Featured Photo: Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans march against xenophobia and San Jose, Costa Rica, on August 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / EZEQUIEL BECERRA
On the night of 27 July 2019, three men crept carefully across the street to the headquarters of Teletica Media in the Sabana Oeste neighborhood of San José, Costa Rica. According to witnesses, they placed an object on the steps that exploded the moment they left the scene, causing minor damage to the front windows of the office. Though the incident caused no injuries, it was the kind of demonstration associated with the incipient phases of insurgency. How the Costa Rican government handles this case, and a growing number of similar acts of violence, is under increasing scrutiny by a citizenry with memories of insurgent violence.
Though violent crime rates in Costa Rica are among the lowest in the region, the increase is notable and varied and is causing a great deal of unease among ordinary Costa Ricans. The ability of the government to handle the situation is increasingly in question as mass media draws connections between what is happening on the streets and the growing population of refugees fleeing instability in neighboring Nicaragua. Distrust grows in Costa Rican society with every act of violence and while the majority of cases are attributed to common delinquency and young criminal gangs, there are indications the trend is the result of a directed effort by a state actor. Costa Rica is under attack. Understanding why requires us to look south of the border.
According to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute, more than 5,000 Cubans arrived in Nicaragua during the first five months of 2019, an increase of almost 900 percent compared to 566 that arrived in all of 2018. Far from being attracted to tourist spots, many Cubans come for undercover activities to help the Ortega-Murillo regime remain in power. Aníbal Toruño, director of Nicaraguan Radio Darío, told the Panamanian newspaper Panam that Cuban service members enter Nicaragua covertly, hidden among migrants seeking to escape the island and head to the United States. These advisors began arriving in 2007, but that number increased exponentially after a deadly April 2018 uprising and crackdown that triggered instability in Nicaragua. Since then, the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported that 200 advisers from the Cuban Intelligence Directorate regularly operate with the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and provide training to the police and officials of the Directorate of Customs and the Prisons System. In relative terms, this is a very large effort by Havana to stabilize their ally in Managua.
Despite their numbers, the Cubans are eager to remain mostly in the shadows. According to Nicaraguan nationals interviewed by the author, Cuban officers are not part of operational units that “arrest people in the street.” Instead, the Cubans deal exclusively with “interrogations of arrested people in the most brutal way.” According to a statement by Nicaraguan exiles at the Cuban Justice Commission held in San José, Costa Rica in May, Cuban officers are known to “…torture and kill farmers” as part of a strategy of radical, violent, systematic, and selective repression in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, opposition press in Managua claim this strategy is so important to Cuban foreign policy that none other than Cuba’s leader Raúl Castro and his Interior Minister Julio César Gandarilla themselves direct and operate it in Nicaragua.
Costa Rica Expansion
The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana. The willingness of the Ortega Administration to allow his country to serve as a platform for Cuban influence is bad news for neighboring Costa Rica. Since the beginning of the crisis in Nicaragua, pro-Cuban media in Costa Rica employed a propaganda strategy of amplifying a genuine, preexisting uncertainty and fear over the entry of Nicaraguan refugees. This campaign includes the creation of nationalist and anti-immigrant social media platforms and closed/private chat groups designed to maximize its impact on public opinion.
The disinformation campaign targets people of all social statuses, employing specific themes related to their varied lifestyles, education levels, and social and political status in order to provoke a quick and widespread reaction. Calls for armed revolution against the current government have a pronounced effect among the less educated that are prone to believe the massive wave of widely disseminated fake news. This type of messaging incited massive strikes that paralyzed the economy, specifically the tourism sector, and provoked violent reactions in San José and the urban area around the capital.
The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana.
Cuban penetration however is not just covert. In April, Costa Rica surprised the world by signing an agreement with Cuba for cultural exchanges in the field of education. As part of the agreement, Cuba was to send “professors” to collaborate with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education. The inclusion of a Cuban voice in school curricula was certainly controversial. In the face of ongoing violence presented as popular discontent with the government, supporters can portray Cuban-style Communism as a viable solution and expect a receptive audience among school-aged youth. Recognizing this, a number of politicians expressed concern about the possibility of external interference in Costa Rican politics. Immediately thereafter, public concerns appeared about Cuban attempts to use education and culture to instill Communist ideology in the social and cultural development of Costa Rica. Though Nicaragua has made a decision to follow the Cubans down this path, Costa Rica is still resisting.
The Costa Rican response has not been entirely successful. San José underestimated the threat for too long, allowing it to grow with very little attention from law enforcement and security services. With relative freedom, elements recruited by Cuban intelligence planned and conducted the campaign of criminal acts now destabilizing the country. In other words, the Cuban effort is working and they know it. The formula being applied in Central America closely resembles the Cuban playbook elsewhere. Jorge Serrano, an academic at the Peruvian Center for Higher National Studies says the deployment of Cuban “political and military advisors to military bases and in key situations for political and economic power in Nicaragua…is the same maneuver used by Cuban political leaders to support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.” There is some evidence to back this up. Close political ties between Ortega and Maduro, and the timing of the crisis in Nicaragua, coincide with credible information that Cuban close protection assets guard both leaders and their families.
If this were simply a matter of preventing the Cubans from projecting influence from Nicaragua, the Costa Ricans are well equipped to protect themselves but there are indications of an even more powerful hand at work. If Serrano is right, and the Cubans are exporting their playbook from Venezuela, one cannot ignore the fact that Cuban efforts in Venezuela are supported by, and closely coordinated with Russia. The same could be true in Central America. This puts the Costa Rican struggle into a larger context with global implications, one in which the United States takes a direct interest. How Washington responds to the wave of criminal and propaganda activity in Costa Rica could indeed echo around the Caribbean and beyond.
Dino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.