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Cablegate: Costa Rica Cozying Up to Cuba?

VZCZCXYZ0000
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHSJ #0629/01 2121948
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 301948Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9965
INFO RUEHGG/UN SECURITY COUNCIL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS PRIORITY 1128
RUEHUB/USINT HAVANA PRIORITY 0046

C O N F I D E N T I A L SAN JOSE 000629

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR WHA, WHA/CEN AND WHA/CCA

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/30/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV PINR CS CU
SUBJECT: COSTA RICA COZYING UP TO CUBA?

REF: A. SAN JOSE 432
B. 06 SAN JOSE 1841
C. 07 SAN JOSE 1106
D. SAN JOSE 129

Classified By: DCM Peter M. Brennan for reason 1.4(d).

-------
SUMMARY
-------

1. (C) The Arias administration may be contemplating
re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. A vocal embargo
opponent in the legislature (a member of President Arias' own
party) seems to have Arias' ear on the issue, arguing that
normalized relations would help open Cuba to democracy.
FonMin Stagno has signaled to local diplomats that a change
is being considered. The GOCR Consul in Havana emailed a
local Cuba-watcher a month ago that ties were "getting
closer." A leading editorial writer told us July 24 that he
is convinced a change is in the wind (and overdue, in his
view).

2. (C) The chatter here has been sporadic but persistent: an
opening with Cuba, explained as a move to force the Castro
regime to democratize faster, might be just the sort of
sweeping international gesture Arias is looking for in the
last half of his administration. Such a move would burnish
his credentials with the international (and Costa Rican)
intellectual left; allow him to respond to critics who say he
has been too close to the U.S. during the bruising two-year
fight to ratify and implement CAFTA; and place him back on
the global stage. On the other hand, a drastic reversal in
Cuba policy might be a tough sell domestically, given Arias'
record of vocal criticism of the regime in Havana. Talk of a
Cuba gambit has quieted over the last two weeks, perhaps
because of our recent and widespread soundings on the issue,
but there is still a hum in the background. Given the Arias'
administration's penchant for dramatic, no-notice foreign
policy moves (moving the GOCR Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel
Aviv, recognizing China, establishing relations with the
Palestinian "state," etc.), if a change towards Cuba comes,
it may be sudden.

END SUMMARY.

----------------
WHAT'S THE BUZZ?
----------------

3. (C) There has been some political and media buzz about
possible GOCR overtures to Cuba over the last 2-3 months,
coinciding with Fidel's failing health and fade from power.
During a luncheon with Poloffs in early June, legislator
Federico Tinoco (PLN), strongly pro-US and one of the May 21
Cuban Solidarity Day speakers (Ref A), (but also strongly
anti-embargo), floated the idea of a Costa Rican opening to
Cuba. Tinoco intimated that he was shopping the idea
informally around San Jose and in the GOCR. His rationale:
1) All other countries in Latin America had relations with
Cuba and Costa Rica was a lone holdout; 2) Now that Costa
Rica had opened relations with China (to very little domestic
or international hue and cry), why not open up to Cuba?; 3)
Costa Rica already had fairly extensive informal relations
with Cuba, including some 10,000 Cubans in the country (news
to us); and 4) Costa Rica's re-establishing relations would
help further democracy in Cuba. Tinoco maintained that the
idea was more to help the Cuban people than to challenge U.S.
policy.

4. (C) Tinoco's musing reminded us of an earlier conversation
in May with Elaine White, former advisor to the Minister and
then Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Pacheco
administration (1998-2002). She told us that during her
tenure at the MFA, GOCR foreign policy rested on three sacred
pillars: 1) recognition of Taiwan, 2) maintaining an embassy
in Jerusalem, and 3) not having ties with Cuba. White noted
that Arias and Stagno had already reversed the first two
(Refs B-C). She added that the GOCR could not use "human
rights" as the reason for distancing itself from Cuba, having
recognized the PRC despite the latter's abysmal human rights
record, and she pondered whether that would pave the way for
a return to full GOCR-Cuban diplomatic relations.

5. (SBU) On June 24, during an MFA overview briefing to
senior members of the diplomatic corps, Stagno answered a
point-blank question about relations with Cuba from the
Russian Ambassador by saying that the GOCR was open to talk
to the Cubans and did so from time to time, but that nothing
"formal" was in the works.

------------------------------
THE CUBA WATCHERS ARE WATCHING
------------------------------

6. (C) With Tinoco's and White's reasoning on our minds, and
the Cuba buzz continuing in the background, we canvassed some
contacts in and outside of government. Adriana Nunez,
Cuban-born and -exiled PLN faction press chief in the
legislature, who has had her finger on the pulse of Cuban
issues here, told us on July 15 that the GOCR Consul in
Havana, Jose Maria Penebad, visited San Jose about a month
before for medical reasons but stayed on for consultations
with the MFA. After his return to Havana, Penebad wrote
Nunez from his personal email account to tell her that ties
were "getting closer." Nunez believes the GOCR would make
such a move sooner rather than later, with the uneventful
opening to China the likely turning point in the Arias Team's
thinking. She said that President Arias had never had much
of an internal "discourse" on Cuba, except to say that he
would not re-engage with Cuba while Fidel was in power. With
Raul now in control, Arias may have an out, according to
Nunez.

