San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Why did Costa Rica snub Daniel Ortega’s inauguration?

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – During the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua’s capital Tuesday night, the list of visiting international delegates was read at the commencement of the ceremony. Upon mention of Costa Rica, which was represented by Edwin Arias, business director at the Costa Rican Embassy in Nicaragua, and Javier Sancho, the Foreign Ministry’s protocol director, boos and whistles followed. 

It’s been 15 months since Nicaraguan soldiers were first reported on Isla Calero, south of the Río San Juan in northeastern Costa Rica, though Tico-Nica political relations have made little improvement. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla was one of two Central American leaders to turn down the invitation to attend Ortega’s inauguration, along with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, who didn’t make the trip north due to a last-minute cancellation. 

Chinchilla and the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry have made it clear they aren’t interested in recognizing Ortega’s controversial re-election, though the debated constitutionality of his presidency is not the core of Tico angst with its northern neighbor. As it was 15 months ago, the heart of the steady-flowing irritation remains along the Río San Juan. 

“We have said that there cannot be normalization in the relations with Nicaragua while the aggression and occupation of national territory persists,” Roberto Gallardo, a spokesman for Costa Rica’s Presidency Ministry, said this week. “Relations will return to normal when the violation of Costa Rican sovereignty ceases in the area of Isla Calero.” 

The latest point of contention along the river, which is within Nicaragua’s territory, is a 160-kilometer road being built by Costa Rica. Just meters south of the muddy waters of the river, Costa Rica has bulldozed through trees and vegetation to build the road. Though construction is being conducted under the guise of a highway connecting border towns, Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo said in December that Nicaragua “knows why Costa Rica is obligated to build the infrastructure project,” and that the new road “will ensure enhanced border security and protection.” 

On Dec. 22, after asking Castillo to cease the road’s construction, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry filed a complaint against Costa Rica at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, for causing environmental damage to the river region.

“Nicaragua contends that Costa Rica is carrying out major construction works along most of the border area between the two countries with grave environmental consequences,” the world court said in a statement. 

“Costa Rica’s unilateral actions … threaten to destroy the San Juan de Nicaragua River and its fragile ecosystem, including the adjacent biosphere reserves and internationally protected wetlands that depend on the clean and uninterrupted flow of the river for their survival,” the statement said.

This week, Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro said his agency would begin reforesting the area along the roadway in February to limit the environmental impact of the construction.

While reforestation of the affected area could temporarily ease diplomatic tensions, Chinchilla’s absence Tuesday is further evidence that Costa Rica and Nicaragua are far from being friendly with one another.  

“It’s an insult that Chinchilla isn’t here,” Cristian Rivas, an Ortega supporter, told The Tico Times in Managua on Tuesday. “Ortega was the overwhelming choice of the people of Nicaragua. If the people didn’t want him to be president, he wouldn’t have received over 60 percent of the vote.” 

As for the Río San Juan, Rivas said that Chinchilla’s absence will likely only serve to exacerbate the tension. 

“When you fight with someone, the relationship doesn’t improve when you ignore them,” he said. “That just causes further damage.”

On Saturday, both Ortega and Chinchilla are expected to attend the inauguration of Guatemala’s new president, Otto Pérez Molina. Don’t expect them to sit too close to one another.

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