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Educating Costa Rica: A Master Class in Influence

Costa Rica advertises itself as the “Switzerland of Central America,” but under President Carlos Alvarado’s administration, drug trafficking, narco-wars, homicides, corruption, and foreign state interference into politics and government systems have skyrocketed. These effects can be traced to poor decisions by Carlos Alvarado’s administration. The first was a mishandling of the Nicaraguan immigration crisis; the second, a poorly thought out financial reform. However, by putting the country’s situation under a microscope, one can see the shadowy hand of a foreign state actor at work: Cuba. The Castro government has found Costa Rica’s higher education system, considered one of the best in Latin America, to be a soft entry point into the heart of its democracy.

Costa Rica is clearly undergoing a massive influence campaign from pro-leftist, pro-Castro, and pro-Chavist countries. Cuba, in particular, wields influence through Costa Rica’s higher education system by manipulating education and mobilizing discontented students. A number of influential players within Costa Rica, driven by a mix of personal greed and ideology, use their positions to give Cuba the upper hand. Cuba is not, however, the only one benefitting from the Costa Rican education system’s instability.

Educating Costa Rica

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) and National University (UNA) are the country’s main higher education institutions. They are also a major political force within the Legislative Assembly and have strong ties to the majority party, the left-of-center Citizen’s Action Party (PAC). PAC has led the country since Luis Guillermo Solís’ 2014-18 presidency. Unfortunately for the current administration under Carlos Alvarado, Solís’ legacy included several scandals, rampant corruption, a financial crisis, and social uncertainty.

Soon after his election, Alvarado worsened the situation with two grave miscalculations. He poorly handled a massive wave of Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the Ortega dictatorship and then enacted a long-overdue financial reform without proper long-term planning. This provoked a three-month strike at the end of 2018 with massive political, economic, social, financial, and security consequences for Costa Rica.

In the midst of this turmoil, the rectors of UCR and UNA, Henning Jensen Pennington and Alberto Salom, silently began working to protect Costa Rica’s education system from the country’s politics. They acknowledged the ongoing financial crisis but encouraged students to protest financial reforms because of their effect on education sector funds. This “self-protection program” culminated on July 1st, 2019, with the resignation of the Minister of Education, Edgar Mora, due to his alleged lack of planning and management during the financial negotiations. His Vice Minister for Regional Coordination and Institutional Planning, Amparo Pacheco, resigned immediately after.

Not-so-Covert Influencers

Pennington and Salom have long been associated with the current instability in Costa Rica’s education system and are known Cuba supporters. Though Pennington was the stronger supporter of the “leftist insurgent movement” during the 2018 protests, Salom has been an active supporter of cultural exchanges with Cuba since 2011. A former PAC legislator from 2006 to 2010, he is very close to Costa Rica’s political elite and still has considerable support in the Legislative Assembly. During a Presidential visit to Havana in 2016, Alberto Salom signed the agreement of mutual collaboration and exchange with Cuba’s Ministry of Higher Education in his capacity as President of the Costa Rican National Council of University Presidents (CONARE). As it turns out, during Salom’s time as a legislator, his assistant and adviser was none other than Carlos Alvarado.

Thanks to these strategic maneuvers, the rectors gave themselves the tools to legally promote their voices by manipulating student movements. They could freely promulgate their leftist vision and pro-Castro attitudes via university-led education and cultural exchanges with Cuba. Their long-term objective is to spread the “truth” about Cuban Communism through the universities and to maintain complete political, social, and legislative control of the university education sector that yields millions of dollars. Salom’s last “restructuring” project called for a USD $14 million allocation. Both rectors personally supported student uprisings against the redirection of education sector funds towards constructing new university buildings on the disputed basis that doing so would compromise scholarships. The opposition party questioned this before the Legislative Assembly on the suspicion he was diverting it for other purposes. To bolster his view, Salom made university buses available to transport students to protest locations.

In light of government investigations and public concerns over pro-Castro propaganda and ideology, some members of the student body, those associated with the student federation known by its acronym FEUNA, are beginning to question the rectors’ integrity and functionality. Students angered by the manipulation and false information campaign, as well as the betrayal of the universities’ ethical mandate, have publicly declared their dissatisfaction with the rectors’ programs and called for their resignations. Naturally, both refused but Salom went on to highlight how indispensable he is for the future of UNA and its students’ careers. President Alvarado immediately backed him, confirming suspicions about Costa Rica’s highest level of government.

