San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tico author traces roots of border conflict

There was one inexcusable omission in U.S. President Barack Obama’s Jan. 24 State of the Union address. The speech lacked any mention or even hint of Central America and the growing, multidimensional threat to U.S. national security. Sadly, GOP presidential debaters also have not placed the United States’ backyard within the framework of present and potential dangers. Virtually nothing has been said about the buildup of a dangerous new axis.

Celebrating Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s creeping dictatorship last month was Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who earlier pledged to destroy Israel. Together with bosom friends Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers, he celebrated the hoped-for downfall of the U.S. and capitalism. Naturally, one has to give credit to the U.S. president and Navy for their comprehensive challenge to Iranian ambitions in the Persian Gulf. But if Iran eventually succeeds in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, has anyone considered how our hemispheric foes will be empowered?

Also ignored by the president and the dysfunctional U.S. Congress is the brewing border conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and the continuous territorial ambitions of Nicaragua. Surely many analysts have neglected the creeping coup orchestrated by Sandinista leader Ortega. Also not well analyzed in the U.S. press is the 2011 Sandinista intervention on Isla Calero on the San Juan River, and the disputes raging over a road Costa Rica is building by the river. Although we have not yet witnessed such openly aggressive prospects towards Costa Rica as the earlier Sandinista support of the El Salvador guerillas in the 1980s, the potential is there. 

Border Conflict 1

Tico author and farmer Juan Rafael Muñoz provides a comprehensive historical, geographical and environmental analysis of Costa Rica and Nicaragua in his 2003 book, “Liberia, My Tribute to Its Settlers, to My People. Courtesy of Juan Rafael Muñoz

To really understand Nicaraguan-Costa Rican tensions, readers should pick up Juan Muñoz Fonseca’s 2003 book, “Liberia, My Tribute to Its Settlers, to My People,” available in Spanish and English. 

Although Muñoz’s focus is the region in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, he provides much enlightenment on the history of the two nations. Notably, unlike most Latin American and North American scholars, he writes within the framework of the great French historian Fernand Braudel, showing how environmental factors, the complexity of geography, weather conditions, ethnic groups, flora, fauna, agriculture and animal husbandry helped to shape the history of this conflicted, strategically shaped region and northwestern frontier. He takes readers there with satellite pictures, maps, drawings, historical documents, agricultural statistics and eyewitness accounts of early settlers.

To be sure, Costa Ricans have not been innocent bystanders in the border disputes, and Muñoz’s reporting is objective. His book also predates the recent Isla Calero intervention and continuous friction and debate surrounding the road. Yet the agricultural expert turned historian has not written a simple, diplomatic history, but a major study.

Careful reading suggests that two key geographic and environmental factors have had an impact on present tensions. One of these, as Muñoz explains, is the past importance of the San Juan River, previously known as the Nicaragua Transit Route (NTR). So named by industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 19th century, the NTR sought to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between the strategically important harbors of San Juan del Norte and San Juan del Sur (part of the trip had to be made by land). The route was primarily used for agricultural exports to Europe, especially coffee, and eliminated long shipping to Europe around the Horn of Africa. Decades thereafter, in 1914, Nicaragua solicited and received U.S. support for a treaty giving it the right for 99 years to build a canal. Notice: The treaty will expire in 2013. 

Ortega’s aggression may have also been inspired by the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia, demonstrating that borders can be changed by the use of force. Wasn’t Ortega’s country, together with Venezuela, one of the few that supported that intervention? 

As Muñoz shows, another key factor contributing to the continued border belligerence is clearly the environmental setting of his province, particularly the immense savannah extending to the Pacific Ocean, and leading north to Nicaragua and south to the Gulf of Nicoya. Blessed with beautiful beaches and four colossal volcanoes, the Guanacaste province, where thousands of U.S. expats live, is not only attractive to tourists, but also is of immense agricultural value. 

The location of the provincial capital, Liberia, is important as Guanacaste’s communications hub, a factor recognized by Costa Rican and Nicaraguan officials, as Muñoz shows, since the middle of the 19th century. 

Within environmental factors, Muñoz covers some important history, demonstrating that Costa Rica – and belatedly the U.S. – supported the Sandinistas in 1979. Moreover, as he explains, it was not just the U.S.’s earlier support of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, but Soviet support of El Salvador guerillas, Cuban proxies and the Sandinistas that escalated the Cold War. In the late ’80s, U.S. support for the Contra War eventually brought an unanticipated result: peaceful change – at least until Ortega’s post-communist manipulations. As co-editor and author of the book “Conflict in Nicaragua,” we consider Muñoz’s coverage of the Sandinista wars one of the best short histories available. 

Other fascinating history not objectively available elsewhere is the attempted conquest of Central America by U.S. Col. William Walker, who captured Nicaragua but ultimately failed in his attempt to extend slavery to Central America. Had the U.S. South won the Civil War, the history of this region might have been quite different.

 There is not enough space to discuss all the aspects of Muñoz’s book. The English version could be better edited, and the writing is alternately eloquent and overloaded with detail. It needs an index. But the book is an essential treasure trove for policymakers, historians, students and expats. 

Using a comparative perspective, for example, the Guanacaste province, incorporated into Costa Rica in the 19th century, has been disputed much as the Russians and Georgians have disputed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or the Israelis and Palestinians have disputed the West Bank, or the Armenians and Azerbaijanis have battled over Nagorny-Karabach. 

Thus, it underscores that another world hot spot has the potential to get worse. In upcoming months, after the petty wrangling of the electoral process, U.S. policymakers must pay more attention to this strategic backyard in general, and in particular new frictions regarding the singular democracy of Costa Rica, a country with no military of its own, in the heart of the Central American isthmus.

Jiri and Leni Valenta are co-founders of the Institute of Post-Communist Studies. See more at

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