Nicaragua Steps Up Military Presence, San Juan Dispute Escalates
AMID Nicaraguan threats of trade sanctions against Costa Rica and orders for an increased military presence along the border, the Costa Rican government announced Wednesday it will take a seven-year dispute over the San Juan River, which lies between the two countries, to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands.While Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco made the announcement, his Nicaraguan counterpart Enrique Bolaños signed a decree calling for increased vigilance on the river against Costa Rican police boats – the very heart of the conflict.Under treaties dating back to the mid-1880s, the river belongs to Nicaragua – it is one of the only border rivers in the world to belong to one country – but Costa Rica has navigation rights. In 1998, then- Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán said these rights do not include armed Costa Rican police boats, which used the river to arrive at remote border posts.SINCE Alemán’s decision, the countries have been locked in a dispute that negotiations and international mediations have been unable to resolve. Monday marked the end of a fruitless three-year negotiation period agreed upon in 2002.“Why not end forever the only source of disagreement between Costa Rica and Nicaragua…(by presenting) the debate before the highest international court?” Foreign Minister Roberto Tovar said Wednesday, reading aloud to the press a letter to his Nicaraguan counterpart Norman Caldera, who had suggested extending the negotiation period.The case was presented yesterday morning to the International Court, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.After more than two years of studying the Cañas-Jerez treaty, signed in 1858 (see sidebar), and the Laudo Cleveland, signed in 1888, on which both countries base their arguments, Costa Rica is “absolutely prepared” to present its case before the international court, Tovar said. Costa Rica is asking for “not one right more, not one right less” than what it deserves under the treaties, he added, estimating that it could take three to five years to resolve the case.IN the meantime, Nicaragua is not reacting well to the decision.Nicaraguan legislators approved a resolution Wednesday to allow them to approve a 35% “patriotic tax” on Costa Rican imports if Costa Rica decided to take the dispute to The Hague. That tax would be used to supply the funds that Nicaragua will need for its defense in court.In addition, Nicaraguan legislator Enrique Quiñónez, of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party, said last weekend his country would even resort to using arms to “defend the country’s sovereignty.”But not all Nicaraguan legislators support the tactics. Critics, such as congressman Miguel Lopez Baldizon of the Alliance for the Republic, reminded legislators that there are 500,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, and 400-plus Costa Rican businesses in Nicaragua that provide jobs.“Any action will cause a reaction,” he said.THE 35% tariff would cost Costa Rica’s exporters an additional $77 million a year on their $220 million in exports, the Foreign Trade Promotion Office (PROCOMER) told the daily La República. By comparison, Costa Rica and Nicaragua would each pay approximately $4 million for a four-year international court case, according to the daily. Tovar refused to estimate how much the case would cost.The Foreign Minister also said he won’t respond to threats because that would be, in itself, making a threat.“If in some moment there is action, then we will react,” he said, adding that he does not understand why Nicaragua should have any objections to using an international court it has used in the past.“Turning to the International Court of Justice could never mean damaging the friendship between two countries,” he said.PRESIDENT Bolaños has responded with actions, however. He signed a decree ordering “the Nicaraguan military to increase their presence and vigilance along the San Juan River” to impede armed “foreign forces” from navigating the river, and to take into custody anyone navigating with arms.Representatives of the Foreign Ministry told The Tico Times that since the dispute began, Costa Rica police have not used the river, and have had to reach their remote border posts by land, over mountains, or using rivers within Costa Rican territory.Furthermore, Costa Rican boats are charged $25 to navigate the river, and passengers – often tourists – are charged an additional fee. This violates Costa Rica’s rights to free navigation, Tovar said.BUT beyond police boats and tourism, daily relations on the San Juan River – like daily relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua as a whole – are friendly.“Nicaraguans cross the river to buy gasoline in Costa Rica… They cross to use phones… Costa Rican farmers use the river to get to their farms. Subsistence fishermen from both countries survive off the river,” said political science professor Luis Guillermo Solís.Solís, who directs the University of Costa Rica’s political science graduate program, worries that the daily utility of the river for those who live along it could get forgotten as the dispute heats up.He added that while Costa Rica has historically had the right to navigate the San Juan with arms – to protect coffee and other goods exported via the river – and doesn’t see why anything should be different now, he also recognizes Nicaragua’s concerns.“For them, it is a huge issue. They truly believe we want to take the river from them. They truly believe we took (the northwestern province of) Guanacaste. They feel threatened,” he said.DURING their announcements Wednesday, both Presidents called for national unity, a cry that could increase tensions, according to Solís; and as the tensions rise, so too could the repercussions.Costa Rican legislators may respond to their counterparts’ threat by passing the controversial new immigration law, which could make life for Nicaraguans in Costa Rica much more difficult (TT, Aug. 26).“(Rising tension) is absolutely the most obnoxious result of this,” Solís said. “We don’t need this during a campaign season. We don’t need this as part of the solution to the San Juan problem.”Nica Times reporter Tim Rogers contributed to this report from Nicaragua.Behind the San Juan ConflictTHE San Juan River is one of fewer than three border rivers in the world to belong to only one country, according to political science professor Luis Guillermo Solís. How it came to be that way involves politics that reach far beyond the two bordering countries.At the time the Cañas-Jerez treaty was signed in 1858, U.S. filibuster William Walker’s efforts to conquer Nicaragua had been defeated. Costa Rica’s army controlled the San Juan River, but it was the center of an international dispute between the United States and England, both of which wanted to use the river as a canal. Through it, gold mined in California could get to New York in half the time.As Solís explains it, during the 1858 treaty negotiations, Costa Rica, which sided with England, was pressured by the United States to hand the river over to Nicaragua. But a clause was added saying Costa Rica has perpetual freedom to navigate the river for trade and fiscal purposes.Handing over the river “was one of the worst negotiations Costa Rica ever undertook,” Solís said.
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