Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The International March for Peace in Central America
December 10, 1985 — January 24, 1986

Costa Rica

Return to Introduction and La Marcha Table of Contents.

The ride from the Panama-Costa Rica border to San José took some 10 hours. If memory serves, we traveled over one of the highest points on the Central American portion of the Pan American Highway, over 11,000'. I recall a stop at a restaurant at a high elevation. It was cold and dark.

Either I have misplaced my photos of that long and tiring ride, or perhaps I was not able to take any because we were not allowed out of the buses very often by our Costa Rican security escort. I do have a quite vivid memory of our approach to San José, however. In a valley far below us, the lights of San José appeared exactly as brightly sparkling jewels through intermittent clouds. It was a magical sight.

  Sunday night, December 15.

We arrived at the San Pedro Toruma youth hostel about 10:30 p.m.

After a long and worrisome wait at the Toruma, Blase Bonpane greets us as we disembark. The soldier is there for a reason.

  These people are not the reason. These people are happy to see us.

This is our Costa Rican support group, the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Democraticas por la Paz (CODEPAZ), and other supporters of la marcha. They worked hard to provide food, lodging, and other amenities for us, without knowing for sure whether we would even be allowed to stay in Costa Rica, or for how long.

  These people are the reason for the soldiers. Costa Rica Libre, the same folks who came to the border and threatened us there. The poster says
Out of Costa Rica Leftist Soldiers Disguised as Peacemakers

CLR was an extreme right-wing group, with ties to the Nicaraguan contras, founded by Costa Rica's Minister of Security, Benjamin Piza. Piza had already told Blase that because of the presidential election in progress, he could not guarantee our safety from these exitable young people, and that we would have to leave the country if there there was any trouble. The idea that he could simply tell them not to engage in violence evidently had not occured to him.

For more on Piza's support for the U.S. attack on Nicaragua, see the interesting website USA v. Oliver North - admissions.

The young Costa Ricans in this photo and those which follow are now most likely in their 40s and 50s. If any of them by chance come upon this site, I hope they will send me their comments and reflections. I promise to dedicate an entire page to them.

  A Costa Rica Libre sticker I found stuck to the inside cover of my pocket notebook. It is likely that it was given to me by a member of CODEPAZ rather than by one of the CRL demonstrators.

I love Costa Rica — I struggle against communism, says the sticker.

There were probably a few communists amongst us—by his own definition, Ollie Haskell was one such. But, in the Soviet Union, "communists" like Ollie were among Joseph Stalin's earliest targets for elimination.

In fact, "communism" was never the right term for the Soviet system. I think it was Noam Chomsky who said that that Soviet "communism," like fascism, was more aptly called "state capitalism." Makes perfect sense: the state owns the capital, and decides how it will be allocated. Contrary to true communism, the people have no say whatever.

  A line of Costa Rica's National Guard stands along the railroad track between the march's documentary film van and the demonstrators.

  The Buddhist monks lead several marchistas in an effort to overcome Costa Rica Libre's negative energy with positive energy. Barbara, on the left, looks a bit doubtful as to the efficacy of this approach.

  After I took the pictures shown above, I must have entered the hostel under the mistaken impression that all of us had disembarked and transferred our gear from the buses to the hostel.

Blase and Mel Fiske report that instead, these security forces inexplicably began to leave as we arrived, and that the CRL demonstrators began throwing tear gas grenades as marchistas were leaving the buses. Mel reports a tear gas cannister fell in the midst of the group that was carrying quadriplegic Bruce Curtis up to the hostel. As the attack progressed, heavy rocks hit the building, and tear gas grenades flew through broken windows.

  Photo by Sonja Iskov.

As the attack began, and the marchers headed toward the back of the hotel, I prepared to go outside to the front so as to get some good photos. Oddly, I was not the least afraid to do so.

So, there I was, heading toward the door, when the young and beautiful Barbara stopped me. "Bill," she said, "please don't go out there. You'll get hurt yourself. You'll just inflame them further."

