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Navy Ship Canceled Costa Rican Port Call Over AIDS Dispute

September 11, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Navy warship canceled a port visit to Costa Rica because authorities there insisted the Navy certify the crew was free of AIDS, according to military sources who called it a ″clearly troubling″ development.

Moreover, Pentagon officials are convinced the Costa Rican demands may be tied to a long-running ″disinformation″ campaign by the Soviet Union aimed at blaming the United States for creating the AIDS virus.

″This is the kind of thing the Soviets are trying to stir up around the world with their propaganda,″ one official said Thursday. ″And this was quite an irrational reaction on the part of Costa Rica.″

″It can give ideas to others and so it’s clearly troubling us,″ added another source.

According to the officials, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not identified, the Costa Rican government demanded the Navy provide a roster of crewmen on the destroyer USS Luce and ″certification″ that every sailor was free of AIDS, a deadly ailment that destroys the body’s immunity to disease.

The Navy tried to explain its testing procedures for AIDS to the Costa Ricans, but to no avail, leading to cancellation of the port call last week, one official said.

″We weren’t going to hand over the ship’s roster, and you can’t make that kind of certification in any event,″ the source added.

″The issue here is to try to get our friends to understand our position and not be panicked into requesting a lot of things that we can’t provide them,″ said another official.

Publicly, the Pentagon refused to discuss the matter Thursday, saying it had never announced any port call by the Luce and thus had nothing to say about any cancellation.

In San Jose, Costa Rica, U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark Krischik contended the Luce’s visit was postponed only because the United States discovered the proper type of fuel for the ship was unavailable at the Caribbean port of Limon.

″That’s an interesting cover story,″ one of the Pentagon sources responded. ″It’s also flat wrong. We were fighting the Costa Ricans on this one, and we weren’t fighting over fuel.″

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, can be spread through sexual contact, the transfusion of tainted blood and the sharing of needles by drug abusers. No cure has been found.

According to the sources, Costa Rica is not the first country to challenge the visit of a Navy ship because of a fear of AIDS. They said the Philippines as well as other, unidentified nations had moved in that direction.

″In the other instances, however, we easily resolved the matter and the visits were made,″ said one official. ″This time, we couldn’t resolve it.″

Costa Rica issued a health decree in July specifying that the crews of ships visiting the country would have to present the results of AIDS tests before they came ashore.

In mid-August, three crew members of the U.S.-registered ship Fredrique, docked at the Pacific port in Quepos, were prohibited from coming ashore after one of them tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, antibodies. The unusual virus is believed to cause AIDS.

In the case of the Luce, however, the sources said the Navy’s explanation of the military testing program proved insufficient.

The Pentagon conducts the largest, most extensive AIDS screening program in the world, routinely testing all recruit applicants as well as all 2.1 million men and women on active duty.

Those on active duty who test positively for exposure are allowed to remain in the military unless they show signs of the disease itself. But they are restricted to duty inside the United States and thus in the case of the Navy, not allowed to go to sea.

The problem confronting the Navy, however, is that a person can be exposed to the disease and not test positively for several months.

″You could have a sailor begin a six-month deployment after testing negatively, but he’s already been exposed,″ one source said. ″Or he could make a port call during the cruise and be exposed. You can’t guarantee at every point that he doesn’t carry the disease.″

The sources refused to elaborate on why they suspected the Costa Rican action might be related to the Soviet disinformation campaign, saying only that internal documents had raised that issue.

The Defense and State departments have spent more than a year trying to counter the Russian propaganda effort, which is aimed at perpetuating claims the AIDS virus was originally produced in an Army laboratory.

″There is a fear and paranoia growing about this disease that could threaten our relationships with friendly countries around the world,″ added another source.

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