Central America and the Caribbean were hotbeds of insurrection and powder kegs of the proxy wars fought between the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. As much as Costa Rica tried to distance herself from the conflict and turmoil all around, she was part of the cloak-and-dagger antics of the warring world’s powers at the time.
A photo exhibit at the historic Freedom Tower in downtown Miami opens today, and according to an opinion piece by Cuban-born journalist Guillermo Martinez, the pictures show that Costa Rica served as a training camp for commandos who launched raids intended to topple the Fidel Castro regime. The collection is titled Embedded: A Photojournalist Captures Conflict and Resistance, and it is centered on the work of Jim Nickless, a cameraman who over a nine-month period in the mid- 1960s, and working as freelance cameraman for NBC News, documented the training, raids, and daily activities of a group of Cuban patriots attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro.
According to Mr. Martinez, who collaborated with Mr. Nickless for many years, the training camps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua were hushed clandestine operations:
“The year was 1964, and Nickless was looking for a way to link up with Manuel Artime’s anti-Castro training camps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I was a messenger for WSVN (an NBC affiliate in Miami).
The NBC crew did a short piece on the training camps in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. One of the imposed conditions was that NBC could not disclose the location of the camps. […] Nickless went back to the camps in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic for the duration.”
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was the entity imposing the condition on NBC of not revealing that such American-sponsored shenanigans were being conducted in Costa Rica, a neutral country without an army. The CIA approved showing the public how these clandestine warriors were preparing covert raids against the Castro regime, but they drew the line at revealing the location of the camps. It was propaganda at its best.
Mr. Martinez explains some of the plans by the CIA, which almost sound like the plot of the Costa Rica-based video game Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker:
“They were planning to infiltrate 100 well-trained guerrillas into the Sierra Cristal, and occupy some Cuban territory so the United States and other countries could recognize them as a country in arms.
The [Manuel Artime Movimiento de la Recuperacion Revolucionaria] had mother ships in the Caribbean. From these vessels, crews aboard two Swift boats, the Monty and the Gitana, carried out the raids into Cuba. Most of the crew members had been in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Nickless was the lone American, an NBC cameraman who everybody thought was a CIA agent.
The raids continued for months. In September 1964, they heard that a Cuban cargo ship, the Sierra Maestra, was headed back to Cuba. One of the Swift boats approached the ship from the rear, it read the word Sierra, and launched an attack. They were mistaken. The Sierra Maestra had a twin ship, the Sierra Aranzazu, a Spanish freighter that had the same profile. In the raid, three Spaniards were killed — the captain of the ship and two crew members.”
The role of Costa Rica during the Cold War would reshape itself later, after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the protracted guerrilla conflict in Nicaragua. The proxy war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union came to an end when former President Oscar Arias negotiated peace in the region and received a Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Now that information is becoming declassified, we can expect that more of Costa Rica’s shadowy history will be revealed.