San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

San Juan River Dispute Leads to ICJ

First in a two-part series on Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s case over the San Juan River


The bi-national dispute over the San Juan River took a step toward resolution this week as representatives from Costa Rica and Nicaragua presented their closing arguments to a 14-judge panel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), based in The Hague, Netherlands.

While oral arguments wrapped up yesterday, a ruling, which is legally binding, may not come for months – meaning that the decades-long dispute over navigation rights will likely linger a little while longer.

“Commercial purposes”

At the core of the conflict are a pair of 19th century agreements, the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty and the 1888 Laudo Cleveland, which granted ownership of the river to Nicaragua but gave Costa Rica limited navigation rights for commercial purposes. Just what these “commercial purposes” entail is what the two countries are arguing in front of the court.

According to University of Costa Rica political science Professor Luis Guillermo Solís, the San Juan River is one of fewer than three international border rivers that belong only to one country – a result of an old dispute between two outside powers.

In 1858, the San Juan was at the center of a conflict not between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but the United States and England, both of which wanted to use the river as a canal. Costa Rica, which sided with England, controlled the river with its army but was pressured to hand over the river to Nicaragua by the U.S. It did so, but after a clause was inserted in the Cañas-Jerez Treaty granting Costa Rica perpetual freedom to navigate the river for trade and fiscal purposes.

Costa Rica has long interpreted the treaties as allowing the right to navigate the river with arms, originally to protect the commercial goods on its boats, and now considers the use of police boats to be an extension of that right. Similarly, it contends that tourism is a “commercial purpose” and thus should not be subject to Nicaraguan intervention.

“The San Juan River will not be discussed”

The issue of the Río San Juan has long been a sensitive and emotional issue for Nicaraguans – one that virtually all Nicaraguans can rally around and agree upon in an otherwise divided nation. The politicians, of course, realize this and have often manipulated the issue to distract people from domestic scandals and other divisions at home.

Over the years, it has been a champion cause of both Liberal party boss Arnoldo Alemán and Sandinista boss President Daniel Ortega. The Sandinistas even came out with a bumper sticker several years expressing how they felt the issue with Costa Rica should be handled: the sticker pictures the famous silhouette of Gen. Sandino and the message, “the San Juan River will not be discussed.” While the issue of Costa Rican police carrying guns on the river is touchy, in today’s economy, the issue of tourism is perhaps even more sensitive, especially as Nicaragua works to finalize a multi-million dollar project – called the

Water Route

, or Ruta de Agua – to promote tourism on the San Juan. The river, bordered by jungle and wildlife and home to some of the best tarpon fishing in the region, is viewed as Nicaragua’s eco-tourism gem, and one that it doesn’t want to hand over to Costa Rica’s better-developed tourism industry.

A True Border?

But according to former Sandinista guerrilla legend Edén Pastora, who has spent a majority of his life along the San Juan River, in order for Nicaragua to truly claim the river as its own, the country must first rescue its waters from Costa Rican territory.

During the final 28 kilometers of the river, the riverbed of the San Juan is so filled with sediment and mud that most of its waters are diverted south to Costa Rica’s Colorado River. Indeed, the mighty San Juan isn’t much more than a trickle by the time it gets to the former Caribbean port of Greytown.

“In order for it to be considered the true border, it needs to be navigable. So right now, the border is the Colorado River,” said Pastora, who has been put in charge of a $1.2 million government project to dredge the last 28 kilometers of the river and return the flow of water to Nicaragua. “So it’s also in Costa Rica’s interest for us to dredge the river, because if not, we could cause problems by saying that the Colorado River is the San Juan River, which in practice it is.”

The former rebel commander says that dredging the San Juan and bringing the waters back into Nicaraguan territory is vitally important, because “whoever controls the front door to a house owns the house.”

Rising Tensions

While tensions began to heat up in the 1980s, the current conflict began in 1998, after then-Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán banned armed Costa Rican patrol boats, which had used the river to travel to remote border posts, from the San Juan. Costa Rican police halted their use of the river, but Nicaraguan officials continued to charge Costa Rican boats $25 to navigate the river, often slapping an additional fee for tourists.

After several years of stalled negotiations, Costa Rica appealed the case to the ICJ in 2005, a move that further strained relations between the two countries. Then-Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños ordered the Nicaraguan military “to increase their presence and vigilance along the San Juan River” and Nica legislators called for a 35 percent “patriotic tax” on Costa Rican imports (TT, Sept. 30, 2005). Then-Foreign Minister Norman Caldera also announced he was considering a lawsuit to reclaim Guanacaste as Nicaraguan territory (TT, Nov. 11, 2005).

Since then, some of the rhetoric has quieted down but the issue of the San Juan River remains touchy.

Recently, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega restarted the Binational Commission, a 1990s effort to create a permanent dialogue to address issues of common interest, which had been suspended in the late 1990s after rising tensions regarding the San Juan. But at the most recent summit between the two countries, the San Juan dispute was left out of the final document, as it appeared that officials were tiring of the issue (TT, Oct. 10, 2008).

“The border communities have begun to display tiredness and impatience (with) so many meetings, so many words and results that do not meet expectations,” Costa Rica’s Deputy Foreign Minister Edgar Ugalde, now representing the country at the ICJ, said at the time.

Next Week, a look at the two countries’ arguments before the court in The Hague.



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