San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What’s Next for Tico-Nica Relations?

Two weeks ago, Costa Rican and Nicaraguan Foreign Ministers Bruno Stagno and Norman Caldera smiled side by side as they announced plans to address the mounting tension between their countries by reinitiating bilateral dialogue suspended since 1997.

This week, bitter words flew again as Stagno called off a so-called “friendly solution” to one of the neighbors’ many bones of contention, a conflict over crimes against Nicaraguans in Costa Rica. Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry spokesman Oscar García accused Costa Rica of flip-flopping and added that “countries, in addition to being sovereign, should also be serious.”

Still, those who support the idea of the dialogue – which from 1991 to 1997 brought together the countries’ Presidents, Cabinet ministers, legislators from border provinces and municipal leaders for regular meetings of the Binational Commission – say it could put the countries back on track and help their governments focus on important issues that have been lost in the shuffle. The first meeting is scheduled for October.

Costa Rican political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, who served on the commission during its first incarnation, said the return to dialogue is a source of hope, if it’s approached with patience.

“It’s a very good idea,” he said. “(But) we have to acknowledge that there are problems, and not all problems will be solved at once through the meetings. This is going to be a process.”

The commission began work in 1991. Environmental issues, such as Nicaraguan concerns about Costa Rica’s use of fertilizers; binational health initiatives, such as Costa Rican plans to expand its national vaccination campaigns into Nicaraguan territory; and problems related to the fishing industry were among the topics on the agenda in those days, according to Solís. The meeting locations rotated between countries, with the last meeting taking place in the colonial city of Granada.

Following that meeting, personal conflicts, as well as increased tensions over an ongoing dispute regarding each country’s rights to the San Juan River, which forms part of the border, stopped progress.

In the late 1990s, Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodríguez and Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán “got into a fist fight – well, almost. They hated each other,” Solís explained. “Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) decided to do it on a more personal basis and met with (Nicaraguan President Enrique) Bolaños in Masaya. They agreed they would be friends and hug each other forever, and then they delayed discussion on anything for three years.”

Solís called this approach “ludicrous” and criticized the eight-year gap in discussions. No time should be wasted in launching  the new round of meetings, he said.The first meeting is set for just one month before Nicaragua’s nationwide presidential elections, but analysts here say they don’t expect major setbacks when power changes hands.

“Nicaragua, unlike Costa Rica, has a very well-defined foreign policy related to these issues” such as the San Juan, political scientist Alex Miranda told The Tico Times.

Rodrigo Carreras, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Nicaragua from 2003 until this past June, said his conversations with the various presidential candidates in Nicaragua left him with the impression the commission will have the support of the Executive Branch no matter who’s in office.

However, Nicaraguan politicians will have their eyes on the polls during any meetings held before the elections, he said.

“The Nicaraguan negotiators will be very affected by how they see the public opinion polls,” he said. “We can’t expect a breakthrough…

If there’s a big breakthrough, it could be something (voters) make them pay for at the polls, or it could be used by opponents.” Still, he pointed out one country or the other is almost always preparing for an electoral process.

“It’d be a waste of time not to move ahead now that we have the chance,” he said.

According to Stagno, the commission will be made up of subgroups to address topics including security, borders and cartography, and development. The two Foreign Ministers also plan to re-establish a “mixed commission” to address topics including health, education, job opportunities and others related to social and economic development.

Passions Running High

There’ll be no shortage of agenda items. In recent years, one event after another has caused tempers to flare on both sides of the border.

Three issues in particular – immigration, the San Juan, and the deaths of two Nicaraguans in Costa Rica last year – have dominated discussions. The latter two issues are under consideration by international institutions.

Costa Rica filed a case against Nicaragua over the increasingly bitter San Juan River dispute last September before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in the Netherlands. Issues at stake include whether Costa Rican police or tourism companies have the right to travel on the river, which belongs to Nicaragua.

In November, a homeless Nicaraguan man named Natividad Canda was mauled by Rottweillers while attempting to enter a warehouse in central Costa Rica and later died from his wounds. The attack lasted nearly two hours, but police on the scene said they were unable to shoot at the dogs because they would have risked shooting Canda, though video footage captured by a TV news scene clearly showed the dogs moving away from Canda on several occasions (TT, Nov. 10, 2005).

Adding fuel to the fire, Nicaraguan José Ariel Silva was attacked and killed by a group of Costa Ricans after a bar dispute near San José the next month. Eyewitnesses said the attackers made comments about the dog attack on Canda, then chased Silva and two other Nicaraguans out of the bar, throwing rocks at them and attacking them with knives.

Nicaragua brought complaints of xenophobia and discrimination against Costa Rica before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission over the alleged impunity that followed both deaths. The recent “friendly solution” was the result of a suggestion from the commission that the parties try bilateral talks instead (NT, July 28).

However, Stagno apparently shelved that idea this week. A statement from the Foreign Ministry said a friendly solution is no longer “opportune” considering comments Nicaraguan government officials recently made to local media. Apparently the officials referred to the papers they’ve filed before the commission as a “denuncia” when the correct term is “comunicación.

Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry spokesman García told The Nica Times Costa Rica has gone back on its word by turning against the bilateral option.

“It is also important to remember that this is not about finding a solution to two isolated cases – this is much bigger than that,” he said. “It’s about Costa Rica’s incompliance with protecting the human rights of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica.”

The Immigration Card

Costa Rica’s polemic new Immigration Law, scheduled to take effect tomorrow, has been another point of conflict between the two governments. Its supporters say something must be done to reduce the number of illegal Nicaraguan immigrants here – estimates of the total number of Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica range from 340,000-500,000 – while critics in both countries say the measures open the door to human rights violations and are too severe.

Immigration Director Mario Zamora now says he won’t enforce the law because he doesn’t have the funds (see separate story), a stance that elicited a mixture of relief and derision from the law’s opponents this week.

“This is a classic ticada,” Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan guerilla leader who spent a decade living in Costa Rica, said of the delay tactics. “Only in Costa Rica do things like this happen. Other countries make laws with the intention of applying them; in Costa Rica they make laws with the intention of not applying them. This is the big difference between Costa Rica and the rest of the world.”

Like other Nicaraguan leaders and Costa Rican business owners, he said the law would have disastrous effects for Costa Rica as well as its northern neighbor.

“The reason (Costa Ricans) don’t apply it is because it would be like committing hara-kiri,” he said. “Without Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, their economy would collapse. Who would cut the cane? Who would pick the coffee? Who would work in construction? Who would manage the cattle?”

Gabriela Lobo, director of Costa Rica’s Coffee-Growers’ Chamber, told The Tico Times last week she’s concerned about the Immigration Law, especially given that coffee growers lost part of last year’s harvest because of a worker shortage. The daily La Nación reported this week that this situation is already being repeated in regions of the country where coffee ripens early, such as Turrialba, on the Caribbean slope, and Pérez Zeledón and Coto Brus in the Southern Zone. (The primary coffee harvest takes place in December and January.)


Tico Times Online Editor Amanda Roberson and Nica Times Editor Tim Rogers contributed to this report.


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