San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

River Dispute Diverted to OAS

As Nicaraguan troops and Costa Rican police forces muster along the Río San Juan, which forms part of the border between the countries, the real battle over the river is being played out in the halls of a multilateral  organization.

On Wednesday, the Organization of American States (OAS) convened a last-minute meeting to hear a plea for intervention from Costa Rica, which is accusing its northern neighbor of threatening its citizens, damaging 2,500 square meters of Costa Rica territory, placing the Nicaraguan flag on Costa Rican land and illegally dumping river waste.

“Since the beginning of President Laura Chinchilla’s administration in May, Costa Rica has sought relations with Nicaragua characterized by a spirit of good neighborliness, friendship and cooperation …” Foreign Minister René Castro said in his testimony before the OAS. “Obviously, a situation has arisen (in which) the recent actions of Nicaraguan authorities have gradually affected our territorial sovereignty and our national resources.”

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega rebuffed Costa Rica’s accusations, saying that Costa Rica is “bellicosely threatening Nicaragua” with “elite troops” dressed like “Rambo.”

He said Costa Rica is pretending to be confused about where the real border lies in an attempt to mask its “expansionist” intentions of appropriating the river like it did 185 years ago to the northern Pacific regions of Guanacaste and Nicoya, which used to belong to Nicaragua.

Until a Wednesday night broadcast, Pre-sident Laura Chinchilla remained relatively mum on the issue, choosing to deflect commentary to the public security and foreign ministries.

But, on Wednesday, Chinchilla appeared on television to deliver an accusation against Nicaragua.

“Nicaragua’s armed forces have raided and remain in Costa Rican territory, on Isla Calero, in the province of Limón. The fact that they set up military camps, raised the flag of Nicaragua, destroyed the forest in a protected area and deposited sediment can only qualify as a serious violation of our sovereignty and our environmental heritage.”

She said Costa Rica must react with “caution and common sense” even though maps clearly show that Nicaragua is occupying Costa Rican territory. “We cannot get carried away with deep anger that causes unwarranted aggression. Our instruments are dialogue and international law and they are in play.”

Business as Usual

According to Alexander López, director of the school of international relations at Heredia’s National University (UNA), Ortega’s stance is business as usual for Nicaragua, which López says has long seen the San Juan River as a useful political issue.

“Whenever there is an election year in Nicaragua, the San Juan River always takes on greater importance,” he said. “It is used as political ammo, not just by the Sandinistas, but by other political parties.”

He said that conflict over the river has existed for years, and it’s not likely to go away.

“If, hypothetically, this issue of the San Juan River were to be resolved, Nicaragua would immediately look for another conflict with Costa Rica,” he said. “To paraphrase a past president, there are three seasons in Costa Rica; the rainy season, the season of sun (or the summer) … and legal disputes with Nicaragua.”

The stand-off is over Isla Calero, a 151 square kilometer parcel on the Caribbean coast, which is sandwiched between the Colorado and San Juan rivers (see map). Both countries claim the slice of soggy forest and wetlands belongs to them. When Nicaragua began the dredging process back in September with the aim of widening and deepening the river for travel purposes, they were accused of pulling up border markers and cutting off a section of Costa Rican territory.

Nicaragua was given permission to dredge the river under a July 2009 resolution from the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The ruling confirmed Nicaragua’s ownership of the river, but assured Costa Rica that it could continue to use it for transportation purposes. 

Regarding the accusations of trespass, Ortega said the Costa Rica border has been steadily encroaching northward for hundreds of years, as the San Juan River delta slowly dries out. However, he said, even though the historic river mouth has dried, it is still Nicaraguan territory.

“In the 1600s and 1700s, the river covered an enormous amount of territory at its delta,” Ortega said. “And as the zone has dried, the river has moved and (Costa Rica) has continued to advance and take possession of terrain that doesn’t belong to it. The way things are going, if the San Juan River continues to move north and join with the Río Grande of Matagalpa (in the northern zone), that’s how far (Costa Rica) would claim its territory extended.”

Edén Pastora, who has been charged with leading the dredging of the San Juan River project for Nicaragua, said the country’s interests in Calero Island are protected under the Cañas-Jerez and Laudo Cleveland agreements.

Asked whether an appeal before the OAS was an appropriate move, international analyst and university professor Edgar Cascante said yes and no.

“The best option is bilateral dialogue between the two nations,” he said. “But when you appeal to a multilateral organization, it’s a clear indication that dialogue doesn’t exist between the two nations, or it has been broken.”

That is one of the central issues, López said. “(Up until this moment), there has been no international infrastructure to handle conflicts between the two countries. Many of the problems we have on the border relating to conflict and sub-development are the result of not having a bilateral commission. There is no institutional framework.”

In that sense, Costa Rica took one of the only recourses available to it in appealing to the OAS, López said.

On Thursday, Secretary General of the Organization of American States José Miguel Insulza announced he would visit San José, Managua and the border region, as part of a fact-finding mission.

Castro expressed his satisfaction with the decision, saying via press release, “We have been heard.

“We came with historic faith and we leave with hope and appreciation of all the present ambassadors for their professionalism, willingness to dialogue and their interest that future generations can also feel that multilateralism offers a civilized way for those who have chosen to trust in her.”

The commission of the OAS expects to reconvene Tuesday in Washington D.C.

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