San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

River Row Drags Into Fifth Week

Within 24 hours of the Organization of American States (OAS) vote last Friday for Nicaragua to remove its troops from their post on Isla Calero, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced he would disregard the ruling as if it were a stray dog.

“Last night, we were all witnesses to a failure of the OAS,” he said. “It is an institution that loses credibility every day, if it even has any credibility left.”

Ortega went on to say that the vote of 22 of the 27 participating OAS representatives for the removal of the troops was a manipulation, a lie and a conspiracy.

Meanwhile, Costa Rican officials responded by issuing an arrest warrant for Edén Pastora, the former Sandinista guerrilla in charge of the dredging operation at the heart of the ongoing dispute. The warrant, issued by a prosecutor in the northern municipality of Pococí, charges Pastora with usurping public land and violating the Forestry Law (see story on Page 2).

“We will stay [on Isla Calero] due to the manipulated, rigged and lying vote of the OAS. A fair vote was not conducted, so we will not honor it,” Ortega said on Saturday.

Ortega’s comments, made in a televised address, quickly dampened optimism in Costa Rica after the previous night’s OAS decision. For a few short hours, hope flickered that Nicaraguan troops would leave Isla Calero, the disputed parcel of land on the south side of the Río San Juan (TT, Nov. 12, Oct. 29, Oct. 22).

Following the OAS decision, the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry issued a statement with a triumphant tone. 

“Today, more than ever, Nicaraguan authorities should listen to the clamor of this hemisphere’s member states, who favor both peace and peaceful coexistence between neighbor nations, and immediately remove their armed forces from Costa Rican territory,” the statement said.

But 48 hours later, talk of victory had faded. In response to Ortega’s comments, which included claims that “drug traffickers dictate Costa Rican foreign policy,” and that Nicaragua wants navigation rights to Costa Rica’s Río Colorado, Foreign Minister René Castro sent a formal complaint to the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, the second in the past four weeks.

“Despite the decision by the OAS in favor of removing Nicaraguan troops from the area, Nicaragua refuses to comply,” Castro said. “Progress (toward a resolution) cannot be made in this conflict if Nicaragua continues to ignore the OAS recommendations and insult Costa Rica with false accusations.”

At the conclusion of his address Sunday, Castro said the next step in the diplomatic process would be a meeting of the binational commission on Nov. 27, which, at the request of the OAS, would require the presence of both countries’ presidents in Liberia, capital of Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province.

Although Chinchilla previously said Costa Rica might bring the matter to the United Nations, according to Castro, the move would be considered only as a last resort.

Binational Meeting Unlikely

The OAS recommendation that Ortega meet with Chinchilla is not binding. As the date for the binational commission meeting approaches, the likelihood it will actually happen grows slimmer.

“I don’t think the binational meeting is going to happen,” said Antonio Barrios, an international relations professor at Costa Rica’s National University. “This isn’t an opportune moment. Both sides claim ownership to Isla Calero and neither side is communicating directly with the other,” he said.

As long as Nicaraguan officials refuse to remove troops from the area, meeting would be a strategic mistake for Costa Rican officials, Barrios said. 

“If Nicaragua still has troops stationed in Costa Rican territory and has not responded to the OAS recommendations (by Nov. 27), the meeting likely won’t take place. Right now, everything is hypothetical,” Costa Rica’s Castro said.

Members of the OAS met Thursday and voted to hold a meeting of the organization’s foreign ministers Dec. 7 in Washington, D.C., to seek a resolution.

Stalemate Leads to Xenophobia


If, during the upcoming OAS visit to the region, Nicaraguan troops are still posted on Isla Calero, a month of diplomatic posturing may have been fruitless.

Nicaraguan troops were first spotted Oct. 21 at Finca Aragón, a farm on Isla Calero. Since then, the dispute has generated protests on both sides of the border. There have also been military and police activities, complaints of environmental damage and concerns over escalating xenophobia. What has yet to happen is some sort of breakthrough. 

For Nuria Marín, an international policy expert at the University of Costa Rica, if the conflict persists without mediation,

things could get worse. Xenophobic rhetoric is already on the rise on both sides of the border (see separate story).

Last Friday night, Security Ministry officials reported that a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Costa Rica. Costa Rican officials responded by issuing a nationwide warning that xenophobic acts against Nicaraguan citizens would be prosecuted.

On Tuesday, a group of Nicaraguans marched through the streets of Managua, waving the blue-and-white Nicaraguan flag and carrying signs reading, “The Río San Juan is 100 percent Nicaraguan.”

At this point, with no end to the conflict in sight, the U.N. may be the only logical option. Another step may be presenting the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in the Netherlands.

In the meantime, the muddy Río San Juan continues to widen the division between the two neighboring nations.

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