SAN ANDRES – Nicaragua may claim San Andrés as its own, but the 85,000 or so people crowded onto this 10.5-square-mile Caribbean island off of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast couldn’t seem to care less. Most islanders here say they want to remain part of Colombia, or, better yet, want complete independence from all continental claims.
Virtually no one here says they dream of living under the Nicaraguan flag, despite some cultural ties to the people of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, as well as some similar social problems and shared aspirations of autonomy.
“This island was abandoned for many years; we never had good schools,” said Roger Madero, owner of Sharky’s Dive Shop, a popular tourist hangout on the coast. “For so many of the younger generation, the only opportunity they have is to get on a boat and take drugs to the United States, because there’s nothing else to do.”
Madero, who got his education in rural Mississippi thanks to the BaptistChurch, is one of thousands of “raizales,” or native English-speaking blacks, living on San Andrés, by far the most densely populated island in the Caribbean. The raizales speak a creole English and worship mainly in Baptist churches.
The raizales were once the only inhabitants of San Andrés, but over the years have become a minority on their own island due to massive immigration from the Colombian mainland, located 775 kilometers to the southeast; Nicaragua, by comparison, is only 220 kilometers to the west.
Today, the island is filled with duty-free shops crammed with liquor, cigarettes, perfumes and other luxury goods. The shops – owned mainly by Lebanese immigrants – contribute to the local economy, along with dozens of hotels, timeshares and fancy boutique inns.
But the raizales, who these days comprise only 25-30% of the total population, fear they’re being left behind in this rush to develop San Andrés.And many feel that their wellbeing is being lost in the two countries’ conflicting claims to the island.
In an event that recently ruffled feathers in Nicaragua, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visited San Andrés July 20 for his government’s first-ever Independence Day celebration on the island, accompanied by a large military delegation. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said the event “seems to me a lack of respect, making such a powerful show of force” on the island claimed also by his government.
Most islanders, however, seem leery of both countries’ claims.
“Nicaragua is worse off than Colombia,” Madero said. “If it were a better country asking for [San Andrés], the people would agree, but what our people want right now is independence.”
The islander is suspicious of Nicaragua’s interest in the island, insisting “they just want money; they say there’s oil around here.”
Under the 1928 Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty, Colombia recognized Nicaraguan sovereignty over the MangleIslands and the Miskito coast, in return for Nicaragua’s recognition of Colombian sovereignty over San Andrés, Providencia, Santa Catalina and several other small islands within the archipelago.
However, in 1980 the Sandinista government asserted that the 1928 treaty was illegal because it was signed while Nicaragua was under U.S. military occupation. Subsequent maps of Nicaragua showed San Andrés as part of the country’s national territory.
In 2002, Nicaragua filed an international suit against Colombia in The Hague to settle the dispute once and for all. The resolution of that case is still pending.
Colombia, meanwhile, has turned San Andrés into a new tourism destination, mostly for Colombian mainlanders.
Claudia Marcela Delgado de Vélez, secretary of tourism for the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, said that last year, 370,000 tourists came to the island, 80% of whom are Colombians.
The remaining 20% consisted mainly of Canadians, Argentines, Chileans, Costa Ricans, Mexicans, Panamanians and Israelis. By contrast, very few U.S. citizens visit San Andrés.
There are several reasons for this. For one thing, no direct flights exist between San Andrés and the U.S. mainland; the easiest way to get there is to fly from Miami to Panama via Copa Airlines, then from Panama to San Andrés.
Furthermore, for years the U.S. State Department has warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Colombia because of widespread unrest – especially kidnappings and drugrelated violence. As a result, San Andrés and its budding tourism industry has paid a heavy price for being part of Colombia, even though violent crime is rare here and most people don’t even lock their car doors.
“That’s why we want San Andrés to be known as part of the Caribbean, rather than as part of Colombia,”Delgado conceded.“We are very different than the Colombian mainland.”
Asked what she thought about the sovereignty dispute, Delgado – originally from Bogotá – seems to lean toward Nicaragua.
“We are extremely close to Nicaragua, and very far from Colombia,” she said. “So geographically, we should be part of Nicaragua, but because of international treaties, we are part of Colombia.”
She added, “Nicaragua is interested in these islands because of the tourism potential, but the infrastructure here didn’t come from the natives. It’s from the mainlanders and the Lebanese.”
Dulph Mitchell, secretary-general of the home-grown Archipelago Movement for Ethnic, Native Self-Determination, said that Colombia and Nicaragua are fighting over San Andrés as if it were an abandoned island without a voice of its own.
“The two countries are in dispute, but nobody’s talking to us,” he said. “It appears as if we don’t exist at all.”
Mitchell said it’s untrue that his movement for self-determination wants to push out all the mainlanders, though in the next breath he concedes that more needs to be done to control the population influx from non-islanders moving to San Andrés.
“We have a law that should control the population density and it’s not working because people keep coming,” he said. “We have people here who are illegal. They need to go. Send them home.”
Mitchell also insists that his movement’s push for independence from Colombia is not about siding with Nicaragua.
“In our mind, the Nicaraguans have no valid claim,” he told The Nica Times. “One of the things Colombia is claiming is that we’re doing this because we want to become Nicaraguans. But we don’t.
Mitchell did, however, acknowledge that the 1928 treaty between Colombia and Nicaragua divided families between two countries, noting the cultural ties with Nicaragua’s CornIslands.
“We have had contact with people from the Nicaraguan coast who say we should all come together and fight for our region,” he said.
He claimed 8,000 to 9,000 people attended a recent pro-independence rally on San Andrés, and that the movement has thousands more sympathizers.
“We want to have our own self-government,” he said. “But it also depends on what Colombia wants. We are for complete independence. If we don’t try for it, we’ll never get it.”