Foreign Education

There are several cases of foreign state actors exploiting universities worldwide. Campuses are fertile ground for raising easily manipulated young dissidents and followers. For Costa Rica, whose geostrategic position is integral in creating a Latin American “sphere of influence”, the level of foreign influence in their education system presents a major issue. Continuing waves of student protests, encouraged by pro-Cuban university leaders, could lead to unrest similar to that which has shaken Latin America in the last few months.

The counterintelligence implications represent another challenge for Costa Rica’s national security. At this point, without a proper threat assessment and operational countermeasures, it may be too late for the country’s intelligence and security agencies to properly engage this threat. If government institutions lack coordination, transparency, and a strong willingness to follow the “rule of law”, the situation will deteriorate further.

Though Cuba may be the primary agent attempting to influence Costa Rica, it does not do so entirely on its own. Cuba’s current tactics have a distinctly Russian flavor. Certainly, if Costa Rica remains a non-aligned stronghold of democracy in the region, Russia will view it as key to expanding its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. In this way, the destabilizing agenda and relationships of a few influential politicians and bureaucrats in San Jose could threaten the non-alignment of the “Switzerland of Central America” and place it within the arena of superpower competition. If there is one thing Costa Ricans should remember from the last time a Castro meddled in their security, it is that then, as now, the Cubans were operating off a Russian lesson plan.


Dino MoraDino 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.

Why Russia Cannot Win

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet engaged and destroyed a Russian Su-24 Sukhoi that Ankara accused of violating its airspace. Moscow protested, claiming the aircraft remained over Syrian territory where the Russian military has been supporting the Assad regime with direct combat power since 2014. Though the drama of that incident led to a tense discussion, the relationship between the two countries returned quickly to reasonably good terms until recently. Last week, a Russian airstrike in support of Syrian Army forces in Idlib province killed 33 Turkish soldiers that probably made up a Turkish special operations command post there. Though Russia denied their air force was operating in the area, in the same breath they accused the Turks of breaking the 2018 ceasefire, which was designed to create a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region. As the world pleaded for de-escalation, Turkey vowed a vengeful response. 

Ankara has since backed up its threat. On March 1st, Turkish jets began systematically attacking the Syrian Army and its proxies in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Turkish airpower is relentlessly and very effectively targeting the armor, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment of the Syrian Army, which seems completely unprepared to deal with a threat from the air. The destruction has been so complete that it is raising questions about the efficacy of the Russian equipment fielded by the Syrian Army. Still, many say Turkey should act more firmly enough against Russia itself. They argue Turkey could put its substantial military power onto a full wartime footing much easier than Russia. Though this is true, Ankara’s long experience in the region cautions that the key to winning a clash there is by playing the long game and not jumping to conclusions. 

Indirect Support

Turkey has learned extensively from these battles and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. Turkey isn’t the only one with expertise in complicated disputes close to home. Russia also has similar ongoing conflicts and is applying those lessons in Syria. But there are differences. Syria is far from the Russian frontier, and its value to Russian power and prestige is not as apparent to the Russian public as other battlefields in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine). For Russia’s Syrian campaign to be successful, Moscow needs to keep casualties to an absolute minimum. Russian public opinion will not support yet another war of attrition like the Soviet-Afghan war without a clear Russian interest. 

To keep casualties to a minimum, Russia isolates its soldiers on bases protected by their allies and limits its use of force to Special Operations or fighter aviation, both of which are hard for the Turkey-affiliated Free Syrian Army to combat. As a second layer of defense, Russia provides its proxies, specifically the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with advanced surface-to-air systems, anti-artillery radars, artillery, and different types of armored vehicles. These measures ensure that the “meatshield” keeping Russian forces safe from Free Syrian Army attacks remains in place. These tactics worked well thus far. Since Russia entered the region, rebel-controlled territory has shrunk continuously, and areas where the Free Syrian Army did manage to gain ground were quickly reconquered. 

