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.
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.
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 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.