She said this with such passion in her voice, and such concern in her eyes, that I just couldn't deny her effort to save my hide. So, I went back with the others, and missed getting great pictures like this one of our CODEPAZ friends sheltering themselves from the rocks being thrown by our attackers. As she photographed the attack, the intrepid Sonja must have been adept at dodging missiles heading her way—she reported no injury later.

As it happens, the documentary Viva La Paz itself shows only some of the turmoil within the Toruma—there is no footage of the attackers on the outside. The crew may have stayed inside to protect expensive equipment.

After Barbara was satisfied that I would not sneak out on her, she ushered Ollie Haskell to the far reaches of the hotel's backside.

  Anna from Denmark tries to protect herself from the gas.

Photo by Sonja Iskov.

  A sheet of plywood was quickly put in place after the front door was damaged by rocks.

Our CODEPAZ hosts stood on the front lines between us and the hooligans who attacked us. This young man was very seriously hurt by a thrown rock. Our own doctor, the woman at the upper right, ministers to him. Thanks to Jim Staal from Denmark for corroborating my recollection that he ultimately lost an eye.

Jim was crouched between the bus and the wall trying to retrieve rag sacks for protection as two tear gas grenades hissed nearby. My notes say that a U.S. journalist traveling with us got a dose of gas in the face when a canister exploded on his foot.

About 2 a.m., Blase Bonpane called the U.S. Embassy to ask for protection. The Marine on duty said he "would do what he could."

  Sometime around 2:30 a.m., Benjamin Piza himself showed up on the scene. Here he talks with a group of men outside the hotel. Because I had remained inside, I cannot say for sure that these are the men who attacked us.

Indeed, following the high standards for unbiased objectivity set by such stars as New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer, I must admit to a non-zero probability that these men were actually supporters of la marcha who had chased our attackers off, and that Piza came to thank them for bringing peace to the neighborhood.

Likewise, we cannot rule out the possibility that the bodies of the young Costa Rica Libre demonstrators shown above were taken over by space aliens who actually carried out the attack.

At any rate, when Piza arrived, the attack stopped. He then came into the hotel and said we had caused a disturbance of the peace and would have to leave by 7 a.m. the next morning.

  Monday morning, December 16. Some of the rocks that hit the hotel. It's after 7 a.m.

  Here a member of CODEPAZ shows an empty tear gas grenade to a media crew.

  Photo courtesy of Peter Holding.

Peter Holding holds another empty tear gas grenade while Laura Vargas of CODEPAZ speaks to the Costa Rican media at a doorstep press conference.

Behind Peter, from left to right, are Carlos Rios, a union representative from Panama who traveled with the march; march organizer Catarina Davies of Norway, and Leif, a photographer for Danmarks Radio.

Blases's report says that these are C.S. gas grenades. (O-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile.) They were labeled "Made in America," and are "much more powerful and dangerous than old fashioned tear gas."

Peter recalls "[Laura] subsequently told me that the march had quite an impact in Costa Rica. Many Costa Ricans were shocked at how the march had been treated by Costa Rica Libre and the apparent infiltration of extreme rightists into the Costa Rican Social Democratic party."

(Here in post-9/11 America—in my own neighborhood, in fact—we have had at least one instance of the infiltration of a peace group by an undercover anti-terrorism police officer.)

  Blase speaks to the Costa Rican media about the attack.

  A view of the San Pedro Toruma from the street. There was no sign of Costa Rica Libre.

  Perhaps they were all at the office.

  A representative from the U.S. Embassy arrived to tell us that the U.S government has no influence over sovereign Costa Rica, and that in any case, we had brought the attack on ourselves just by being here. There was no way that the Embassy would intervene toward extending our stay for the 72 hours we had originally been promised.

