A fund that Congress set up to promote democracy abroad has given more than $433,000 to opponents of the policies of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his Central American peace plan, documents show.
These grants by the National Endowment for Democracy, proposed and administered by the Republican Party's international institute, included almost $50,000 in salaries paid to Rafael Angel Calderon, the conservative presidential candidate who lost to Arias in 1986 and hopes to win the office next year.
Arias is not running for reelection, because Costa Rica's constitution prohibits it. But several members of his party have charged that the NED aid was a disguised campaign contribution to the conservative opposition. And some have charged that it may have been intended to punish Arias for his opposition to the Reagan Administration's policy of aiding Nicaragua's Contras.
In a letter to members of Congress, seven Arias supporters in the Costa Rican legislature complained that the opposition "used the funds to prepare for the 1990 elections."
Keith Schuette, president of the National Republican Institute for International Affairs, which administered the grants, rejected that charge. "It's absolutely, totally untrue," he said. "We have never had any involvement in this campaign or any previous campaign."
Schuette acknowledged that the grant was intended to support policy research by Arias' opponents but said that it was not intended to help their election chances or to punish Arias for his policies. The allegations are "outrageous," he said.
Nevertheless, he said his organization stopped supporting opposition activities in Costa Rica earlier this year, for fear that the grants might become an election issue.
The Costa Rican complaints renew a question that has surrounded the National Endowment for Democracy since its creation in 1984: Should the U.S. government fund partisan organizations abroad, especially in countries like Costa Rica that are well-established democracies?
"I think it's unseemly, both politically and constitutionally," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), a longtime critic of NED. "Here you have the Republican Party involved with the opposition to the government in power, in a country that is the strongest democracy in Latin America and where the head of state won the Nobel Peace Prize."
NED was set up to help foster the development of democracy in other nations and has given substantial aid to such institutions as the Solidarity trade union in Poland, the democratic opposition in Chile and the opposition newspaper La Prensa in Nicaragua.
Most of the endowment's grants are administered by one of four institutes created by the Republican and Democratic parties, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Carl Gershman, the endowment's president, said the Republican institute has focused its grants on groups with a clearly conservative bent, while the Democratic institute has chosen to work on less partisan projects.
Gershman said the Republican project in Costa Rica "was not inconsistent with the main rule we apply, that they not be involved directly in partisan political efforts."
In the case of Costa Rica, the National Republican Institute proposed a grant to the Assn. for the Defense of Freedom and Democracy, an organization set up by leaders of that country's conservative Social Christian Party. The association's executive director in 1987 and 1988 was Calderon, who is the party's candidate for president in the 1990 election.
The association, in annual reports, said it used the NED grants beginning in 1986 for seminars and conferences, to fund research for opposition members of the national legislature, to run public opinion polls and to train 200 instructors for a nationwide "political education program."
It also helped fund a magazine that carried laudatory articles about Calderon and other Social Christian leaders, as well as a column in which Calderon condemned the Arias peace plan as a "a deformation of masculine values and the defense of our national sovereignty."
But Schuette said the grants had been used for proper purposes. "I wouldn't suggest that the association doesn't have a Social Christian orientation," he conceded. "But this program was carefully crafted. . . . We work with foundations that are morally tied to parties but not involved in the political operations of the parties, and this was one of those."