As Costa Rica prepares to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the abolition of her armed forces on December 1st, her Central American neighbours are allocating more resources to their military forces. This situation is being closely monitored by the Chancellery of the Republic and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The latest move in the Central American arms race that Costa Rica has expressed grave concerns about is Nicaragua’s plan to acquire six gunboats from Russia. According to defensa.com, a Spanish language Web site dedicated to the global defense industry, the Fair-Nevsky shipyard in St. Petersburg is currently busy with Project 12418, from which two Lightning-class small missile frigates will be given to Nicaragua. Another four Mirage-class gunboats will follow. These are not Coast Guard vessels used for search-and-rescue or maritime law enforcement missions; they are heavily armed as you can see below:
Lightning-class Patrol Boat (4)
- AK-306 30 mm cannon fired by Gatling mechanism
- Optional surface-to-air Igla-1M missiles
- Optional 14.5 mm machine guns
Mirage-class Missile Frigate (2)
- Moskit 3M80E Ship-to-Surface Missile System
- AK-176M naval cannon
- Two AK-306 30mm cannons
- Optional cruise missile system UNRAN-E
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chancellor of Costa Rica Enrique Castillo explained to daily newspaper La Nacion that:
“The reaction from the Chancellery is one of deep concern because Nicaragua continues to build up the military. We doubt their need to have this type of weaponry.”
We believe this is connected to Nicaragua’s expansionist policy.
Chancellor Castillo is likely referring to the infamous incursions by Nicaraguan soldiers into Costa Rica in recent years, particularly the embarrassing Google Maps invasion led by former guerrilla leader Eden Pastora. There is also the controversial and seemingly quixotic proposal entertained by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to build a ship canal from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean using the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua.
Geopolitical observers think that Russia’s potential interest in the Nicaragua canal is the motivation behind the magnanimous offer of missile frigates and gunboats. These six vessels will leave Russian shipyards complete with sophisticated navigation radar systems, GPS units, sensors, and other instruments and features that are unlike anything the National Coast Guard Service in Costa Rica has. With these vessel acquisitions, Nicaragua’s naval firepower is getting a significant upgrade in terms of range and supremacy in the Central American region.
Should Shark Finning Crews Be Afraid?
As it stands now, the National Coast Guard Service in Costa Rica is far more successful than Nicaragua’s Naval Force in catching shark fin poachers and other illegal fishermen in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Now that Russia is effectively starting a new era for Nicaragua’s military in terms of maritime operations, could it be reasonable to think that shark finning crews should fear one day finding themselves in the sights of an AK-306 30 mm cannon manned by a Nicaraguan sailor with an itchy trigger finger?
In the past, Russia has taken the side of China and Japan with regard to shark finning –although shark fin soup and other products are not part of Russian culture. With President Vladimir Putin in charge, however, things are different. Russian border guards and maritime security forces have been known to fire at Japanese whaling vessels. President Putin may not be an active endorser of Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, but he supported the ban on hunting baby harp seals. President Putin may be a hunter, but he also has an environmental streak in him. Only time will tell if Russia’s military contributions to Nicaragua will have an effect on shark finning.
The Militarization Continues
Over the last few years, Honduras and Panama have received considerable aid from the United States in cash, weapons, military equipment, and training. By the end of fiscal year 2014, Panama will have received $141 million from the United States in funds destined to militarize the Panamanian Public Forces since 1996. This is despite Panama’s abolishment of her standing army in 1990, although the scope of military aid and training of her security forces by the U.S. has actually increased since. In other words, Panama has moved to demilitarize but the U.S. has moved in the opposite direction. Many observers, including Chairmen of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, question why so much training, weapons, equipment, and cash is being delivered to a country that abolished her army.
Honduras has received more than $90 million in military aid from the U.S. since 1996, particularly in support of the War on Drugs. One of the most odious results of this intervention has been the Cobras, a fearsome special unit made up of highly-trained Honduran security forces, who have been at the center of violent, bloody raids that have claimed the lives of innocent people –including indigenous pregnant women. It is not easy to forget that the Army of Honduras was at the center of the 2009 coup d’etat executed by masked gunmen and forced President Manuel Zelaya to take refuge in Costa Rica.
For Nicaragua, it’s almost as if the ghost of Cold War past is coming to visit. The U.S. has been providing military aid to that country despite President Daniel Ortega’s allegiance with leftist regimes in Latin America such as Bolivia and Venezuela, which in turn are supported by Russia. President Ortega, however, supports the U.S.-led War on Drugs and is opposed to legalization of marijuana and other drugs for personal consumption, which is something that President Laura Chinchilla has supported along with other Central American leaders.
In an effort to prevent American one-upmanship, Russia is providing these heavily armed vessels to Nicaragua at a time when Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama are not talking to each other due to the Edward Snowden leaks on the Orwellian web of international surveillance conducted by the U.S. With Russia and the U.S. providing military aid to Nicaragua, it’s like a proxy arms race in Central America -a flashback to the Cold War.
Costa Rica may be worried about the increased militarization of her Central American neighbors, but she is not completely innocent in this regard. The Joint Patrol Agreement and the participation of a select group of Fuerza Publica (the national police force) officers in training exercises such as Fuerzas Commando 2012 belie her peaceful, unarmed ways.
Still, military aid by the U.S. to Costa Rica is but a tiny fraction of what Panama and Honduras receive, much to the chagrin of the North American nation. U.S. efforts to militarize Costa Rica are often thwarted by legislators and the people they represent. Central America is certainly a tough neighborhood, but Costa Rica has no immediate plans to join the ongoing arms race and please the lucrative military-industrial complex. Left up to the people of Costa Rica, her motto “More Teachers Than Soldiers” will prevail.