No more than Benjamin Piza did Washington want a large group of international peace activists talking with their Costa Rican counterparts about its cynical, and deadly plan to convert Costa Rica into a typical U.S. puppet.

(The young diplomat shown here is probably retired by now. Perhaps a visitor to this page knows him, and will pass along my invitation for him to contribute his own recollections of just what went on at the Embassy while la marcha was in Costa Rica.)

  At 9 a.m., Piza again arrived at the hostel. "If you are not out of here by noon, I will remove all of my security people," he said. Thus would we be at risk of another attack.

But, we now had time for another conference! The question to be decided was whether we would actually obey Piza, or instead defy him and stay at the hostel to again face either last night's attackers or the Costa Rican National Guard. One idea was to force the Guard to carry us physically onto the buses, with all the world watching. There was also talk of the possibility that the government would try to gas us out. The suggestion to stay was proposed in all seriousness, and was supported most strongly by some of the Canadians, as I recall.

Here, Blase makes a very strong appeal for us to leave. He points out that our CODEPAZ friends will have to face the aftermath of our decision after we are gone, and exhorts us not to put them at risk through a selfish insistence on being martyrs. He also reminds us that National Guardsmen carrying M-16 automatic rifles are ill-equipped to safely carry dead-weight marchistas on to buses.

(An interesting note I found in my journal indicates that the rather odd lack of fear I felt during the attack of the night before was itself lacking in the contemplation of an attack by the Costa Rican National Guard itself. I had figured that I was quick enough to avoid being hurt by the attackers, but an attack by a trained military force was a different story. My own selfish calculation was that I had kids to support, and I had more to offer the peace movement as a live witness back in the states than as a corpse in a Costa Rican morgue.)

  After expressing our ritual defiance of authority, we decide to leave. Benjamin Piza himself supplied the transportation, and promised to clean up and repair the damage to the hostel.

I wondered later if he billed the U.S. government. After all, it was Washington's war against Nicaragua that led to this embarrassing moment. I never learned whether he kept his promise to clean up and repair the hostel.

  Here, Mike Kirwin from England walks down the steps we had walked up less than 18 hours before. Our CODEPAZ friends applauded continually as we departed the hotel.

  Ole is protected by a National Guardsman as he descends the steps. He was a member of the Danish General Workers Union.

Margaret, an American living in Costa Rica, and a wealth of information about the dominance of the right in the Costa Rican media, applauds upper left. She and her Costa Rican friends later came to Nicaragua, and all became seriously ill there.

Photo by Sonja Iskov.

  My notes say that our departure at 2:05 p.m. was well organized and smooth, and that we had "lots of support" and a "fair % of 'Vs'" as we left town under military escort. Here a young fellow wishes us a safe and happy journey somewhat differently.

Our experience at the hands of Costa Rica Libre appeared to have had a salutary effect on Costa Rica.

Corroborating Laura Vargas's comment to Peter Holding (above), Blase reports that after we were expelled from Costa Rica, the Costa Rican Association of Jurists demanded that Costa Rica Libre be disbanded because of the attack.

In the election, Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, the extreme right-wing candidate who had been ahead in the polls when we arrived, lost to his centrist opponent, Oscar Arias Sánchez. Even though he had run a campaign strongly critical of the Sandinistas, Arias would suprise everyone by launching his own Central American peace initiative, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1987.

  Photo by Sonja Iskov.

We head north, with part of our escort bringing up the rear.

The U.S.-backed contras operated with impunity in a 5-kilometer-wide zone below the border, and through which we would have to travel. There was talk that the bus company would refuse to enter the zone, and that we would have to walk the 5K. Thus, many marchistas were afraid we would be attacked by the contras, but I was fairly sanguine. I figured that orders had gone out from Washingon to leave us alone.

The last thing the Reagan administration needed was the public relations disaster that would have followed an attack on us by the contras. Neither would the mainstream press have welcomed the attention that would then have been given to its virtual silence about the march so far.

Next stop—Nicaragua!!

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