San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Daniel Ortega’s remarks and the dangers of dredging up history


The rule is this: Petroleum makes people crazy. As long as the world can drill it, pump it, ship it or burn it, powerful men will do anything to do so. At the moment, Nicaragua and its economic allies have a plan to do all of the above. The stakes are high; canals and maritime oil prospecting could mean serious money, but there are still some impediments.

So President Daniel Ortega did what desperate leaders often do: He invoked historical patriotism.

At face value, President Ortega’s Aug. 13 comments about Guanacaste were fairly tame. He did not threaten invasion. He didn’t mention ballistic missiles or weapons of mass destruction. At worst, he suggested a kind of international lawsuit. “We always are willing to hold talks to search for an agreement,” Ortega said. “But as long as that path is not open and Costa Rica does not consider that a possibility, there is no other choice but to continue at the International Court of Justice.”

In other words, Ortega allegedly wants the world court to behave like a small-claims court, and he is convinced that a proper hearing will lead to the “return” of the northwestern Costa Rican province of Guanacaste to Nicaragua. Compared to the nuclear posturing of Iran and North Korea, or the blood-and-scimitar zealotry of Al Qaeda, or the daily massacres of central Africa, Ortega sounded downright gentlemanly.

My concern has nothing to do with Ortega’s actual claim. Obviously, Guanacaste is a part of Costa Rica, and shall forever be, and the patriotic fervor of the past few weeks has proven the passion of this relationship. The Nicaraguan government would be insane to push the issue, no matter how much the possession of Guanacaste might help its crude ambitions.

The problem is this: Ortega has used historical events to serve modern politics, and nothing flares tempers like opening an old wound.

There are infamous cases, like Slobodan Milosevic’s reference to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which inspired thousands of Serbs to slaughter Bosnians and mass-rape their women. There are polarizing cases, like the Zionist “return” to Palestine, and the Palestinians’ ongoing response. There are surreal cases, like the Liancourt Rocks dispute between South Korea and Japan, which has dragged on for centuries.

Nor does a country have to be old or crotchety. In 2003, the Bush administration tussled with France about invading Iraq, and the argument quickly became historical in tone. Americans argued that the U.S. had liberated France from Nazi occupation and implied that France owed the U.S. its allegiance. Others counter-argued that France had helped American Colonists defeat the British, during the War of Independence. Blessedly, the result was not a Franco-American war, but the invention of Freedom Fries.

All these historical allusions are a non sequitur, of course. They have nothing to do with contemporary borders or relationships, and rarely are these so-called patriots true experts in the history they kindle. But for leaders looking for a quick flash of jingoism, historical reference is a valuable tool. Davy Crockett died 178 years ago, yet every Texan “remembers the Alamo.”

By bringing up Guanacaste, Ortega has opened a Pandora’s box of pressurized patriotism. Ticos are laid back about a lot of things, but Juan Santamaría and Guanacaste Day are not among them. William Walker and his filibusteros are not the stuff of casual conversation, in either Costa Rica or Nicaragua, and there’s a reason entire streets and towns are named “25 de Julio.” Meanwhile, Ortega’s interest in digging canals and offshore oil could not be more antithetical to the pura vida mythos. He has infuriated Costa Rica on nearly every level, and that fury is compounded by 189 years of legal and cultural cement.

In all likelihood, the tensions will soon ease, and the two nations will fall back into their regular rhythms. But Ortega’s words, and Costa Rica’s response, cannot be taken back. They are a part of the timeline now. That’s the funny thing about history: It never really goes away.

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