San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ambassador: Seeking ‘Peace and Quiet’

FROM his understaffed and somewhat embattled embassy in eastern San José, Ambassador Francisco Fiallos, the Nicaraguan envoy to Costa Rica, spoke to The Tico Times about the issues that have placed him in what looks increasingly like a diplomatic minefield.The embassy is threatened periodically, and recently received cruel messages by email lauding the work of the two Rottweilers that tore apart and killed Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan man trespassing on the property of the dogs’ owner. The dog attack, which lasted nearly two hours, and the reactions of the Costa Rican police on the scene (TT, Nov. 18) have fueled an already tense relationship between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans.The two countries are feuding over Costa Rica’s navigation rights on the Nicaraguan-owned San Juan River (see Nica Times). Costa Rica recently took the dispute to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, where a hearing is pending.Adding fuel to the fire, Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister, Norman Caldera, enraged Costa Ricans earlier this month when he said he is considering taking legal action to recover Guanacaste, the northern Pacific province that voted to become a part of Costa Rica in 1824; Nicaragua formally accepted the decision in the same 1858 treaty that settled the terms of use of the San Juan (TT, Nov. 11).These issues, combined with backlash from the fatal dog attack, have placed the two countries’ relations on thin ice.FIALLOS, 59, arrived at the embassy in March 2004 following a stint as attorney general of Nicaragua, a position in which he indicted and led successful cases against ex-President Arnoldo Alemán and his ex-Tax Director Byron Jerez. Alemán and Jerez were both sentenced for embezzlement and corruption; Aleman is serving 20 years and Jerez eight, both under house arrest.Fiallos’ ambassadorial appointment was not unprecedented – he also served as the Nicaraguan ambassador to the Vatican from 1990-1994. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and earned a doctorate in economics and political science from Boston University.He sat down with The Tico Times last week to discuss the issues dividing his country from Costa Rica, the roots of Nicaraguan immigration to this country, and what he thinks it will take for the situation to improve. Excerpts:TT: Is there more animosity between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans lately?FF: I think so. Unfortunately, there has been an increase in xenophobic attitudes that have awakened feelings in Nicaragua and in Costa Rica. Hopefully it will go away and we will try to have a little bit of peace and quiet.Are relations at an all time low?I don’t think so in the sense that we have good relations with the (Costa Rican) government. I have good personal relations with Costa Rican Foreign Minister (Roberto Tovar). Of course, you cannot deny there are problems between the two countries.Does your being here in Costa Rica influence your point of view regarding the San Juan River conflict, or do you agree with your Foreign Minister?I agree with the Foreign Minister.Do you feel Costa Rica is trying to take away the river?I think they’re trying to exercise some rights they don’t have. The treaty’s very clear, but they don’t want to interpret it that way, so…What’s wrong with Costa Rica wanting to settle the issue in an international court?They don’t have the right they say they have. The treaty’s very clear. We don’t see that there is any other way to interpret it.We already appointed a group of lawyers who will go to The Hague to defend our position.Do you think some of the comments we’ve been hearing from politicians on both sides of the border are helping or hurting relations between the countries?Both. It depends on how they express their opinions. There have been very mature voices calling for a cooling of the situation, but there are also those in political campaigns who want to exacerbate the situation.[Preparations for national elections are taking place in both countries.] I think some of the candidates in Costa Rica are supporting some harsh parts of the immigration law, as an example.Did Caldera’s comment about Guanacaste exacerbate the problem?It was an opinion of the Foreign Minister in the sense that now, if (Costa Rica) puts (part of) the treaty in doubt, then the entire treaty could be put in doubt.Does being on this side of the border change your understanding of the issue of Nicaraguan immigrants, and the perception that they take jobs from Costa Ricans and cause crime?This is a very complicated situation. There are many Nicaraguan immigrants here because Nicaragua, which had a very strong economy before the communists took power and destroyed economic infrastructure. That caused a tremendous setback in the economy; it went back 50 years. In 1978 we had more exports than Costa Rica, and now we are very behind.I was one of those who fought against the Somoza dictatorship (1936-1979), but I recognize that, though it was a political injustice, the economy was strong. I lost many friends and relatives in that fight. I joined the Sandinista government, then resigned because they made the stupid move of becoming close allies of Cuba and the Soviet Union. They destroyed the community, and the people came here by the thousands to find work. At the same time, Costa Rica needed the workers because they do things that many Costa Ricans don’t want to do. They pick up the garbage and work in security and other services. What we’re trying to do is change the situation – create more jobs in Nicaragua. Regarding the perception of crime, if you have half a million Nicaraguans here, of course some of them commit crimes – but I think they commit fewer, percentage-wise, than Costa Ricans.What needs to happen between the two countries to improve relations?If the Costa Rican legal system works as well as I think it will, in this case of the young man who died in the mouths of those dogs, that will contribute to a better relationship.Are the problems we’re seeing now bigger than the past spats between the countries, or are they part of that whole ongoing tension?It is impossible to know. I just hope it won’t get worse and that things will improve.See The Nica Times for an interview with the Costa Rican ambassador to Nicaragua.

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