- - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

TAMARINDO, Costa Rica — I’m not about to pretend that spending a few days in this rather funky little surfing village on the Pacific has given me great insights into Latin America’s current political, economic and social reality. On the other hand, if one keeps an open mind — and a not excessively open mouth — one generally learns something.

Based on the evidence I’ve been able to gather, Costa Ricans — or “Ticans,” as they refer to themselves — deserve the reputation they enjoy as friendly, good-natured and peaceable. The national slogan here is “pura vida,” literally “pure life,” but it is also used — with great frequency — to mean “all’s well,” “life is good” and “no problem.”

Google “Costa Rica” and “news” and you’re not likely to come up with much of the latter. As I’m writing this, the top item in the Tico Times announces: “Costa Rican officials hope to break the all-time attendance record for an Under-17 Women’s World Cup. Azerbaijan set the record with 151,066 spectators, and Costa Rica is slightly off pace of that number.”

Whatever the outcome of that competition, Costa Rica is a winner by other criteria. For example, 96 percent of the country’s population — just shy of 5 million — is literate. Ticans enjoy far more freedom and democracy than most people in Latin America — or the Middle East, Asia and Africa, for that matter.

No terrorist groups or drug cartels lurk in the nation’s mountains and rain forests. One can, however, find big cats, two- and three-toed sloths, a variety of monkeys, and more than 840 species of birds, including the bare-necked umbrellabird, the resplendent quetzal and the keel-billed toucan. Costa Rica’s spiny-tailed iguana is the world’s fastest-running lizard. (Does Azerbaijan have any reptiles to match that? I didn’t think so.)

People here seem to know they have it better than most people in what we hopefully call “the developing world.” Their mixed economy — based on tourism, coffee, bananas, sugar and beef — provides a per-capita gross domestic product nearly three times higher than in Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua to the north. For what it’s worth, Costa Rica is in the No. 12 spot — higher than many much wealthier countries — on the “Satisfaction with Life Index.”

Costa Rican politics is a tad unusual: Elections were held in February. The two more left-wing parties did not win enough voters to qualify for the runoff, which is scheduled for April 6. The presidential candidates will be Johnny Araya Monge of the ruling National Liberation Party and Luis Guillermo Solis Rivera of the center-left Citizens Action Party.

Ticans are on the edge of their seats awaiting the outcome. Well, actually, they aren’t. After reading the polls, Mr. Araya concluded he hasn’t a gelato’s chance in a tropical rain forest. Last month, he announced that he would not waste any time, energy or money campaigning. Though his name will remain on the ballot, his opponent can confidently order rum for the victory celebration.

I’ve met no one here who does not grimace when I ask about Cuba and Venezuela. They understand — as too many in Hollywood, Berkeley and Manhattan do not — that Fidel Castro’s revolution entrenched poverty and increased oppression. They are acutely aware of the damage the now-deceased Hugo Chavez did to Venezuela.

For more than two months now, Venezuelans have taken to the streets in protest — with at least 39 people killed so far. The White House has barely reacted. In congressional testimony last week, Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, concluded that the Obama administration “has systematically disengaged from Latin America.”

At the same time, three “significant strategic actors” have been advancing in the region. Care to guess who those might be? Russia, Iran and China — that dodgy alliance (axis?) of ambitious, anti-American autocracies.

Russia is planning to open new military bases in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, which Mr. Berman sees as part of its drive to expand “its military activities in the Western Hemisphere, to include long-range missions by its combat aircraft.” To what end? To defend Russian speakers in Guatemala?

Iran, according to intrepid Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman, maintains a “continentwide network of intelligence bases and logistical support centers spanning no fewer than eight countries.” Mr. Nisman is certain that these bases and centers helped facilitate the terrorist bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in 1984 — and that they remain operational today. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, is entrenched in the so-called “Triple Frontier” where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

Mr. Berman says Iran also is working with several Latin American countries to obtain uranium and other “strategic minerals” useful for making nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

As for China, its interests in the region appear to be primarily economic at the moment. Still, China has become a contributor to Argentina’s nuclear program.

What’s happening here is not just significant, it’s historic: As Mr. Berman reminded Congress, in 1823, President James Monroe warned foreign powers against intervention in Latin America, “whose political independence America would henceforth preserve and protect. That statement, which came to be known as the ‘Monroe Doctrine,’ became a lasting guidepost for U.S. policy toward the Americas.”

Lasting, that is, till last fall when Secretary of State John F. Kerry “announced with great fanfare that the ‘era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.’”

Did it occur to no one at the State Department that Iran, Russia and China would interpret that not merely as the Obama administration once again apologizing for past U.S. behavior, but also as a bugle blowing U.S. retreat and signaling that Latin America is now up for grabs?

If Mr. Kerry doesn’t comprehend the danger that poses, he needs to spend more time south of the border. Even a week on a sun-washed Costa Rican beach can be edifying.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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