However, Turkey has learned extensively from its decades-long battle with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. A quick study of Turkish targeting shows Turkey is attacking the technical advantage Russia gave to the SAA, enabling the Free Syrian Army to advance and putting Russian forces in potential danger. By peeling back the layers of protection provided by SAA equipment instead of attacking the Russian soldiers that equipment protects, Turkey avoids turning the Russian public against Ankara and makes it very hard for Putin to justify a decision to escalate. At the same time, it transforms the entire conflict into a slow, persistent competition rather than an unbearably costly direct between two powerful contenders.

Playing the Long Game

The Turkish strategy demonstrates a nuanced reading of the history of the region in which no invading force has ever won such a competition. If Russia, Assad, and the SAA fail to quickly implement a serious countermeasure to Turkish airpower, the technically inferior rebels will begin advancing on all fronts, and the Russian body count will rise. This will have the effect of eroding Russian public opinion in support of Assad and force Putin to push for accommodation, not unlike the one that ended the Chechen war.

Though it will take some time before this strategy bears fruit, short-term gains by the Free Syrian Army are already visible along the northern, western, and southwestern fronts. Aleppo is once again in danger, an unbelievable consideration just a couple of weeks ago. Putin and Erdogan both know Russia is at a disadvantage in Turkey’s back yard and will most likely discuss a deal when they meet in Moscow on Thursday, March 5th. Until then, or until Russia can field an effective anti-air capability to the SAA in Idlib, Syrian, and possibly Russian, soldiers will continue to die in a war Russia just cannot win.


Mike Skillt is a former combat veteran and analyst now advising tomorrow’s leaders. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelSkillt.

Mind the Gap: Geo-Strategy of Natural Gas

Reducing dependence on imported natural gas will be a key strategic effort for European security over the next 50 years. Steadily declining production from dwindling fields in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands means Europe will need to import ever larger volumes of gas. This gap will widen over the coming years particularly in the European Union. This is because most industrialized countries are experiencing a growing gas supply gap caused by coal and nuclear plant retirements in parallel with increasing demand for natural gas from India, China, and Africa.

As the world makes a transition from fossil-based to zero-carbon energy, it is moving towards a balance of solar and wind power plus natural gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that by 2025, solar, wind, and hydroelectric generation will account for as much as coal and gas. In order to keep warming under the 2°C threshold agreed at the 2009 Copenhagen climate meeting however, greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 will need to be 40% to 70% lower than they were in 2010. These changes, along with accelerated renewable energy growth, transport electrification, energy-saving and efficiency, and carbon neutral infrastructure would make it possible to achieve 90% of required emission reductions but the remaining 10% will continue to emit carbon. Although most industry commentators expect coal use to eventually decrease rapidly, natural gas will play a substantial role in the global energy mix for some time.

Global Reserves and European Imports

An overwhelming 83% of the world’s natural gas reserves are located in just 10 countries. Four of those countries – Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkmenistan – contain 58% of global reserves. The Russian economy in particular depends heavily on oil and gas, which provides ~40% of federal revenues and a tremendous incentive to use gas exports as a politically coercive foreign policy tool. Europe now imports about 43% of its natural gas through a Soviet era pipeline network crossing Belarus and Ukraine. The Blue Stream pipeline, installed under the Black Sea in 2003, allowed some diversification in Russian export capacity into Europe but by mid-2019 approximately 90% of European imports of Russian gas flowed via a combination of the Baltic Nord Stream 1 pipeline, completed at the end of 2012, and the Soviet era network that sometimes operated above its designed maximum flow capacity.

Collectively, these Russian operated/influenced pipelines and newly built LNG projects offer Moscow tremendous influence. In 2009, Russia used its Gazprom-owned pipelines to apply economic and political pressure on Europe and Ukraine. Although Europe weathered the crisis, Russia struck again in January 2015. This time, Norway compensated for the Nord Stream 1 export cut resulting in a USD $5.5 billion loss in Gazprom revenue and fines of $400 million. Europe was able to make a political point but Norwegian bailouts will not be feasible over the long term.

