San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua, Costa Rica continue swampland spat

Every time it seemed like the border conflict along the Río San Juan would drift out of the public eye, Costa Rica and Nicaragua found ways to provoke each other just enough to keep the angst flowing throughout 2011. 

Sparked by Nicaragua’s alleged invasion of the Isla Calero in late 2010, the issue topped headlines during the first three months of 2011. With tensions high and Nicaraguan soldiers refusing to evacuate the swampland on the southern side of the Río San Juan, which serves as the international border between the countries, Tico politicians spent the early part of the year denouncing Nicaragua’s incursion in diplomatic forums around the world. 

In January, then-Foreign Minister René Castro visited London, Berlin, Oslo and Madrid to meet with foreign diplomats to present Costa Rica’s case against Nicaragua. 

“What we are seeing right now is an attempt to redefine international borders,” Castro told BBC Mundo during an interview in January. “Nicaragua presented a motion to the [world] court that attempted to redefine the borders established in 1858. Their presentation was quite imaginative. They weren’t able to present any map, document, or study to the world court that supported their thesis of why it should be done.”

In response to the European tour, Nicaraguan Vice President Jaime Morales deemed Castro’s actions “despicable.”

“Costa Rica is making a fool of itself taking on this embarrassing role and claiming to be a brotherly and neighborly nation,” Morales said in January. “This type of proceeding is truly a despicable act by a foreign minister.”    

Tough talk among diplomats continued as both countries anticipated a preliminary ruling on the dispute from the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands,  on March 8. Rhetoric from the army-less Costa Rican side grew increasingly threatening, with former Security Minister José María Tijerino saying that if Nicaragua pushes further into Costa Rica, “a force will be there to confront them,” while Castro hinted at creating a national military. 

“We are going to have to do a thorough analysis to decide whether to continue being an unarmed and peaceful nation,” Castro said in January. “Being a pacifist is in the Costa Rican soul, but external forces are causing us to reconsider our historic stance.”

 Antagonistic words subsided by March, though as the conflict grew stale, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla found a way to keep it fresh, asking people to wear white on the day of the world court ruling.

Nicaragua’s Morales responded to Chinchilla’s call to wear white by saying that Costa Rica was treating the decision by the world court “as if it were Star Wars.” 

Isla Calero Supplement 2

Isla Calero.

Alberto Font

The world court’s preliminary ruling ordered that “each party shall refrain from sending to, or maintaining in the disputed territory, any personnel, whether civilian, police or security.”  The ruling helped numb the acidic dialogue of the previous six months, as both countries claimed victory. “Today is a day of jubilation,” Chinchilla said. “Our country has won an overwhelming and justified victory thanks to our best weapons of defense: the weapons of peace, international rights and the multilateral system.”

Jaime Incer Barquero, a renowned Nicaraguan conservationist and adviser to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, deemed the  ruling a defeat for Costa Rica.

“I really would like to see the reaction of our government first, but I can go ahead and say that I really think Costa Rica lost,” he said. “Their intention was to show that we invaded them, and that was dispelled. … This ruling is not going to affect the process of defining the border.”

After the ruling, Nicaraguan soldiers left the Isla Calero and the dispute evaporated from national headlines for a month, only to be reactivated later by a display of Nicaraguan Sandinismo at its finest. 

In early April, during a visit by members of the press, the Costa Rican Environment Ministry and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar), dozens of Nicaraguan protesters gathered at Isla Calero. Standing on boats in the Río San Juan and on Isla Calero, young Sandinista hecklers insulted members of the delegation as they examined damage to the area caused by a dredging project.

Castro called the protest “a direct violation of a provisional ruling last March by the International Court of Justice,” and in June, Jorge Urbina, Costa Rican ambassador to the Netherlands, denounced the Nicaraguan government at the world court for encouraging its citizens to enter the restricted area. 

During the last few months of the year, as Ortega’s controversial Nov. 6 re-election brought protests across Nicaragua and scrutiny from international election bodies, the Río San Juan again emerged as a point of contention. 

In late November, Manuel Coronel Kautz, Nicaragua’s foreign vice minister, sent a formal protest to Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo, claiming that a road Costa Rica is building south of the river was “causing environmental damage” and “destroying the flora and fauna” of the region. Coronel asked for an immediate halt to the project. 

In July, Costa Rica began construction on the road, which will connect the northern border town of Los Chiles to the delta region, where the Sarapiquí River meets the Río San Juan in northeast Costa Rica. Coronel and Samuel Santos, Nicaragua’s foreign minister, claim the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry never alerted Nicaragua about the project. In December, Coronel asked the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry for an explanation. 

“We don’t have to give any explanation to the government of Nicaragua in relation to [the road],” Chinchilla said in December. “It is our sovereign right to [build the road]. Nicaragua is refusing to abide by the measures requested by the International Court of Justice at The Hague.”

Twelve months came and went, and, while it looked like the world court ruling might generate a friendlier dynamic between the two nations, relations remain just as cranky, trifling and bitter as they were at the same time last year.

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