7. (C) Nunez said that several of Arias' advisors have been
encouraging him to re-establish full ties and that the MFA
may have been deliberating doing so since late 2007. She
based this on a couple of indicators. First, after the Cuban
consul in San Jose vocally criticized Arias during last
year's CAFTA debate and October referendum, Havana replaced
the consul. Second, toward the end of last year, a group of
legislators took an official complaint they prepared
regarding a Cuban political prisoner to the MFA to forward to
Geneva. When the "denuncia" made its way
"upstairs" to the FonMin's desk, it was stopped and the MFA
said it could not get involved. Nunez took this as a sign
that the MFA did not want to be seen by Havana as
participating in the complaint. She also noted that earlier
this year the GOCR announced it was going to "shortly"
establish diplomatic relations with a Caribbean country and a
country in the Middle East. (NOTE: Aside from the quirky
recognition of the "state" of Palestine, Ref D, there have
been no new diplomatic ties established by the GOCR thus far
in 2008.)

8. (C) According to Nunez, Arias would most likely couch a
re-establishment of ties in terms of contributing to the
opening of Cuban democracy; showing solidarity with the other
Latin American countries; and expanding the benefits of
cultural/educational/professional exchanges. Costa Rica
already benefits from large numbers of Cuban doctors, many of
whom work in the Costa Rican national health system. Though
Arias is known for his large ego and his role as a
peace-broker, both Nunez and think-tank member Constantino
Urcuyo doubted that Arias would try to insert himself as a
mediator between the U.S. and Havana, in regards to the
embargo, for example. Urcuyo said Arias' motivation would be
something "more simple," possibly -- as Nunez and Urcuyo both
indicated -- another attempt to re-burnish his credentials
with Costa Rican leftists. (COMMENT: Urcuyo also mused on the
possible impact of the GOCR's Petrocaribe membership (septel)
on ties with Cuba. Would Chavez push San Jose closer to
Havana? END COMMENT.) Nunez believes that the GOCR will
strike quickly whenever it changes policy towards Cuba. She
bases this (with justification) on the Arias administration's
surprise announcements about the embassy in Israel and
recognition of China.

-----------------------------
BACKING OFF THE BUZZ, FOR NOW
-----------------------------

9. (C) The Cuba buzz has quieted recently, but has not died
altogether. In mid-July, French Ambassador Jean-Paul Monchau
told the DCM that he had asked Stagno directly about the GOCR
normalizing relations with Cuba. Stagno admitted they had
been working on it, telling Monchau that the GOCR had cooled
to the idea after the Cubans "insulted" the Europeans and
started going after dissidents again. On July 21, we asked
legislator Evita Arguedas (Independent, married to a Cuban
exile) whether she had heard anything definite about a
normalization of relations. She told us she had also heard
chatter, but nothing definitive. She did not discount the
idea, however, and stated that "where there is talk, there is
a reason."
10. (C) Other leading legislators including PLN faction Chief
Oscar Nunez and PUSC faction chief Lorena Vasquez told us
they have heard nothing from the Executive on changes
vis-a-vis Cuba, but both acknowledged the Arias
administration would not necessarily inform or consult the
legislature in advance, based on the China example. Both
also opined that it might be a tough sell for Arias
domestically, given the Costa Rican people's strong support
of human rights and (as Vasquez put it) general dislike for
Cubans. Ever the PLN loyalist, Oscar Nunez was confident the
Costa Rican people would follow Arias' lead in the end. "If
they trust him on anything, it is on foreign policy," he
said.

11. (C) On July 22, we followed up with Adriana Nunez who had
asked Rodrigo Arias, Minister of the Presidency, by email if
the GOCR was planning to re-establish ties. According to
Nunez, Arias responded that it was "within the realm of
possibilities" but he indicated that the matter had been
"paralyzed" for now due to "other problems." (COMMENT: We
assume this refers to the local scandal involving possible
unethical government use of BCIE funds, which has been
occupying a great deal of space in the local press, and
perhaps the new membership in Petrocaribe. END
COMMENT.)

12. (C) At the MFA, both Antonio Alarcon, Stagno's Chief of
Staff, and Alejandro Solano, Deputy Director of Foreign
Policy, had heard nothing about a prospective change in Cuba
policy. Neither could foresee relations being normalized in
the next two years, and Alarcon also noted the possible
political difficulties in selling a change in policy to the
Costa Rican public. However, recalling the way the China
decision was handled, Alarcon promised there would be "no
surprises" to the USG should the GOCR open to Cuba; the MFA
would let us know in advance.

13. (C) In a long, private conversation with us on July 18,
Tinoco himself seemed to have backed off. At first he did
not want to talk about the issue (convincing us that he had
indeed been pushing for relations with Cuba). He then
reprised his early arguments about Latin American solidarity,
the moderate reaction to establishing ties to China, and the
hoped-for positive Costa Rican influence on the regime.
Pushing back firmly, we noted that Cuba is not China, and
that Costa Rica is not like all other Latin American
countries: Havana would turn full Costa Rican relations into
an endorsement and a reward, long before appropriate and
sufficient democratic changes had been made. We added that
even the EU had established benchmarks for improved behavior
by the regime. We concluded that an opening to Cuba by Arias
now, with Petrocaribe in the works and following the
president's critical comments about the U.S. in Iraq and the
lack of USG assistance and attention to the region, might be
hard to explain to Washington. We also cautioned Tinoco not
to expect wholesale, immediate changes in USG Cuba policy
should a Democratic administration be elected in November.

-------
COMMENT
-------

14. (C) We have not heard the last word on this.
Paraphrasing legislator Evita Arguedas, where there is this
much smoke, there is probably a little fire. On July 24,
Armando Gonzalez, editorial page chief of leading daily "La
Nacion" told us that he is convinced a change remains in the
wind (and is long overdue). At an appropriate moment,
establishing full diplomatic ties with Cuba might be just the
sort of sweeping international gesture Arias seeks in the
last half of his administration, to place him back on the
world stage, burnish his leftist credentials and allow him to
show some distance from Washington. It would make more sense
for him to postpone such a significant policy
shift until after CAFTA implementation in October and the
U.S. elections in November, but he may be tempted to move
sooner.
BRENNAN

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