Main Russian Natural Gas Pipelines to Europe.
Main Russian Gas Pipelines to Europe. Nord Stream 1 & 2; Belarus Yamal_Europe, Trans-Ukraine Brotherhood/Soyuz (Urengoy-Ughzod), Blue Stream, Turk Stream, South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP); Trans-Turkey TANAP-TAP; Baku-Brindisi via Georgia-Turkey-Greece. Source: https://blogs.platts.com/2019/04/04/nord-stream-2-danish-permit/

Politics, not geography, guides the future of Europe’s energy supply. According to Gazprom’s “optimization program”, most of the pipelines and associated infrastructure crossing Ukraine will be decommissioned. Gazprom shut down three compressor stations in 2018, with plans to eventually close 4,160 Km of pipeline and 62 additional compressors, leaving the Ukrainian network with little more than 10% of its original capacity. At the same time, the construction of Nord Stream 2 will permanently double Russia’s transmission capability outside Ukraine making Kiev highly vulnerable to Russian coercion. It is not difficult to see that Russia is bypassing Ukraine in favor of direct access to European and particularly German markets. In addition, pipelines across the Black Sea and those further south, including some under construction or planned, are likely to solidify Russian standing in Turkey and the Middle East.

Minding the Natural Gas Supply Gap

Russia’s strategy starves Ukraine and Slovakia of much needed transit fees and some degree of political independence. The strategy could also leave Europe more directly dependent on Russia to fill the European gas gap. With EU/Norwegian domestic production estimated to fall to 150 billion cubic meters (Bcm) annually by 2030 and consumption rates estimated at up to 510 Bcm annually – a 2010 figure – about 80% (360 Bcm annually) of EU imports could be Russian controlled or influenced by 2025.

These numbers are not favourable for Europe, which intends to meet some of the predicted increase in demand with Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) imports mostly from Qatar, Algeria and Nigeria but even this will not protect them from Russian influence. Russia has plans to capture 15%-20% of the global LNG market that would make it extremely challenging for costlier American LNG to counter Russia’s Siberian exports. Part of these plans depend on expanding the three train Arctic Yamal LNG to four LNG trains that can transport 29 Bcm annually. The $27 billion project is owned by Novatek (50.1%), China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) (20%), Total (20%), and China’s Silk Road Fund (9.9%), financed primarily by Chinese banks. The first shipment to UK via Yamal LNG was 170,000 cubic meters (equivalent to 0.1 Bcm) delivered by the LNG vessel Christophe de Margerie Arc 7 in December 2017.

Even importing gas from beyond Russia’s sphere of influence will be difficult. Importing the equivalent of Nord Stream 2 pipeline would require about 8 to 12 LNG vessel trips per week and competition is fierce. Though Qatar lifted a 2005 moratorium on further LNG development in April 2017, major announcements this year indicate the North Field Expansion (NFE) project will expand production from 105 to 170 Bcm annually by 2024. These developments included new jack-up drilling rigs, four new LNG trains, and a shipbuilding campaign to deliver 60 new LNG carriers and suggest most of the expanded production is destined for Southeast Asia. Future strategic supplies from developing offshore fields in the eastern Mediterranean may supply Europe, but Turkmenistani gas is likely to go east to markets in Pakistan, India, and China.

Russian and Middle Eastern Natural Gas Supply to EuropeGeo-Strategic Imperative

With LNG seemingly unable to meet Europe’s gas gap, nine infrastructure projects Russia is currently developing can be viewed as an investment in Moscow’s influence in the EU. It is quite possible these nine projects could eventually provide something close to ~290 Bcm annually in export capacity for supply into Europe, with roughly 50 Bcm annually from the IGAT-9 and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Pipelines delivered to the SCP-TANAP-TAP Southern Gas Corridor (see map). Based upon past instances, Russia could “weaponize” this near monopoly over natural gas and use it to apply political pressure but this time with greater effect.

There is therefore a geo-strategic imperative to substantially reduce European natural gas consumption. Improving the balance between gas, solar, and wind energy will have important geopolitical benefits including reduced fossil fuel use and improved human health and security. Acceleration of the development rate of renewable energy technology is essential. Adopting a faster rate of transportation electrification, and government support to reduce gas consumption can mitigate the effects of Russian pressure but it will not solve the problem completely. Governments must also accelerate developments in nuclear fusion, carbon capture and storage technology, and possibly clean zero emission shale gas extraction. Diversification of energy sources and the reduction of consumption is a win-win for Europe and the only way to fully mind the gap and escape the pressure of natural gas dependency.


ChriCG 002s Golightly is an Independent Consulting Engineer specializing in offshore renewable energy, based in Brussels. Prior to 2010 he worked in the Oil & Gas industry.