. corporations.

Now the fight is against massively disruptive hydroelectric dam projects like El Diquís. In November 2016, after sustained protest, Costa Rica’s Supreme Court nixed the $2.5 billion project, at least for now, because of its failure to adequately consult the Teribe people whose lands it would flood.

But this, of course, is not the end of the story. The lust for exploitation knows no limits — from the Canadian mining giant that violently evicted villagers in Mexico in January, to the Dakota Access Pipeline backers and their police and governmental co-conspirators who steamrollered over the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock.

With interest in Costa Rican resources and development coming from as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, the United States will not be aced out. And the Pentagon has a role to play in guaranteeing it.

Retired General John Kelly, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, was formerly the head of Southcom. Kelly’s job now is to enforce the president’s inhumane anti-immigrant policies. To that end, he says he will be focusing on “economic development and security” in Central America.

We can be sure it isn’t the security of the indigenous people of Talamanca that Kelly has in mind. And this gives supporters of the planet and its first peoples even more motivation to resist as never before.

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