San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Politicization of Río San Juan Worsens Conflict

MANAGUA – The re-politicization of the San Juan River border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which this week went before the hemisphere’s top political body, the Organization of American States (OAS), is once again clouding an issue that should be treated in strictly legal and technical terms, according to experts in international law and foreign relations.

Once again, the Río San Juan-historically a tinderbox issue between the two countries – is being used as an excuse to fan flames of nationalism, provoking suspicion and xenophobia on both sides of the border.

In Costa Rica, questions are being raised as to whether the rekindled crisis is somehow meant to distract Nicaraguans from President Daniel Ortega’s increasingly audacious attempts to bend the Constitution to get himself reelected next year. Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, former guerrilla leader Edén Pastora, who is heading the Sandinista government’s river-dredging operation, this week alleged that Costa Rica is manipulating the issue as a “smokescreen” to distract Ticos from the Caldera Highway debacle and the Crucitas Gold Mine controversy.

Others claim the issue is a Trojan Horse for much larger and nefarious geopolitical interests.

Father Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaragua’s honorary foreign minister and a close advisor to President Daniel Ortega, this week accused Costa Rica of “politicizing and militarizing” the issue of the Río San Juan as part of a U.S. conspiracy against the Sandinista government.

“The hand of the United States can be found in all evil that exists in the world, even if it’s not immediately apparent,” D’Escoto told The Nica Times this week. “I have no doubt the U.S.’ hand is in this.”

In response to D’Escoto’s allegation, the U.S. State Department sent a statement to The Nica Times saying, “As in other areas where there are disputes, we urge that this should be resolved through dialogue in normal diplomatic channels. Constructive dialogue and cooperation, based upon mutual respect, are core tenets of the Inter-American System.”

Meanwhile, at the OAS in Washington, D.C., the U.S. representative to the organization, Milton Drucker, said, “We are very concerned about the increasing tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua along the San Juan River.”

Still others are concerned more with how the conflict is being handled, than the issue itself. Critics of the Costa Rican government say the Ticos’ rush to the OAS was premature.

Some analysts say the administration of President Laura Chinchilla should have first tried to utilize the bilateral mechanisms that exist to resolve such conflicts, such as the bi-national commission, which is scheduled to hold a top-level presidential summit Nov. 27 in Guanacaste.

“Costa Rica has turned a technical dispute into a greater political conflict by taking it to the OAS,” said international law expert Mauricio Heredocia, former chief judicial advisor to the secretary general of the Central American Integration System (SICA).

Heredocia told The Nica Times that the issue should have been dealt with soberly in a meeting between technical experts and cartographers from both countries, not by windy politicians in a hemispheric forum. The issue, he said, could be resolved simply if both governments agree to continue the process of demarcating the frontier with mojones, or landmarks, to clearly delineate the border according to international treaties (see sidebar).

But by escalating the crisis to the OAS, the conflict has already “gotten out of hand,” the lawyer said.

OAS’ Effectiveness Challenged Again

Ortega and the other leaders of the leftist bloc of nations known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) argue that the OAS is not the right forum to deal with the issue.

“I don’t know what the OAS is going to do in Nicaragua, because it’s not up to the OAS to make pronouncements on border issues,” Ortega said Nov. 2. “But that is the proposal of Costa Rica, which, at the same time, is continuing to escalate its bellicose message.”

Ortega said the issue would be much better handled by the International Court of Justice at The Hague (TT, Daily Page, Nov. 3).

Roy Chaderton, Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, echoed Ortega’s concern, warning that the OAS and the “ghosts of interference” could “make the situation worse” by meddling in a situation that should be dealt with bilaterally. Chaderton said past conflicts that the OAS has attempted to resolve have turned into regional attacks against ALBA member states.

During Wednesday’s Special Meeting of the OAS’ Permanent Council to discuss the San Juan River conflict, both Nicaragua and Venezuela – the only two ALBA countries to speak – voiced concern about the OAS’ role in the problem. But all the other country representatives who spoke – the ambassadors from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and the United States – supported the OAS’ attempts to mediate.

“ALBA countries that try to condemn the OAS as a forum for this issue run the risk of alienating everyone else in the region. They are the ones that will be accused of politicizing the issue,” said William M. LeoGrande, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. “Costa Rica will garner much sympathy, and Nicaragua will be seen as the ‘bad guy,’ which is not in Nicaragua’s interests or the interests of regional peace and security.”

Others, however, claim it’s the OAS that could take one on the chin by sticking its neck out over the Río San Juan.

“The risk for the OAS is that this turns into another episode that displays its irrelevance for all to see,” Kevin Casas-Zamora, former Costa Rican vice president and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told The Nica Times this week.

Casas-Zamora said that the OAS must “tread carefully in the face of Nicaragua’s reluctance or they may end up being snubbed in a very public way by the second poorest country in the hemisphere.”

The Costa Rican analyst said that Ortega’s proposal to take the issue back to The Hague is “the sensible thing to do.”

He added that, for the sake of peace and stability, “the sooner everyone tones down the rhetoric the better.” That’s also true, he said, for the some half-million Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica, who are vulnerable to Tico xenophobia and – perhaps in extreme cases – hate crimes.

In Managua, however, Sandinista politicians are downplaying the possibility of any violent clashes among security forces accumulating on the border.

“If Nicaragua were a hothead country, the situation would be dangerous. But we aren’t going to be provoked by Costa Rica,” Father D’Escoto said. “It takes two to tango, and we don’t want to tango.”

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