HISTORICAL tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica flared this year, ending on a worrisome note with mounting xenophobia and mutual anger. Bilateral relations between the two neighboring countries, which have long been a tinderbox due to immigration and unresolved border issues, intensified in September, when the Costa Rican government announced it was taking its contested claim to navigation rights on the San Juan River – which belongs to Nicaragua and forms part of the border between the two countries – before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Nicaraguans responded angrily, accusing Costa Rica of encroaching on their sovereignty. While Costa Rica insists it’s strictly an issue of navigation rights, Nicaraguans – including President Enrique Bolaños – argue that Costa Rica’s intentions are expansionist. Nicaragua countered Costa Rica’s case before The Hague by levying an new entry visa on Costa Ricans, in a measure the government claims is intended to raise the funds necessary for its defense in court. (More Costa Ricans visit Nicaragua than any other nationality.)
Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Norman Caldera went so far as to say that if Costa Rica was going to start questioning old treaties, such as the document that defined each country’s rights to the San Juan, Nicaragua would consider making a claim on the northern Tico province of Guanacaste, which annexed itself to Costa Rica more than 150 years ago.
The relationship between the two countries became more heated in November, when Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan living in Costa Rica, was mauled by a pair of Rottweiler guard dogs in a gruesome spectacle that lasted approximately two hours and was filmed and broadcast on TV in both countries.
That image, plus reports in Nicaragua that some unscrupulous Costa Ricans were circulating e-mail and text messages mocking Canda and referring to the dogs as national heroes, made tempers flare.
As cooler heads called for tolerance, tensions in Nicaragua approached a boiling point in early December, with news that another Nicaraguan immigrant was chased down and stabbed to death in La Guácima, Alajuela, northwest of San José. The Nicaraguan victim, described in the press as a hardworking and honest young man, was at a bar with other Nicaraguans who reportedly became the butt of cruel jokes from a group of Costa Ricans regarding the dog attack on Canda. The argument escalated and the Nicaraguans tried to flee the bar, but the victim and two others were chased down by a Costa Rican who attacked all three with a knife. The other two Nicaraguans survived the assault.
Days later, in Managua, bumper stickers appeared for sale at red lights reading “Kill a Tico Dog,” with a clear double meaning understood.
Former revolutionary leader Eden “Comandante Cero” Pastora warned that the situation is close to spiraling out of control. The real threat, he said, is that a group of armed Nicaraguans will take Guanacaste back by force.