San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Border dispute

Ortega says Nicaragua will compensate Costa Rica for environmental damage

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his government will pay Costa Rica compensation over environmental damage associated with Nicaragua’s illegal dredging of the Isla Calero wetlands in 2010.

The amount to be paid, however, is less clear: Ortega said his government considers the $6.7 million requested by Costa Rica to be “exaggerated.”

The president spoke at an official ceremony Monday night during which he received the credentials of various diplomats, including those of the new Costa Rican ambassador to Managua, Eduardo Trejos.

“Of course we will pay, but we first need to clarify the figure they are requesting. Of course, Nicaragua is going to abide by the Court’s ruling,” Ortega told those in attendance at the ceremony, Nicaraguan daily La Prensa reported.

Deadline approaches

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in favor of Costa Rica on Dec. 16, 2015 in case that began when the two countries brought mutual accusations before the Hague-based court.

ICJ justices acknowledged Costa Rica’s sovereignty over a small wetland territory known as Isla Calero. They determined that Nicaraguan soldiers violated Costa Rica’s sovereignty when they dredged an artificial canal through the wetland.

The court also ordered Nicaragua to compensate Costa Rica for damage caused to its territory along the border area. Costa Rica’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Sergio Ugalde, presented the $6 million compensation request to his Nicaraguan counterpart Carlos Arguello in June.

President Luis Guillermo Solís said last week that he hopes Nicaragua complies with the ICJ orders by Dec. 16, the end of the one-year deadline set by the court.

“It’s not something that I made up. It’s a court order,” he said, adding that if Nicaragua fails to pay for the damage, Costa Rica will take the case back to the ICJ.

Tense relations

During his comments on Monday, Ortega also said that he is “infinitely willing” to reestablish fraternal relations with the Costa Rican government. He said there is no reason for current distant relations between the governments and between the two nations.

“I want to visit President Solís and personally express everything I just said, and also invite him to come to Nicaragua,” Ortega said, adding that he hopes the two governments can normalize relations.

“Because we have to admit it, we haven’t succeeded in doing so,” he said.

Below is a timeline of events in the Costa Rica–Nicaragua border dispute:

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Ken Morris

Just to be clear, the Court did not order Nicaragua to pay whatever amount Costa Rica asked for by December 16th, but rather ordered the two countries to negotiate a settlement amount between them, with the stipulation that if they don’t agree by December 16th, the Court will determine the settlement amount.

Reading between the lines, the Court knows exactly what the problem is between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and it is not a border dispute. It is that the two countries refuse to talk to each other, with Costa Rica being the more obstinate party. It therefore wisely urged the two countries to negotiate.

The Court ruled similarly some years ago when it ordered the two countries to cooperate in the policing of the disputed area (which is primarily used by drug traffickers). Costa Rica didn’t lift a finger to police the area and prevent the drug traffickers from entering Nicaragua, although you can’t blame the Court for not trying.

This avoidance of cooperation and dialogue with Nicaragua by Costa Rica is deeply disappointing. Indeed, Chinchilla steadfastly refused to even meet with Ortega, despite his repeated offers to dialogue, and Solís hasn’t shown much more willingness. Instead, in this immediate case, Costa Rica just presents Nicaragua with a bill and then threatens that if Nicaragua doesn’t pay, it will spend almost as much money hauling Nicargua back to the World Court.

Meanwhile, nobody in Costa Rica seems to realize that Ortega is a seasoned political professional. So, after being repeatedly rebuffed by Costa Rica, Ortega waits till the last minute, says of course Nicaragua will pay, just says that he has quibbles with the asking price and invites Presidenty Solís to meet with him to arrive at a fair figure.

Will Solís take Ortega up on his offer and meet with him? If he does, will there be enough time to negotiate a fair settlement now that a year has been squandered with no negotiations?

Let’s hope that the answers to both questions are yes, but I for one am not counting on it. I think that Ortega has once again outfoxed Costa Rica by presenting himself as an agreeable chap and Costa Rica as the hold out, which will play to Nicaragua’s advantage in the next round of the costly Court battles, while he has also engineered a last-minute negotiating session, should Costa Rica accept, in which he will have the advantage. He can lowball Costa Rica by holding the costs and uncertainties of a return to Court over its head, and one thing Ortega is good at is brinksmanship.

But after years of watching these altercations, I have formed the unfortunate opinion that Costa Rica doesn’t truly want to settle them. It seems to feed off animosity toward Nicaragua, almost need that to maintain its own sense of superiority. I can find no other explanation for Costa Rica’s persistent refusal to talk with Nicaragua coupled with its periodic outbursts against its neighbor.

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